Why Christmas Horror Works
The Uncanny and Christmas: Why Holiday Horror Works So Well
by Marissa Pona
While some bask in the warmth of this happy, holiday time of year, horror fans are busy enjoying some of the best frights the genre has to offer. And, fortunately, horror never takes a holiday. In fact, no holiday is more successful at conjuring the purest and most jarring sense of actual terror than Christmas.
There is a widely accepted theory in psychology that legitimate horror lies not in the unfamiliar, but in a distortion of the familiar. This distortion is most commonly referred to as the uncanny. The uncanny is defined as anything strangely frightening that creates a lingering sense of dread. According to this theory, popularized by Freud but confirmed by modern psychology, humans cannot achieve actual terror without evoking a sense of the uncanny, and this comes only from distorting things our brains have already processed. For example, if a film presents something we know to be safe and nonthreatening- like a snowman or a stuffed teddy bear- and turns it against us, only then can we feel pure and deep psychological terror.
The best modern example of the uncanny is the paradox of robotic humans. Anytime a robot or computer starts to look or act too human, we feel a certain danger and unease in its presence. We call this the uncanny valley. Why does this happen? Because the robot will blur the lines between something known and mostly safe(a human) and something completely foreign (robots). Once the uncanny is evoked, it doesn’t go away.
Most modern horror films fail to utilize this theory. Movies such as Don’t Breathe and Hush, some of 2016’s more popular entries, thrive on jump scares, guts and gore, and scenes of torture. While enjoyable and worthy of review, these types of films certainly have their place. Nonetheless, the scares are almost always easily shaken off once the credits roll. Only the sense of the uncanny leaves us truly terror-stricken.
It is with this in mind that we dive into holiday horror. Boasting varying yet effective deconstructions of every memory, symbol, and idea positively associated with Christmas, these movies turn what we know firmly against us. Christmas horrors corrupt our childhood memories. They do this on a subconscious level, using our own safety and knowledge of the world against us, and leaving us, in some cases, forever changed. These corruptions occur in one of two ways. First, Christmas horror films will distort the safety and happiness associated with modern Santa Claus to invoke the uncanny. After all, no image is more sacred in our collective psyche than Santa Claus.
His popularity is perhaps the most powerful weapon in the seasonal horror arsenal.
With a white beard, big belly, and jovial ho, ho, ho, Santa himself represent rewards for good behavior. He showers us with gifts, drinks milk and cookies (or a sausage sandwich if you come from an Italian New Jersey family), and spreads good will towards men. Modern Santa originated with The Night Before Christmas, the family classic written in 1822 by Clement Clark Moore. And, sorry urban legend fans, he is not a direct result of brilliant marketing by the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell, or even the Coca Cola Corporation. Rather, he is a perfect hybrid of Christian imagery associated with St. Nicholas and good storytelling. There is no one origin source for his depictions.
When suddenly, this jolly, old elf becomes something altogether different, we process it on a subconscious level, and invoke the uncanny. Classic Christmas horror slasher pics, especially those from the late 1980’s, turned Santa into something evil, gory, and cruel. Examples include Billy Chapman from Silent Night, Deadly Night. This deranged person watches a man in a Santa suit brutally rape and murder his family. As an adult, he understandably suffers from Clausophobia, or fear of Santa. When he’s forced to don the suit for his company Christmas celebration, he goes on a killing spree. Dressed as Santa, he repeats, “Naughty” as he kills everyone around him, including some sadistic nuns and innocent love interests. Using deer antlers, christmas lights, and, of course, his signature axe, Billy Claus terrorizes those around him on Christmas Eve. This works because it takes what we know and love and turns it against us.
In Tales From the Crypt the Cryptkeeper dressed in a distorted mask, and told a story of a psychotic asylum escapee who dresses as Santa and kills anyone in his path. Even mild distortions of Santa’s image can conjure discomfort. Jack Skellington from Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas makes many cringe.
And it doesn’t stop with St. Nick.
The use of demonic toys, killer gingerbread men, and creepy elves serve the same purpose. These choices twist childhood comforts, leaving us at our most vulnerable. Suddenly we no longer identify these items as pure or safe. That is a level of horror most traditional horror films fail to achieve. This dread can forever alter our internal sense of safe and dangerous. Just ask the scores of Gen Xers who were forever scarred by these types of Christmas films.
Additional, filmmakers, especially in recent years, have exploited the macabre roots of holiday lore.The second way that horror films evoke true terror is through the exploration of the macabre, pagan roots of most holiday lore. Long before Christian ideology, Pagan traditions also celebrated this time of year with the judgement of young children. The idea of naughty and nice lists is one of the oldest tropes in Christmas folklore. Historically, however, Santa’s got a seriously dark past. Most traditions of a ‘giver elf’ predate St. Nicholas by thousands of years. The original Santa can be traced all the way back to the third century. In its earliest forms, Christmas occurred during the first week of December. It was also a total crapshoot for children. Sure, they could be visited by an elf bringing toys to reward their good behavior. But, more frequently, Christmas elicited fear of consequence for naughty behavior. For most of history, Santa went hand in hand with malevolent spirits or elves.
These dangerous sidekicks were once as prevalent as the big man himself. But, they had very different agendas. Some of the include:
Austria’s goat-like shadow of Santa who often enslaved or whipped naughty children. Sometimes, if they were specially evil, he would send them straight to hell. Krampus judged children not just on behavior, but on the understanding and faith in the true meaning of the holiday, which kept cheeky little ones in check.
Germans warded off Knecht Ruprecht, who tested children on their ability to pray, and either punished or rewarded them accordingly.
Holland and Germany’s enjoyed this crotchety old man. A ghost of his former self, this dirty, fur clad ghost whipped naughty children. He wandered the world on Christmas Eve judging good and evil. On the plus side he rewarded good kids with candies.
Another European advent, Frau was a witch-like creature who showed up during the 12 days of Christmas. While good children were rewarded, bad children could anticipate having their internal organs removed by Frau, and replaced with trash.
These dark origin stories make for perfect fodder for distortion of our familiar symbols and ideas regarding the holidays. This explains why films such as Krampus, A Christmas Horror Story, Sint, and Rare Exports have received a lot of attention in the past few years. These films exploit these historical legends to create the uncanny effect. One look at these little helpers and you’ll never want to celebrate the season again.
And that’s how Christmas horror works. Films will mine the fields of ancient lore and traditions and nefariously distort everything our subconscious knows to be safe. So the next time you snuggle up to a Christmas horror flick, understand that your subconscious is working against you. This could be the film that destroys your childhood, making you forever uneasy when you pass that mall Santa. This, for horror fans, is the true magic of Christmas.