‘Tis the season everyone! Time for candy canes and hot chocolate. For holiday parties where you try really hard not to drink too much and embarrass yourself in front of your boss. For stressing over gift-giving (and gift-getting) and making morally questionable decisions if your must-have present is in short supply.
And, of course, Christmas is about Saint Nick. Father Christmas. Kris Kringle. Santa Claus.
Most of the Santas that we are given in popular culture are kind and jolly. Good guys who make the legend seem perfectly normal and rational. Think about Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street. Or Edmund Gwenn from, uh… the even earlier Miracle on 34th Street. Even the Santa in The Nightmare Before Christmas follows this mold, despite the fact that he’s kidnapped by gruesome creatures and his life is threatened.
But let’s think about the actual legend of Santa for a minute. Break down the holiday cheer, and here’s what the dude does:
1. Constantly watch little kids.
2. Sneak into people’s houses – through their chimney, no less.
3. Reward “good” kids with toys and “bad” kids with coal.
4. Hang out with elves and reindeer and maybe Mrs. Claus.
5. Use those elves for manual labor in building presents.
6. Eat nothing but sweets.
7. Drink nothing but Coke.
That last one might just be a marketing ploy from the Coca-Cola Company, but it sounds like it could be real.
Santa is weird. I mean truly, seriously out there. How could you live like that and not be really messed up? Over the last several decades, pop culture has finally started to take this idea and run with it.
There have been gross Santas, like Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. Pissy Santas, like one who’s a jerk to Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Even mean, drunk (but still kind of badass) Santas like Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa.
Then there are movies like the new horror-comedy Krampus, which plays a bit fast and loose with legend and mythology (not that Santa ever does that) in painting the titular monster as a “shadow” version of Mr. Claus.
But the depictions that truly get it right are the ones that make Santa himself weird, creepy, or downright homicidal.
With that in mind, here are my favorite creepy Santas from pop culture.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Wait a minute. Didn’t I just use this movie as an example of a typical jolly Santa? Yes.
But you’re forgetting something: there are two Santas here.
What I love about this movie is how it totally removes any creep factor we might have about Jack Skellington by allowing us to go on this journey with him and share in his desire for something new. We’re actively rooting for him, even when he gives the go-ahead to kidnap Santa Claus.
But when he starts actually going into houses and doling out presents, the fear of the children is palpable. Holy crap, there’s a skeleton pretending to be Santa Claus. And he has skeleton reindeer. And he’s giving out gifts that attack the recipients.
Jack Skellington is a pretty cool guy. Santa Jack is creepy. I probably would have shot him out of the sky, too.
Silent Night, Deadly Night
This film’s trailer tagline is “You’ve made it through Halloween. Now try to survive Christmas.” Doesn’t that just about tell you everything you need to know?
My favorite part is that the killings all share some kind of Christmas theme. A drunk man is murdered at a holiday party. A woman is killed in a toy store by a bow and arrow. But my favorite has to be the guy strangled by Christmas lights. Yes, it’s low-hanging fruit – but that’s the point! For a giddily macabre holiday, put this on your watch list.
I had planned to share an actual video of Futurama’s Robot Santa when I put this on the list, but I kind of think “Santa Claus Is Gunning You Down” over the image of a laser machine gun-wielding Robot Santa is even better.
How awesome is it that in the year 3000 they have a jolly Christmas – excuse me, I mean Xmas – song about how Robot Santa is going to find you and kill you? “Better not breathe” indeed.
The Polar Express
My, Santa, but you’re so wooden and serious. And your voice is so deep and booming. I know you’re supposed to be magical and nice, but you’re kind of freaking me out.
To be fair, Santa is not even close to being the creepiest thing about this movie. He’s not even the creepiest mo-capped Tom Hanks!
But if I were that kid, Santa would not make me feel reassured or excited. I’d be worried that aliens who didn’t quite understand how people were supposed to look and act were wearing people suits to facilitate their invasion. Of course, the kid doesn’t look much better, so maybe he’s an alien, too.
A giant mountain tomb is uncovered in Finland. Naturally, people drill and bomb their way into it. What’s inside? Santa Claus. But this isn’t the cuddly, ho-ho-hoing Santa we all know.
It’s the first Santa. The real Santa. The one that legends say mutilated animals and punished naughty children by caning them or boiling them and eating them.
Needless to say, he is not friendly. Animals in the area are slaughtered. People become terrified trying to figure out what’s going on and catch the monster. And then an old, bearded man in a red suit is captured. Is it really Santa Claus? And want does that mean?
This movie is all kinds of messed up. Kind of like if Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg got together to tell a Christmas story… with a little bit of Tim Burton mixed in.
You won’t just be creeped out – you’ll never look at Santa the same way again.
The Santa Clause
Tim Allen made a mint with three family friendly Santa Claus movies from the ‘90s through the early 2000s. The idea was simple: Santa Claus doesn’t really live forever – someone new has to become him. “Someone new” in this case, is Tim Allen. And he actually makes a surprisingly good Santa, especially when he’s in the full costume.
But these movies have a dark, disturbing undercurrent that hides underneath all the cheap laughs, and I think the Santa shown here is the creepiest one out there.
Why? Think about how Allen becomes Santa. First off, he kills the last one.Yup, that’s right. You might have forgotten, but he causes Santa to fall of his roof and die, then is told he has to be the new Santa.
What happens next, though, is the truly disturbing part. Allen’s body begins to go through big changes in preparation for his turn as Saint Nick. He puts on 45 pounds in a week. He can grow a full beard in a few minutes. His diet changes. And his heartbeat plays Christmas music.
All of this is played for laughs, but they’re just hiding one simple truth: Santa Claus is – at best – a symbiotic disease, and at worst we’re looking at another Brundle-Fly situation.
Seriously? How were more people not creeped out by the idea of something taking over your body in this way? Maybe that’s why the first sequel didn’t show up for eight years.
Are there pop culture Santas out there who creep you out? Where can we find them? And why do they bother you so much?
Josh Weiss-Roessler worked in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles for almost a decade, and has written about it for even longer. His work has appeared on Tubefilter, PinkRaygun, Tor.com, and more. In his "real" job as co-owner of WR Writing, he helps all kinds of businesses create useful and relevant content that enables them to connect with people and just plain be more awesome.