Whatever’s decorating your personal Starbucks holiday cup, the Christmas we share in these latitudes, in this century is both natively dark and bright, set deep in the shadow of the winter solstice amid frost rime, string lights, and that one terrible Paul McCartney song that somehow gets played even though everyone has always hated it. This year saw the widespread, much anticipated theater release of Michael Doughtery’s horror-comedy Krampus, but scary has always been a big part of the merrymaking in Christmas, or as Homestar Runner preferred, “Decemberween.” Decemberween is very apt, because just like Halloween, our modern Christmas is the issue of pagan seasonal traditions and Christian religious observance, repurposed again for a world that spins on the axis of a consumer economy. It is an incredibly multivalent time of year. We battle our seasonal affective disorders and icy mall parking lots for parties, feasts, and presents, all the while instinctively understanding the veil between states of being is thin and something magical stirs in the deep darknesses of these long winter nights to remind us of what’s truly important. It might be in the stars; it might be up the chimney. It’s probably coming for the children first.
Besides the recent Krampus flick, the spooktacular offerings of the Christmas season well outnumber that partridge in the pear tree and all its bulk-purchased friends. To begin with, there’s a long tradition of horror movies making the most of the juxtaposition of wholesome and horrific, along with many terrible puns on sleigh: the sordid Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972); the excellent and quite feminist proto-slasher Black Christmas (1974); the Silent Night, Deadly Night series, recently autopsied by the AV Club so I don’t have to. You can cozy up to dedicated slasher sendups of Christmas icons from killer rapist snowmen (1996’s Jack Frost) to killer wrasslin’ star Santas (2005’s Santa’s Slay), and even pissed off killer Christmas trees (2008’s Treevenge). One of Tim Burton’s more successful odes to benign nonconformity, The Nightmare Before Christmas, marries Halloween and Christmas spirit with plenteous merch that neatly bridges the entire fourth quarter of the year. In Terry Pratchett’s 1996 novel Hogfather and the TV movie that sprang from it, during the Discworld version of Christmas, Hogswatch, Death himself takes over the duties of the Hogfather (read: Santa) when he’s indisposed by an assassin. And lest we forget, Joe Dante’s 1984 classic Gremlins brutally depicts the mayhem unleashed by buying pets as Christmas gifts (always a bad idea, kids!).
From big screen to small, the Krampus also features in two of my favorite holiday small screen adventures: The Venture Brothers’ season 1 holiday short “A Very Venture Christmas” and the Supernatural season 3 episode “A Very Supernatural Christmas,” which typically pushes the envelope for TV gore and squick in-between the Brothers Winchester reaching relationship milestones. There’s also the traditional Doctor Who Christmas special – a one-shot story by definition, so usually a pretty scary one, like 2014’s “Last Christmas,” which cribbed unashamedly from both Aliens and Nightmare on Elm Street. And while not exactly horror, one must appreciate the frightful Futurama version of Santa Claus, a homicidal robot version of the jolly old elf featured in 3 episodes and one of the direct-to-video films, equal parts Terminator and Krampus, and still somehow all Santa.
Of course, it is a truth universally acknowledged that any TV show that persists for the length of a syndication run must be in want of a Christmas episode, and many Christmas episodes that would eschew a bloodier turn with the Krampus or killer Santas still arrow to the ultimate Christmas episode, the premier Christmas story of our culture – well, besides the whole manger thing, and It’s a Wonderful Life, oh, and Die Hard obviously, you hipsters – that is to say, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Dickens’ novella is a Victorian horror classic, but for want of the label. At all times, there’s quite a lot of horror lurking around in the mainstream but for want of the label, but A Christmas Carol manages to slip by beneath a veneer of almost religiously-invested moral authority, despite its clockwork universe of horrific ghosts stage-managing salvation. Even if you’ve never actually read it, you know lines from it by heart. You can find audiobook versions read by Sir Patrick Stewart, Tim Curry, Jonathan Winters, Tom Baker, Basil Rathbone…look, pretty much any male actor you’d ever want to read to you, OK? (Except Alan Rickman. I checked.) And that’s not counting legions of dramatized versions. One I found on Audible features Maurice LaMarche and Rob Paulsen of Pinky and the Brain fame. Not only has this neat little horror story also generated an impressive string of stage and film versions to boot, but the outline is tirelessly recapitulated and reinterpreted as the holiday episode of everything from Sanford and Son to The Real Ghostbusters and as feature films like 1998’s Scrooged and less feature films like 2013’s Kelly Clarkson’s Cautionary Music Tale. Rod Serling even did his own typically dark adaptation with an all-star cast, 1964’s A Carol For Another Christmas, that you fittingly can’t buy, but can possibly catch on TCM (or YouTube). The aforementioned Doctor Who Christmas specials didn’t miss this opportunity either. There’s even a Batman comics version.
