A few weeks ago I went to see an animated film called Rise of The Guardians after a friend of mine gave it a rave review. While most of the reviews from professionals have been lukewarm, I have to say I enjoyed it. So I asked my friend how his kids liked it, only for him to tell me that he had went to see it alone. I asked him why and he told me it’s because his wife doesn’t want the kids to see it because “The Santa in it looks scary” (Which was kinda the point, I thought).
That’s a pretty silly reason to forbid something (You’d think the film’s creepy boogeyman villain Pitch would be more of a factor), but I can’t entirely disagree with my friend’s wife: Santa can be a scary motherfucker. Maybe it’s just because I have an inherent distrust of fat people dressed in red who break into houses in the middle of the night after my years living in LA, but Kris Kringle certainly isn’t a man I’d leave a child alone with. It’s not a phobia of mine or anything, in fact, when it comes to fat bearded people (Or shaving-challenged people with glandular disorders for you sensitivity nuts out there) I find this creep infinitely scarier, but I can understand why for some people, Santa is up there with clowns when it comes to things that aren’t supposed to be scary but are.
Which brings me to today’s topic: Evil Santas of Comic Books! It might be an esoteric subject, but considering some of the crap I’ve covered in the past, it’ll fit right in for this blog.
And the coolest part is? As far as I can tell, Evil Santas are almost exclusively a creation of comic books!
Key word is almost. Early depictions of the Jolly Old Elf in ancient civilizations weren’t so jolly, although they certainly delivered in the ‘old’ department:
And of course, in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol Father Christmas is explicitly described as a ghost:
For our friends in Eastern Europe, Santa was often accompanied by the demon Krampus, who has been growing in popularity as of late:
Apparently they were also subjects of the earliest slash-fics too
Even a gentle soul named Dr. Seuss gave us a monster dressed as Santa in a book read by millions of children each year:
But the now familiar horror film/novelty T-Shirt image of an evil, murderous St. Nicholas with an axe is as far as I know a creation that originated in comics, although it took a while to get there.
The first Repellant Refugee from the North Pole appeared in Leading Comics #2 in 1942. He was known as the Santa Claus Pirate aka Captain Bigg, and was part of a gang of villains assembled by the criminal mastermind Black Star. He bedeviled the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy.
The Santa Pirate’s plan was to “invade” ships, but instead of stealing, he would give jewelry to the passengers. This earned him a reputation as a harmless eccentric, and caused many to eagerly await his “invasions”. It was then that he would rob them for real:
Apparently too ridiculous even for the heroes who battled Dr. Weerd and The Needle, the Santa Pirate was easily defeated:
Not too interesting a villain or even horror-themed, but he does have the honor of being the first evil Santa of comics.
Will Eisner wrote and drew many Christmas specials for The Spirit where criminals would disguise themselves as Santa, but reform after discovering the true meaning of Christmas.
My favorite was the 1949 special, which was edgier than these stories usually were. In it, Santa Claus lost all of his resources and was unable to deliver Christmas presents to Central City, so he talked two crooks into delivering the presents for him.
However, they did it in a rather…unorthodox way:
That’s easily one of the most quotable lines Will Eisner ever wrote.
Not too sinister compared to some of the characters on this list, but definitely of note.
Without a doubt the most famous comic book story to feature an evil Santa Claus is EC’s “And All Through the House” from Vault of Horror #35, written and drawn by Johnny Craig. It’s easily the most well-known EC horror story.
House is about a nameless housewife who murders her husband on Christmas Eve for his insurance money.
Much of the story’s appeal comes from the pitch black comedy on display:
She is elated at first, but while wondering how to dispose of the body, she hears a sudden bulletin over the radio:
One of the things that make this story so memorable is that, although our “heroine” is a conniving killer, she genuinely seems to care for her daughter. In most EC stories, she would probably have her eyes on murdering the kid next, but not here. Can it be? A…a complex character?
Just like how in the film Psycho a few years later, where the audience’s sympathies shifted to Norman Bates in his attempt to bury Marion Crane, so too do the audience sympathies in this story shift to the murderess, against the even greater threat of “Santa” as she tries to dispose of her husband’s body, with the suspense coming from the fact that she can’t call the cops because she’ll also be exposed.
