This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
The festive season holds long-held ties to the macabre. From the classic novels of Charles Dickens to the melancholy of the Christmas carol canon, Christmas has always harbored a darker side, lurking beyond the tinsel and mince pies. That role has extended to festive television: for every smiles-and-silliness sitcom special, there’s a program with an altogether more disturbing spin on the season – be that a dramatic Christmas episode imbued with fear and bloodshed, or a family classic whose ostensibly wholesome charms look questionable in retrospect.
An early mainstay of the medium in its infancy, morality play anthology series were our first taste of a darker Christmastime being translated to television. Alfred Hitchcock Presents Back From Christmas featured the dark tale of a man who kills his wife and buries her in the basement, only to notice her pre-ordered Christmas present – a wine cellar installation, downstairs – arrived. The Twilight Zone’s festive entry “The Night Of The Meek” introduces us to a drunken, down-and-out Father Christmas – sure, by episode’s end, he’s happy and the might of the meek has been reaffirmed, but it was a brave series in 1960 that would introduce us to such a destitute version of the iconic character.
Over on the BBC, festive strand A Ghost Story For Christmas saw the classic oral Christmas tradition adapted for the small screen, treating viewers to unnerving spectres, ghosts, and supernatural forces. In the 1980s, Tales From The Crypt’s more straightforward horror entry “And All Through The House” finds a murderer fearing for her own life when a Santa suit-clad serial killer shows up on her doorstep. And just two years ago, latter-day Twilight Zone successor Black Mirror’s “White Christmas” saw the format taken to new dystopian heights, as augmented reality and futuristic surveillance give the episode a distinctly Orwellian tone.
Turning the spirit of the season on its head isn’t exclusively the foray of the dramatic series, though. Indeed, it’s actually the world of the animated sitcom that’s proved a fertile playground for dark festive material in recent years.
The wry, cynical nature of much of the format – not to mention the limitless potential for bloodshed while still retaining mainstream appeal – has allowed the likes of South Park and Futurama to enter the festive canon with darkly comic material utterly anathema to the festive season. Who can forget New New York’s Robot Santa (“you’re better off dead, I’m telling you dude/Santa Claus is gunning you down”), or South Park‘s “Woodland Critter Christmas“ (in which Stan Marsh is tricked into killing a mountain lion by Satanic woodland creatures… all in rhythmic rhyme). Elsewhere, King Of The Hill’s biting “Pretty, Pretty Dresses“ sees downbeat divorcee Bill slip ever further into the slough of despond around the festive season, threatening suicide. It’s a masterclass in subtly mining comedy from the darkest of subject matters.
The more cynically satirical live-action comedies have done well to turn the season on a disturbing head, too. Perhaps the quintessential example of such is It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s “A Very Sunny Christmas,” an episode that sees the main characters looking back on their own festive childhood memories and seeing wonder turn to despair – an experience rather akin to reading this article, really – as Mac realizes his childhood Christmas presents were stolen from other families, and Charlie recalls receiving presents from numerous “Santas” who would then go upstairs with his mother for an extended period.
And then there’s the Malcolm In The Middle episode “Christmas,” in which eldest son Francis learns the hard way that his Grandma is the one elderly woman undeserving of love and attention during the holiday season: in a gin-soaked blur, she reveals that she’s withheld decades worth of Christmas presents for the family due to the most arbitrary of misdeeds. Elsewhere, Malcolm, Reese and Dewey cynically see through mum Lois’ bid to “hold Christmas hostage”, realizing the same tactic may be played on future celebratory occasions, and seek to destroy Christmas for the whole family.
As bauble-shatteringly unfestive as these specials are, though, there’s more to the world of disturbing festive TV than these adult-targeted instalments. Us grown-ups look to television for diverse and complex entertainment – a festive episode of American Horror Story that didn’t feature a Santa Claus on a murderous rampage would be incredibly disappointing, and a Christmas Seinfeld replete with loving and sharing would be confusing indeed. No, when I look back on my internal Ghosts of Christmas TV Past, I find myself regressing more towards long-lost snippets and half-remembered fragments from childhood, snapshots of repressed horrors from another festive dimension. It’s here that the disturbing side of the festive TV landscape rears its ugly, half-remembered head.
The BBC’s family drama department has a lot to answer for when it comes to those memories. Six-part classic serial The Box Of Delights, beloved of classic TV denizens across the country, is a classic example. A lovingly-made fantastical chromakey fancy, the adventurous tale of a boy’s attempts to look after the titular magical box is chock full of indelible imagery and questionable theme (rarely before or since has a tramp’s suggestion that you open his magic box deemed fit for children’s television). The mysterious tone of the show proper – ominous woods, threatening magicians – was only exacerbated by those unforgettable metamorphosing opening credits. I never quite felt the same way about Punch and Judy after tuning in to find that creepy puppet staring back at me.
