The trappings of the Christmas season are inescapable in December. One of these is the big red beacon of Santa Claus himself. But even Saint Nick hasn’t been immune to a facelift.
Santa Claus has seen some subversion in a number of disturbing ways through the years, but alongside these perverse visions of Kris Kringle have also been other countries’ takes on the fabled character. Some of these ghoulish figures are Ded Moroz and the Snow Maiden from Slavic roots, the Joulupukki and Mikulas from Finland and Hungary respectively, as well as Olentzero and Tomte, Basque and Scandanavian characters. My favorite of these are the Yule Lads who come from Icelandic history. Here, the idea of Santa Claus transforms into 13 disarming children, with each one representing a different aspect of the character.
However, while many of these might be appropriately creepy foreign Santa Claus interpretations, they are not said to be Santa himself, who is the focus here. We’re specifically looking at examples where the ol’ Saint Nick character has been transformed into something unnatural.
As a culture we can’t seem to get enough of transforming this universal figurehead of the holidays. Even if Christmas means nothing to you, there’s no denying that you’re familiar with Santa Claus and what he represents. Whether or not you even have a relationship with the character is going to inform how these subversions work on you. Soon the time will come when you won’t know what’s creeping down your chimney in December…
SECRET OF MANA
Video games are a favorite gift for many to receive over the holidays so it’s only appropriate that our first example of an off-kilter Santa would be found in a Super Nintendo title. Squaresoft’s legendary Secret of Mana has you going through the typical RPG rigmarole until you pledge battle with a Frost Gigas.
Upon beating this boss the creature transforms into Christmas’ savior and explains that this metamorphosis took place because children stopped believing in him. So the next time you’re quick to shoot down the legend of Santa and insist that his existence is kids’ stuff think of the consequences. You’re gonna make Santa go Gigas!
With each passing year it feels like cinema’s fascination with mixing Santa and horror becomes more prevalent. It’s a delightful pairing for a number of reasons, and while many of these films don’t shoot for the moon, 2015’s Santa’s Slay is a welcome surprise.
The film basically says that Santa is actually a demon who lost a bet with an Angel. His punishment is he’s forced to hand out toys—in a brilliant twist on the character’s trademark kindness—until the bet is finally over and Santa’s true ill intentions can come to life. Santa’s Slay might not be a classic by any means, but the idea that Santa has only been a jolly old soul out of obligation is a chilling one.
Saints Row IV: How the Saints Save Christmas DLC
Saints Row is a series that has done a beautiful job at distilling absurdity into a madcap franchise of video games. Saints Row IV saw the franchise pushing itself to new extremes with one of the most prominent examples coming in the title’s holiday themed downloadable content.
Here, a villainous version of Santa is created by the game’s resident baddie, Zinyak, with this Santa bent on ruining the holidays for good. The creation of some nega-Santa is an upsetting idea in its own right, but more fuel is added to this fire by Santa Clawz’ creation being the result of Zinyak tapping into and abusing the real Santa’s mind.
Sint deserves points for its ambition, if nothing else. The film takes on the Sinterklaas tradition, which might not technically be the same as Santa, but it’s awfully close. The film presents the tragic tale of a bishop, St. Niklas, who is murdered on December 5th many centuries ago. Accordingly, St. Niklas’ ghost returns on horseback every 23 years (when Christmas syncs up with a full moon, making him almost a “werewolf Santa” in a sense) in honor of the anniversary of his death and the Sinterklaas tradition.
Director Dick Maas is a master of exploitation (just watch his Amsterdamned if you don’t believe me) and Sint doesn’t hold back from the gratuitous violence and kidnapping. The film even caused a stir of controversy in its homeland, managing to scare many children. And people say that the holiday spirit is dead.
Silent Night Deadly Night, Christmas Evil, And All Through the House… and more!
As long as the tradition of mixing Christmas with horror has existed, so too has the popular staple of “murder Santas.” Starting all the way back in EC Comics during the ’50s and then exploding in movie theaters during the ’70s, most of these twisted tales don’t steep themselves in a cumbersome backstory. Often the simple visual of trusted Santa brandishing an axe was enough to hammer the point home.
That being said, that didn’t stop these monsters from complicating things when necessary (such as the case in Satan Claus from 1996, where a serial killer dressed as Satan begins to build a tree out of his victims’ limbs, in what feels like an antagonist that would pop up in an episode of Hannibal). Whether we’re laughing at their antics in Silent Night, Deadly Night or watching through shielded eyes like in Christmas Evil, murder Santas are a bona fide hit. With Ryan Murphy’s popular American Horror Story even embracing the trope during its Asylum season (with Ian McShane in the role, no less), it looks like these psychos aren’t going anywhere.
Grant Morrison is a master writer and one of the most refreshing voices working in comics. He’s responsible for such unique classics like, Animal Man, The Multiversity, and All-Star Superman. Described (rather brilliantly) as “Santa Claus: Year One,” Morrison’s comic series attempts to deconstruct and reinvent the usual Santa lore.
