From top left: Gremlins (1984), Black Christmas (1974), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Krampus (2015) Credit - Everett Collection (4)
When the weather outside is frightful, sometimes the only solution is to make the mood scarier with a spooky movie. Christmas rom-coms and holiday classics are always delightful, of course, but occasionally you want something with a little more kick. This is where the Christmas horror movie comes in.
While it may seem counterintuitive to celebrate a joyful holiday with something scary, remember that ghosts are the cornerstone of some of the most classic Christmas tales. “Marley was dead, to begin with,” goes the famous first line of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by not just one, but four ghosts. Even in kid-friendly versions of the story, like The Muppet Christmas Carol, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come bears a striking resemblance to the Grim Reaper.
Dickens is part of a rich holiday horror culture in the U.K.—just search “A Ghost Story for Christmas” on YouTube for further proof. Originally broadcast annually on the BBC between 1971 and 1978, the short films were adapted from short stories by M.R. James, which remain terrifying despite being written over 100 years ago.
Other parts of the world have their own macabre holiday traditions. In Central Europe, Krampus is a legendary figure who works in tandem with Santa Claus to punish naughty children, while in Greece, the kallikantzaroi are a breed of sinister goblins that surface around Christmastime to wreak havoc in local towns. Perchta, another Central European character, was a goddess who entered homes during the 12 Days of Christmas to make sure people were behaving. If they were, they got a present, but if they weren’t, Perchta would disembowel miscreants.
And take Santa Claus, a jolly old elf who is technically a repeat home invader. He could be leaving anything under that tree! The holidays are full of potential for festive fright. Below, see some of the best Christmas horror movies to watch during the holiday season.
Black Christmas (1974)
Directed by Bob Clark, the original Black Christmas is considered one of the first slasher movies, even though the genre is now more associated with Halloween than with the Christmas holiday. (The original Halloween, in fact, was heavily influenced by the film.) The movie follows a group of sorority girls as they fend off a killer named Billy, who sneaks into their sorority house during a Christmas party. Though Billy is fictional, the character was inspired by an urban legend called “The Babysitter and the Man Upstairs,” as well as a string of real-life murders that occurred in Montreal in 1943.
Silent Night (2021)
The most recent entry in the genre, this dark comedy stars Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode as a couple hosting a lavish Christmas Eve party for friends and family. At first, the charming group seems to be having a relatively normal night, until it becomes clear that they’re going all out because the world is about to end as the result of a climate change disaster. If it hits a bit too close to home, it helps that the formidable ensemble cast also includes Lily-Rose Depp, Annabelle Wallis, Lucy Punch and 14-year-old Roman Griffin Davis, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work in Jojo Rabbit.
For those unfamiliar with darker Christmas lore, Krampus is a horned beast of Alpine origin who visits poorly behaved children during the month of December and swats them with his birch rod. The movie Krampus, starring Adam Scott and Toni Collette, takes things in a slightly different direction. In this version, Krampus is a demonic presence who punishes people who have lost the Christmas spirit, and he sets the Engel family in his sights. Krampus is more about setting a spooky scene than jump scares and gore, but it still makes for a fun watch on a cold winter night.
Like Die Hard, Gremlins is a Christmas movie in disguise. It was released in June, but it starts with a guy trying to find a cool Christmas present for his son. Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) thinks he’s found a solution when he stumbles upon an antique shop that sells him an adorable creature called a mogwai, but his son Billy (Zach Galligan) soon learns that his new pet is much more than meets the eye. If nothing else, the movie is a good reminder to always read the instruction manual before playing with your new toys.
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
This animated classic is the rare holiday movie that’s appropriate during both the Halloween and Christmas seasons. In the Tim Burton–produced film, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, stumbles upon a door leading to Christmas Town, a city where citizens celebrate a holiday that Jack’s never heard of before. He decides that Christmas needs a little bit of Halloween added to it to make it really soar. Hijinks—including the kidnapping of Santa Claus—ensue.
Black Christmas (2019)
The second and more recent remake of the 1974 Black Christmas follows a similar plot to the original—sorority girls terrorized by mystery man—but adds a twist appropriate for the #MeToo era. In this version, the villain stalking the women gets help from a fraternity whose former president sexually assaulted one of the Mu Kappa Epsilon sisters. Though director Sophia Takal worked to make sure the film got a PG-13 rating so a wider audience could see it, the movie still packs plenty of scares.
The Gingerdead Man (2005)
While comedy/slasher hybrid isn’t likely to keep you awake at night, it’s a worthy addition to the Christmas horror canon for its title alone. Gary Busey voices the titular Gingerdead Man, a villainous cookie possessed by the spirit of a serial killer who died by the electric chair. (The murderer’s ashes got stirred into a batch of gingerbread mix by his mother, a witch. Very normal stuff.) The great news is that fans of The Gingerdead Man need not stop there—the movie has spawned three sequels and a comic book series.
The Lodge (2019)
This slow-burning thriller stars Riley Keough as Grace, a young woman who travels to Massachusetts with her fiancé Richard (Richard Armitage) and his children so she can get to know the kids better. Things quickly take a turn when Richard leaves her to go back to the city for a work obligation and the children amp up their aggression toward their potential new stepmother. Grace’s struggle with her own past as a cult survivor also helps to set the scene for a claustrophobic, bone-chilling tale of winter survival.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
A classic of the subgenre, this film doesn’t involve anything supernatural—just a regular guy who commits murders while dressed as Santa Claus. As a child, Billy Chapman (Robert Brian Wilson) was scarred for life when a criminal in a Santa outfit murdered his parents. He grows up fearing and hating Old St. Nick, but after his boss makes him play Santa at a company holiday party, he can no longer keep his murderous impulses in check.
Better Watch Out (2016)
Though Better Watch Out is set during the holidays, it begins the same way so many non-seasonal slasher films do: with a babysitter guarding her young charge. Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) is watching 12-year-old Luke (Levi Miller) when she starts to worry that they’re not alone. At first, she thinks they’re being pranked by one of Luke’s friends, but she soon finds out that something more nefarious is afoot. It’s also a great choice for fans of Home Alone—it contains several (decidedly more sinister) references to the beloved family film.
Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
This is somehow the only movie on this list that’s also a musical, though in Christmas horror’s defense, it is hard to combine comedy, violence and showtunes in one work. Ella Hunt plays Anna Shepherd, a young woman who’s gearing up to start college when a zombie outbreak starts spreading in her hometown. She and her friends must work to save themselves and their families from the chaos when all they wanted was a nice holiday break.
Jack Frost (1997)
Not to be confused with the family-friendly Michael Keaton vehicle also titled Jack Frost, this direct-to-video cult film follows a human serial killer named Jack Frost who turns into a Frosty-esque monster after a chemical reaction causes his body to fuse with a pile of snow. Jack then goes an undead murder spree through the appropriately named town of Snowmonton. Despite truly abysmal reviews, a sequel called Jack Frost 2: Revenge of the Killer Snowman came out in 2000. Double it up with The Gingerdead Man for a marathon of possessed holiday icons.
Santa’s Slay (2005)
Like so many Christmas horror movies, Santa’s Slay bills itself as a comedic slasher film, a fact that the punny title kind of gives away. Former wrestler Bill Goldberg plays Santa Claus, who in this telling is the spawn of Satan (Their names are similar, after all). The film is full of corny jokes, but it doesn’t skimp on the violence, so it may not be the best choice for the squeamish viewer. That said, where else will you find a movie where Santa drives a sleigh pulled by hell-deer?