I make this long point of the ubiquity of A Christmas Carol only to say, if you do read the text, or allow Tim Curry to read it to you, you’ll find the novella is indeed a work of horror, however wholesome Dickens’ impetus to write it or the redemptive catalyst animating its specters. The intent of the work is to horrify Scrooge, as well the reader over his shoulder, and while the horror may well be downplayed when the players are recast as Scrooge McDuck and Goofy, it’s still a great ghost story. Consider Marley’s appearance to Scrooge:
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and shook its chain with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Scrooge held on tight to his chair, to save himself from falling in a swoon. But how much greater was his horror, when the phantom taking off the bandage round its head, as if it were too warm to wear indoors, its lower jaw dropped down upon its breast!
I mean, I picture that scene and I think of a missing girl turning around to surprise Ted Raimi in Sam Raimi’s version of The Grudge.
So many of the Christmas traditions we enjoy that aren’t formally religious can be intrinsically creepy, although “The Carol of the Bells” manages to be both. Santa Claus isn’t all that different from a clown, if you think about it – gaily costumed, source of delight and (accidental, surely) screaming terror to small children, loose association with home invasions – and his name anagrams to Satan with barely any effort. The Elf on the Shelf easily translates to something more Child’s Play or Puppetmaster; the animated doll is a nightmare that surely we all share from infancy.
And then there are playful subversions. We have traditional Christmas carols skinned in murky, eldritch Lovecraftian reinterpretations from The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society’s “A Very Scary Solstice.” That also puts one in mind of the late, great Sir Christopher Lee’s numerous heavy metal takes on carols, including 2014’s “Darkest Carols, Faithful Sing,” in addition to his touching Christmas messages to fans, still viewable on YouTube, in which he proudly wore the special Christmas hat his lifelong buddy Vincent Price had willed to him. And in recent years, it has even become vogue for haunted house attractions across the country to open their doors once more for Christmas. Not all of them are purposefully spooky; the Winchester Mystery House offers a holiday celebration without a single mention of an EVP recorder, but most, like the Moxley Manor’s Nightscare Before Christmas or Chamber of Horrors NY’s Very Scary Xmas events, bring everything frightful indoors to celebrate.
When it comes to why we can unify corpse lights with Christmas lights so easily, there is the seasonal aspect to consider, sure. It reminds me of how Halloween III’s warlock villain Conal Cochran describes the festival of Samhain: “The barriers would be down, you see, between the real and the unreal. The dead might be looking in, to sit by our fires of turf.” The barriers might not still be down by Christmastime, but they’re probably still a little wobbly, and there’s even more night for them to work on pushing through before dawn’s banishing rays. But really, it also has to have something to do with the children.
Christmas is a children’s holiday, and even though we find exciting new ways to experience it as we age, the purity of a child’s Christmas morning is unique in our culture and possibly unique to our culture. We’re very ready to acknowledge the interplay of sex and death when we consider the appeal of horror and its social value, and that’s a conversation we usually reserve for around Halloween. But childhood is a time of unique credulity and vulnerability, and horror plays the same kind of adaptive social role for kids as it does for their older siblings and parents. This may be part of why Joe Hill’s villain in his 2014 novel NOS4A2 (soon to be an AMC watercooler TV show of its own) takes his child victims to a place called Christmasland – an incorruptible place of ultimate corruption where the vampire’s influence withers young souls as surely as Scrooge withered his own. The barriers of the real and the unreal are flagging in such a place, and it becomes impossible to tell the difference between screams of delight and screams of terror in its permanent Christmas Eve twilight.
So, however you’re keeping the holidays, consider that the same silent nights that spread over wise men and babes in mangers, jolly old elves, and kids with their tongues stuck to flagpoles also govern a cold universe of foreboding spirits, spying dolls, and snowbound darkness. The magic that brings Frosty the Snowman to life may not necessarily be beneficium. The anticipation of Christmas night may turn invisibly to dread depending on the weight of the overheard footfall as you’re tucked into bed. And cookies and milk won’t satisfy the cloven-footed, goat-horned fellow with a lolling tongue who keeps those appointments Santa doesn’t. So, again, however you’re keeping the holidays, may God save us, every one.
Angela would like to emphasize that she considers 1974’s Black Christmas considerably more significant than just a Christmas-themed slasher movie, in that it made horrifying work of an urban legend years before A Stranger Calls would do it more famously, but also that it is a surprisingly effective depiction of how gutting harassment can be, especially in purportedly safe spaces. And Merry Christmas!