Part of the impact also comes from the fact that we don’t see “Santa”, only her reaction to him. Val Lewton was right; sometimes the unseen is more effective.
It all pays off with one of the most reprinted final panels in comic book history:
*Sniff* Wipe your eyes folks; you are witnessing a “historic” moment. This is the very first killer Santa in popular culture. Previous villainous Santas had been gimmicky crooks like the Santa Pirate, or played for comedy, as in The Spirit story. But here he is in the first stage of the form we all know him as. He doesn’t have the axe yet, and his drooling sort of diminishes his ability to frighten, but this is most assuredly he; the original bad Santa, the one whom all others are descended from.
It’s worth pointing out that the escaped maniac isn’t the only sinister Santa in this story; the framing segment is narrated by what seems to be Santa himself. In the final panel, he reveals that he’s wearing a mask, removes it, and stands revealed as…The Vault Keeper!
It may simply be because the lack of supernatural elements makes it easy to film, or because the whole plot sounds like an urban legend, but something about this story has proven particularly attractive to filmmakers. It’s been adapted twice.
The first (and best) time was by Freddie Francis in the 1972 Tales from the Crypt movie. This version starred Joan Collins as the housewife, here named Joanna, and Oliver MacGreevy as ‘Santa”.
Some of the impact is lost by showing the maniac throughout the segment, but you can’t say the scenes of him lurking about aren’t effective!
Francis also kept the dark humor of the original, by turning Joanna’s disposing of the body into a slapstick scene, having her frantically wash the blood from a glass and then put it up to dry as if it was an ordinary dirty dish, and having the radio play Christmas music throughout in order to contrast with the grisly goings-on.
Despite the changes, this is still as fine an adaptation of a short comics story to film as you can get, with Francis’s inventive camerawork (He was just as noted for his cinematography as his directing) providing some memorable scenes.
The second was for the HBO series, directed by Robert Zemeckis. This version starred Mary Ellen Trainor as the housewife and Larry Drake as the maniac, and is notable for retaining the wraparound segment with the host wearing a Santa mask.
This version makes the husband a verbally abusive jackass so that his murder seems more justified, and takes the slapstick involving his corpse to a ludicrous extreme.
The characters do resemble their comic book counterparts a bit better though. “Santa” gets the memorable line “Naughty or Nice”.
It’s enjoyable, but doesn’t match either the original comic or the 1972 film, though maybe that depends on how old you were when you first saw it considering the glowing comments on YouTube. Of all the HBO Crypt episodes, it’s definitely the most faithful to the original story. Just be glad they didn’t try and adapt it for the cartoon.
As well-known and influential as it is though, House wasn’t the only horror comic book story in 1954 (though there’s some debate about when it was published) to feature a killer Santa. The Merit publications series Secret Mysteries featured a story in issue #17 called “Sinister Santa Claus”. This one though is more of a murder mystery.
It concerned Marty Gale, a studio publicist and amateur detective (For all I know, he may have been a recurring character in Secret Mysteries) whose secretary was assaulted by a man in a Santa suit:
It turns out that assault isn’t the biggest crime that this mystery man in a Santa suit has committed:
One of the first people Marty told was the friendly chief of security, O’ Hara, whose son had been romantically involved with the victim:
O’ Hara’s son became an even bigger suspect when it turned out he was wearing a Santa costume:
Marty’s secretary decided to do a little sleuthing of her own, only to fall into the killer’s clutches before being rescued:
Don't worry folks, he got off and became chief of police in Gotham during the 60s
This story wasn’t very good, and even more disappointingly, we never did get to see the killer in his Santa costume. Still, it’s interesting to see that the idea of a killer Santa popped up in another publisher’s comics at the same time as EC’s.
Considering that 50’s horror comics publishers never saw an idea they couldn’t rip-off, I’m amazed that there wasn’t a whole swarm of And All Through the House imitators. Then again, 1954 also saw the publication of real life Scrooge Fredric Wertham’s book Seduction of the Innocent. After that, the Comics Code was formed, and they would certainly never have allowed Evil Santa stories.
