Delight in the dark side of Christmas
Since a very young age, we have had a soft spot for unnervingly scary stories. Horror movies and creepy stories have a way of eliciting an emotional response that is very hard to replicate with other genres. Stories like The Exorcist, The Shining, Nightmare on Elm Street and Stephen King’s IT present you with narratives that make you feel uncomfortable, vulnerable and hyperaware of the creepiness of our collective reality. On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are stories that make you feel comfortable, safe and hyperaware of the loveliness of our collective reality. The stories on this comforting side of the spectrum come in many forms, but for us, due to our cultural background and our childhood proclivities, their most unfiltered form is that of the Christmas story.
You Have to Earn that Unhinged Happiness
Stories like A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life and How the Grinch Stole Christmas culminate in life-affirming lessons of redemption and humanity. Scrooge, George and the Grinch all pivot from the point of no return to embrace the core celebrated values at the heart of every Christmas story: charity, community and love. Interestingly, all three stories include elements of horror movies that our main characters must either experience or embody before they can emerge on the other side and fully embrace Christmas.
In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge must deal with phantoms in the night; in It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey must confront a horrific Twilight-Zone-esque alternate reality in which he never existed; in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, our main anti-hero is literally a monster sneaking into people’s homes in the cloak of night. These elements of horror are what make these stories work. As a pure distillation of hope and goodness, Christmas stories must necessarily involve abjectly negative aspects of life in order to earn the full-on bells-a-ringing finales that make them exciting and affirmational.
The Best of Both Worlds
Just as a story of unbridled happiness would come across as off-putting and unhinged, a story of unbridled horror would also be difficult to enjoy. When you’re dabbling in the genre-based extremes of happiness and horror, there has to be a nod to the photographic negative side of your story’s main thrust in order to render things palatable. Some of our favorite stories understand this need and have fun with it by cutting in an extra-large portion of horror into their Christmas story. Movies like Gremlins, Nightmare Before Christmas and Rare Exports do this exceedingly well—this is the reason that they have become mainstays while hundreds of lesser, cloying Christmas movies have come and gone.
One of our Christmas board books, Goodnight Krampus, is aimed at a very young audience, so we carefully avoid anything scary whatsoever. Our vision of Krampus is that of a mischievous sprite who doesn’t want to go to bed on Christmas Eve (as opposed to the traditional demonic torturous anti-Santa). We had a lot of fun by merely playing with the traditional Santa-Claus-on-Christmas-Eve-children’s-story—and simultaneously upending the traditional vision of Krampus. By combining the two, we came up with a story that winks at the narrative forces described above, but never dabbles in anything that would lead to actual scary thoughts or nightmares.
Krampus, like Santa, is a versatile character that becomes all the more nuanced and interesting when removed from a black-and-white, good-versus-evil binary. A children’s board book about Christmas Eve is inevitably going to end with presents, but there are millions of unexpected, engaging ways to get from A to B. As with most things in life, it’s about the journey, not the destination—this remains true even when the destination is the unhinged childhood happiness of Christmas morning.