It is time to acknowledge the reindeer in the room; the truth that children and grown-ups alike are aware of, but dare not speak aloud. Santa Claus is terrifying. A strange old man overseeing an industrial complex of magical creatures, and who watches and judges all the children, then sneaks into your home dispatching justice as he sees fit.
Like clowns and DisneyWorld mascots, as a society, we have all agreed to pretend that this is charming and magical and suitable for children, but deep down in the dark part of our souls, we all know the truth. So with that in mind, here are the most terrifying Santas to ever grace a screen. Some intentionally. Some… less so.
DISCLAIMER: This is a list of actual terrifying Santa Clauses. Not serial killers dressed up as Santa Claus (Sorry Once Upon a Time At Christmas and Silent Night, Deadly Night), no surly mall Santas (Sorry Bad Santa), and no evil Santa robots (So this year’s Christmas Bloody Christmas is getting turned away at the door). We at Den of Geek believe in Santa Claus, and will accept no substitutes.
Santa’s Slay (2005)
Santa’s backstory has been retold and retconned more times than you can count, but this is one of the darker reimaginings. In this version, Santa is literally the antichrist, the second being to ever be born of an immaculate conception, but this time with Satan as the father (presumably he’s also named for him, but somebody messed up the birth certificate).
But then Santa loses a bet with the angel that’s sent to stop him, and having won, the angel binds Santa to deliver toys to children for a thousand years. Which is the precise opposite of what any sensible person would do upon binding a demon, but there we go.
This is… not a great film, all things considered. Santa’s slaughter has little rhyme or reason to it—he just barges in on families having dinner, or strip clubs, or the local police station, and kills a bunch of people with the goriest slapstick he can manage, less of a dark myth than a homicidal Bugs Bunny.
But it does have some good moments, including a Chekov’s Nutcracker, and the line “I’m Santa Claus, not fucking Dracula!”
The Santa Clause (1994)
Marketed as a heartwarming, child-friendly family movie, this version of Santa Claus is incredibly dark if you think about it for even a moment. This is Santa Claus as a vampire or werewolf. First, there is the body horror, as you are transformed against your will to fit the role—right down to spontaneously growing an insta-beard. But it alters your mind too, infecting you with an insatiable hunger for cookies and an irrepressible need to make toys.
Now, you might consider that a just punishment given Tim Allen startles the previous Santa to his death in order to earn this curse, but that’s not what does it. It is putting on the suit—and failing to read the sinisterly small fine print—that seals his fate. From that moment on, death is his only release (or, apparently, failing to get married, but let’s not get into the sequels).
This one is on the list less because of the film itself (a Santa-led action movie in the same vein as the David Harbour-fronted Violent Night) than because the idea of Santa Claus being played by an abusive, racist homophobe is pretty terrifying.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Yes, he’s technically not Santa, he’s Jack Skellington dressed up as Santa, but as far as the kids receiving dismembered organs are concerned, there’s no noticeable difference. However, even at his most ghoulish Jack comes across as playful and whimsical and really thoroughly enjoying himself.
Meanwhile, the actual Santa actually comes across as a pretty formidable paranormal anthropomorphisation of the holiday. Maybe it’s just how Jack has already hyped him up as “Sandy Claws”, “a fearsome king with a deep mighty voice” who looks like “a lobster, huge and red”. But even the real Santa manages to be scary enough that we feel pretty bad for Jack when he gets told off at the end of the film.
Meanwhile, the actual Santa, who’s been waylaid after the foreboding “Sandy Claws” song, comes across as a pretty formidable paranormal anthropomorphisation of the holiday, and you feel genuinely quite bad for Jack when Santa takes the reins once again.
A more traditional take on Santa Claus, this Dutch film features a vengeful, murderous, zombified St. Nicholas cutting a bloody swathe through Amsterdam, with only a single dogged cop and a lone teenager to stop him.
This film’s pros include a rooftop horse chase and one of the more visually terrifying Santas you’ll ever see.
Its cons include the tradition of “Zwarte Piet” or “Black Pete.” For those unfamiliar with Dutch festive traditions, “Black Pete” is the local equivalent of “Santa’s Little Helper” only… in blackface. Some argue that this is an ancient and harmless tradition dating back to the Netherland’s pagan history, and that it is uncertain whether Pete is “Black” because of soot on his face (or because the myth was changed in the 19th century to give St. Nicholas Moorish servants).
Others point out that regardless, it still looks pretty damn racist. When St. Nick’s army of grisly-looking murderous Zwarte Piets shows up, they’re actually less horrifying to look at than the white teens in the offensive makeup.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
In this movie, based on a series of spoof informational shorts, Santas are strange, feral beasts that roam the wilds of Norway, kidnapping children to deliver to a giant Lovecraftian horned Santa Claus, frozen in the ice for aeons.
The film ends with the surviving characters starting up a business to export these Santas to malls around the world, making it a prequel to the original shorts—which, frankly, are also much better films. You can find them on YouTube by searching “Rare Exports. Inc.” and “Rare Exports Safety Instructions.”
Krampus (2015) isn’t technically Santa, but given his extremely cut-and-dried approach to morality and granting children’s wishes, he and St. Nick may have more in common than what separates them.
The Hogfather (2006), a miniseries adaptation of the Terry Pratchett book, isn’t technically a movie or about Santa, but this story of the Grim Reaper taking over the Discworld’s Santa-equivalent position for a night gives us some great Dark Santa moments, and classic Christmas stories full stop.Finally, it is only a short animation, but this short film of Neil Gaiman’s Christmas poem, “Nicholas Was,” is as spooky as anything else on this list.