Season's Screamings: The creepiest Christmas creatures, and seasonal spectres from fiction, folklore

BY AARON SAGERS

Ho, ho, h’oh god, no! Along with the jolly elves and perky gingerbread men, there are also monsters in Christmastime lore, and pop culture, that should fill you with more than a stocking-full of fear.

The spooky Christmas story is automatically associated with Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella A Christmas Carol, but the journalist-turned-novelist couldn’t take credit for creating the gimmick (although Chuck can largely have it for reminding people of traditions of yore, and rebooting the holiday in the early Victorian era as a secular, charitable observance). Dickens was a fan of Washington Irving, who -- in “Old Christmas” from The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. -- wrote of trading a “goblin tale” and stories of ghosts and fairies around the fire after “The Christmas Dinner” back in 1820.

Yet the tradition of imbuing the wintertime with elements of horror goes back at least more than 250 years prior. In 1589, Christopher Marlowe wrote of the season’s tales of “spirits and ghosts” in The Jew of Malta. Meanwhile, Shakespeare spoke of a sad story best for winter, “of sprites and goblins” in 1623’s The Winter’s Tale.

But winter’s connection to monsters goes back still further -- and is not particularly surprising considering the longest night of the year in the Northern Hemisphere (when the veil between worlds is presumably pretty thin – all due respect to October’s Samhain) takes place around December 21. That places it in close proximity to Christmas, of course.

Even our concept of the benevolent seasonal mascot Santa Claus can be traced back to Old Norse, and Germanic Pagan, observations of the Wild Hunt or, later, Yule, when the long-bearded Odin would lead a band of hunters, not reindeer, across the sky. That band consisted of either fairies or armies of the dead.

In modern times, the tradition of the scary Christmas story continues in England (though the English cooled on the trend during the early-to-mid war-torn 20th century – at least until the 1970s annual TV tradition A Ghost Story for Christmas). And while they pale in number compared to Halloween time, there are still some holiday horror tales in the States.

The concept isn’t just relegated to the relatively new, 40-year-old holiday horror movie subgenre, either. Just look to the American classic “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as an example. Written by two New York City kids, Edward Pola and George Wyle, and sung by Iowa’s own Andy Williams, the 1963 tune tells of “scary ghost stories” right up there with “caroling out in the snow” as part of the Christmas tradition.

With that in mind, join me as I share my favorite creatures from fiction and folklore that put the “Eee!” in “Season Greetings” and the “Ahhh!” in “Merry Christmas.”

The winged things
“The Festival” (1925)
By H.P. Lovecraft

A man travels to his ancestral home in Kingsport, Mass., during Christmastime and encounters “cowled, cloaked figures” engaged in a Yuletide ceremony in passageways beneath an old church. Then something “amorphously squatted” plays a flute that summons “a horde of tame, trained, hybrid winged things”:

"They were not altogether crows, nor moles, nor buzzards, nor ants, nor vampire bats, nor decomposed human beings … They flopped limply along, half with their webbed feet and half with their membranous wings; and as they reached the throng of celebrants the cowled figures seized and mounted them, and rode off one by one along the reaches of that unlighted river.”

Aside from his horribly racist and xenophobic ways, H.P. knew the sauce of fear, and channels it perfectly in this less than cheery Necronomicon short story.

Rare Exports Finnish Trailer (english)

Santa and his elves
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Written and directed by Jalmari Helander

Rare Exports is a horror film that serves as a parody and, as Roger Ebert wrote, is “an R-rated Santa Claus origin story crossed with The Thing.” Set in real-life Lapland, Finland, an area long associated as the home of Father Christmas, the movie explores what may happen when irresponsible drilling unearths a burial mound meant to contain a less-than-jolly beast. Children go missing, nasty elves (who are naked old men) go on the rampage, and an enormous horned Santa is about to defrost. This is a parody that doesn’t show its cards until the end, and maintains a fantasy-horror vibe that will freak the eggnog out of you.


The raven
“The Raven” (1845)
By Edgar Allan Poe

The narrator is kicking back during a dreary night in “bleak December,” minding his own business, reading old lore and trying to forget about his dead lover, Lenore. Then a talking bird comes in and starts mock-mock-mocking him with the same response to his every question. As the narrator descends into madness, the “fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core” seemingly traps the man’s soul underneath its shadow. The “thing of evil” simply stares, squawks, and does the work of a devil prophet with only one word: “Nevermore.”


Gremlins
Gremlins (1984)
Directed by Joe Dante, written by Chris Columbus

The transformative power of Christmas works in reverse in this modern comedy-horror classic. When Billy’s exotic pet mogwai Gizmo gets wet, then multiplies into multiple deceitful cuties, who then feed after midnight, they become the bipedal reptilian murder machines known as Gremlins. The monsters are ruthless in this dark comedy, which, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, motivated the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating. Also, it’s creepy to think that the Gremlins design was partially inspired by the supposedly real-life Kelly-Hopkinsville goblin/UFO case of 1955. Oh yeah, and this is the movie where we learn the dangers of playing Santa and crawling down a chimney.

