Christmas horror films have been around for decades, but mainstream popularity is more recent

By Jill Ryan
Published: Friday, December 22, 2023 - 6:05am
Updated: Friday, December 22, 2023 - 8:29am

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Filled with Christmas cheer, Santa slaying his enemies, gingerbread mayhem, and other ho-ho-horrors.

And there is a growing audience obsession with movies that pair holiday themes with horror.

One of this year's holiday scares is “It’s a Wonderful Knife,” a horror parody of the classic 1946 film of similar name. And It joins a long list of slasher, creepy or downright scary films that mix horror, sometimes violence and Christmas.

While spooky holiday stories are nothing new, think Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the rate at which they’re being churned out seems to be increasing.

Arizona State University Film and Media Studies professor Michelle Martinez says that horror has been recognized as a lucrative genre, especially when landing the tween demographic. She also says the increase, specifically in Christmas horror, speaks to the changing standards in Hollywood and the comfort level of its audiences. Predating the movie rating system, for instance, was the 1930s Hays Code, which put major limits on what could be seen in wide-release movies up until the 60s. 

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Martinez
ASU Film and Media Studies Professor Michelle Martinez

“You can’t give an instructional, or show how someone can be murdered,” Martinez says. “If it’s something like you’re firing a gun or getting stabbed, you can’t see any kind of blood or bullet or knife penetration in there," Martinez said.

Horror legends like Alfred Hitchcock pushed those boundaries, giving us moments like the famous "Psycho" shower scene. And as rating systems phased in, more overt creepiness and gore became possible, normalized even. 

But that normalization took time, and many films on the bleeding edge were met by controversy, especially Christmas ones.

“'Silent Night, Deadly Night' [1984], the Santa slasher film,” Martinez said. “People did not want to imagine Santa as a serial killer, as a slasher. So it really didn’t get much distribution, it didn't get any advertising," Martinez said.

She says Christmas horror is yet another pushback, an alternative to the “Hallmark Christmas romcom.” As the horror genre became normalized over decades, modern twists — such as morally ambiguous protagonists — have come into favor. Take the tamer but still horror Disney classic: "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Not even Santa is safe. 

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Professor Michelle Martinez’s Christmas horror watch list

For fans of traditional Christmas movies like "Miracle on 34th Street" or "It’s a Wonderful Life"

  • A Christmas Carol (1938)
  • Curse of the Cat People (1944)
  • Lady in the Lake (1947)
  • A Christmas Carol (FX 2019)
  • It’s a Wonderful Knife (2023)

Watching with tweens/teens

  • Gremlins (1984)
  • Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
  • A Christmas Carol (animated, 2009)
  • Stranger Things (season one, 2016)

For fans of slasher films like "Halloween" or "Scream"

  • Black Christmas (1974) 
  • Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
  • Better Watch Out (2016) 
  • Christmas Bloody Christmas (2022)

Snowed-in thrillers

  • The Shining (1980)
  • Misery (1990)
  • The Lodge (2019)


  • The Gingerdead Man (2005)
  • Krampus (2015) 


  • 30 Days of Night (2007)
  • Let the Right One In (2008)
  • Red Snow (2021)


  • A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
  • Ana and the Apocalyspe (2017)

Supernatural/possession trope

  • Day of the Beast (1995)
  • I Trapped the Devil (2019)


  • Die Hard (1988)
  • Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
  • Violent Night (2022) 
  • Silent Night (2023)
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