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It's not too hard to make the case that Christmas stories can be scary. Toys springing to life. That large man sneaking into your home at midnight after watching you all year. No wonder there's an entire genre of Christmas-themed horror movies. And one of them happened to be one of last weekend's top-grossing films.

Krampus is about an ordinary American family stalked by a malevolent figure straight from German and Austrian mythology. Historically, Krampus has served as Santa Claus' dark double. Instead of a fur-lined suit and round little belly, Krampus has horns, claws, chains and a nasty disposition. Director Michael Dougherty says the unlikely combination of Christmas and horror makes a certain kind of sense.

"Christmas is really stressful," he observes. "I think we can all admit that. We put all these pressures on ourselves to spend time with friends and family and spend all this money we don't necessarily have."

Which means some of us turn to scary movies for catharsis. And darkness lies deep in the holiday's DNA, from King Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents in the Bible to the vengeful ghost in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Just think, Dougherty says, of the terrifying stop-motion Abominable Snowmonster in the Rankin/Bass televised holiday special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or a certain holiday ballet featuring sugerplums — and a dancing evil rat king. Nutcrackers, Dougherty says, scared him as a child.

"They have such manic expressions, with the bared teeth and really wide crazy eyeballs," he points out.

These frightening figures might provide release from a sense of forced gaiety — and from seasonal anxieties about being unhappy or alone. Maybe that explains the uncanny proliferation of Christmas horror movies over the past few decades.

"It's a big thing," says Hannah Forman, who runs the website Women in Horror Month under the name Hannah Neurotica. She proves it by rattling off titles. "You have Silent Night, Deadly Night; Silent Night, Bloody Night; Jack Frost; Puppet Master vs Demonic Toys; A Cadaver Christmas; Silent Night, Zombie Night — should I keep going?"

To be sure, most Christmas horror movies are cheaply made and exploitative, with tendency toward truly terrifying puns. (Santa's Slay, Slay Belles, Santa Claws, etc.) But Foreman says 1974's Black Christmas is both underrated and influential.

"It's considered by some to be one of the first slasher films in the U.S.," she says.

Black Christmas is set at a sorority house visited by a psycho killer, and it's the first to use a now-classic horror movie trope: "The calls are coming from inside the house!" And Black Christmas was directed by Bob Clark, also responsible for one of the most beloved holiday movies of all time, 1983's A Christmas Story.

But A Christmas Story also features a memorably monster-like bully, and a father with a fearsome temper, says Krampus director Michael Dougherty. "So there's a guy who loved Christmas but really understood both sides of it," he says.

Dougherty says his film was partly inspired by Gremlins, another 1980s movie that combined Christmas with family-friendly horror. Meanwhile, Krampus, the scary anti-Santa character, seems to be having his biggest moment since possibly the 16th century. More Krampus movies are in the works and at least four Krampus-themed movies have been recently released, including the critically acclaimed Finnish film, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Maybe Krampus serves as a kind of Christmas corrective in an era of rampant commercialism, brutal class inequality and bitter cultural divides, speculates Doughtery.

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