Kallikantzaros
Possibly late 14th century; Southeastern European folklore

So here’s the deal: In many folk myths there is a world tree, or tree of life, that grows through the earth, supports the heavens, and connects to roots in the underworld. It is pretty important, and yet there are a bunch of goblins – known collectively as the kallikantzaroi – who hang out underground trying to saw down the tree and make the world collapse. They’re not cool. During the 12 Days of Christmas, they forget about their job and emerge on the surface world to stir up things and generally wreak havoc until Epiphany.

In his study of Early Modern Europe folklore, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, historian Carl Ginzburg described the appearance of a Kallikantzaros as:

“Monstrous beings, black, hairy, sometimes gigantic, sometimes very small, usually equipped with animal-like limbs: donkey’s ears, goatish paws, equine hooves … they are invariably males, provided with enormous sexual organs.”

Yikes! And what’s worse, if you’re a child born during the 12 Days, you run the risk of being transformed into one of these Christmas goblins.

SMEE A.M. Burrage | Halloween Scary Stories | Classic Horror

Smee
Someone in the Room (Supernatural and Occult Fiction) (1931)
By Alfred Burrage

What could go wrong when a group of twentysomethings want to play hide-and-seek on Christmas Eve?

Perhaps nothing, but as the narrator relays the story of a game of “Smee,” a variation on the classic hiding game, it’s best always to count how many people are in your party. As he and 12 (or was it 13?) of his mates play in the house where a girl died 10 years prior, he comes upon someone hiding in the darkness: 

“The feeling of something wrong, something unnatural was growing. I remembered touching her arm, and I trembled with horror.”

Krampus
Possibly pre-Christian era; Germanic, and Eastern European folklore

Krampus is the anti-Claus, the counterpart to St. Nick. A companion of Santa’s, the Krampus is a hairy goat-like demon with horns and cloven hooves (or one hoof and one human foot) who punishes the “naughty” children. Emerging from pre-Christian Germanic folklore, he carries chains, birch sticks or whips to beat children with, and he may dish out coal, depending on the culture. But if he’s in a bad mood, he’ll stuff children in his sack or bathtub and carry them to hell for cooking. Krampus night is typically celebrated Dec. 5 in Europe, aka Krampusnacht, where people celebrate by dressing as the beast and roam the streets drinking schnapps.

You may have seen the very good 2015 horror-comedy Krampus by director Michael Dougherty, but I’d also recommend the book Krampus: The Yule Lord by Brom. The book mashes up Norse, Germanic, pagan, and Christian myths to tell a tale about this mischievous god who seeks revenge against Santa.


John Turk’s ghost
“The Kit-Bag” (1908)
By Algernon Blackwood

After 10 days spent working with the defense on the trial of John Turk -- a murderer who cut up his victim in tiny pieces, but is found not guilty due to insanity -- Johnson plans to escape for a Christmas vacation. All he needs is a kit-bag, or duffel bag, which his lawyer boss plans to loan him. After receiving the bag (“a stout canvas kit-bag, sackshaped, with holes round the neck for the brass bar and padlock”), Johnson begins to hear things in his home, and see movement.

He believes he’s simply obsessing over the murder cases until he encounters “the white skin, the evil eyes, and the fringe of black hair low over the forehead” of Turk.

And from within the bag itself, “he saw a head and face slowly sinking down out of sight as though someone were crouching behind it to hide, and at the same moment a sound like a long-drawn sigh was distinctly audible in the still air about him.” And on top? A smear of crimson.

Perhaps the bag is more than a spacious duffel for Johnson, after all?


The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
“A Christmas Carol” (1843)
By Charles Dickens

“It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.”

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is perhaps the most famous ghost of Christmas tales, as well as simply one of the most famous ghosts in fiction. The phantom spirit never speaks, but only points as it fills Ebenezer Scrooge with a “vague, uncertain horror.” Aside from its resemblance to Death itself, the spirit is especially terrifying because it reminds us all of the uncertainty of our own futures, and the reckoning we fear for past actions – and even of the existential dread that perhaps we don’t matter in the larger scheme, and no one will mourn our death.

Yeah, it’s weighty stuff.

Popular culture has given us various takes on this specter. The Bill Murray-starring/Richard Donner-directed Scrooged presents one of the more memorable versions, with the ghost’s oversized skull-face and damned souls hiding in its robes. And he can sneak in through the TV.

The especially cruel cigar-smoking, red-tinged Pete from Mickey’s Christmas Carol deserves a mention, since he terrified me as a kid when he knocked Ebenezer/Scrooge McDuck into the flames beneath his grave, mocking him as the “richest man in the cemetery.”