Santa here is a Norse barbarian who lives in the woods, hunting reindeer and trying to steal presents from the corrupt monarchy to bestow upon the children. The result feels almost impossibly fresh and an example of the power behind subverting such a well-known character.
ROBOT SANTA CLAUS
Futurama has always delighted in playfully poking fun at the future. Around all of the aliens, transportation tubes, and suicide booths, the Christmas holiday has undergone a facelift and become a wasteland. Now, a forbidden and feared time, Santa has become a patrolling Gestapo-like figure who kills everyone on his naughty list due to a programming error that gives him impossibly high standards. He’s also gone about turning Neptune into his galactic North Pole, transforming it into a veritable 1984-esque slave world in the process.
The bleak take on the holidays was in fact so dark that FOX insisted the episode move from its usual 7 p.m. timeslot to 9:30. In spite of the subject matter issues, Robot Santa would appear a number of times through the show’s run (along with Hanukkah Zombie and Kwanzabot). There’s nothing quite like a morbid Christmas carol after all.
South Park has seen a surprising rejuvenation recently, but many people forget that this series that is nearly twenty seasons in the making began as a silly gag between Santa and Jesus. While Santa’s presence has seen waning over the course of the show’s run, the character eventually found his voice and came out blazing, with “Red Sleigh Down” as a tremendous piece of the puzzle.
Contextualizing Santa through war homages and the likes of films such as, Black Hawk Down and Three Kings is a move that’s so crazy that it works. Turning Santa into a badass pseudo-assassin who ends up dying and even becoming a Christ-like figure might be one of the smartest things that the show has done.
WEIRD AL YANKOVIC “THE NIGHT SANTA WENT CRAZY”
First thing’s first: this is a messed up song and music video. Weird Al has gone to all sorts of crazy places throughout his career, but this video (which also contains an “Extra Gory Version”) has an unstable Santa Claus torturing his reindeer with a flamethrower before eating them, only to ultimately end up dying in a barrage of bullets courtesy of a SWAT Team. Watching these horrendous visuals go hand-in-hand with catchy pop music is a bizarre strategy, but one that helps solidify this as a classic.
THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS
Everyone remembers L. Frank Baum for The Wizard of Oz, but few are aware that he wrote a whole series devoted to Christmas’ cheery mascot. Baum’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus certainly carries Oz’s sense of whimsy as well as the dark underbelly that accompanies it. Just like how Morrison’s Klaus is all about demystifying Santa, Baum’s works do much of the same, albeit on the opposite end of the spectrum. Every aspect of Santa is broken down and receives explanation here, such as why he chooses chimneys to be his point of entry into homes.
SAM AND MAX: BEYOND TIME AND SPACE
The adventure puzzler series, Sam and Max, manages to take Santa to some unpredictably dark places. The routinely sardonic games see the titular heroes waging war against a Shambling Corporate Presence that is trying to take over Christmas. This has Santa all out of sorts and leads to him locking up the Spirits of Christmas in a safe. This paranoid, trigger-happy Santa becomes even more interesting after becoming possessed by the evil Shambling Corporate Presence (it was in some Jello that he ate, natch).
After Santa’s cruel defeat, he ends up banished to Hell which reveals even more layers of the guy. Seeing Santa trapped in an eternity of product recalls and ungrateful children is a genuinely unique take on the character. Who’d have thought you could get so much mileage out of turning Santa into a suffering martyr?
SUMO SANTA FROM CLAYFIGHTER 63 1/3
Perhaps not the most inspiring reinvention of Santa on the list, but Sumo Santa still deserves points for effort. The cult classic fighter series, ClayFighter, wore its sense of humor on its sleeve, so it shouldn’t be surprising that one of its characters was Santa Claus. Sumo Santa is apparently an evil twin of Santa who is obsessed with exacting control of the North Pole.
ClayFighter 63 1/3 might treat Sumo Santa as a villain, but he really just seems like he wants to get his toys made in time and to spread as much cheer as possible. Embellishing Santa’s weight and bloodlust might not be the biggest shift, but the sheer prospect of playing as Santa in a fighting game is too ridiculous to pass up.
Rick and Morty
Mr. Chimney has only made an appearance in Oni Press’ line of Rick and Morty comics so far, which means you’ll get bragging rights when you bring up this character and wow all of your friends. Rick and Morty is consumed in alternate universes where literally anything is possible, so the idea of throwing Santa under that microscope holds a lot of appeal. Hell, the series could do an episode that was only about all of the different Santas throughout realities needing to work together to save a multi-dimensional Christmas.
We don’t get to see too much of Mr. Chimney, and when we do he’s really just a creepy looking punching bag. The character more represents how Santa actually is pretty creepy when you take him out of his context, or present him to a bunch of outsiders. Mr. Chimney is the champion of Blumbus, and while he might freak out Rick, Morty, and us, everyone on his home planet are excited to see him. Mr. Chimney makes us explicitly address how intrinsically weird Santa is, making him the perfect inclusion to close this list out with.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem and his perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.