Fifteen Twisted Christmas Tales
‘Tis the season and blah blah blah.
Okay, I’m not really an Ebenezer (or Scrooge, if you will) when it comes to the holidays. Christmas is cool by me. BUT, I do like celebrating this festive, historically complicated holiday on my own terms. I go out of my way to find alternative or offbeat Christmas music (and not just run-of-the-mill punk covers of “Jingle Bells” or whatnot). Books, TV and movies themed around the holidays must be a little strange to meet my approval.
For a weirdo like me, the old standards just don’t speak my language, and, let’s face it, they’re all a bit dusty and played out at this point. You hear the same handful of songs, re-recorded every year by whoever’s popular (I’m sure Katy Perry’s got a holiday album either on the shelves now or in the works); you see the same damn movies replayed ad nauseam, the biggest offender being A Christmas Story, which I actually like, but can never watch again because channels like to show it on 24-hour loops. Yeah, yeah, I get it, he gets his tongue stuck on the pole, and it’s funny; he’ll shoot his eye out, ha ha ha. No thanks.
If you’re like me (i.e., you dig Christmas, just not like everyone else digs it), then we have some things to discuss. Here are some excellent offbeat, weird, macabre and twisted holiday narratives to properly put you in the Christmas mood. To borrow a modern phrase, it will be a Festivus for the rest of us!
Not set during Christmastime proper, Hill’s third novel does offer us Christmasland, the eerily bright and cheery mental amusement park created by Charlie Manx. It’s a place where children stay children forever, retain their innocence. This includes, in addition to a permanent childlike sense of wonder about the world, a proclivity to rip the wings off butterflies and play “scissors-for-the-drifter.” See, innocence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As Hill stated in an interview with Nightmare Magazine: "Much is made, in American society, about the wonder of childhood innocence, but innocent children are happy to burn ants with a magnifying glass because they don’t know better. It takes a sense of guilt, shame, and maturity to realize that sometimes your actions can be really unpleasant or painful for others."
Also, Manx populates his amusement park by kidnapping children and eating their souls with his quasi-sentient Rolls Royce Wraith. Merry Christmas!
How could a list about twisted Christmas stories not include this wonderfully grim tale of a greedy woman who murders her husband on Christmas Eve, then gets terrorized by an escaped, axe-wielding mental patient in a Santa suit? Being a TFTC classic, the horror is doled out in whacky, over-the-top measures, with a vibrant color palette not unlike the comics that inspired the series (a device also seen in the equally awesome Creepshow). It’s gross, it’s cheesy, and it’s absolutely fantastic: everything a twisted Christmas narrative should be.
Neil Gaiman knows how to put a dark spin on classic narratives. Two stellar examples appear in his collection of short works, Smoke and Mirrors. The first, “Snow, Glass, Apples” blends Snow White with vampire mythos; the second, “Nicholas Was...” offers a decidedly morbid take on Santa’s yearly practices, casting the old God as an enslaved servant to his devious elves. Great stuff! Check out this animated Christmas card adaptation of the tale:
My favorite adaptation of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Scrooged features one of Bill Murray’s most madcap performances; a gross-out zombie version of Jacob Marley; Buster Poindexter (AKA David Johansen from New York Dolls!) playing a nasty, cab-driving Ghost of Christmas Past; Murray and Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present beating the holy crap out of each other; and a pretty terrifying Ghost of Christmas Future with a flickering TV screen face. Plus a crazed Bobcat Goldthwait with a shotgun. This movie has it all!
I haven’t actually read this book, though it has been on my radar for a while now, chiefly because I LOVE Krampus lore. I’ve included Brom’s book here as an introduction to the mythical demon, who in some European countries is said to travel alongside St. Nick, forming a kind of yin-yang pair, in which the latter doles out presents and good cheer to the good apples, while the former metes out punishment and pain for the bad seeds. Whereas we have the fairly innocuous and largely ignored tradition of placing lumps of coal in a rotten kid’s stocking, Krampus whips the naughty beasts with a wooden switch, stuffs them into a wicker basket and carries them down into hell (or throws them in the river, depending on who you ask). Head on over to Krampus.com for more info, free E-Cards and loads of other nasty goodies. Also this:
2013’s British Fantasy Awards winner for best novel, this “modern fantasy” tale uses Christmas to quickly evoke images of familial strength, good tidings and cheer, and then completely pulls the rug out from under these notions. Joyce’s tale isn’t exactly twisted, though it does subvert our notions of maturity, reality and right vs. wrong. As of this writing, I’m only about half-way through it, but I feel confident in saying this is definitely not your typical Christmas tale, and well-worth the accolades it’s received.
From 1971 to 1978 (and again briefly in 2005), the BBC aired adaptations of classic ghost stories in the wee hours of Christmas Eve. According to Wikipedia and a few other online sources, telling spooky tales while Santa made his nightly rounds was a tradition before and after the Victorian era, and thus each adaptation comes from an M.R. James story (one of the best ghost story writers ever). Take a look at the trailer for the DVD box set and tell me those don’t look creepy (you might even be able to find a few full episodes on YouTube, but you didn’t hear that from me).
