5 Chilling Tales of Christmas Horror from TV Anthologies [Series of Frights]

Series of Frights is a recurring column that mainly focuses on horror in television. Specifically, it takes a closer look at five episodes or stories  each one adhering to an overall theme  from different anthology series or the occasional movie made for TV. With anthologies becoming popular again, especially on television, now is the perfect time to see what this timeless mode of storytelling has to offer.

Christmas entails a lot of familiar traditions; decorating homes, exchanging gifts, and cooking for loved ones are all popular activities around this time of year. Yet a more concealed practice is telling scary stories. The British have been sharing annual, anecdotal frights since the Victorian ages, but this custom has traveled as well as evolved over the years. No longer are people confined to their hearths when wanting to regale one another with tales of winter wraiths and other supernatural troubles. There are other methods for indulging the naughtier, eerier side of the holidays.

While there is no short supply of horror movies that imperil folks around Christmas, there is a dearth of anthology films solely about the winter holidays. This is where television comes in; the small screen has movies beat in terms of quantity and in many cases quality. The following episodes not only evoke a number of feelings associated with Christmas — cheer, loneliness, stress  — they stir up yuletide scares.

Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988)
Seasons of Belief

With this collection of stories concentrating on more overt terror, an iconic moment in Christmas horror has to be the unforgettable “Seasons of Belief” from Tales from the Darkside. Very few other episodes in the show can touch this one in terms of shock value and ghastliness.

The fashionable thing nowadays when looking to counter the good tidings of Christmas and the jolliness of Santa Claus is to summon Krampus. Darkside was ahead of the curve by showing something similar yet different. Michael McDowell‘s “Seasons of Belief” is based on a short story by author Michael Bishop, which appears in his omnibus, One Winter in Eden.

“Season of Belief” sees two kids (Jenna von Oÿ, Sky Berdahl) demanding their father (E. G. Marshall) tell them a story on Christmas Eve. Since the children no longer believe in Santa Claus, the parents decide to have some fun at their expense. The little ones are then completely consumed by the legend of the Grither, a monster who lives in a cave at the North Pole and kills anyone who dares to say its name. Although the father and mother (Margaret Klenck) are clearly improvising, they fail to realize the power of their words.

Older anthology series with a dark streak often veered off course in their holiday offerings. For example, The Twilight Zone was especially more uplifting around Christmas. Tales from the Darkside, however, stayed true to its title and delivered one of its most mean-spirited episodes ever. The adaptation ends on a more gruesome note than its literary basis.

Monsters (1988-1991)
A New Woman

Tales from the Darkside‘s successor, Monsters, features two Christmas episodes: “Glim-Glim” and “A New Woman“. The former is about three humans co-existing with a friendly alien after a virus has wiped out mankind. The episode packs an emotional punch, but it is more somber than frightening. “A New Woman”, on the other hand, comes across as the more macabre of the pair.

Close to Christmas, a greedy woman named Jessica (Linda Thorson) looks forward to her ailing husband Tom’s death so she can get his money. Before the husband passes, though, Jessica wants his signature on a contract. If Tom (Tom McDermott) signs it, a homeless shelter will be turned into an office building. When Tom’s nephew (Dan Butler) cannot get Jessica to reconsider, a doctor (Mason Adams) urges her to change her ways or suffer the consequences.

“A New Woman” bears a striking resemblance to Charles Dickens’ classic ghost story, A Christmas Carol. From the Scrooge-like protagonist to the supernatural chance for redemption, this episode’s inspiration is transparent. It does eliminate the staple of three individual ghosts showing Jessica the error of her ways. Yet, three menacing spirits do appear together and terrify her into changing on the spot without the need for separate encounters.

Being Monsters‘ own spin on a widely known piece of fiction, “A New Woman” packs no real surprises other than it being more forgiving and upbeat at the end than most other stories in the series.

Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)
And All Through the House

Tales from the Crypt began in the summer of 1989, so a Christmas-themed episode might have seemed strange for the time. Other than the setting and the antagonist’s apparel, though, “And All Through the House” hardly feels Christmassy. This exceptional episode can be enjoyed all year around nevertheless.

Mary Ellen Trainor, who at the time was married to the episode’s director Robert Zemeckis, plays a homicidal housewife and mother in “And All Through the House”. After killing her husband for an insurance payout on Christmas Eve, she learns a dangerous patient (Larry Drake) has escaped from a psychiatric hospital. The escapee, who is dressed like Santa Claus, has of course found his way to the protagonist’s house. Calling the cops is out of the question, so the murderess hopes to pin her husband’s death on the intruder. Things do not go according to plan, to say the least.

“And All Through the House” hails from EC’s Vault of Horror, issue #35. The 1972 adaptation in Amicus’ Tales from the Crypt movie is the more faithful translation. Whereas with the television version, writer Fred Dekker had to pad the story to fill a longer runtime. This includes more moments of chase and confrontation between the prey and predator.

In comparison to the ’72 interpretation, the TV update is over the top and darkly humorous — just the way fans like it. This episode set the overall tone of the series better than the actual premiere did. And Christmas horror cannot be discussed today without bringing up “And All Through the House”.

R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour: The Series (2010-2014)
A Creature Was Stirring

There is an expectation about Christmas that can be hard to live up to: togetherness. The holidays are big on amity, but that does not always come easy. It can be especially hard for families to achieve any sort of unity in this day and age. People are stressed out, running out of time, or just plain distracted. The family at the core of this Haunting Hour episode is in need of some healing during Christmas. They struggle to get along until something terrible puts them back on the right path.

In “A Creature Was Stirring“, there is a discernible amount of tension in young Timmy’s (Thomas Robinson) house on Christmas. His parents (Kurt EvansStacy Grant) are on the outs and trying to hide that fact from their kids, and his older siblings (Rachel Pattee, Cainan Wiebe) would rather play with their devices than talk to each other. Things only change when the family receives a mysterious gift. The present in question contains a puny but devilish terror that eventually wreaks havoc in the house. If they want to survive, Timmy and his family must set their differences aside and work together.

The pint-sized threat in the episode is a sort of gremlin-like creature that resembles the gargoyle from the Tales from the Darkside movie. When it is not animated through CGI, the miniature monster’s antics are achieved through basic puppetry. The gremlin’s M.O. is causing harm, but its silver lining does become apparent near the end.

The Haunting Hour has a reputation for being unkind to its characters, but this morality tale is far more merciful than usual. The mayhem serves a higher purpose that fits in with the Christmas theme. For more holiday horror in this overlooked anthology for young people, also check out the series finale, “Goodwill Toward Men”.

Inside No. 9 (2014-)
The Devil at Christmas

The third season of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith‘s multi-genre anthology series Inside No. 9 kicked off with a Christmas special. This memorable episode slowly reveals its horror elements until audiences are left with their jaws on the floor.

The Devil at Christmas” homages retro, low-budget horror through and through. From the intentionally stagy acting to the authentic sets and wardrobe, a lot of work was put into making the holiday special come across as a genuine relic. Seeing through the artifice is not all that difficult, but it is still convincing. Inside No. 9 always refuses to do anything half-baked.

The story centers around an incomplete 1977 film, the episode’s namesake, about a family staying in an Austrian chalet during the holidays. The director (Derek Jacobi) provides commentary for the movie as well as behind-the-scene footage. While the plot suggests the family is endangered by Krampus, something more sinister is in store for them.

“The Devil at Christmas” is an impressive feat of creative subterfuge that combines aspects of the found-footage subgenre with people’s morbid curiosity about infamous cinema. It is never too clear where the story is going at first, but Inside No. 9 fans know to have faith in the creators. And this is certainly some of their most unsettling work.