It was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring not even a mouse. Well… apart from a slightly overweight old guy with a beard, breaking into your house to eat your mince pies. Don’t worry though he leaves gifts! Christmas is supposed to be a time for peace on earth and goodwill to all men but all this festive cheer can become overbearing. This got me wondering, is there a dark side to any of these time honoured traditions? Don’t get me wrong I’m no scrooge, I love Christmas especially now I have kids of my own. But as a horror fan I thought I would take a light-hearted view of Christmas from a more sinister angle including examples of horror films that have dared to throw darkness on the happiest time of year.
Christmas as we know it was commercialised by the Victorians when suddenly it became less about religion and more about presents, food and drink. It was in this era that the character of Santa Claus became prominent, based on religious tales of Saint Nicholas. He was then popularised further by advertising for Coco Cola in the 1930s. I hate to say it, but when you think about it, Santa is actually quite creepy. He may be magic, but in essence he is an old man that sneaks into your house at night while you are asleep. It goes against all instincts to say to your kids, “Hey, see that strange old man over there? Go and sit on his knee and ask him for sweets!” Yet we do it every year, queuing up in tacky Christmas grottos in shopping centres with all the manically grinning robotic snowmen and elves, singing joyous Christmas carols. This coupled with the blinding flashing lights, tinsel and fake snow is enough to send you bonkers. Don’t get me started on the songs “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping…He knows when you’re awake…” I don’t know about you but that sounds a bit threatening. Not only does this Santa guy watch you while you’re sleeping, but he also has the audacity to try it on with your mum “What a laugh it would have been, If Daddy had only seen, Mummy kissing Santa Claus last night...” Yeah, I’m sure Daddy would find it hysterical.
Joking aside Santa and his elves represent the fun and joy of Christmas, but there are other supernatural beings associated with this time of year that are less than friendly. Different cultures have myths and legends that put the nightmare into Christmas. One of the most well known is the Krampus. He is essentially a demonic Santa, who punishes the naughty kids while good old Saint Nicholas rewards the nice ones. This alpine legend is hundreds of years old and a similar horned pagan god even dates back to pre-Christian belief systems. Belief in the Krampus is still prevalent today in Austria, Germany and Eastern European countries. There is nothing jolly about this guy as he is half-man, half-goat, in appearance, with horns and cloven feet. He also has a lolling tongue and carries chains that he rattles at naughty children. Like Santa, he is often depicted carrying a sack, accept his sack is not filled with gifts, it is ready to be filled with children who have misbehaved. These children are then eaten, or sent to hell. Even today, Instead of listening for Santa’s sleigh bells on Christmas Eve, some poor kids are worried they might hear the clink of the Krampus’ chains instead. It turns out Santa isn’t as saintly as we thought, as these chains are supposed to represent the fact that Saint Nicholas once enslaved the Krampus demon, forcing him to do his bidding. The Krampus still appears on Christmas cards and is celebrated in parades with people lining the streets in Krampus costumes. Film makers were inspired by this legend and the film Krampus (2015) was born. This comedy horror depicts the Krampus in all its glory, hunting down those kids unfortunate enough to find themselves on the naughty list.
Another supernatural being you need to watch out for this yuletide is Frau Perchta. You better make sure you leave out an extra mince pie for her, because if she is not provided with snacks German legend has it that she will cut you open while you sleep, pull out your insides and stuff you with straw. It also turns out that witches enjoy Christmas as much as they do Halloween. In Norwegian legend, Christmas Eve is the night that evil spirits return to haunt the living. It is therefore important that all brooms are hidden, so witches are unable to find them and use them as transport. Norwegian kids also have to make sure they put out a bowl of porridge for the gnomes or they will be sorry. Another crazy Scandinavian legend is that of the homicidal yule cat. If kids in Iceland have not finished all their chores by Christmas, they will hear the yule cat scratching at their door before they are eaten. With all these creatures on the loose our ancestors tried their best to protect themselves. Strangely enough, instead of hanging stockings by the fireplace in the hope of Santa filling them with gifts we used to hang shoes. It was believed that witches, demons and evil spirits were attracted to the smell and would enter via the chimney. They would then be trapped in the shoes unable to leave. There have been many discoveries of ancient shoes found buried in the walls of old houses and it is believed this superstition is the reason. The Christmas wreaths we place on our front door were originally not for the purpose of decoration. In fact some believed they would ward off evil spirits, and protect the household from disease and death. You really couldn’t make this stuff up!
It is not just monsters on the prowl, ghosts enjoy the festivities too and not just in a Charles Dickens novel. A festival in December predates even the birth of Christ as pagans celebrated the winter solstice or Yule, with everyone coming together on the shortest day of the year. They believed that this was a day the dead could cross over to the living. With the dark nights and the end of the year looming, telling ghost stories around the fire became a Christmas tradition. Even during the 1960s the BBC started broadcasting a different ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ each year, a tradition that is occasionally revived.
With all this bizarre folklore surrounding the Christmas period it is no wonder that film makers have found inspiration for some festive horror. A notable example includes Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). In this slasher franchise a young man traumatised by a horrific childhood suffers a breakdown during the Christmas period, and emerges as a homicidal Santa Claus. More recently, A Christmas Horror Story (2015) is an anthology horror film that sees Santa take on the Krampus, with a healthy dose of zombie elves and ghost possession. Jack Frost (1997) is another seasonal offering that is unlikely to fill you with festive joy. If you tune into this expecting to see the heart-warming father and son Christmas tale of the same name (1998) you are in for a shock. Both films feature a car accident in which the main character is killed and is brought back to life as a walking talking snowman. However in the earlier of the two films this snowman is far from cuddly, and is in fact a fanged blood thirsty killing machine. Finally we were treated to a new Christmas horror this year, You Better Watch Out (2017). A night of babysitting goes gruesomely wrong when a serial killer runs havoc while carollers sing and gaudy Christmas decorations fill the house.
It seems that even at Christmas time there are things that go bump in the night and not just Santa’s sleigh landing on the roof. After taking a look at some of these crazy traditions I suddenly no longer feel bad for telling my kids they will get coal instead of toys when they are naughty. The threat of being eaten by a monster would definitely kill the Christmas spirit. Christmas Eve is a weird night for children to get their head around. Usually if they wake in the night we reassure them they are safe and there are no such things as monsters. Yet on Christmas Eve we actively invite a stranger into the house, one with magic powers who can squeeze down the chimney. This ambivalence is buried under the excitement of all the gifts they receive but there is an undeniable undertone of uncertainty. This allows a darkness to creep in, taking the form of weird and wonderful myths and legends and of course, is ample inspiration for horror writers and film makers. Despite my cynicism, I love this time of year. As a writer and parent occasions such as Christmas and Halloween are fuel for the imagination. There is nothing more amazing than seeing your kids truly believe in magic.