Horror films have always been a source of comfort for me. When I was little, I was enamoured of the Final Girls who fought their way back from the brink of almost certain death to emerge from the clutches of a monster. Now that I’m older, the nihilism in horror films provides a bar for my own problems in life – yes, I’m worried about my phone bill this month but at least I haven’t given birth to the antichrist.
And sometimes, around the Holidays in particular, they provide a comforting alternative to the seemingly forced gaiety of the season; the commercials that blare at us from a television screen to buy Mom this top-of-the-line blender ensuring the most wonderful Christmas ever is a fantasy that lives in our head the moment until we set foot in a mall or receive our credit card statement.
By and large the Holiday film often pulls a sly wink and nod to show that underneath all the consuming we do, there is goodness inherent in the season, a subtle joy that if you’re deserving enough will find and save you from the woes of the season. These films implicitly or explicitly tell us to go with the flow of the Holiday season and if we allow it to wash over us, we’ll be imbued with the Christmas Spirit all we need is to go that extra bit outside of ourselves.
In the midst of all of that, I turn to my Holiday standby, Bob Clark’s 1974 film Black Christmas. This cult Canadian classic provided a progressive and chilling model of the slasher film four years before John Carpenter put a Willam Shatner mask on Michael Myers and remains one of my all-time favourite movies to this day.
A Malevolent Christmas
Black Christmas has been a staple of my horror film rotation since I found a beat up copy in my local video store in high school. The film combines all the standard tropes of a horror film but turns them on their head by creating many dynamic and likeable characters who fall prey to a chilling, and rarely seen force. As the Holiday break approaches, a sorority house prepares to pack up and enjoy the festive season despite the obscene and threatening phone calls they have been receiving for some time.
Unbeknownst to them a man has climbed into their attic where he remains throughout the film picking them off one by one. While the women try to take care of each other and themselves their own lives intertwine with the danger above them as they reveal their addictions, unwanted pregnancies and deal with unstable boyfriends. As the days tick by towards Christmas, the threat which manifests itself in the murdered girl in the park, the phone calls and the chilling point-of-view shots of the killer as he stalks them which allows Black Christmas to careen towards a terrifying conclusion that leaves the Holiday glow feeling more malevolent than comforting.
The Black Christmas Tradition
Whenever I head into the Holiday season, I take care to ensure I attend all the parties I can and see as many other friends as I can. Eleven months out of the year, I am a homebody but for one month I’m a lady about town. Even the quiet nights in are filled with tree-trimming, decoration making, Die Hard watching but one night, always a day or two before the night itself, I make a point to sit down, turn off all the lights and watch Black Christmas.
As I watch, I fall back in love with the film – its structure, the performances, Margot Kidder… But at the end I’m so terrified that I dread the walk from my living room, up the stairs past the bathroom with the exact same attic hatch as the film, into my bedroom. There have been more than enough articles and books about why we like to watch horror films, why they entertain and scare us at the same time and I watch enough horror films to know what scares me and why. But this fear is different.
This tradition I’ve developed for myself came about quite naturally. I love Black Christmas so much that in an endeavour to savour the film I only allow myself to watch it once a year and what better time to watch it than right before Christmas – when my roommates have left the city, when the house is darker and quieter than it is the rest of the year.
Christmastime is a time of traditions and of togetherness but this tradition is a private one. One that undoes buoyancy I feel throughout the month. Believe me, I’m no masochist but the physical fear I feel as the camera does its final pan before cutting away to a long shot which the credits play over is as reliable as it is consuming. As I prepare for this year’s annual viewing I finally realized what my subconscious was trying to tell me.
That Holiday Spirit
While I genuinely enjoy my house and a relatively quiet life, I also know it’s a safe life. I’ve lived my entire life in cities and wouldn’t change it for the world but the world can be a scary place when you’re a single woman in a big city. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve walked along a dark street with my keys between my fingers just in case, I can almost anticipate the chill that goes up my spine when I hear footsteps quicken behind me and I’ve never been on a date where I haven’t told at least one close girlfriend about the guy I was to meet, y’know, just in case.
The cocoon-like emergence that happens to me annually in December is aided by the forced spirit of goodwill that descends on the city like snow. Surely, nothing could happen to me – it’s Christmas, I say to myself as I wonder when I’ll get around to watching Scrooged. It’s as if society conspired around us to say enjoy, consume, love! That if we stay on message for this month, we will be rewarded with joy.
And to be sure, joy is in the air but it’s rarely the transformative kind that occurs because it’s Christmas (I’m looking at you Love, Actually). More often than not it’s a peace that comes from seeing the people you care about in a short period of time. It’s the time of year where it feels like everyone makes that much more effort to see each other. It’s a time where we attempt to breakout of our imposed solitudes to engage with each other. We got out, we commune, we share. Black Christmas is my dose of reality.
Not Everyone Is Safe And Secure During The Holiday Season
The film functions as the cure for the sickness of the season, hope. And it’s not because the characters are terrible people who are unable and unwilling to do anything, in fact it’s quite the opposite. The women of the sorority house take action against the obscene phone calls reporting them to the police, working with the police and reprimanding the police until they get useable action. Once the right police get on the case, they focus their attention on the house and doing all they can to save the lives of these women.
Black Christmas is terrifying because it feels real, because the characters in it are well informed and make decisions the way most of us would, the way society tells us to. The action in the film moves at a sickening pace as the film reaches its climax and culminates in uncertainty. It is my reminder that not everyone feels safe and secure during this season, that the things that make us nervous and scared are present at all times. Black Christmas is my cure of the Holiday Spirit, one that reminds that Christmas comes but once a year and not always peacefully.
What is your favourite non-traditional Christmas film?
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