There’s probably no figure more ubiquitous this holiday season than Santa Claus himself (sorry, Jesus.) You know that Christmas is around the corner when every store in town puts its mannequin of the big red guy in the window, or when every TV channel starts showing its regular rotation of festive movie classics. Everyone has their favorite film, the viewing of which is an annual tradition. For those who aren’t fans of Elf or A Christmas Carol or the PG coziness of the Hallmark Channel cinematic universe, there are plenty of alternative Christmas movies: Die Hard, American Psycho, and Tangerine, to name but three. But maybe you want some of those well-worn chipper tropes put through the wood-chipper for a bloodier, more frenzied Christmas. Enter the serial killer Santa.
Holiday-themed horror movies are par for the course for the genre. The merriest season has its fair share of terror, thanks to the likes of Black Christmas. So, it’s no surprise that there are a plethora of movies featuring either the real Jolly Old St. Nick on a murder spree or the killer of the week dressed in bloody red with snow-white trim. It’s one of the simplest yet most effective ways to flip the merriment and childlike optimism of the season on its head.
While it wasn’t the first film to make Santa a killer, 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night is undoubtedly the primary influence of this curious genre. Directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr., making his feature debut, the grimy horror centers on a disturbed man who witnessed his parents being brutally murdered by a criminal dressed as Santa. As an adult, he struggles with disturbing thoughts and a deeply skewed sense of good and evil, which leads him to don the red costume and go on a vengeful murder spree. It’s a pretty bland film, clearly cut from the same cloth as the cheaply-made slasher titles that had oversaturated horror cinema in the ’80s. Yet Silent Night, Deadly Night became the most controversial film of the year because of that image of a killer Santa wielding an ax.
Swaths of concerned parents’ groups across America protested the movie, largely inspired by ad campaigns that ran in-between family-friendly TV series such as Little House on the Prairie. Protestors picketed theaters in The Bronx that screened the film, loudly singing Christmas carols in protest. These groups had some big names on their side too, including the legendary film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Siskel went as far as to read names of the film’s production crew on-air, telling them, “Shame on you”, as he accused the filmmakers of profiting from “blood money.” Eventually, the distributor, TriStar Pictures, withdrew the film from cinemas. It would eventually be re-released by an independent distributor, Aquarius Films, in May 1985, and that early controversy didn’t hurt its initial sales.
An editorial in Variety described the controversy: “Most protests were generated by the feeling that the depiction of a killer in a Santa Claus suit would traumatize children and undermine their traditional trust in Santa Claus.” As the movie’s producer, Ira Barmak, noted, Santa isn’t real and this R-rated film certainly wouldn’t ruin any kid’s Christmas unless their parents took them to see it. It didn’t seem to dawn on many critics or protestors that this bastardizing of an intrinsically good thing was basically the entire point of Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Silent Night, Deadly Night managed to milk an additional four sequels out of its concept, and by then, the genie was well and truly out of the bottle. Films in this sub-genre share a lot of tropes, particularly in the focus on children as targets or the utilizing of familial abuse and related trauma as an impetus for the violence. The French film 3615 code Père Noël features a precocious young boy being terrorized by a murderous vagrant dressed as Santa while fending him off with booby-traps. Christmas Evil, a seriously nihilistic thriller that predates Silent Night, Deadly Night by four years (it received none of the backlash of that movie), follows a deranged man obsessed with Santa Claus in part thanks to seeing his mother be groped by Santa, not knowing that he was just his dad in a costume. He, of course, also dresses in red and starts killing people. O’Hellige Jul!, a Norwegian slasher, features a Santa-disguised killer who engages in full-on torture porn and rape. The twist here is that, rather than being a mentally ill vagrant or the like, the killer is a happy family man who decides to target a group of friends out of a demented need to rectify their terrible futures.
And then there are the murderous St. Nicks who have their roots in well-worn mythology and the twisting of it. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale comes to us courtesy of Finland, the actual home of Santa. This revisionist history sees the figure as a foreboding figure with horns and violent tendencies (he’s also introduced naked, which is a very blunt way of stripping away the familiar mythos of Santa!) Futurama’s year 3000 take on Santa is a robot whose standards for naughty and nice are so misbalanced that everyone is likely to face his wrath on Christmas Eve, usually with a missile launcher of some kind. In the Netherlands, where the festive icon is Sinterklaas, a figure inspired by the real Saint Nicholas, the 2010 film Sint portrays him as a ghost on a full moon rampage. His bishop’s staff is a blade, his gang is looters, and the black Petes (Niklas’s companions who are typically portrayed by white people in blackface) were actually blackened by an act of murderous arson. Much like Silent Night, Deadly Night 26 years prior, Sint’s advertising led to concerned parents’ groups’ protests. The more things change…
The subversion of childhood innocence is at the heart of many a great horror story. Stephen King is legendary for his unnerving depictions of the not-so-secret darkness of youth, especially the all-too-familiar notion of growing up in a bleak world where your pain and fears are either ignored by adults or outright exploited. As many creators have shown, it doesn’t take much to turn the most seemingly innocuous parts of our childhood into something haunting. Consider how the Chucky franchise got so much mileage out of proving adults correct over those weird-looking dolls that had no business being marketed to kids, or how little effort it took to turn clowns into everyone’s worst nightmare. So, of course, there’s terror to be mined from the notion of a strange man breaking into your house every year to exchange milk and cookies for gifts on the basis of a binary notion of naughty versus nice. Honestly, it’s kind of a surprise that kids aren’t scared of Santa from birth.
Nowadays, Santa is big money. Coca-Cola’s annual holiday marketing campaign is a multi-million-dollar branding exercise that the company started in the 1920s. They hired artist Fred Mizen in 1930 to paint a Santa drinking a bottle of Coke for a campaign and that image of the festively plump and jolly rosy-cheeked Father Christmas helped to shape the iconography for decades to come. This Santa is so ubiquitous that some people think Coca-Cola wholly invented him. Couple that with continuing bad-faith right-wing culture war campaigns over the so-called war on Christmas and fake outrage over men of color playing the character and it’s no wonder that some of us crave that lump of coal in our stockings.
With a reboot of Silent Night, Deadly Night reportedly in the works, it seems that we won’t be short of killer Santa movies in the future. For whenever there is cheer and a societal requirement to be happy, there will be a need for someone to provide a bloody alternative.