Thursday, December 22, 2011

There'll Be Scary Ghost Stories

By Chris Dimick

It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
There'll be parties for hosting. Marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow.
There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases, long, long ago.
Wait, back that thang up. Scary ghost stories? On Christmas?

No, Andy Williams wasn’t smoking reindeer chips. Yes, scary ghost stories are indeed a key part of the holidays, whether you celebrate Secular Christmas, Religious Christmas, Yule, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice or Unsolicited-Gift-Exchange-Day.

Need proof, just look at the abundant number of horror movies set on and around the holidays. Below is a list of some of the best of these holiday horror-shows. 
But first, just why is “Christmas” (which I’ll use as an umbrella term for the above listed holiday celebrations) such a ripe angle for horror? 
Why would “scary ghost stories” be told during what is supposed to be the most joyous and festive time of the year?

Reason One:
Christmas Horror is Counterintuitive.
If you haven’t picked up on how you are supposed to feel right now from the last two months of TV commercials, songs and decorations being shoved down your throat, I’ll offer this summary: 
This is the time of year you will feel clinically happy, surrounded by free gifts, warm loved ones, and endless sugary treats to fuel the insanity.

Christmas is a time of safety, of comfort, of joy. Your guard is down and your optimism is up. This makes it the perfect time to set a horror story. What better way to jangle people’s bells than to depict horrific circumstances of blood, spooks and terror in a situation that is supposed to be clean, safe and happy. 
It might a cheap trick, but it works.

Reason Two:
Winter was Once Terrifying.
What is the worst that can happen to modern man during winter, with his raging furnaces, grocery stores stocked with globally-grown food, and gasoline-fueled transportation? For most people who are not homeless, winter is just that season where they feel a bit chilly walking from their house to their car. 

But not that long ago the winter season brought with it the prospect of death and misery for several reasons. Can’t collect enough firewood, you’ll freeze. Didn’t grow enough crops to last till spring, you’ll starve. Three feet of snow trap you in your home, you’ll go insane. Winter was a mean son-of-a-nutcracker.
"Christmas" is a celebration of winter, and of the changing year. But it is also a celebration that winter isn’t permanent, that the terror will soon subside. At its core, it is a distraction from the hard times that lie ahead. 

We bring evergreens into our homes this time of year to remind us that greenery and life will return come spring. We eat, drink, and be merry so our minds don’t turn to the looming dread behind each ever darkening, sunless day.   

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, but from a glass half full standpoint it is also the turning point of the dying day. “Yeah, the sun is barely coming up anymore and the hardest period of the year has just begun… but at least after today it will stick around a little bit longer each sunrise!” people used to remind themselves.Or at least party to try and forget.

The terror of winter has become sterilized out of our hearts and culture thanks to modern conveniences and technology. But it is still a powerful menace ready to strike, and subconsciously a point of free for humans. This makes it ripe for horror. 

If you don’t believe it, just talk to those people stranded on Lake Shore Drive during February’s Chicago Snowmageddon (above) that dumped three feet of snow in mere hours. People stranded on a CTA bus. For 14 hours. With strangers. Some who smelled.

Reason Three: Horror is Festive.
The above line from Andy Williams’ classic holiday song makes some people puzzle and puzz, till their puzzlers are sore. Just who sits around and tells scary ghost stories on Christmas?

Charles Dickens does, for one. Old-timey time people did, for two. And my family definitely does, for three.
Dickens’ oft remade classic A Christmas Carol is the most famous scary ghost story for Christmas. 

And yes, it is a horror story, play and movie. Jacob Marley returns from the depths of hell to warn his former partner and general asshole Scrooge that he better change his ways and be kind to people, or he will meet the same fate.

Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, who show him in his past, present and future how his evil ways affected his loved ones and his life path. By the end Scrooge is so scared shitless and moved by the ghosts that he repents, changes, and becomes a jolly Christmassy Santa-worshiper. Now that is a ghost story if I ever heard one.

I have to image that scary ghost stories were also a favorite for people to tell each other during Christmas back before the days of television, movies and radio, when all you had to do each night during the holidays was listen to the fire logs crackle and stare at each other.

