The corruption of childhood by adults, both neglectful and deranged, is a predictable staple of American horror films. Throw in a murderous Santa Claus and a whip-wielding nun and the moral depravity gets ratcheted up ten-fold. Such is the case in Charles E. Sellier, Jr.’s Silent Night, Deadly Night. Residing between ridiculously quotable dialogue and an endless array of sexual, albeit creative, violence is a pointed commentary on the connection between depravity and trauma. The film’s message is clear: it isn’t so much the creatures of myth (Santa, The Boogeyman) children ought to fear but the adults who surround them.
You know a horror film has ticked all the right boxes when the PTA petitions to have it banned. Such was the case in 1984 when Silent Night, Deadly Night opened and immediately raised the hackles of media watchdog groups. Despite its opening weekend grossing more than A Nightmare on Elm Street, TriStar Pictures pulled the plug on its media campaign and the film quickly faded from theatres.
In many respects, the controversy surrounding the 1984 release of the film as well as its advertisements showing an axe-hefting Santa Claus emerging from a chimney seems an echo of a simpler time. People still picketed theatres and film critics still had the power to shape public perception. Consider Leonard Maltin who gave Silent Night, Deadly Night zero stars and predicted the next thing filmgoers would be subjected to would be the Easter Bunny as a child molester. Also weighing in were the notable film critic duo of Siskel and Ebert. Their eviscerating review of the film, in which they called out by name—repeatedly—the people associated with the film, is the stuff of legend:
And yet, lost in this hubbub of scandal and protest was the underlining theme of the long-term effects of childhood trauma left unchecked. To an audience in the early 80s exposed to an almost constant barrage of nightly news stories related to child abductions, rape and murder, it was a theme very much in the cultural zeitgeist.
Our tale of yuletide bloodshed opens with a cherub-faced boy, Billy, accompanying his baby brother and parents on a visit to see grandpa. That grandpa resides in an insane asylum is soon revealed courtesy of a title card superimposed over an isolated, gray building. Right away, it’s clear that what this film may lack in jump scares it will make up for in camp.
After conversing with the doctor about the sad, mute state of grandpa, the parents inexplicably leave Billy alone with the old man. And here, folks, is where all of Billy’s problems begin. Appearing to channel someone possessed, Billy’s grandfather warns him that, “Christmas Eve is the scariest damn night of the year” and promises that Santa will exact revenge on all those who are naughty. While traveling home with his family, they are stopped by a Santa feigning car trouble. (Side note #1: Billy’s reaction to his mother calling his grandfather a crazy, old fool will forever remain the best reaction shot ever captured on film.)
Predictably, bloodshed ensues with Billy watching in horror as his father is shot at point blank range and his mother has her throat slit while the Santa sexually assaults her.
We then flash forward a few years and find Billy and his younger brother are now the wards of the church. How do we know this? Why the title card has now been updated to say Children’s Orphanage! Billy’s PTSD is immediately evident courtesy of a drawing he presents to the class in which Santa has been gored to death by one of his reindeer. Naturally, this gets him sent to the Mother Superior who believes that Billy’s emotional trauma should be beaten out of him. Billy’s fractured psychological state takes another blow when he watches through a peephole two people having sex only to then watch Mother Superior precede to whip the fornicating couple while reminding Billy that punishment is good. (Side note #2: That the film never acknowledges who these two lovers are—Nun? Orphan? Priest?—is particularly bizarre).
There are a number of scenes in which the Mother Superior forcibly exposes Billy to Santa Claus and each instance causes his psyche to splinter just a bit more. Ultimately, a grown Billy winds up working in a toy store where he is forced to don the Santa suit. And while the ensuing carnage is not at all unexpected, the moment when Billy snaps is a surprisingly jarring moment.
To me, the most disturbing scene of the entire film centers on Billy, who has resigned himself to his fate of playing the store’s Santa, and his interaction with a child as she sits in his lap. The child is clearly disturbed and begins squirming to get away while Billy pleads with her to calm down. When she doesn’t, he quietly whispers threats of violence that leave the girl speechless and trembling. That all of this is done under the watchful eyes of her mother, who even remarks how good Billy is with the difficult children, is all the more harrowing.
This theme of childhood trauma is explored in each of Billy’s interactions with adults in authority. Obviously, the interaction with his grandfather in the film’s opening moments sets the stage, but the moment is clearly defined as one of fear and not trauma. The distinction is important because for the ensuing psychological horror to have impact, the audience needs to be reminded that fear in a safe space (like say a horror film!) won’t result in any long lasting emotional distress. But when actions take place outside of that safe space and with the full participation of those in authority, there are dire consequences.
As Billy’s most identifiable authority figure growing up, the Mother Superior’s belief that Billy must be forced to continually confront his memory of seeing his parents murdered without being given any coping tools clearly only adds to Billy’s anguish. It should be noted that the Mother Superior does not abuse Billy out of spite but out of a misguided belief that she is doing the right thing for his development. Like the parent of the child forced to sit on Santa Billy’s lap, the adult in authority isn’t deliberately cruel but dangerously ignorant. If there is one person who deserves the most blame, it is likely Sister Margaret who is fully aware of what Mother Superior’s methods are doing to Billy and yet who refuses to say anything.
When Billy goes to work at Ira’s Toys, his boss, Mr. Sims, becomes Billy’s authority figure. It is Billy’s desire not to disappoint Mr. Sims that pushes Billy into agreeing to don the Santa suit. The murder spree that then results at the Christmas party is a direct result of Billy’s being told continually that those who are naughty (like say fornicating and drunk co-workers) must be punished.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the way the film incorporates gratuitous nudity. If you are young and nubile and about to be killed, odds are certain that your blouse will be ripped open and you will not be wearing a bra. The connection between violence and sex in Billy’s mind is continually hammered home to the viewer so the fact that every woman on screen, with the exception of Mother Superior, Sister Margaret and Billy’s older dowdy co-worker, will have her breasts exposed before meeting grisly violence isn’t all that unexpected. But that the necessity of their nudity doesn’t extend to their male partners is endlessly eye rolling. I’d like to say this was a symptom of the film being made in 1984 but I suspect a similar framing would exist if the film were remade today.
And while the film’s message about the dangers of unexplored trauma is pointed, Silent Night, Bloody Night is in no way a serious horror film. To the contrary, it is an irresistible blend of varieties of 80s schlock. With creative kills that include impaling a sex-flushed teen on deer antlers to beheading a teen out for a nightly sleigh-riding jaunt, the film possesses all the earmarks of a goofy, 80s slasher. (Side note #3: The dialogue is eminently quotable. If you don’t find yourself channeling Mr. Sims once your holiday obligations are over, I just can’t relate).
But for horror buffs looking for something with a bit more bite to it than that other film currently in theatres about a homicidal Santa Claus, Silent Night, Bloody Night is hard to beat. Just don’t subject yourself, at least sober, to the sequels.