Yuletide Terror: Talking to Caelum Vatnsdal, Alexandra West, and Derek Johnston

Christmas is a time for many things — togetherness, charity, personal reflection. But, if you’re a horror fan, it’s also the time of the year when you break out Gremlins, Black Christmas, Rare Exports, or any of the other terrifying films set during the merriest of holidays.

On the surface, there’s something a little unusual about Christmas horror films. Part of it has to do with the genre’s carnivorous approach, not just to Christmas, but to holidays in general.There are horror films for Halloween (Trick ‘r Treat), Thanksgiving (Blood Rage), New Years (New Years Evil), Valentine’s Day (My Bloody Valentines), April Fool’s Day (April Fool’s Day), 4th of July (Uncle Sam), and all of the rest (Holidays). For many of these films, the holiday plays into a simple marketing gimmick, while others use it as a catalyst for deeper thematic discussions. Regardless, the genre does seem to have something inherently celebratory about it, and fans certainly treat it this way.

But it’s more than that: the confluence of a holiday whose aim (ideally, at least) is to generate warmth and goodwill, with a genre that allows it’s viewers to explore rather darker emotions, is fascinating and deserves deeper discussion. Luckily, Paul Carupe and Kier-La Janisse, at Spectacular Optical, have us covered, and their new book Yuletide Terror: Christmas Horror in Film and Television is coming out just in time for the holidays. Like Spectacular Optical’s previous publications, Yuletide Terror collects essays by critics and scholars, as well as interviews with filmmakers, that collectively delve deep into the darkest of genres. The book is a treasure trove of cinematic insights, as well as an aesthetically gorgeous object in it’s own right, complete with hundreds of rare stills and posters.

I had a chance to speak with three contributors — Caelum Vatnsdal, Alexandra West, and Derek Johnston— about Christmas horror and their connection to it.

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IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: What was the first Christmas horror film that you can remember seeing? Do you remember it’s impact on you, and why it made you feel the way that it did?

CAELUM VATNSDAL: The first Christmas horror movie I was aware of was probably Black Christmas, thanks to the cultural osmosis propagated here in Canada by our state broadcaster, the CBC. All sorts of great movies were played, generally late at night and largely uncut, merely by virtue of being Canadian, and I made some wonderful cinematic discoveries that way. I also recall hearing about the infamous Silent Night, Deadly Night controversy thanks to David Letterman highlighting the issue back in 1984.

But the Christmas horror movie that really made an impact on me was Christmas Evil, which I found equal parts disturbing and delightful. The image of a rogue Santa stabbing a man in the eye with a toy soldier and then using a little axe to chop several more down like spruce trees, right on the steps of a church on Christmas Eve, stuck with me, as did the movie’s climactic scene in which Santa drives his panel van away from a torch-wielding mob, off a precipice and into the sky, with the sound of jolly jingle bells accompanying this miraculous escape.

ALEXANDRA WEST: Gremlins, and I remember it because the Gremlins themselves terrified me and the notion of adult responsibility gave me a lot of anxiety as a kid. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I realized it was a comedy.

DEREK JOHNSTON: To be honest, I don’t remember! But the most likely candidate for first explicitly Christmas-related horror film that I saw was probably some version of A Christmas Carol. That or Gremlins. I can’t remember its impact on me, but I expect a mixture of amusement and fear, what M.R. James would have called “a pleasing terror.”

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: There’s something oddly celebratory about horror in general the way it seems to have a film for every occasion. Part of this, I think, can be chalked up to simple marketing strategies by producers. But it’s more than that: Horror fans love celebrating holidays by popping in scary movies. Why do you think that is? Is it the case with you?

CAELUM VATNSDAL: One of my long-standing holiday traditions is watching Black Christmas — the original, of course; accept no substitutes — so I definitely subscribe to the idea of celebrating a season through horror. (The reverse is true as well — I can’t imagine wanting to watch a Christmas horror movie in the summer, and I never watch any of the Halloween movies in a month that doesn’t start with O.) There’s just something appealing about the ability to scratch two itches at once: the need for a holiday tradition and the love of the genre. And the icing on the cake is the supposed incongruence of Christmas and terror, which gives a nicely iconoclastic sheen to the experience.

