Holiday horror is a genre—really a sub-genre—that is still being explored. It’s the subject of my my latest YouTube video. Typical definitions suggest that it builds on a haunted or inauspicious history of the day. I tend to think that really to fit the category that the holiday can’t be simply incidental. It has to contribute to that fear that the movie brings. The most popular holiday for horror films has long been Christmas. Halloween may be starting to catch up, but Christmas has a long head start. I ask myself if Black Christmas fits. The title suggests as much, but how does it derive fear from the holiday? It is, like When a Stranger Calls, one of the early cinematic renditions of the urban legend “the babysitter and the man upstairs.” Yes, the calls are coming from inside the house, but there’s more going on here. The sorority house is invaded during a Christmas party.
The fear, however, comes from both the juxtaposition of the cheerful holiday and the ambiguity of a slowly emptying residence. Coeds are leaving for the holiday. Or are they? The bleakness of the weather adds to the dreariness of the plot. The function of holiday horror is to make viewers address what’s really important about the occasion. Tragedy can strike any day of the year—it’s no respecter of birthdays or other holy occasions. John Carpenter got his idea for Halloween from this film, so in many ways Black Christmas does fit the sub-genre. Its titling, however, complicates this. Originally called Stop Me, the movie was to be set on Christmas break but the focus was not to be on the holiday. Even as it was released the title continued to change, in America it was first called Silent Night, Evil Night.
Like the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, critics initially didn’t like this movie but time has shifted that. It is an effective horror film and probably part of the objection (I’m psychologizing here, without a license) had to do with implicating a holiday—a happy holiday—with horror. Christmas is, for many, a stressful time of year. Instead of quietness and relaxation, it’s a season of intense socializing and measuring one’s generosity against that of others. We try so hard to make others happy with material things. Holiday horror need not add to that stress. In fact, it can make you stop and think about what’s really important. There’s a reason that Christmas was long the holiday associated with scary stories before Halloween really took off.