It’s funny the things that you remember from childhood. Some memories are obvious ones, since they were momentous occasions: first day of school, major holidays, family vacations, and the birth of a sibling (I’m still recovering from that last one). Stories tend to be told and retold about these experiences, which helps solidify their place in your subconscious. Some things you remember are more random, but had some sort of significance to you at the time. I tend to have a pretty good memory – both a blessing and a curse – so I probably remember more than the average person about my early years. And one thing that has always stuck with me is the 1984 horror movie Silent Night, Deadly Night.
Now, I never actually saw Silent Night, Deadly Night when I was growing up; I was eight when it came out and was too young to see an R-rated film. We also didn’t go to the movies much when I was a kid and I hadn’t yet discovered my love of horror movies. So there was really no reason that this film should have been on my radar and stayed on my radar for the last 30 years. But while I don’t remember the actual movie, I DO remember all the hoopla that surrounded the movie when it debuted. Not surprisingly for the 80s, people had a real issue with a horror movie that featured a serial killer dressed as Santa. This was an era when moral panic was done for sport and people went a little overboard about a lot of stuff. Though this was a movie that obviously wasn’t aimed at children, those exposed to the ad campaign for the movie weren’t limited to potential movie goers. I vividly remember the posters (see above) and while I wasn’t especially traumatized by them – I’m skeptical at eight that I was still a “true believer” – I could see why parents might not be thrilled with them. There is a big jump between not loving the posters and getting the movie banned, but plenty of people made that leap. PTA/PTO groups across the country rallied to get the film pulled from local theaters, outraged by its content. I’m assuming that most of them had never even seen the movie, but that isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for moral outrage. While those collectively clutching their pearls may have thought that they were doing what was best for children and protecting us, all they did for me was make me kind of obsessed with seeing the movie. What, exactly, was so scandalous? A mystery built up around the movie and stories began to spread amongst us kids as to what happened in the movie. Much like the stories I heard about KISS, the rumors about Silent Night, Deadly Night were of questionable veracity. Epic yarns were spun about the level of violence and sadism in the movie; the more I heard, I was both more determined and a little bit scared to see the movie. Unfortunately, because of all the hoopla it wasn’t an easy movie to locate. It wasn’t just sitting out in video stores (remember them?) waiting to be rented. Plus my parents were moderately liberal, but I wasn’t going to be permitted to see a rated-R movie at eight.
Years passed, yet my memories of the controversy and urban legends surrounding Silent Night, Deadly Night did not fade. Even as an adult, I added the film to my Netflix queue and waited it to move from “currently unavailable” to a movie that I could have sent to me. That never happened – in fact, Netflix eventually removed the film from the queue altogether. It appeared that my quest to see this stupid movie was going to go unfulfilled – I wanted to see it, but I also didn’t want to drop a lot of money on buying a copy or illegally download it. I had my limits.
Saturday night I was laying on my couch, exhausted after putting in an extra 16 hours in at work in the last three days, and flipping through the channels. And then I saw it – starting in fifteen minutes on The Movie Channel was Silent Night, Deadly Night. I don’t think you can imagine the level of excitement that I had over this discovery. I would finally get to see what all the fuss was about.
Now as much as I love horror movies, I am also not at all scared by horror movies. I can watch pretty much anything and not blink an eye; I’ve seen some gruesome acts that would turn most people’s stomachs and I can continue snacking away as people are dismembered or otherwise brutalized. This used to drive a guy that I went out with crazy; not only could he not stomach the sight of blood, which meant we never could watch any of these movies together, but I think he was slightly disturbed that nothing freaked me out. It became a challenge to him to find the movie that would crack me; he’d come home with movie suggestions that other people said was the worst/scariest/most disturbing movie that they’d ever seen, hoping that would be the movie that did the trick. To his chagrin, none of them did. He had very high hopes that Cannibal Holocaust would be my undoing, yet the most that I could muster was that I wasn’t a big fan of the sexual assault scene. I didn’t even mind The Human Centipede. I am pretty unflappable. Would Silent Night, Deadly Night be the movie that would be too much for me? Would all the rumors be true about the horrific sights I was about to witness?
In a word – Nope.
I don’t know that any movie could have lived up to 30 years of build-up, but the Silent Night, Deadly Night was a pretty run-of the-mill serial killer movie once you stripped away the Santa angle and the portrayal of religious figures. Even by the standards of other 80’s horror movies, this film didn’t strike me as that much more gory or graphic than anything in Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street. It had the hallmark unnecessary nudity that you have to expect of movies of this genre and ths time period. I’ll give them credit for an attempt at an interesting backstory – a lot of time in the film is devoted to explaining why the lead character became a psycho Santa – but the writing was so bad that a lot of the film was pretty laughable. The fact that anyone took this at all seriously was hilarious. It’s so over the top and has so much dark comedy – both intentional and unintentional – that it’s easy to see why this film has achieved cult classic status. Most of the ways that he murders people are so unbelievable that it isn’t even remotely scary. It’s just a really bad film – so bad that’s it’s almost kind of good. My hands down favorite moment came late in the film – the children in the orphanage have just witnessed the police gunning down a man dressed as Santa because they think it is the serial killer. It was a case of mistaken identity – it was actually a deaf priest dressed as Santa – but clearly a traumatizing event. The Mother Superior’s response to all this? She tells the children to stop moping. I laughed so hard at that I rewound the movie multiple times to enjoy that foolishness again and again. I also award it additional style points for having a guy beheaded on a toboggan and his headless copse slide down the hill. That’s next level for the time period.
Though Silent Night, Deadly Night in no way lived up to my childhood fascination, it may become a holiday tradition for me. This is the perfect movie to put on with a bunch of friends and to make fun of, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style. I had so many snarky comments to make that my poor friend Kristin received a lot of text messages from me about a film that she’d never seen and had no reference point for. I should have done a running diary or turned to Twitter – where my snark could have been immortalized – but after days of staring at a computer screen I was completely fried and incapable of putting in that kind of effort. I can’t wait to see the sequels. This movie was deliciously dreadful. The Santa Claus serial killer subgenre has been woefully underexploited.
Much like the fear of Satanism being everywhere, the fear about this movie was much ado about nothing. The 80s, in retrospect, were a very weird time. If this movie was released today, I don’t know that anyone would really blink an eye. People would be upset because someone is always upset, but I can’t see this being that big of a deal. But I’m glad that parents across the land freaked out about this movie, since otherwise I would have missed out on the campy goodness that is Silent Night Deadly Night. Without the controversy, this movie would have been long forgotten. Probably not what they were going for with the protests.