ALEXANDRA WEST: Holiday Horror is often a good antidote to the over-emphasized cheer of any holiday because it’s subversive to everything else going on around us. The holidays are supposed to be merry and bright and it’s certainly marketed that way but horror fans have a predilection to see the darkest aspects in everything, it feels more real because no one is that happy and good all the time.

DEREK JOHNSTON: I agree (although I could argue that any fan would like to link the subject of their fandom to celebratory moments). But, yes, horror can be celebratory: we survived the experience of the movie or scary show, we proved we could handle the terror and not have to switch off or leave, and we laughed in the face of danger. I may tend to stick on a favorite scary TV program rather than a film, but the same emotions apply: excitement, anticipation, laughter at recognition, delight at spotting something new or understanding it a different way, and the release of making it through again.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: For my money, Spectacular Optical is putting out some of the most interesting, aesthetically gorgeous books on film available today. They’re thoughtfully curated and beautifully designed. Could talk a little bit about how it’ been working with them, and what you think they’re doing that other publishers aren’t?

CAELUM VATNSDAL: I find Spectacular Optical’s work consistently impressive, and it’s a real pleasure, and an honor, to be a small part of their endeavors. I’ve known both Kier-la and Paul for years, and working with them has been nothing but fun and easy. They’re genre champions at a level I can only aspire to, and they keep the standards for this kind of work up at the level it should be. They’re always finding new subgenres to explore and new angles of approach, and they work very, very hard.

ALEXANDRA WEST: Paul Corupe is a friend of mine and someone whose work I deeply admire, so it was really great to finally get to officially work on a project with him. Kier-La Jannise’s book House of Psychotic Women felt like a watershed moment not only in the horror community but in the film community at large. I had never read anything like it and it was a big inspiration for me to be more brave with my writing and thinking. Collaborating with both of them was easy and efficient as we’re all really busy so they managed to make quick work of elements that often get drawn out. It’s amazing to know that at the end of the project, not only did I get to work with two leaders in the community but my piece will live alongside other terrific pieces in a beautiful book that has been painstakingly put together. There’s a sense of quality and care that goes into each Spectacular Optical book that is incredibly rare in the publishing world especially for books focusing on genre films.

DEREK JOHNSTON: It was really positive working with Spectacular Optical, and I agree that the book looks great, especially the illustrations, which are really atmospheric. As someone used to writing for academic audiences, I asked for some guidance and reassurance that I was hitting the right balance for Spectacular Optical’s typical readers, who will be knowledgeable and interested, but don’t necessarily want to deal with academic paraphernalia. I think that they helped me strike the right balance (but any slips are my own!). And I agree with you; it’s the care taken over the books as products that really counts, including striking the right balance of content and contributors, and making sure of the quality of the material thing that makes it a pleasure to look at as well as to read.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: Caelum, early in your essay, you describe the inherent strangeness of Christmas (“an annual day on which an hirsute, immortal creature dwelling in the far north and tended to by a population of servient dwarves, bends space and time to bestow gifts unto those whom, by criteria known only to himself, he deems deserving”). Could you talk a little bit more about this, and how it relates to your essay as a whole? Do you think the “job” of horror is, in some ways, to view the world through this lens of strangeness? And if so, why do you find that narrative perspective particularly useful?

CAELUM VATNSDAL: Well, I think that strangeness, which we don’t notice as children but becomes evident at some later point — the first time one sees Christmas Evil, for example — is what has drawn some of the more unlikely or experimental voices into the subgenre. I think it’s the responsibility not just of horror but of all art to give us alternative ways of looking at the world. We begin to realize the value of this as children, when we discover how completely different out own bedroom is when looked at upside down. The Surrealists knew the importance of this too. Of course the horror genre is able to conceal within itself all kinds of ideas and commentary and subversion, and this is more elegantly accomplished when approached with a willingness to be straight up weird. When the thing being looked at, in this case Christmas, is itself weird, the results can be special indeed.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: Alexandra, in your essay on Franck Khalfoun’s 2007 film, P2, you discuss (among other things) the way that Christmas is used as a way of isolating the protagonist, Angela, both physically and emotionally. How did you decide to write about P2 in the first place?