The X-Files "Ice" at 25: The episode that changed Mulder and Scully forever

When discussing the first season of The X-Files, or the show’s overall legacy, “Ice” deserves special praise. First aired 25 years ago on Nov. 5, 1993, the Season One is a bottle episode set on an remote research base in Alaska.
Borrowing liberally from John Carpenter’s The Thing, the eighth installment was the best of the series thus far, raising the bar for episodes to come. 
The alien parasite story is the third by renowned X-Files writers Glen Morgan and James Wong (after “Shadows” and “Squeeze”). More than previous episodes, “Ice” puts the agents’ trust in one another to the test. It aligns with the show’s overarching theme of paranoia but advances the Fox Mulder/Dana Scully dynamic, and places them in their most stressful context yet—while pushing personality differences to the extreme

American Horror Hotel Stories: Haunted spots for scary stays in every state

BY AARON SAGERS

Although we're about to check out of the Halloween season, it doesn't mean the time is over to check into some scary action. In fact, all across the country there are haunted houses (and hotels, and B&Bs) worth a visit for year-round paranormal tourism.

As a lover of ghost stories, and professional paranormal pop culture nerd, I am often on the hunt for haunts, with my tastes leaning more towards comfortable hotels with a ghosty rep and less creaky old drafty mansions. This used to be a more daunting task, when establishments were reluctant to embrace their spectral folklore for fear they might attract the wrong crowd, appear less reputable, or basically scare away guests.

Thankfully, things have changed in the past decade or so, with the popularity of paranormal reality TV, and successful movies like The Conjuring. Now ghost stories are a selling point for many locations, and with Netflix's The Haunting of Hill House, I would not anticipate a good haunted hot spot to have much difficulty filling its vacancy.

I currently have a running tally of more than 100 supposedly haunted hotels, and I've stayed at a large number of them. And many have become well known in the mainstream, and dubbed some of the "most haunted" destinations in America.

The Stanley Hotel, aka The Shining hotel, is a part of pop culture in its own right - and for good reason. Shown above, the Estes Park, Colo., location is luxurious and set in the scenic Rocky Mountains. Meanwhile, the RMS Queen Mary, moored at Long Beach, Calif., is an ocean liner that carried civilian passengers and then troops during World War II. Now it is a tourist attraction, party venue, and the focus of many ghost hunts.

But what of the less-famous locations, and how do you hunt down your haunts? To that end, I have a beginner's guide of 50 haunts for all 50 states (plus Washington D.C.). This is by no means a comprehensive list, but is just to kickstart a spooky stay. In my search, I relied on active listings using Booking.com's database, and tried to lean towards the lesser-known. Don't just take my suggestions, or only use these listings. Instead, begin your own ghost hotel hunt.

The Haunting of Hill House, and The Best Haunted House Tales For A Creepy October



By AARON SAGERS


With the new horror series The Haunting of Hill House, viewers settling for some “Netflix and Chill” time may instead be in for “Netflix and chilled to the bone.”

The 10-episode series, which hit the streaming service last Friday, begins 26 years with the Crain family who encounter supernatural threats in an old mansion. As the story switches between 1992 and 2018, the show follows the Crain father and his five adult children (including the skeptical paranormal author son), and their younger selves. Over the course of the show, they dig up the past, face down specters, and their own personal ghosts.

Based on the 1959 classic of the same name by Shirley Jackson, the updated Haunting of Hill House varies quite a bit from the original, but is nonetheless a faithful adaptation in spirit. It is a downright scary longform horror show that puts character drama at the forefront. 

As much as you should check out the decidedly creepy show, the source material is a must-read, and remains the best haunted house stories of all time.

But it is certainly not the only good story for a literary adventure to catch your breath, and tingle your spine. 

With that in mind, read ahead for the best haunted house tales to keep you creeped out for the rest of October. 

The Haunting of Hill House (1959)
By Shirley Jackson

The old manse Hill House has a bad habit of killing off inhabitants – so, of course it seems like a good idea (very bad idea) for occultist and paranormal investigator Dr. Montague to bring some folks along for a stay. Although phenomena begin as merely unsettling occurrences, the house is feeding off Eleanor, the sensitive waif, and getting stronger. As much as I love The Shining, I think even Mr. King would allow me to say Hill House is better, and a work of genius. The Haunting, the 1963 film based on Jackson’s story, is also pretty great, but not near as exceptional as the novel.

The ghost of aviator Elsie Mackay, and a night spent at Scotland's Glenapp Castle

BY AARON SAGERS
[NOTE: You can listen along to the story on SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/aaronsagers/the-ghost-of-elsie-mackay-scotlands-haunted-glenapp-castle]

It is 1 a.m., and despite the fact that I am exhausted, and feeling heavy due to copious gin cocktails, I am determined to draw a bath and listen to some period music. After all, I am staying in a majestic suite in a Scottish castle, and I happen to be sleeping in “the haunted room.”

The Castle is Glenapp in Ballantrae, Scotland, just off the Ayrshire coast. And the haunted room is the Earl of Orkney suite. The supposed ghost? Elsie Mackay.