Deconstructing the Ho-Ho-Horror

The season of good will towards all men is upon us and in the run up I’ve been watching a lot of alternative Christmas films as I’m sorry but I can’t watch Arnie tug it out with Sinbad over a crap toy or Master Culkin outwit Tommy DeVito from Goodfellas.  As it turns out the majority of alternative Christmas films that ended up winging their way towards the DVD player were of the horror persuasion.  Now it interests me (and probably others, I can’t be the only one who thinks about things) that the two polar opposites that are Christmas and horror can mix together not just well, that’s a relative generalisation, but comfortably.

The Christmas horror, or the Ho-Ho-Horror for the purpose of discussion, seemingly boils down to three very distinct sub-genres, ‘the slasher’, ‘the golem’ and ‘the lore’ (as in folklore) and it’s in the origins of folklore that the relationship between horror and Christmas exists as this is where the audience make the unspoken connotative connections that allow the films to interact with the audience. 

It’s no big revelation to point out how the tradition of Christmas is a co-opted pagan holiday and that for the purposes of conversion to Christianity the church deemed it important, necessary even, to integrate these festivals into the Christian calendar.  For the most part this understanding of the pagan origins of Christmas go unspoken of during the season itself and in the more traditional Christmas films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street but that understanding and the broad connotative understanding and psychological connections between audiences and paganism, especially paganism in cinema, are what’s required to successful ground a ‘lore’ based Ho-Ho-Horror.

Paganism in cinema is a rather simplistic notion and for the most part is the belief of the antagonist and centres around the rituals of human and animal sacrifices, blood letting and the swearing of allegiances to the devil.  You need to look no further than The Devil Rides Out, Ride with the Devil and The Land of the Minotaur to see what the cinematic realm has decided is appropriate characterisation for paganism and pagans alike.  Ho-Ho-Horror’s like Santa’s Slay and Saint refer to texts, both actual and fictional that pre-dates the Christian celebration of Christmas and therefore establishes the connection between the audience, the pagan origins, the cinematic pagan and finally the film they are constructing.  It is this cognitive relationship that allows for a film like Saint, which delves back to the Dutch origins of the modern day Santa Claus (then St. Nicholas or Sinterklaas to Dutch immigrations and going back even further some of the stories surrounding St. Nicholas can be traced to Norsk mythology and Odin).  With this pagan connection grounded in the audience’s realm it is easy for the film to create whatever fictional motives and back story they require.  Saint has St. Nicholas as an almost Zombified reaper who prays on Amsterdam every December 5th (the day of his death) with a full moon.  Santa’s Slay goes one further and takes the pagan origins to a quasi-logical conclusion in having Santa (Bill Goldberg) being the miracle child of Satan who has been forced to live out the modern day understanding of Santa as a curse, his true nature so old it has been lost to time and text.  Even Rare Exports : A Christmas Tale uses the idea of a co-opted understanding of Santa Clause to establish it’s origins in a realm that is open to evil, to darkness and the deadly.  Rare Exports’s Santa himself has been (like St. Nicholas) co-opted to a Coca-Cola friendly jolly old man where in actually the text that’s read through in the opening moments shows him as a (with a little help from his elves) kidnapper and eater of children though he does do it all in one night.  When viewed like this the rituals surrounding Christmas take on darker connotations. 

The intrusion of Santa Claus on to private land is one that is accepted as he is a passive and friendly guest who is expected.  What can be seen in Santa’s Slay is an unauthorised crossing of a formerly significant threshold (both Greeks and Romans would place offerings in the fireplace to appease the Gods and bring prosperity to their house) and violating one of our basic human safety needs.  Maslow shows how without this we are unable to move up the pyramid to the most advanced needs and towards self actualisation.  Likewise the sequence on December 5th in Saint sees the Black Petes entering house and slaughtering families via the chimney and in turn the fireplace.  One of the fundamental requirements for a horror film is the unauthorised use of a threshold by one who is not invited.