Back then for entertainment people would play games, sing songs, and, yes, tell stories. There are only so many Christmas based stories you could hear before wanting to discuss something more interesting. You got the entire family assembled, sitting in the candle light around the fire with the terrifying winter blaring outside… no better time to spin a scary yarn or two! 
And people did, inspiring Williams’ oft-misunderstood line in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

But that is not a tradition that died with the Victorian Era. At least in my family’s house. The Dimick's are group who love to tell stories, both of times long ago and fictional experiences. 
Christmas is one of the only times all year that all five siblings, their spouses and children and our parents are together in the same place. 
This festive atmosphere leads to all sorts of “merry-making,” including the telling of lurid, funny and scary tales.

I’ve written before that a very popular, and hilarious, topic of conversation and storytelling around Christmas at my parents’ home involves Krampus – an old mythical German figure who would accompany Santa Claus during his rounds, beating and stealing bad children while Santa showered gifts on the good. 
A scary story indeed, but a fun one at that. Read all about Krampus in my previous 2010 Xmas blog here.

We talk about nice, Christmassy things too. 
But mixed in are always a few fact and fiction horror tales: like the story of “Teacup Head,” the premature baby stored in a cigar box behind the stove (for warmth) who had magic fingernails and a head so small it could fit in a teacup. 
I’m sure we’ll get a few lumps of coal in our stockings for that little ditty!

Why tell these tales? Why watch horror Christmas movies? Why mix in some dark during days of bright?
Because horror is fun. Horror is festive. Horror is Christmas.

These films put the ho-ho-ho in horror. Beware... he sees you when your sleeping.

Treevenge (2008)
You’ll never look at your tree the same. Christmas trees ripped out of their forest plan revenge against people enjoying the holidays. One of the most creative holiday horrors in the last 30 years.

Gremlins (1984)
Talk about a gift gone awry! A boy inadvertently breaks three important rules concerning his new Christmas pet and unleashes a horde of malevolently mischievous monsters on a small town.

A Christmas Carol (1984) / Scrooged (1988)
You know this one. There are an endless number of versions of Charles Dickens’ holiday tale, but most agree the George C. Scott version is the best classic rendition. 
As for the modern update of the story, which has also been done to death, the best is the Bill Murray-lead Scrooged. It'll scare the Dickens out of you.

The Children (2008)
Where’s Krampus when you need him! A relaxing Christmas vacation turns into a terrifying fight for survival as the children begin to turn on and creatively murder their parents.

Santa’s Slay (2005)
Don’t sit on this Santa’s lap. Santa Claus is actually a demon who lost a bet with an Angel, so he becomes the giver of toys and happiness. But when the bet is off, he returns to his evil ways.

P2 (2007)
A businesswoman is pursued by a psychopath after being locked in a parking garage on Christmas Eve. 
Serves you right for working on a holiday. Haven’t you ever heard of work-life balance!?

Tales from the Crypt (1972)
The first of the five tales in this vignette film features a wicked Xmas story. Joanne Clayton (Joan Collins) murders her husband on Christmas Eve for his life insurance only to be attacked by a psychopathic killer dressed as Father Christmas. 
Her daughter, charmed by Saint Nick, lets him into the house. Didn’t she ever learn about taking cane canes from strangers?

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Leave it to Tim Burton to create the perfect meld of Christmas and Horror.
Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is bored with doing the same thing every year for Halloween. 
One day he stumbles into Christmas Town, and is so taken with the idea of Christmas that he tries to get the resident bats, ghouls, and goblins of Halloween town to help him put on Christmas instead of Halloween. But they just don’t get it.

Black Christmas (1974)
“A Christmas Story” wasn’t the only holiday movie made by director Bob Clark. But, this film features more horrific things than sticking your tongue to a flagpole and confronting the school bully.
A sorority house is terrorized by a stranger who makes frightening phone calls and then murders the sorority sisters during Christmas break. Geez, why do people get so stabby around the holidays?




  1. I couldn't agree more. Every Friday in December we do serious Christmas frights. Well Thursdays and Fridays... We've already screened the blu ray of Gremlins this evening and currently have on Scott's Christmas Carol. Despite that copies on DVD are crappy, an old stand by for me is also Silent Night, Bloody Night....then there is the super silly and ridiculous Night Of The Comet...but I like Robert Beltran. Have a scary one!

  2. Very fun, Semetra! I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the holidays :)
    I totally forgot about Night of the Comet... which is indeed a Christmas movie. Its so 80s, which is what makes it great.
    Have a happy New Year!