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Oh Holy Fright: Christmas Horror Movies That Slay

Dec 12, 2015
Originally published on December 12, 2015 5:25 pm

It's not too hard to make the case that Christmas stories can be scary. Toys springing to life. That large man sneaking into your home at midnight after watching you all year. No wonder there's an entire genre of Christmas-themed horror movies. And one of them happened to be one of last weekend's top-grossing films.

Krampus is about an ordinary American family stalked by a malevolent figure straight from German and Austrian mythology. Historically, Krampus has served as Santa Claus' dark double. Instead of a fur-lined suit and round little belly, Krampus has horns, claws, chains and a nasty disposition. Director Michael Dougherty says the unlikely combination of Christmas and horror makes a certain kind of sense.

"Christmas is really stressful," he observes. "I think we can all admit that. We put all these pressures on ourselves to spend time with friends and family and spend all this money we don't necessarily have."

Which means some of us turn to scary movies for catharsis. And darkness lies deep in the holiday's DNA, from King Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents in the Bible to the vengeful ghost in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Just think, Dougherty says, of the terrifying stop-motion Abominable Snowmonster in the Rankin/Bass televised holiday special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or a certain holiday ballet featuring sugerplums — and a dancing evil rat king. Nutcrackers, Dougherty says, scared him as a child.

"They have such manic expressions, with the bared teeth and really wide crazy eyeballs," he points out.

These frightening figures might provide release from a sense of forced gaiety — and from seasonal anxieties about being unhappy or alone. Maybe that explains the uncanny proliferation of Christmas horror movies over the past few decades.

"It's a big thing," says Hannah Forman, who runs the website Women in Horror Month under the name Hannah Neurotica. She proves it by rattling off titles. "You have Silent Night, Deadly Night; Silent Night, Bloody Night; Jack Frost; Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys; A Cadaver Christmas; Silent Night, Zombie Night — should I keep going?"

To be sure, most Christmas horror movies are cheaply made and exploitative, with tendency toward truly terrifying puns. (Santa's Slay, Slay Belles, Santa Claws, etc.) But Foreman says 1974's Black Christmas is both underrated and influential.

"It's considered by some to be one of the first slasher films in the U.S.," she says.

Black Christmas is set at a sorority house visited by a psycho killer, and it's the first to use a now-classic horror movie trope: "The calls are coming from inside the house!" And Black Christmas was directed by Bob Clark, also responsible for one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time, 1983's A Christmas Story.

But A Christmas Story also features a memorably monster-like bully, and a father with a fearsome temper, says Krampus director Michael Dougherty. "So there's a guy who loved Christmas but really understood both sides of it," he says.

Dougherty says his film was partly inspired by Gremlins, another 1980s movie that combined Christmas with family-friendly horror. Meanwhile, Krampus, the scary anti-Santa character, seems to be having his biggest moment since possibly the 16th century. More Krampus movies are in the works and at least four Krampus-themed movies have been recently released, including the critically acclaimed Finnish film, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Maybe Krampus serves as a kind of Christmas corrective in an era of rampant commercialism, brutal class inequality and bitter cultural divides, speculates Doughtery.

"He's the Christmas spirit we deserve, not the one we need," he says.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Christmas is coming, and if you look at it a certain way, you could make the case that Christmas stories can be kind of scary - stories about toy's springing to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, cackling).

MARTIN: Or did you hear about that big guy creeping into your house while you're asleep after watching you all year? So if you think about it, says NPR's Neda Ulaby, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that there's a whole genre of scary Christmas-themed movies.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: One happened to be one of last weekend's top-grossing films. Director Michael Dougherty loves Christmas, but he says let's be real.

MICHAEL DOUGHERTY: Christmas is really stressful. I think we can all admit that. We put all these pressures on ourselves to spend time with your friends and your family and spend all this money that we don't necessarily have.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ULABY: That means for some of us seeking catharsis in scary movies. Dougherty's film "Krampus" is about a family stalked by a horrible figure taken from German and Austrian mythology. Krampus is sort of Santa's dark double. Instead of a fur-lined suit and round little belly, he has...

DOUGHERTY: Horns obviously, hooves, claws and chains.

ULABY: Darkness lies deep in this holiday's DNA, says Dougherty - from King Herod's slaughter of the innocence in the Bible to Charles Dickens.

DOUGHERTY: One of the most iconic Christmas stories is a spooky, eerie ghost story, and that's "A Christmas Carol..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS CAROL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Scrooge) Humbug, I tell you. Humbug.

ULABY: Filled with vengeful ghosts...

DOUGHERTY: That is a dark story.

ULABY: ...Or a certain holiday ballet with sugarplums and a dancing evil rat king. "Nutcrackers" terrified Michael Dougherty as a kid.

DOUGHERTY: They have such manic expressions with the bare teeth and these really wide crazy eyeballs.

ULABY: These frightening figures perhaps provide release from a sense of forced gaeity and from seasonal anxieties about being unhappy or alone. Maybe that explains the dozens and dozens of Christmas-themed horror movies.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM NO. 1)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, laughter).

HANNAH FORMAN: Oh, it's a thing. It's a big thing.

ULABY: That's Hannah Forman. She runs the website Women in Horror Month.

FORMAN: You have "Silent Night, Deadly Night," "Silent Night, Bloody Night," "Jack Frost," "Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys," "A Cadaver Christmas," "Silent Night, Zombie Night" - should I keep going?

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM NO. 2)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) No, Santa - no, no, Santa (screams).

ULABY: No, that's OK, thanks. Forman says most of these movies are exploitative and cheaply made. But she says one from 1974 called "Black Christmas" is both underrated and influential.

FORMAN: It's considered by some to be one of the first slasher films in the U.S.

ULABY: With sorority girls fighting a psycho killer while carolers sing outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK CHRISTMAS")

ULABY: And it may be the first to use a now-classic horror movie trope.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK CHRISTMAS")

DOUG MCGRATH: (As Sgt. Nash) The caller's in the house. The calls are calling from the house.

ULABY: "Black Christmas" was directed by Bob Clark, who was also responsible for one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, screaming).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, screaming).

ULABY: "A Christmas Story" from 1983 featured a memorably monster-like bully.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A CHRISTMAS STORY")

JEAN SHEPHERD: (As Adult Ralphie) He had yellow eyes - so help me God, yellow eyes.

DOUGHERTY: So there's a guy who really loved Christmas, but also understood both sides of it.

ULABY: Director Michael Dogherty says his film "Krampus" was partly inspired by another '80s movie that mixes Christmas with family-friendly horror - "Gremlins." Meanwhile, "Krampus," the scary anti-Santa Claus character seems to be having his biggest moment since possibly the 16th century. At least four Krampus-themed movies have come out in the last five years, including a critically-acclaimed one from Finland called "Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS STORY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As character, foreign language spoken).

ULABY: Maybe, says Dougherty, in this era of rampant commercialism, brutal class inequality and bitter cultural divides, "Krampus" is a kind of corrective.

DOUGHERTY: He's the Christmas spirit we deserve, not the one we need.

ULABY: Maybe we need a darker side to Christmas - just a little Yule time fear. Neda Ulaby NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.