Still, despite retaining the feted status of seasonal classic – it was originally broadcast in the run up to Christmas 1984 – The Box Of Delights isn’t actually set at Christmas. For more directly festive fears at the BBC, we look to The Children Of Green Knowe – a four-part series, of the same era and ilk, in which young Tolly is invited to spend Christmas with his great-grandmother. Arriving alone via train and unidentified chauffeur, the outside world is cold, dark and oppressive. His driver warns him that once they arrive at the house, they may not be able to get back, an unnerving riddle of a statement that left young me somewhat addled.
During his first night at the house, Tolly is able to hear children’s voices echoing; on subsequent days, atmospheric stories of his ancestors are recounted, and the boy begins to see visions of spirits, who turn out to be his Restoration-era forebears. The dramatic stakes escalated, and the final episode, featuring a demonic curse, a stone man (precursor to Blink?) and an evil tree, goes down in TV legend as one of the most unnerving in family drama history; the final sequence, in which it’s Christmas morning and the family settle down to hear another old family story, does little to alleviate the tension.
Evergreen purveyor of manic festive frivolity Doctor Who, whose Christmas shenanigans have always toed a thin line between festively exciting and nerve-wrackingly scary, continue to frighten up the festivities even now. The last decade-plus has served up a veritable TARDIS full of Christmas horrors. “The Snowmen,” from 2012, puts an intense spin on winter’s most lovable creatures – it’s amazing what a few pointy teeth, sentience and the capacity to self-build can do to an innocent ball of frozen water. 2014’s “Last Christmas“ even prompted outrage amongst the easily-irritated popular press over its dark themes and spooky feel – admittedly, murderous dream crabs are the kind of hodge-podge nightmare creation that night fuel a night or two of insomnia among the younger set.
There’s something about the unusual and offbeat that can strike children as otherworldly or macabre, and in the right conditions, that can make for discomfiting TV. Family sitcom Worzel Gummidge was likely considered little more than harmless family fun by adults, but scarecrow-form Jon Pertwee may has well have been the Devil himself peering out of those old VHS boxes. The Christmas edition, A Cup O’ Tea And A Slice O’ Cake, is a suitably worrying entry, which explains the role of scarecrows in festive tradition – it’s imperative that they stay stationed, facing North, on Christmas Eve. That’s not of interest to the interchangeably-headed Worzel, though, who spends his day dodging his duties, getting involved in chimney invasion, eerie song-and-dance routines and an argument with Billy Connolly along the way.
The same “inherently scary” fate befalls The Addams Family: while their altogether kooky nature looks rather quaint in the cold light of adulthood, their Santa costumes in “Christmas With The Addams Family“ are the sort of childhood nightmare fuel you can’t eradicate from the memory easily. The prospect of ol’ Saint Nick creeping down the chimney is worrying enough, in retrospect – let alone if he rocked up resembling these folks.
Even quaint old Rupert Bear, star of the cricket-and-Tories Daily Telegraph for six decades before hitting TV screens in the 1980s and 1990s, isn’t safe from the vivid imagination – and deep-seated fears – of an impressionable youth. Abandoned Abominable Snowman entry “Rupert And Little Yum“ is a surprisingly touching heartstring-tugger, but it’s “Rupert And Billy Blizzard“ that brought me out in an ice-cold festive sweat for the first half of the 1990s. The titular Billy Blizzard, a milk bottle bottom-glassed power-tripping teen, has frozen King Frost and his Ice Palace in a bid to become ruler of the North, heralding an era of darkness and ice. Rupert’s old snowman, who’s managed to break free from the tyranny, recruits Rupert and friend Rika to resolve matters. The piercing squeal of Billy’s freeze-generating whistle still rings in my ears decades on, banished to the South Pole though he is at episode’s end.
That sense of unbalance approaches the forefront even more with The Moomins, wherein a language/cultural barrier comes into play too; the Moomins are unusual creatures, and the combination of Finnish story heritage, Japanese animation and poorly-synced English dub is a discombobulating one. Several Moomins episodes were unaired in several countries, deemed too scary for children; inexplicably, the terrifying “Christmas Is Coming“ is not among them.
The Moomin clan, who usually sleep through winter, misunderstand the concept of the holiday season, and believe Christmas is something to be feared, something to be appeased with food, presents and a decorated tree – lest Christmas himself devour them. Oh, and there’s room for one creepy-looking witch, who deems the Moomins “too nice” to associate with. The episode’s narration concludes that the Moomins saw the season through “without Christmas coming anywhere near them… so, probably, he went someplace else.” Difficult to know whether five-year-old me would’ve interpreted that as a funny joke or a direct threat. Let’s thank our lucky stars that live-action Mumindalen – a 24-episode childrens’ TV advent calendar from 1973 – didn’t make it to British screens.
