What Makes Christmas Horror?

At last, we come to December. First off, I want to say happy holidays, everyone. May whatever celebration you partake in be joyous. However, for this article, there’s one in particular I’ll be focusing on. I am, of course, talking about Xmas. Yes, it’s that magical time of year of excess blood sugar and electric bills.

You may enjoy this time of year in the company of others. Then again, you might prefer curling up in the solitude of your home with a holiday classic such as Home Alone or The Grinch. I love taking walks during this time of year. I get to see the lights and the holiday display stores have. While I’m out, I’ll have something in season playing on my phone, usually a movie, sometimes a review or riff of a film, or even an audiobook.

If you’re anything like me, you prefer your unconventional Christmas stories such as Die Hard, Batman Returns, or Edward Scissorhands. This is where Christmas horror comes in. Yes, nothing highlights that spirit of comradery better than screams of terror, not to be confused with screams of joy. Sometimes, the difference is negligible. Christmas and the horror genre have a fascinating history.

Tracing back to the Yule traditions, it was custom to tell ghost stories around a log for good luck for the rest of the season. Naturally, you had your fair share of monsters to associate with the holiday, usually to instill obedience in children. Krampus is the most famous example of this. You also have monsters who are just flat-out unfair like The Yule Cat that eats you if you don’t have new clothes. What if you’re broke?

Also, what counts as “new” anyway? If I don’t own it, does that make it new to me? My point with these two examples is that both of these monsters serve to teach some sort of lesson. With Krampus, it’s about being respectful or just not disrespectful. With The Yule Cat, it’s about charity and ensuring those less well-off have what they need.

A lot of European folklore is filled with these sorts of monsters, especially with Christmas. Speaking of which, what is the holiday about? I know there’s the mushy stuff about friends, family, giving what you can, and buying gifts. However, I’m talking fundamentally. To me, each holiday as it exists now is a culmination of traditions from various places.

What Makes Christmas Horror?

Wiccans were responsible for the idea of wreaths. It’s the same thing with pagans and trees. Not to mention you have the whole Jesus thing if you are into that. Then you have, Mr. Claus himself. Couple these elements with the spirit of giving and you have the holiday we now know today. What’s interesting, though is how some of these icons changed over time. Santa Claus has his roots in both Christian (Saint Nicholas) and Norse (Odin) origins.

Supposedly, he used to appear less friendly until being coopted by Coca-Cola. The design of which was done by Washington Irving who also did a painting of Ichabod Crane fleeing from the Headless Horseman, fun fact. There’s a bit of juxtaposition when comparing that painting and his Samta design. Although, out of context, I can’t imagine the idea of an old man who sees you when you’re sleeping is comforting. While on the topic of juxtaposition, that’s what a lot of Christmas horror relies on.

It’s one of five elements that the sub-genre tends to fall into. The other four tend to be shlock (so bad it’s good), backdrop, satire (usually some kind of social commentary, and lastly, they may incorporate some element of togetherness. With all these components laid out, what horror movie would fit the holiday as it’s celebrated today? Before I continue, yes, if a horror film is stated to take place during the Christmas season, then I consider it to be a Christmas movie. With that said, though, there are movies I consider to be more holiday-ish than others.

If you ask horror fans what their favorite Christmas horror movie is I imagine a lot would answer the original Black Christmas. While its contribution to the genre as a whole can’t be denied, does it fit the definition of holiday horror as I’ve defined it? Well, as much as we try not to think about it, there is a dreary aspect to the season. Depending on how you’ve grown up with it, this time of year can either be the best or worst. I think for most of us who celebrate it’s somewhere in between.

As far as dreariness goes, Black Christmas practically breathes it. That’s what I enjoy about the film whenever I watch it. Despite there being no stated supernatural aspects to the film, it almost feels like there’s something like that lurking in the background. With most horror movies, I’m aware I’m watching a work of fiction. With Black Christmas, however, it has a way of making me feel as if I’m witnessing the events of the movie as someone in that world as opposed to an audience member.

Therefore, I say if you want a Christmas horror movie that is more the antithesis of the holiday, give it a watch. I haven’t seen many Shlock Xmas horror movies, but if you want to watch some, take your pick of “Serial Killer Dressed in Santa Suit” which I think also fits in with the backdrop aspect. That leaves togetherness and satire. Focusing entirely on togetherness, I think the film that best captures this is Anna And The Apocalypse. Musicals aren’t usually my cup of tea, but for this, I make an exception.

For those unfamiliar, the story is about a girl trying to survive the zombie apocalypse with her friends. The main appeal of the movie for me is that the majority of the characters are fairly likable and if they aren’t, you can at least understand why they act the way they do. Even with the bully character, I get the sense he’s more immature instead of outright malicious. It’s a nice change of pace from the characters (aside from the villain or villains) who are assholes for the sake of it. One critique you may have if you watch it is that it can sometimes lean into the friendship aspect to the point of coming across as corny.

What Makes Christmas Horror?

I’ll put it like this. I don’t think that would be as easy to see past that if the events in the musical didn’t occur during Christmas Time. Since it does, I say it can have some leeway. Other than that, I’d call it a solid film. This next one is debatable as to whether or not you can consider it horror.

Christmas Carol does have some horrifying parts. However, since that’s not the majority of most adaptations it would fall more into the dark fantasy category unless you go with the Jim Carrey version. Either that or read the original novel. This next movie has been debated on whether or not it can be considered a Christmas film and that is The Shining. This could fill another article which I’ll probably make the focus of next month.

However, just to give my thoughts, I don’t think there’s enough in it for me to consider it a holiday movie. What horror movie is which is unquestionably a Christmas horror movie is, say it with me, Krampus. Sorry to be so predictable, but it has it all. Granted, it’s by no means perfect. The complaints I’ve heard about it is tonally it seems all over the place.

I can see where this is valid, especially with how the kids act to each other and even how the parents act. The thing is, though, not everything with family is going to be all candy canes and silver lanes around the holidays. I don’t mean in extreme cases either like someone refusing to associate with abusive relatives. That I get. What I’m talking about is those times when your relatives can get on your nerves.

If you grew up with an extended family, chances are you at least had a cousin or something that would tease you the way Max’s did with him. Okay, maybe not to that extreme, Still, even if it can be considered tonally confused, to me, it’s also a bit more realistic depending on how you spent Christmas growing up. The only variable here is how you interpret the ending which can either be seen as heartwarming, morbid, or something in between.

As an aside, there is a movie comic tie-in that hints at how the ending is supposed to be taken, but that’s another topic. As for this one, let me know if you can think of any Christmas horror movies that fit the criteria that I’ve laid out. I hope you all have an awesome holiday season and happy watching.