Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror on Film and Television

Spectacular Optical books really seem to be cornering the market when it comes to diverse, broadly academic but accessible collections of essays linked by a horror theme; this time around, we have an incredibly varied compendium all about that strange phenomenon, Christmas horror. Or, as you’ll realise after reading, it’s modern culture that’s the strange one: it’s incredible that we’ve ever come to think of Christmas as a routine, safe and sentimental time of the year. The Coca Cola truck only rolled into town fairly recently, after all; with that in mind, the book takes a look at the many films, television series and one-off specials we’ve been enjoying for a far longer period of time, with a few examinations of cultural archetypes like Krampus and the likes of Sinterklaas along the way.

Thinking about how such a wealth of ambiguous or even traumatising folklore never quite made the leap from Old World to New, the book makes a good point: the old Winter traditions of ghost stories and ‘things that go bump in the night’ seem to have migrated to earlier in the year once they reached America, where they’re now far more associated with Halloween – albeit that Halloween has its roots in Europe, too. Nowadays, Europe emulates the American schedule, with skeletons in October and schmaltz in December. This seems a shame, as the darkest days of the year seem an ideal time for ghosts; happily, then, Yuletide Terror sets about restoring something of that old order, simply by virtue of the wealth of material it covers.

We go straight into the essays themselves – there’s no introduction and as such, no overall proposed direction – and we start where you may expect, with slasher classic Black Christmas (1974). Stephen Thrower, one of my favourite film writers, provides a detailed history of the film alongside what to me seems even more interesting, a wealth of accompanying comments on the film’s reception (there were some highly amusing comments in the press about the indecency of female characters swearing). Likewise, you would probably expect to see a feature on Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and the book fulfils that too: this material is engaging enough, though probably less interesting for me than other fare as I’m just not that into slashers (although fans of slashers often spend a great deal of time defending slashers against being simplistic, which is the case here too. Where you stand on that depends on your own tastes, of course.)

My personal highlights in the book come with the likes of Florent Christol’s study of ‘the fool’, as refracted through nerd-revenge flicks of the 70s and 80s – with a special focus on Christmas Evil (1980). Christol forges some fascinating links between vengeful fools in film to the role of the fool in fiction, via Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Hop Frog’ back to the phenomenon of the ‘charivari’, a noisy mock procession dating back to the 14th Century. Some words are also reserved for the ‘Lord of Misrule’ tradition. Amanda Reyes’s appraisal of Christmas horror anthologies – the likes of Tales from the Crypt – shows how they interlink with A Christmas Carol, a novella which has definitely worked its way into the cultural consciousness. This section is exhaustive, and covers far more anthologies than I’ve even seen. Co-editor of Yuletide Terror, Kier-La Janisse, interviews the affable Fred Dekker here too.

Derek Johnson’s attempt to answer the question ‘why do we tell ghost stories at Christmas?’ covers a huge range of those Christmas Specials which include darker, even supernatural elements; I found out that UK police drama series The Bill once ran a Christmas Special along these lines! I’d have liked this particular essay to be longer, actually, but gladly, Janisse is back to take an in-depth look at the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, at its peak during the 1970s. On a similar note, it’s good to see some love for Robin Redbreast, a spooky and as-yet underappreciated folk horror. Of course, given its welcome return to our screens just this week, Owen Williams’s chapter on the League of Gentlemen Christmas Special is both welcome and timely; never before has a British television series shown that the divide between comedy and terror is as paper-thin as it is.

And as for Santa…Zack Carlson’s words on Santa at the ‘B’ movies are a scream, as well as lightening the tone of a few of the chapters which came before it, adding heaps to the overall variety. There’s an interesting rundown of some of the more malign (or at least ambiguous) folkloric gods and imps which influenced the idea of Santa in Europe and Russia, too.

Whilst I would have liked to see a bit more on films like Sint (2010) and Rare Exports (2010) and a bit less on Silent Night, Deadly Night – though was delighted to see a discussion of Sheitan (2006) and its deeply-warped spin on the nativity – overall this book is immensely engaging and far-reaching; from minor folklore to the best-known festive horrors, a read of this provides education and entertainment, and I’m sure its reputation will grow and grow from here.

You can pick up a copy of Yuletide Terror here.