Nary a classic childrens’ cartoon series is immune from festive fright. The Smurfs’ Christmas Special is easily the darkest entry in that series’ canon. A strange man sends his wolves to attack an old man riding a sleigh with his grandchildren, trapping poor Grandad underneath the sleigh. The children fail to find respite at Gargamel’s, and spend the night cold and lonely in the forest, at one point huddling and singing to keep warm and comforted; regrettably, this attracts the attention of the wolves once more. Parallel to this, the aforementioned strange man appears to be seeking revenge against the children’s uncle, and he strikes a demonic deal with Gargamel: he’ll help with the destruction of the Smurfs, if Gargamel can kidnap the children.
Along the way, there’s a vaguely Satanic ritual, a tune or two, and the misidentification of Papa Smurf as Father Christmas. It’s a complex story; there’s some kind of danger lurking at every one of its twists and turns. Halfway through, the Smurfs sing a song entitled “Goodness Makes The Badness Go Away.” Amidst such a relentlessly distressing special, that message is cold comfort.
Franchise-spinner The Real Ghostbusters’ “X-Mas Marks The Spot“ puts a new spin on a seasonal standard, but is no less nightmare-inducing for its familiarity. The team travel back to Victorian England, the home of A Christmas Carol’s Ebeneezer Scrooge. Capturing Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come, the team come to realise they’ve made a mistake when they find themselves back in a Christmasless future, one in which an unreformed Scrooge declared War on Christmas in 1837, putting a permanent end to the holiday. A desperate bid to release the ghosts from the Containment Unit – and a temporary bout of ‘Busters-as-Ghosts improv – add levity, but there’s some vivid, haunting imagery here, not least in Jacob Marley’s ghost, a ghoulish, green spectre.
Still, perhaps the most bizarre of all childrens’ Christmas TV specials is entirely standalone, unencumbered by the expectations of a series or franchise. No, for that most questionable of seasonal tales, we look to Rankin/Bass, famed for their iconic stop-motion ‘Animagic’ work. The most egregiously disturbing of their work is the relatively little-known Pinocchio’s Christmas, a bastardisation of the classic tale replete with grand theft larceny, a litany of lightning strikes on major characters, and worryingly incestuous undertones. (Admittedly, romance among carved wood is a challenging theme at the best of times.) Nightmare fuel at its most potent, it’s tonally and morally dubious. The inherent otherworldliness of formative low-frame-rate stop-motion enhances the nightmarish nature yet further.
Second-place for scary imagery among the Rankin/Bass canon: The Life And Adventures of Santa Claus, a later work based on an L. Frank Baum (The Wizard Of Oz) novel, which retells the Santa Claus origin story as a trippy mish-mash of high fantasy and moral turpitude: the toy-stealing Awgwas are the creepiest of the creatures, but they are just one cog in a machine of wood nymphs, enchanted forests, and a frame story involving an immortality-granting secret council.
And if you fancy permanent emotional scars, check out Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey: having been thrown out into a blizzard to die, Nestor is saved by his mother, who sacrifices herself to save him from the harsh storm. Children aren’t built to deal with this level of emotional intensity… at least Bambi wasn’t set at Christmas, for heaven’s sake!
As if to make us question our childhood choices even further, the Rankin/Bass team find time to hit some markedly questionable story beats, too. Take Santa Claus Is Coming to Town: a thirty-minute special that recounts the origin story of Father Christmas, including a doorstep baby drop-off (Kris Kringle himself!), a battle with mean Herr Burgermeister, conflict with meanie wizard Winter. So far, so disturbing. But it’s also home to the original song “If You Sit On My Lap Today,” which follows up the already ominous-to-enlightened-ears title with the line “a kiss a toy is the price you’ll pay.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when that didn’t sound threatening.
And then, of course, to top it all off, there’s Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, the family-friendly, iconic TV special based on the song and book, in which the titular caribou is cast aside by his peers and owner until they realise they can benefit from his genetically-aberrant nose. In terms of virtuous principle, it’s down there with the climax of Grease. It’s been broadcast every year on CBS in the USA since 1964 – presumably adapting generation after generation of young Americans into Donald Trump voters.
Of course, as unpleasant as some of those specials are when you really stop and think about it, they’re often based on existing material that children are already familiar with – and even if the journey is a dodgy one, everything always works out as sweetness and light in the end. Ultimately, it’d be hard to claim that they rate as disturbingly as the darker, more biting adult-aimed series. And yet, and yet… despite logic, knowledge and 18 certificates, it’s those childhood memories that really stick: the disturbing images that grab you while you’re young and never quite relinquish their vice-like grip on the imagination.
Decades on, those unnerving Christmas snapshots fester in the back of the mind, a vaguely surreal blend of the wondrous and magical, stirring and intense; more striking and traumatic than the most visceral of horror television. No matter how hard it might have tried, Dexter’s bloody Christmas is no match for Billy Blizzard. This Christmas, I’ll happily settle down to a murder mystery-solving session with Jonathan Creek and a surfeit of brain-swapping aliens over on Doctor Who… but I might make my excuses if a younger relative dares crack out that festive Moomins DVD.