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Why Are There So Many Holiday Horror Films?

Spooky season is over… or is it? These holiday horror films deliver thrills and chills all winter long.
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Now that Halloween has come and gone, you might think that the season of scary stuff is over for the year. Well, my friend, you couldn’t be more wrong. There’s a proud tradition of holiday horror movies—and it dates back a lot farther than you might think.

The Tradition of Christmas Eve Ghost Stories

Although it never really caught on in America, England has a long history of telling ghost stories on Christmas. I wrote more about that tradition, as Mike Flannagan’s The Haunting of Bly Manor was inspired by Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw. That novella is framed as a ghost story told around the fire on a winter’s night.

The most famous holiday ghost story is, of course, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. You can argue about how scary that story is—personally, I found certain parts of Scrooged to be really frightening when I was a kid—but the idea of holiday horror is nothing new. Winter holidays from around the world focus on lights… and where there’s light, there are also shadows.  

The Christmas horror film didn’t become a trend until 1974. That’s the year that Black Christmas, a genuinely upsetting slasher flick, premiered. In the last twenty years, there’s been an explosion of low-budget horror flicks, and Christmas counterprogramming is more popular than ever. Here are some choice tidbits from the holiday horror genre to enjoy this year.

Family-Friendly Holiday Horror

Scary movies that are also kid-friendly can be hard to find. Luckily, there are a few movies that take place during the holidays that fit the bill.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect movie to enjoy with kids who are too cool for cheesy holiday flicks filled with good cheer. It’s not particularly scary, but its goth aesthetic and wonderful soundtrack have been delighting audiences for almost thirty years. Life’s no fun without a good scare, after all.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Yeah, I’m calling this a horror movie! It’s a Wonderful Life might be one of the most celebrated Christmas movies of all time, but when you stop to consider the plot, it’s dark. George Bailey is poised to jump off a bridge and then forced to experience a nightmare world where everyone he loves is either dead or miserable and broke.

Fun fact: It’s a Wonderful Life was a box-office flop when it premiered, and it would probably have faded from memory except that it accidentally fell into the public domain after the copyright holder failed to renew in 1974. That led to non-stop showings during the holidays on every major TV network, and a generation grew up loving the movie as part of their annual holiday traditions.

Gremlins (1984)

Chris Columbus, the guy who would go on to make the majority of the Harry Potter films, wrote this holiday horror-comedy classic. The tale of the mogwai, including the loveable Gizmo, who wreak havoc on a small town on Christmas Eve became a massive hit. Warner Bros. has been trying to get a sequel or reboot of the ground for over a decade—they’re hoping nobody remembers the disastrous Gremlins 2 from 1990!

Holiday Horror-Comedies

When the holidays get too stressful, all you need is a good distraction. What better way to take your mind off of things than a movie that makes you laugh and scream?

Black Friday (2021)

Few things are scarier than a crowd of Black Friday shoppers baying for blood and bargains. That’s the jumping-off point for Black Friday, a horror-comedy produced by Bruce Campbell. The action takes place at “All-Mart,” where a monstrously mutated employee unleashes hell on shoppers and coworkers. It calls to mind Campbell’s most famous role as Ash, the S-Mart employee who ends up at the center of a war with the Deadites. If that’s your cup of tea, then you’ll probably have fun with this movie.

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

Does the phrase “British Christmas zombie musical” pique your interest? There’s nothing else quite like Anna and the Apocalypse, which follows a teenage girl in the midst of a zombie outbreak during the holidays. It’s bloody good fun—although tragically, the film’s writer Ryan McHenry passed away from cancer before he could see his vision on the big screen.

Krampus (2015)

The legend of Krampus has always been a strange one. Instead of handing out coal to naughty children, this creature from German folklore is a demon who punishes bad kids. Krampus is elevated by the special effects by Weta Workshop (the studio behind Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings) and the performances of Adam Scott and Toni Colette.

Better Watch Out (2016)

There’s always been something a little sinister about the legend of Santa Claus. He sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake? That’s stalker behavior. Better Watch Out is a nightmarish film about babysitting gone horribly wrong. I don’t want to give too much about this film away, but let’s just say it leans into the most violent sequences from Home Alone.    

Red Snow (2021)

Red Snow has a few things to say about our obsession with vampires as swoon-worthy objects of desire. Let’s just say that this isn’t Edward Cullen. Dennice Cisneros, who looks a bit like Shelley Duvall in The Shining, stars as a supernatural romance novelist who is confronted by a gang of real-life sexy vampires.

Christmas Slasher Flicks

Christmas colors are red and white—you know, like blood and exposed bone. Sorry, was that too graphic? These holiday slashers dish up much worse, so viewer beware!

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas tells the age-old story of a group of young women being stalked and murdered by an unknown killer. It’s actually one of the first slasher films ever made, and although it wasn’t overly successful when it was released, Black Christmas has since been embraced as one of the most influential films in the genre, spawning two less-than-stellar reboots in 2006 and 2019. That having been said, it’s a brutal movie and not for the faint of heart.  

Want to know something truly bizarre? Director Bob Clark also made A Christmas Story nine years after Black Christmas.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

Ten years after Black Christmas, we’re back with another holiday slasher. This time, the killer is dressed in a Santa suit, but the basic plot points will feel familiar to anyone who has ever seen a horror movie. There’s the backstory of a young man twisted by trauma, followed by an ever-escalating string of murders. It’s not exactly great cinema, but the film was a surprise hit at the box office. In fact, it made more money than A Nightmare on Elm Street, which premiered on the same day, and probably would have been an even bigger hit if it hadn’t been pulled from theaters due to public outrage.

All I Want for Christmas Is Psychological Torture…

If you’re in the mood for a modern movie that harkens back to the spookier Christmas traditions of yore, then check these out!

Dead End (2003)

Ray Wise (Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks) stars in this unique—and uniquely upsetting—horror film. You know how road trips with your family can feel endless? Dead End leans into that feeling as a dysfunctional family is pursued by a hearse carrying a mysterious “woman in white.” The original trailer—which I can’t show here because it’s not exactly appropriate for all audiences.

Despite being set in America, this is a French horror film and veers into arthouse territory. I’m not sure it always manages to balance humor, gore, and psychological terror, but it’s still a great movie to enjoy when the festivities have finally wrapped up and everyone is safely at home.

The Lodge (2019)

The Lodge brings things full circle with a psychological horror film about a young woman who may or may not be haunted by a pair of children. Riley Keough stars in this film, which is darker and bloodier than Turn of the Screw but no less full of torment. The filmmakers were also inspired by Rebecca, a movie about a woman who can’t be sure of reality as she is plagued by the ghosts of the past.

The Lodge is one of the best-reviewed films on our list of holiday horror and speaks to the terror of being responsible for children when you’re not certain you can even take care of yourself.