Christmas is upon us, signaling the end to an unforgettable year. While the holidays may look different this year, one seasonal figure that remains constant is Santa Claus. We grow up learning of as Santa as a jolly character, focused on the joy and cheer he brings. As children, we rarely think of a potential dark side to Santa, but as adults we often begin to question its existence.
Have you ever thought closely about the lyrics to “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”? He sees us when we’re sleeping…and if we’re on the naughty list, we can’t hide. This week’s selections are films that focus on the dark, creepy side of Santa. Each offers a unique take on the trope, but they all share a common thread—the children in these films experienced early impressions of Santa that weren’t so nice. While dark and haunting, each story offers tiny bits of humor and nostalgia that make for great Christmas viewing.
Christmas Evil (1980)
Perhaps a lesser-known gem among the holiday horror films, this one is a must-see. Viewers expecting a Santa slasher from the get-go might be surprised, as the on-screen action is delayed. By no means does that indicate this film doesn’t deliver. There are some gruesome murders in this film that viewers won’t soon forget. This film is more of a slow burn that showcases one man’s mental decline. The main character, Harry, is a toymaker who was traumatized by an early experience with Santa. As the story progresses, we follow Harry’s activities between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The tension slowly builds and he eventually snaps, going on a killing spree.
The scenes leading up to Harry’s Christmas rampage are well-worth the watch, and feature some truly unsettling actions. Let’s just say, Harry knows if the neighborhood children have been naughty or nice, and he’s taking notes. At turns both heartbreaking and horrifying, with an unforgettable (if not predictable) ending, this one should be on every holiday horror must-see list.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Another film that follows the theme of unresolved childhood trauma, induced by encounters with Santa. This is likely the most well-known film on the list, and for good reason. Viewers follow the story of Billy, who witnessed his parents’ murder by a man dressed as Santa. As if that weren’t enough, he goes on to experience emotional and physical abuse at an orphanage. He then develops even more trauma centered around punishment for “naughty” behavior.
Billy’s first job is at a toy store, where he initially thrives until he is asked to play the role of Santa. The employees know nothing of his past trauma and are in for a surprise once he dons the red suit. Once the company holiday party commences, the bloodshed begins and doesn’t let up until the end of the film. If you’re a fan of slashers and 80’s B-horror, this is the holiday film you shouldn’t miss. Despite his murderous spree as Santa, it’s difficult not to empathize with Billy after all he has been through.
Rare Exports (2010)
The most recent title on the list is a Finnish film that follows the story of a boy named Pietari and his father, Rauno. A few days before Christmas, Santa is unearthed in an archaeological dig in the mountains near their home. Pietari is initially the only character frightened by the dark legends surrounding Santa, and he remains vigilant against his impending arrival, even going so far as to staple the “24” door closed on his advent calendar.
Once Christmas arrives and local children go missing, the adults also come to realize that something is amiss. This film features a great balance of creepiness and dark humor, and the young actor portraying Pietari is a standout. His endearing performance carries the spirit of the season throughout the film, despite its darker aspects.
Caught up on the films listed here, but still seeking more seasonal horror stories? Dark Regions Press has published three anthologies titled Christmas Horror. Volume 3 was just released this year and is available in e-book or paperback here.