Naturally, the next time an evil Santa would pop up, it would be in a black and white horror comics magazine; 1969’s Web of Horror #3 to be exact, in the story “Santa Claws”. The bogus Santa in this story was a vampire who, like the Santa Pirate before him, thought his costume would win people’s trust:
Damn that’s creepy. But have no fear; the real Santa Claus then showed up to destroy him! He is “Saint” Nicholas after all:
Being confronted by an angry Santa Claus has to be one of the most unique ways a vampire has ever been defeated. Maybe I should have put this story on my list of 11 greatest vampire stories. Consider it an honorary #12.
In stark contrast to the subtly terrifying And All Through the House and the goofy Santa Claws was Warren Magazines’ “Bless us Father” from Creepy #59 in 1974. This one is definitely the darkest of the evil Santa stories seen in comics. It was written by Bill Dubay and brilliantly drawn/painted by Richard Corben.
The story uses a device similar to Will Eisner’s Spirit story “Two Lives” by having both panel sides on the page tell a separate story. This one takes place on Christmas Eve and contrasts two men; an escaped maniac in a Santa suit named Randolph and the policeman on his trail, while the captions tell what their families are thinking at the moment.
Randolph’s parents are arguing over what caused him to go wrong, while we learn that the policeman has (seemingly) abandoned his wife and daughter.
At first our sympathies are with Randolph, even though he’s killing people, because of how he was emotionally abused by his parents and bullied by other children. Our sympathies are also initially against the policemen for walking out on his family and apparently not caring.
However, we then learn that the reason Randolph ended up in an asylum wasn’t because he snapped after years of abuse and is lashing out at an uncaring world; it was because he ended up raping a little girl! Now he blames all women for what happened to him, especially little girls. We also learn that the policeman isn’t unfeeling; he actually divorced his wife legally rather than just walking out, but now he sorely regrets it. He then befriends a lonely little girl wandering the streets in a sad, pathetic attempt to make up for not being there for his own daughter.
The two stories then converge with Randolph attacking the little girl and the policeman leaping to her rescue:
What is quite possibly one of the bleakest "happy" endings in the history of comics ensues. Randolph is killed, but at a terrible cost:
It doesn’t get much more depressing than that.
Although not as famous as And All Through the House, Bless us Father is arguably just as influential. This story, even more so than EC’s story, provided the definitive image of an Evil Santa: Armed with a bladed weapon, attacking women, coming through the chimney in a perverse mockery of folklore. Here he was in his final form:
It’s worth noting that the success of this story kicked off a Warren tradition of Christmas-themed covers for Creepy:
Santa wasn’t always the perpetrator though:
Rival publisher Skywald even got in on the act:
Although Bless us Father has never been adapted to the screen like And All Through the House, it may as well have been. The 1980s would experience a spate of “Killer Santa” movies, and the debt they obviously owe to Bless us Father more than And All Through the House is apparent.
The first was 1980’s Christmas Evil. Brandon Maggart gives a surprisingly sympathetic and funny performance as the killer. John Waters called the film “The Greatest Christmas Movie Ever Made”.
Although it has an absolutely hilarious ending that would seemingly guarantee cult status, Christmas Evil went largely unnoticed when it was released.
The killer Santa flick that everyone remembers though, is 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. The Abbott & Costello of the film reviewing world even talked about it.
This one caused protests from angry parents groups who held up signs with pictures of Santa on them, with slogans like ‘Is this the face of a murderer?” or “Santa does not Sleigh” written underneath. The ironic thing about all of this is that these protest slogans could easily have been used as taglines for the film.
What with the debut of another Holiday-themed horror flick you may have heard of called Gremlins (which also pissed off parents) and the first Nightmare on Elm Street movie (featuring a villain wearing what could only be described as a Christmas sweater) 1984 was THE year for Holiday Horror it seems.
Of course now days, whenever someone mentions Silent Night, Deadly Night on the internet, it’s the god-awful sequel that they think of, and that’s because of one scene and one scene alone:
From superb EC and Warren comics, to enjoyably cheesy slasher flicks, to one of the most lowbrow internet memes. *Wooh* Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous. Still, we owe it all to comics.So take care this Christmas, and if you plan on dressing up as Santa to surprise your kids and they end up going Home Alone on your ass, don’t be too hard on ‘em, they’re just being cautious.