I’m reminded by a regular reader and contributor to The Sting Of The Scorpion Blog that it seems that many Christmas stories we know today had a much different start so many years ago. Writers wrote stories differently way back in the early years. Many times stories were written down so they could be shared with many generations to come, most of which had always been word of mouth stories. This reader has taken a “look” into some of the roots for the rhyme or reason behind the scary season and why we love to see, read, and hear all of those great scary Christmas stories.
I know what you’re thinking. What possesses someone to write scary Christmas stories? What is there about Christmas that could possibly be considered scary, creepy, ghoulish, demented, or hair-raising?
Oh, where to start.
At their heart, scary Christmas stories are about subverting innocent childhood memories, adding eerie and unimagined dimensions to them. For regular people, Christmas is about celebration and wonder—or that mad dash to the mall. They aren’t like those strange, twisted individuals who imagine burning red eyes flaring alongside the other lights in a Christmas tree, or hear soot-caked claws scraping inside the brick belly of the chimney.
A Background on Scary Christmas Stories
I blame the Victorians. They loved their ghost stories, and Christmastime was when they gathered around the fire and did their best to scare each other. Charles Dickens almost single-handedly rescued Christmas—at least as a secular, feel-good holiday—through his famous ghost story, A Christmas Carol.
The practice has its roots in primitive Yuletide rituals, before the Christians came along and roped it all together into Christmas. Before anyone celebrated the birth of Christ, winter was a frightening time. The nights stretched on forever, the cold swept in, and nothing grew. Primitive people celebrated surviving to the halfway point—the winter solstice, or Yule—which represented the death and (hopeful) rebirth of the sun.
Christmas Eve back then was perhaps the darkest part of the year. With the sun gone and the light extinguished, the membrane between the worlds of the living and the dead grew thin. Ghost were allowed to escape, to wreak havoc or make amends.
So it’s plain to see that Christmas has always been scary. The light and innocence of the time was a direct response to the pervasive darkness and fear that came with winter. Like fairy tales, Christmas traditions often have grisly, Old-World origins that have been forgotten.
Even Santa had a dark side. Whatever his incarnation—Santa, Saint Nick, Father Christmas—he tended to have a shadow partner, a silent, hooded fellow named Black Pete or Knecht Ruprecht who doled out justice to those who had been naughty, usually beating them with a stick from the bundle he hauled around on his back.
And we won’t even start with Krampus (at least for now).
Suffice it to say, scary Christmas stories have very deep roots in our current culture, even though we aren’t really aware of them these days. A select few souls try to keep this tradition alive, usually by enjoying the scary Christmas tales told by others, or by penning a few ourselves.
5 Elements of Scary Christmas Stories
Scary Christmas stories come in all shapes and sizes and wrapping paper. But if you’re of a mind to scribble down a few scary holiday tales of your own, here are a few common elements to bear in mind.
1). Subversion, or do the Twist
This is the fun part. Find an aspect about the holiday and twist it around, or find a scary explanation for it. Tim Allen did this with his series The Santa Clause. Before it became a movie, it started out as a dark short story about a man who shoots Santa and then is doomed to take his place.
This is where the Doctor Who specials really shine. They take a beloved aspect of Christmas (e.g., glass globes, Christmas trees, Santas, stars, snow, snowmen, etc.) and twist it into something frightening (and fascinating).
So when you write your scary Christmas story, don’t forget to do the twist!
2). Yuletide Justice
Christmas is about justice. Children in particular understand this. Good kids get their reward, bad kids get their comeuppance, and all is well with the world. In a true Christmas story of the darker persuasion, don’t forget that in the end, Christmas Eve is one of those few times of the year when the scales of justice are in balance.
Christmas is about coming together with family and friends—sometimes even from beyond the grave. The clarion call to return home for Christmas can easily be connected to the draw of nostalgia, the longing for times long past, for the innocence of childhood and the wonder of growing up.
That nostalgia draws loved ones together (even if the relationship has soured some) across miles, and sometimes worlds. Ghosts often find their way home for Christmas, but the return of a beloved family member from beyond the grave isn’t always what we imagine it will be.
And sometimes it isn’t love that draws the dearly departed back home. Sometimes, it’s revenge.
4). Powers Dark and Powers Bright
Because it’s considered a holiday for children, we usually play up the lighter, more whimsical aspects of Christmas. But a scary Christmas story should serve as a reminder that everything has its opposite. Good and evil, night and day, winter and spring, Santa and Ruprecht, Rudolph and Frosty. Just as the scales of justice must be balanced, make sure you balance the light with the dark.
5). Toys (and Other Bright Shiny Things)
Like it or not, Christmas is about toys these days. Most people love toys, especially writers. Like Anton Chekov, for instance. He reminds writers to: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that these is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
There is also writers’ favorite Christmas gift to their readers: the MacGuffin.
The “MacGuffin” was made famous by Alfred Hitchcock. It is a plot device that can take on many shapes and forms, but primarily serves as the motivation for the characters in a story. In many cases, it doesn’t matter what the MacGuffin is; what matter is that so many people in the story want it. A MacGuffin can be an object, a person, a place—a bag of cash, a suitcase bomb, a Maltese falcon, a jewel, etc.
So be sure to break out the best, shiniest MacGuffin for your story. Fire off that Chekov’s gun! Make sure your story makes good use of its toys. As I close, I remind everyone to look at their Christmas books, Christmas movies, and the sorted Christmas tales you tell, you might be surprised at it’s origin or true meaning. Tis the season to have a very Merry Scary Christmas!