The first Christmas tree can be traced back to 15th century Livonia where the Brotherhood of Blackheads would erect a tree in their brotherhood house in the run up to Christmas.  On Christmas Eve the tree would be taken to the town square and the brothers would dance around the tree.  The modern day Christmas tree is essentially an alter, the gifts below are offerings and the inference is there for all to see.  St. Nicholas (in Saint) is seen going door to door collecting offerings from the residents of Amsterdam, echoing the behaviour of Caesar.  We purchase gifts for our loved ones and attribute them to Santa Claus in order to keep the mythology of his existence alive meaning, effectively, we purchase these presents (or offerings) for Santa, for his existence and for his continued prosperity.  The tree becomes a pagan alter, the gifts offerings and the act becomes a ritual like that of the pagans.  Suddenly a simple tree, a decorated home carries darker connotations that are quantifiable and firmly establish the ‘lore’ based Ho-Ho-Horror in a way that’s unrivalled.  Even the gifts are dangerous as they are unknown and we always fear the unknown (evolutionarily it’s a pre-requisite).  This is why we ask (in horrors) “who’s there?”, “what’s under the bed?” and “what’s in the box?” the answer is never good.  You only have to looks at Billy’s present under the tree in Black Christmas [2006] to know this.

This leads us on to the ‘slasher’ Ho-Ho-Horror which is a less sophisticated horror but traditionally wields some of the best results.  The premise of these horrors are simple and can be adapted to fit any Hallmark occasion.  In Black Christmas [1974] and [2006] and Silent Night, Deadly Night the emphasis is less on the connotations that are directly related to the origins of the season and more to do with the psychological scares of the individual due to an assault, murder, rape during the festive period and the antagonist (Billy in Black Christmas, other Billy in Silent Night, Deadly Night) making psychological connections between the environments and surroundings and the resulting trauma to create the ‘slasher’ Ho-Ho-Horror.  Billy (Black Christmas) has been sexually assaulted by his mother and fathers a daughter/sister if you follow the legend from 1974 to 2006.  The resulting trauma leads to him being locked in the attic of his house before escaping one Christmas and murdering his Mother (for abusing him), his Daughter/Sister (for reminding him of what happened) and his Father (for failing to protect him).  In 1974 he has spent four years in the attic as the house changes from family home/site of sexual abuse/murder crime scene into Sorority house but the physical landscape of the house is unchanged and it’s no surprise that at Christmas, when the d├ęcor is most similar to how it was when he kills his family, Billy is unable to curb his desires and begins the murder spree all over again.  Years later he escapes from an asylum only to return home for Christmas (a notion that we are all familiar with).

The third, and most problematic, sub-genre of Ho-Ho-Horror is ‘the golem’.  The golem is a well established genre in horror and goes back as far as 1818 when Mary Shelley first released Frankenstein.  Cinematically it’s been a source of much variation, two of the best being James Whales’ Frankenstein and Carl Boese & Paul Wegener’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam which demonstrate how the supernaturally created humanoid will always goes wrong.  Jack Frost is a variation on this for two reasons, first as he’s made from a mixture of chemical waste and snow (no human parts here) and secondly it’s by accident.  The ‘golem’ Ho-Ho-Horror takes the biggest leap with the audiences ability to accept the realm you are being presented with and is largely the playground for the 'slash' genre (ie. Horror/Comedy).

The Ho-Ho-Horror is a delicate sub-genre of horror, as displayed above, it relies heavily on a relationship between the audience and the cultural significance of the day (then and now).  It’s been interesting analysing and deconstructing what makes these films work and more importantly what connects on the deepest level with the cinematic audiences.  I hope it has been enjoyable to follow (though I doubt it) if nothing else it’s set a deep dark mood for Christmas and surely that’s the most important thing. 

Merry Christmas everyone, I hope that the quality of cinema in 2012 surpasses that of 2011 and we all get to add a bakers’ dozen of films to our favourites.  Or at the very least Michael Bay stops doing what he’s doing and does something else instead.  I hear there's a job opening in North Korea.


John Baxter

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