“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” croons Andy Williams in the opening line of his renowned holiday hit. Indeed, Williams’s song is a veritable repository of Christmas tradition, replete with “kids jingle belling,” “holiday meetings,” glowing hearts, and mistletoe. Nestled amidst these jovial activities and attitudes, however, is a somewhat unusual and unexpected happening. “There’ll be scary ghost stories / And tales of the glories of the / Christmases long, long ago,” Williams sings, in his silky smooth voice. Stories of bygone years seem perfectly ordinary, but ghost stories—and scary ones at that—are ostensibly more fitting for a certain October holiday. In other words, there is a tendency to disassociate scary stories with the Yuletide season, seeing the two as essentially dissonant, odd bedfellows. More often than not, we tend to conceive of Christmas as a nice, cheery, and rather Hallmark-y affair.
The non-religious—and, if we are being honest, many among the religious—have their consumerism run amok, their ABC Family 24 Days of Christmas TV marathons, and their Budweiser Christmas commercials, and Christians have their adorable pageants and Pollyannaish visions of beautiful mangers and “silent nights.” Properly understood in light of these popular conceptions, however, these aforementioned scary seasonal tales fulfill an important devotional function by reframing the way we think of Christmas as a season of hope, joy, and peace. More specifically, the Christmas-horror canon hearkens back to the biblical incarnation narratives in a way that many of the more traditional holiday stories do not, and it thus holds the power to awaken our affections to see the glory of the incarnation.The Christmas-horror canon uses myth and violence to re-frame and re-center our understanding of the biblical Christmas narrative.
A number of Christmas-horror stories utilize cultural myths in order to speak to contemporary revisionist and nostalgic sentiments. In his 2010 feature-length debut, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, Finnish filmmaker Jalmari Helander addresses the Santa Clause myth. Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila) is a young boy living in a small village outside of the Korvatunturi Mountains, which, in Finnish folklore, is said to be the dwelling place of St. Nicholas. When an excavation team moves in and begins drilling and blasting on the mountain, however, Pietari notices some strange things happening; his friends turn up missing, and many villagers report stolen heating appliances.1 Like any curious boy would do, Pietari investigates these curious occurrences and discovers Father Christmas himself is the culprit; the man so often considered the figurehead of candy cane joviality is imagined a villain. On one hand, Rare Exports has much to say about the commercialization of Christmas, as Pietari and his father eventually defeat Santa, capture his sinister elves (wild, dingy old men with long beards, who run around nude and steal children), domesticate them, and ship them around the world as 100% authentic Santas. Still, it is the film’s reimagining of the Father Christmas myth that engenders a conversation between the filmic and biblical text.
While Christmas-horror stories (or at least the Christmas ghost story) was popularized by Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (which is, in fact, but one tale in a long-standing Victorian tradition of telling ghost stories around Christmastime), Rare Exports brings attention to some of the oft-overlooked Scandinavian and Germanic of folktales populating the genre. In Scandinavian countries, the Christmas season—and especially Christmas Eve—was said to be the time in which evil spirits were most active.2 From trolls, to the Tomte (a short, mischievous iteration of the Santa Clause character), to ghostly Christmas services, frightening tales were in high-demand throughout the Christmas season in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Much of the genius of Helander’s Rare Exports lies in its willingness to allow these myths and legends to speak to and complicate present-day understandings of the Santa myth, which, in turn, affords us the opportunity to do the same with the biblical Christmas narrative.
In a key scene early on in the film, Pietari thumbs through a book, searching for clues that will shed light on both the excavation team’s frantic search, as well as horde of missing children. Here he encounters spine-tingling images of various iterations of Santa—a horned Krampus, a sinister old man boiling a naughty child in a kettle, and sundry other equally disturbing pages. “The real Santa was totally different. The Coca-Cola Santa is just a hoax,” Pietari tells his friend. Only after he confronts the misconceptions he has held about Kris Kringle and his elves is Pietari is able to embrace any authentic form of joy and hope in the season and its blessings. In a similar manner, Rare Exports invites Christian viewers to interact with the darker, more disquieting aspects of the biblical incarnation narratives.
