O’ Holy Fright! The Blood is Freely Flowing – When Christmas Merriment Meets Horror in the Movies
By Kevin Nickelson
For as long as I can remember, my passion for horror films has invaded every aspect of my life and has been known to overwhelm me at some of the oddest times of the year. Even more oddly is my disdain for patterns as to what I watch in the horror realm as it connects to a particular season of the year or the nearest holiday on the calendar to my viewing day. My movie watch may be close to Arbor Day but I’m not necessarily grabbing the Tabanga tree monster horror that is 1957’s From Hell it Came. My limits are few, but I do have some! Still, I have wondered of late how fright fests and Christmas, that most jolly of yearly holidays could have the strong marriage that creepshow fans have spent so many years to create. What is the connection, the fascinating thread linking the two? Are filmgoers preferring the fiction of psycho Santa’s, vampires, and other blood-crazed demons over the real-life horrors of ugly sweater gifts, family dysfunction and cooking disasters that end with a 911 call? It might entertain and amuse folks if we looked at the bonds between chiller stories and the holiday (or at least the winter season that houses it) and then offer up some select choices of ho-ho-ho scream favorites.
Some aspect of the linking origin may come from England’s longstanding (going as far back as the Victorian era) end of year tradition of telling ghost stories to pass the time before fires in the hearth and hot chocolate mugs in hand. Folklorist Sara Cleto, who specializes in British literature and is a co-founder of The Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic, sees the connection between season and this type of literature. “For a very, very, very long time, [the season] has provoked oral stories about spooky things in many different countries and cultures all over the world.” That there was little in the way of other media to entertain during the long winter nights might have also played a role in making storytelling by fire hugely popular.
Supernatural taletelling during this snowy time of year escalated past mere isolated oral passion to a true, time-honored tradition with technological advancement, according to Elisabeth Yuko of History.com, “This was in part due to the development of the steam-powered printing press during the Industrial Revolution that made the written word more widely available.
This gave Victorians the opportunity to commercialize and commodify existing oral ghost stories, turning them into a version they could sell. Higher literacy rates, cheaper printing costs, and more periodicals meant that editors needed to fill pages,” Moore says. “Around Christmas time, they figured they could convert the old storytelling tradition to a printed version.”
Understanding this, I still find it a bit unusual that people would find fascination with the bleakness of horror during a period of the year most associated with happier feelings of family, food, and frivolity. Perhaps columnist, issue of Richard Newby, in the December 21, 2018, The Hollywood Reporter is correct in his reasoning why the English took to terror stories during this time. Christmas tradition, a means to recognize winter as a season of death and decay along with the new life promised “Ghost stories were considered an English by Christmas and the birth of Christ. From Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale (1623), to Andy Williams’ classic song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” (1963), ghost stories are referenced as being a welcomed seasonal tradition. Even our most famous and oft-adapted Christmas story, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story. And if we are being honest, it is quite the horror story as well.
Funny thing is, even during times such as Halloween, one of the first horror films I fire up for viewing is the 1951 George Minter Productions Film Scrooge, based on that Dickens story. There are fewer, more nerve-jangling moments than Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It is a specter of death who is showing Ebenezer his waiting Hell.
If one attaches a supernatural ethos to Santa Claus himself, and there certainly is more than a fair amount of the fantastic to the character, it would not be difficult to match elements of the being to the horror film. The flying reindeer, his working with elves, his ability to levitate with a touch of his nose, all suggest a creature with otherworldly ability. And his code of ethics regarding who he considers good and bad closely resembles the war of good versus evil so big with scare shows.
There are more psychological, even existential reasons why people reach for the monster feature while trimming the holiday tree. A scholar with far more degrees and titles than I can expound on the subject in greater detail than I can. For purposes of this writing, the Christmas-celebrating creature feature fan is to whom we lift and celebrate. As intriguing as it may be for them to have an inkling as to why Christmas horror became a thing over the years, it may be of more interest to know of some choice entries that this writer could recommend as either the superior blood-curdling experience or just a wildly fun diversion from last-minute gift buying. Here are five to chill your bones and have you reaching for the egg nog!
