Santa Claus is an American Christmas staple. As soon as Halloween passes, department stores pull out red and green decorations and radio stations start playing Christmas carols. TV networks air every Christmas movie imaginable, including a wide variety of Santa Claus origin stories and adventures. To the dismay of many parent-teacher associations, some of these movies are Santa Claus slashers, including 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Normally, I would understand not wanting children to see one of their favorite holiday heroes as evil. That said, can we all just stop for a moment and agree that the concept of Santa Claus is terrifying? Santa’s reclusive. He lives up in the North Pole with only his wife, eight reindeer, and an army of elves who exist to do his bidding. Santa works the elves year round, forcing them to make toys that he’ll eventually deliver to children worldwide, who he has allegedly been watching all year. Then there’s the matter of Santa literally breaking into homes to drop off gifts (provided the ritualistic milk and cookies are set out). In any other scenario, this would be a crime, but we give Santa a pass in the name of Christmas magic.
There are a number of killer Santa movies that identify the bizarre nature of his backstory. They accomplish this partly by removing Santa from the suit. By making the killer some guy in a Santa costume, these films corrupt the image of Jolly Saint Nick, but they also insert a distance between the villain and the actual Santa. For example, Christmas Evil, a 1980 post-Halloween slasher, follows a man obsessed with Santa Claus as he enacts revenge on those who hate the Christmas spirit. And the atrocious 2017 film Once Upon a Time at Christmas, depicts a Santa Claus killer murdering residents in a small town according to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
Then, there’s Silent Night, Deadly Night, where the “Santa” kills anyone he deems naughty. Billy Chapman, the film’s protagonist, is traumatized as a child after his parents were murdered by a man dressed as Santa Claus. His grandfather tells him to be afraid of Santa, who will punish the naughty no matter how small their offense. Billy internalizes this and eventually takes on the killer Santa mantle when he grows up. If you put aside all the murder, the most terrifying part of the movie is when Billy asks a little girl if she’s been naughty or nice just after he’s murdered a couple in the next room. She tells him she’s been nice and he gifts her a utility knife (the murder weapon).
Because of its vicious portrayal of a killer Saint Nick, initial reactions to Silent Night, Deadly Night were so potent that the movie was removed from theaters. As one reviewer put it, public fury stemmed from the “blasphemy of turning America’s best loved institution into a slasher.” Mickey Rooney said, “I’m all for the First Amendment, but … don’t give me Santa Claus with a gun going to kill someone. The scum who made that movie should be run out of town.”
Billy Chapman’s cinematic legacy lived on in four sequels, all of which departed from Santa Claus imagery. The second and third movies followed his younger brother Ricky and are noteworthy only because of Eric Freeman’s off-the-wall performance as Ricky. The fourth and fifth movies departed from the Chapman saga in favor of other Christmas-themed stories. In a humorous turn of events, former Silent Night, Deadly Night naysayer Mickey Rooney starred in the final movie. Apparently, as long as Santa was out of the picture, Rooney was at peace with corrupting Christmas.
Silent Night, Deadly Night wasn’t the first movie to feature a killer Santa Claus. Christmas Evil and To All a Goodnight both predate Silent Night, Deadly Night and feature killer Kris Kringles. Both flew under the radar of angry parents due to limited release or lackluster promotion. In the case of Silent Night, Deadly Night, the short clips used in the TV ads did not indicate the killer wasn’t actually Santa. Traumatized children asked their parents why Santa was taking lives instead of leaving toys. Film studios learned that you needed to outline explicitly that the killer wasn’t actually Santa to appease paranoid parents.
Once Silent Night, Deadly Night was pulled from theaters, concerned adults lost interest. Studios continued to make Santa slashers, though none attracted the same level of attention as Silent Night, Deadly Night. These films’ central characters were advertised as impostors who’d gone mad and taken the name Santa Claus as their own. None of these films are particularly good, though that’s not saying much when compared to Silent Night, Deadly Night. Today, slayer Santas are nothing more than a gimmick. There are other things in media that parents worry about, leaving studios to crank out B-grade Santa horror flicks every year. Some, like 2005’s Santa’s Slay, play up the inherently weird nature of Santa Claus. Others are merely generic slashers set in the snow. Saint Nick has lost his shock value in horror media.
Personally, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over my Santa suspicions and my discomfort with Santa’s role in popular Christmas culture. But as long as I can settle down in December for a cheesy yuletide horror, I think I’ll be fine.
Catch a rare 35mm screening of Silent Night, Deadly Night at the Trylon from Friday, December 6 to Sunday, December 8. Learn more and purchase tickets here.
Edited by Shivaun Watchhorn