Standing in stark contrast to the “Coca-Cola,” Christmas pageant version of the Christmas story, is Matthew’s account of the Savior’s birth.3 We sing of silent nights, where all is peaceful, mangers are comfortable, and infants do not cry; yet the gospel begins with a genealogy that declares the coming of the Davidic King who will rule the nations “with a rod of iron” (Psalms 2:9). Moreover, this long-awaited King is born into conflict with the current leader, Herod, who—along with the entire city of Jerusalem—is “troubled” by the arrival of a political threat (Matthew 2:3). Instead of singing, angels must encourage men to forsake fear (2:20). A close reading of Matthew’s narrative reveals an author who sees the incarnation as an unglamorous (born in Bethlehem), world-altering affair, and not a nice and tidy event. Certainly Matthew emphasizes the hope, joy, and good news of Christ’s advent, but it is only when these aspects are seen in light of the political, social, and spiritual upheaval caused by the Christ-event that we can truly glory in beauty of the incarnation. And this is precisely where the holiday-horror genre—as exemplified as Rare Exports—interacts: It introduces more somber, horrifying, or violent (more on this later) imagery into traditional Christmas narratives, creating a defamiliarizing effect that enables us to more thoroughly and genuinely appreciate hope and peace brought about by Christ.
If Rare Exports—with its broad exploration of myth and reality—is a macro-level instantiation of the genre’s ability to re-center our understanding of Christmas, then Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) is a micro-level counterpart, one that utilizes a backdrop of violence to underscore its bidding of peace.4
Burton’s Batman film begins with the birth of a miraculous child. A father stares out the window of his mansion, the snow falling, his wife screaming in agony from this particularly violent birth. Shortly thereafter, the child is shown locked inside a cage. Reaching out through the bars, he seizes the family cat, mangling it the darkness of his confines. The parents, seeking to abandon their child, scurry through a park, infant in stroller, offering a “merry Christmas” to a passing couple. The young Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin (Danny DeVito) is sent down the river like the Moses child.
Exactly 33 years after the birth of this unusual child, a corrupt businessman, Max Shreck (Christopher Walken) makes a speech in front of the city Christmas tree in downtown Gotham. “I wish I could hand out world peace and unconditional love, wrapped in a big bow,” Shreck says. What he gets instead, is a twisted gift from Penguin, as a group of demented circus clowns pop out of a giant package and begin to terrorize the townspeople. Of course, Gotham’s Dark Knight (Michael Keaton) arrives just in time and saves Shreck from being kidnapped.
What is interesting about these scenes in Burton’s film is not simply that they use the demented Penguin or the violence he creates in order to make the arrival of the savior figure more saccharine; it is precisely because these scenes of violence and violent characters are juxtaposed against Christmas imagery that makes them so powerful. Batman Returns subverts the popular conception of Christmas as a time of peace, safety, and comfort, showing that genuine, lasting peace and joy—not the counterfeit variety offered by Shreck—can only be seen and tasted (c.f. Psalm 34:8) when contrasted with suffering and evil.
Returning to Matthew’s account of the Christ’s birth, we see striking similarities. In a move rendered unsuitable for Church Christmas productions, Herod slaughters “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or younger” (Matthew 2:16). Frequently overlooked is the fact that Christ’s birth highlights the good news of Savior-King’s arrival, as well as the sin-stained world into which he came. The incarnation—taking on of flesh—itself was a tremendously violent act (births, I am told, are quite bloody) that was as closely accompanied by screams of massacred children and devastated families as the singing of angels on high. The acts of violence seen in Christmas-horror stories encourage us to hearken back to the very first Christmas.
While Rare Exports and Batman Returns are but two examples from a very large body of work, they serve nicely as exemplars of the Christmas-horror canon, showcasing the genre’s ability to use myth and violence to re-frame and re-center our understanding of the biblical Christmas narrative. These narratives (and scores of other films, works of literature, and oral traditions) can point us toward and encourage us to remember the brokenness of our world, in order that we may more fully savor His salvific work and glorious reign. Perhaps, then, you might consider watching a Scandinavian Santa story or a Tim Burton Batman flick alongside your usual fare this Christmas season.
1. Rare Exports is as much a comedy as it is a Christmas or horror film.
2. Lindow, John. Swedish Legends and Folktales. Berkeley: U of California, 1978. Print.
3. This statement is not intended as any form of ill will toward Christmas pageants as a function, although it is useful precisely because these popular-level presentations of the Christmas narrative often omit the darker, more violent portions of the story.
4. One of the issues associated with any project delving into genre studies is the difficult task of determining which films belong to a particular genre. Burton’s Batman Returns is not, perhaps, the most readily identifiable entry into the Christmas-horror canon. However, Christmas plays and important and heavily emphasized role in the film, and the repeated juxtaposition of scenes of violence against the holiday scenery are, for my purposes here, enough to warrant its admission into the canon.