Black Christmas is a 1974 Canadian chiller from director Bob Clark. An early progenitor of the slasher genre that started in earnest after John Carpenter’s Halloween. This is a claustrophobic picture with the central psycho stalking a sorority house on a university campus during the holiday season. A superb cast of young stars and familiar faces such as Keir Dullea, Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and John Saxon push all the right buttons and Clark’s use of actual Toronto locales for mood along with his expert use of the camera setup make this a goosebump winner. Odd that this was filmed by a guy who did not see himself as a horror director. He explained his motivations in a 2005 interview with canuxploitation.com: “After I made Black Christmas, John Carpenter asked if I was going to do a sequel, but I said No, I don’t intend to I’m not here to make horror films, I’m using horror films to get myself established. If I were going to do one, though, I would do a movie a year later where the killer escapes from an asylum on Halloween, and I would call it Halloween.”
As John has pointed out, the movie he was offered already had that title, and he wrote a screenplay. And then several movies ripped Black Christmas off.” I do not think Carpenter suffered much from any competition.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is the prime 1993 children’s horror/comic/musical/fantasy mashup that delights, awes, and slightly unnerves kids of all ages. Surprisingly, it began as an idea in 1982 when Burton, then an animator with the Walt Disney Studios, had his first success with his horror short Vincent. Originally planned as a short itself, then as a 30-minute show, it was shelved for several years. In 1990, Burton’s thoughts on it resurfaced when he got his own production deal with Disney. In July 1991, production started. It contains some truly intense imagery and jaw-dropping stop-motion animation in its telling of the story of Halloweentown resident Jack Skellington and his obsession with Christmas of all holidays. The entire cast of voice artists is first-rate, especially William Hickey as the resident mad scientist Dr. Finklestein and Frank Welker as Zero, Jack’s ghost dog. A nominee for the 1993 Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, the film has attained a richly deserved classic status over the years.
Anna and the Apocalypse just may answer the question of how many films are concocted based on the fever dreams (or too much anchovy pizza) of writers. The screenplay, by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry (based on director John McPhail’s 2010 BAFTA-nominated short Zombie Musical) is one crazy hodgepodge of zombies, songs and teen coming of age comedy/drama. In Little Haven, Scotland a local secondary school Christmas show is interrupted by a zombie infection outbreak, causing havoc for the students. One of the highlights is a zombie ambush at a Christmas tree emporium. Nice comedy and scare setups by McPhail and hilarious dialogue make this one a winner.
Being the old-school film guy that I am, no best holiday spook film list would be complete without the afore-mentioned Scrooge, directed with a truly dark, moody atmosphere by Brian Desmond Hurst. The story is familiar to all. A miserly London banker does his best to kill the spirit of the holidays for everyone in his orbit, only to be shown the error of his ways on Christmas Eve night by visitations from three ghosts. One of them, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, is the more terrifying of the three as he is the specter of death, foretelling a particularly nasty Hell for Scrooge. Beyond its look of decayed sets and despair, and Hurst’s feel for the period, the movie works because the cast works doubly hard not to play the story as camp, something that other versions sadly lapse into.
Really my true go-to film when I want a dose of Santa and violent murder all in one is a short segment featured in what is popularly known as the anthology or portmanteau feature. Tales From the Crypt, a 1972 entry from Hammer Films’ chief U.K. rival Amicus, contains five stories derived from the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s. All these stories are fun, with equal amounts of grisly humor and a sense of irony. The standout, for me, is the one entitled And All Through the House, where a bitchy wife murders her husband on Christmas Eve with a fireplace poker (and with their young daughter sleeping upstairs). As she tries to dispose of the body, she overhears on the radio that an inmate in a Santa suit has escaped from the local sanitarium. The woman finds that this killer Claus is soon stalking right outside her home. The segment neatly underscores the mad sense of ironic comeuppance so prevalent in the old horror comics. It does not hurt to have a pure venom Joan Collins as the wife. In fact, the cast of the whole affair is rife with acting strength, from Peter Cushing to Ralph Richardson to Richard Greene and directed with precision and a camera eye by veteran Freddie Francis.
So, you might want to put a bookmark on lighting the Douglas Fir tree, eating the fruitcake grandma brought that smells a bit burnt but you have to dig in with her sitting next to you or playing those Bing Crosby holiday tunes and pop in a good stalk and slash monster mash movie to gross the family out. Thanks to those old Victorian period English folk, Christmas and bloodletting are all the rage now!
Editor – Our newest contributor, Kevin Nickelson, comes to The Haunted Cinema with some great horror Bonafede’s. He’s a writer/contributor for We Belong Dead Magazine, and Horrornews.net.