While we’re spending time on the other side of the pond, let’s talk about Doctor Who’s annual take on the holidays. No disrespect to Doctors 1-8, but I’m focusing here on the yuletide adventures of the revived series beginning in 2005. Each year, we’ve been treated to murderous Santa robots, whirling Christmas trees of death, a humongous snowflake-shaped warship piloted by a giant spider lady, killer robot angels, interplanetary portals disguised at presents, alien pine tree eggs masking themselves as tree ornaments, and evil, sentient snowmen fueled by human thought, not to mention a host of other monsters past, present, and yet to be seen. For Christmas themed terror with a touch of humor, it doesn’t get much better than this (plus, you know, its Doctor Who, and it doesn’t get much better that that).
Overall, The Simpsons is renowned for its satirization of the typical American family, American values, and our pop-culture-obsessed, material-driven society, and the Christmas episodes are no exception. Though there are many noteworthy examples, the one that stands out clearest in my mind is “Grift of the Magi,” in which a corporation takes over Bart and Lisa’s school, employing the kids to create the perfect holiday gift: Funzo, a fuzzy, talking, dancing little friend who destroys its competition with extreme force. Though Lisa vows not to give in and purchase this evil invention, the rest of Springfield merrily falls victim to the corporation’s advertising campaign, breaking into a toy store and trampling each other to get their Funzos. This scenario is not at all far-fetched: Funzo was based on Furby, a mostly forgotten toy from the late 90s that incited all kinds of violence across the country (you could also substitute Tickle Me Elmo or Beanie Babies). The Simpsons once again pointedly takes to task the increasing commercialization of Christmas.
This episode shows us, in a roundabout way, the ramifications of the material society lampooned in “Grift of the Magi.” Roughly 1000 years later, Santa is very much real: he’s a renegade, rocket-launching robot who, angered by the commercialization of Christmas, rewards the nice with presents, but punishes the naughty by blowing them to smithereens (and, just FYI, it’s pretty easy to make his “Naughty” list). The citizens of New New York are forced to barricade themselves on Christmas Eve while Santa lays waste to their city outside. Also, the Santa-Bot is voiced by John Goodman. Can’t go wrong there.
In Discworld, Father Christmas is the Hogfather (i.e., Santa is a pig-man), who lives in a castle made of bones. When a creepy assassin, Mr. Teatime, attempts to rub out the Hogfather, Death (yes, the walking skeleton in the black robe) fills in, granting quite literal wishes to children all throughout the land. Meanwhile, Death’s granddaughter Susan (yes, he has a granddaughter) investigates the Hogfather’s disappearance. There is absolutely everything to love about Pratchett’s book (and the miniseries adaptation from 2006).
Yet another quintessential twisted Christmas narrative, and another cautionary tale about American idiocy. Joe Bob Briggs, that country-fried late night movie host and film critic, once called Gremlins the kind of movie that “grosses out your mom when you’re fourteen,” and he’s not wrong. The titular creatures are pretty nasty, particularly when their heads explode inside microwaves or they’re being pureed by blenders. But look a little closer, and you’ll see that beyond all the delightful grossness, Gremlins is very much a satire. The Mogwai is an old-world creature who is quite simple to care for (you have only three rules to follow). Despite this simplicity, the Wise Old Chinese Man deems the Fat White American Dad “not ready” to care for the Mogwai. So what does the FWAD do? Throws more money at the WOCM, until he’s finally able to get what he wants. Pretty quickly, the three simple rules are broken, and the Mogwai spawns greedy, gluttonous, pop-culture-obsessed monsters who won’t stop breeding and who spread nothing but chaos, death and destruction wherever they go. Oh yeah, it’s that kind of movie.
While Christmas mostly provides the seasonal backdrop for this update of Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, there is an amazing sequence featuring a destitute and insane Dan Aykroyd dressing up as Santa Claus and running amok at a fancy dinner party, stealing a salmon and then later eating it through his fake beard, suffering through a dog pissing on his leg, then attempting suicide with a faulty pistol whilst standing in the pouring rain. A pretty twisted image for the holidays, if I do say so myself.
This one comes from the fantastic collection Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. It’s difficult to talk about the narrative of “Unbelief” without getting into spoiler territory, but let’s just say it’s a blackly comic tale involving an assassin observing his next target over the holidays. It’s funny, and it has a pretty solid payoff. Check it out.
Perhaps an obvious choice, but how can I leave out a story featuring Santa getting kidnapped into Halloween Town while a skeleton-man fills in for the big guy, giving children severed heads and other ghoulish baubles as presents. Plus, this is the weirdo’s answer to all those stop-motion claymation musical specials from the 60s (Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, etc.). I mean, it’s Halloween meets Christmas. How could it not be on this list?
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