Merry, merry, y’all! ‘Tis the season and all that, so I’m writing up Christmas horror this month. You might be thinking that horror and Christmas don’t go together. You would be wrong. It’s the darkest, coldest time of the year, people are stressed out of their minds and forced into spaces with people they would never voluntarily be around. I mean, have you read A Christmas Carol? It’s joyless and terrifying. There is a spooky, pagan element to Christmas that runs like a current under the holiday, but most people ignore it. So let’s take a quick trip.
A brief history
Christmas is basically the Christian church’s takeover of a pagan holiday, the Winter Solstice. Some historians say that Jesus was actually born in August, others say in springtime, but either way, December 25th was probably not the actual birthday. Early Christians were only interested in celebrating when Jesus died and rose again (Easter), but realized they needed to appeal to those pagan masses. So, the church chose to place Christmas overlapping with the Winter Solstice to ease that transition. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at some traditions and talk about what they mean:
- Caroling door to door: Songs sung through a village meant to drive away evil spirits, or encourage strong crops, that sort of thing.
- Hauling in greens from outside: This one isn’t hard. Boughs of greens are visible in every pagan celebration.
- Mistletoe: Protection from thunder and lightning strikes. Also a druid symbol of peace and joy.
- Decorating with lights: This was done to celebrate the return of light in the spring, a reminder that winter will end.
- Red and green: Fertility.
- Giving gifts: This comes from the Romans, who gave gifts during the Saturnalia festival, which also takes place around this time in December.
I’m not delving into the creatures who give gifts just yet. That’ll be my second December entry. (winky face!)
Tonight, I’m writing up Black Christmas [2006, directed by Glen Morgan]. It’s my first slasher! Put on some Christmas tunes, pour yourself some bourbon’d hot apple cider and get cozy. Let’s talk gore!
Lip gloss and fuzzy sweaters are a terrible combination
This movie happened around the same era of lady-filled modern slashers as Sorority Row , which was another remake. That’s something I should note – I absolutely hate the original Black Christmas . I find the original movie grating, and every character to be wildly unlikeable. This remake is more successful, and Billy is more sympathetic as a character. But back to the early 2000’s. This was a weird period of fashion; half of these girls are dressed like normal college girls, and the other half are wearing button-down dress shirts for some stupid reason. NO ONE dresses like that in college. I will say though, lip gloss on fleek. I don’t remember seeing anyone reapply, but these girls’ lips are shiny and slick! Snow doesn’t even stick to them!
Asylums and old houses
The asylum that houses our killer is a classic, almost Gothamesque Asylum. It’s not a hospital, it’s not a sanatorium, it’s an Asylum. This movie injects a few moments of humor, like the attendant wishing “Merry Christmas” to all of the inmates as he slides food trays through the slots on the doors. He then opens another slot and says “Happy Birthday!” to a man with a long beard that starts spouting scripture.
The sorority’s house, too, is creepy. Some of the best establishing shots in this flick are of the girls meandering around the house (half in jammies, half in interview-wear), with wine glasses the size of Viking goblets while old timey Christmas songs play in the background. I love the soundtrack. It’s all old and great stuff, even though it does overplay “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.” Christmas music is sort of perfect for a slasher sequence: it’s chaotic and cathartic. And it elicits a reaction from everyone. You either love it (and then nostalgia hits) or you hate it (and then you start screaming). This use of old and new reminds the viewer that horror doesn’t change; people don’t change. The world is full of horror, even at the holidays.
Something old and something new
Most of my notes from re-watching were about film technique. Black Christmas pays homage to the era the original film came from. There’s almost a darkened frame around the edges of the shot, and a grainy quality to it, especially in low lighting. Very 70’s. I think this was deliberate. I love, love, love the shots that are illuminated by glowing or pulsing Christmas lights. Harsh reds, greens, blues, reveal grotesque details of the monsters’ faces, and make the girls look a bit like baby dolls (which I don’t love).
The film also calls back to that awful rocking chair from the original. If I had to summarize the original Black Christmas in one image, it would be of Billy rocking hard enough to cave the floor in while he squeals and imitates 5 different voices. Gross. The rocking chair’s use in this remake is more artful. We see how effed this kid was from the start, how something meant to be soothing is actually a tool for violence.
Traditional Christmas killings
What would a holiday slasher be without strangulation by Christmas lights or someone being stabbed with a candy cane? No fun, is the answer. I think this movie is mega fun. The kills are gruesome and well timed. The pace is solid and doesn’t lull.
Also… flesh cookies. Oh, God. I went to a Halloween Horror Nights with my besties a while ago, and one of the houses was Black Christmas themed. I’ll just say that they were baking cookies in that haunted house – complete with realistic smell – and the man was polite enough to offer my group some cookies. And upon viewing this movie again after many years, I felt wicked nauseous during that scene.
There are many monster characters in this: Agnes and Billy, but also Billy’s mother and stepfather. The mother is especially terrifying. She looks like the Joker in a wig when the tinsel Christmas tree lights up her face, smoke framing her pointed chin.
Babydolls and sisterhood
Kelli is our Final Girl, but really, all of the girls are pretty likeable. The girls have a fascination with the macabre and have some traditions surrounding the murders that took place in the house without really minding that they happened. They walk fuzzy Ugg boots over the wood floor where Billy’s stepfather bled out.
How to Survive a Christmas Massacre
More of my notes were all-caps phrases like “STOP SCREAMING AND KILL HIM” and “OH MY GOD LOCK THE FRONT DOOR ARE YOU SERIOUS.” I think these girls need a little help surviving this two-pronged attack of blizzard + serial killers. Good news! I’m here to help. Here is my stress-free holiday survival guide:
- Hydration: First off – a blizzard has hit. The power is likely to go out. Put down the tequila and the red wine and start pounding water because it’s about to get real.
- LOCK THE DOORS AND WINDOWS: I can’t believe I need to point this out, but evidently these girls aren’t worried that their friends have gone missing or that they are being harassed by some maniac on the phone who can see them because they leave the front door unlocked for the entire movie.
- Perimeter check: Secure the house. Arm up and sweep floor to floor – in groups or pairs – and check every closet and corner. CHECK THE ATTIC.
- Barricade: Block all doors, but leave one fairly unobstructed for a quick exit. If the killer(s) enter that door, there are 5 or 6 of you against one or two of them.
- Stockpile: Boil water, grab every knife in the kitchen, every broomstick, can of mace, blunt object, heavy book, large shard of glass you can find and WEAPON UP.
- Girl Gang: There are many of you and one or two of the killers. So gang up and beat them senseless. Scared? You shouldn’t be, because you’ve been chugging nothing but alcohol for the last four hours.
- ROAR: While in Girl Gang mode, you know, just start shrieking while you tear the killer into pieces. The louder and more unearthly the better.
- Hold out until the dawn: If all else fails, wait until morning. It’s just a few hours away, so stop splitting up to take showers and naps and argue with cheating boyfriends and hunker down by the fire, then GTFO as soon as the sun rises. Make a break for the police station, or the nearest house with power and people.
See? That wasn’t hard. I bet your lip-gloss is still lookin’ sassy.
Final Girl and final deaths
Our Final Girl, Kelli, is responsible for the awesome deaths of these killers. I love the way she uses the defibrillator to fry up Agnes, all while rage-screaming. Billy dies by being impaled on the star of a Christmas tree, his intestine coiling around the point and squirming like a snake. Very satisfying stuff.
Alright, y’all. These are dark days, so be good to each other. Enjoy your tribes. Use blankets, hot drinks, and spread as much joy and cheer as you can. We’ve got plenty of season left.