ALEXANDRA WEST: I initially watched P2 when I was researching my first book Films of the New French Extremity: Visceral Horror and National Identity and threw it on, since it was written and produced by Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, who made High Tension, and who in turn brought on one of the actors who had a small part in High Tension, Franck Khalfoun, to collaborate on the script with them and to direct it as well. It was one of those films I was watching in order to be thorough in my research but I got completely sucked into the film and fell in love with it. I couldn’t find a way to incorporate more than a passing mention in my book and a couple weeks after I submitted my manuscript to the publisher, Spectacular Optical put out their call for chapters for Yultetide Terror, and it felt like fate. I love championing films that I love which have been overlooked by a mainstream audience and the simple concept of P2 mixed with the complexity of the storytelling and filmmaking marks it as something really special and unique to me.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: I believe it was Cesar A. Cruz who said that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” In a sense, your essay seems to be making a similar argument with respect to P2. Christmas is perceived to be a very comfortable holiday, albeit one loaded with exhausting and oppressive societal expectations. Do you think this is part of what makes Christmas a uniquely appropriate holiday for the horror genre? And if so, could you talk a bit more about how P2 feeds into that notion?

ALEXANDRA WEST: The pressure of the holidays can range from the feeling that your need to be happy, participate in parties and engage with people you ignore most of the year to more upsetting elements like family and interpersonal trauma rearing their ugly heads. The forced gaiety and togetherness of the season can be deadly. In many ways, these elements and feelings are the perfect setup for horror — bringing people together, isolated locations, forced emotional participation and expected attendance are the hallmarks of many horror films from Friday the 13th to The Shining. The holidays are a time where we’re meant to spend time with our supposed nearest and dearest, but happiness is never that easy making for an easy turn to the macabre. Part of what fascinates me about P2 is that it really is a two-hander between Angela (Rachel Nichols) and Thomas (Wes Bentley), one of whom is trying to uphold her seasonal responsibilities and one who seizes the holidays as a moment to act on his year-long impulses, storylines similar to those in a Holiday Hallmark movie or Love, Actually. In the world of P2 Thomas’ obsession with Angela is violent and all-consuming, and the film becomes about Angela’s fight for independence and freedom from forced norms and the expectations of others creating the subversive elements which I see as a marker of all great holiday horror.

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: Derek, in your essay, you describe the history of the Christmas ghost story — how it developed in various countries, what those different iterations look like, etc. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about your personal connection to this subject.

DEREK JOHNSTON: It stems from the question about why Christmas is a time for ghost stories. I started researching and presenting on this at academic conferences, but when I did so at international conferences people started saying that they found the idea strange. At a conference in the US someone pointed me to American reviews of the first Downton Abbey Christmas episode which found the presence of an apparently supernatural subplot baffling and more suited to Halloween. Chatting to colleagues from Scotland and Northern Ireland who had been teaching The Turn of the Screw, they expressed puzzlement at why it had a Christmas framing story. All of this just made me more fascinated about why: not just “why the ghost story at Christmas,” but why does it seem present in English culture particularly? There’s still a lot to untangle there. I was also particularly surprised and intrigued by the fact that, unlike most “ancient traditions,” which turn out to have been invented sometime between the start of the 19th Century and the 1960s, this seems to be genuinely ancient. And what horror fan doesn’t appreciate digging through musty old texts for clues to a hidden history?

IAN MACALLISTER-MCDONALD: You write that your interest “stems from being introduced to the BBC’s A Ghost Story For Christmas and wondering why the idea of Christmas as a time for ghost stories did not seem unusual.” There’s something really fascinating about realizing that two things which should probably be incompatible are not, in fact, incompatible. Are there specific ghost stories that feel particularly at odds with the holiday, but which somehow work? And if so, why do you think they succeed?

DEREK JOHNSTON: One of the things that I think is interesting is that the tradition is for telling ghost stories at Christmas, but that does not mean that the stories themselves are set at Christmas. Most of the ones that I am familiar with are not. One that stands out to me as arguably being incompatible with Christmas, but not, is M.R. James’s “Lost Hearts,” which is about child abuse and murder, though expressed with typical Jamesian reticence. And while you could say that those are not subjects fit for Christmas, I think that actually makes the story more relevant to Christmas, if you take Christmas as a time to think about how we treat other people, particularly those less fortunate than ourselves.

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