The Killer in the Attic

Since the 1970s, horror filmmakers have become increasingly interested in examining the darker aspects of Christmas narratives, subverting the traditional images of family, security and reconciliation often featured in these stories. Films like Christmas Evil (1980), Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984), Calvaire (2004) and Rare Exports (2010) all reject these familial ideals, criticising the growing connection between Christmas and commercialism, as well as the false sentimentality so prevalent in festive narratives. A precursor to slasher films like Halloween (1978), Black Christmas (1974) is one of the most effective Christmas horror movies, becoming part of what Christoph Grunenberg calls “the resurgence of a Gothic sensibility in contemporary art and culture.” Refusing to adhere to Christmas narrative conventions, the film subverts them almost entirely, placing emphasis on pessimism over joyfulness, strangeness over familiarity, and self-preservation over the traditional family unit.

A few nights before Christmas, a group of sorority girls receive a series of obscene phone calls. Barb (Margot Kidder) provokes the caller, prompting him to tell the girls he is going to kill them. The girls begin disappearing shortly afterwards, and Jess (Olivia Hussey) suspects that the man on the phone is responsible – especially when a child’s body is found nearby. After more girls mysteriously vanish, the police tap the phone of the sorority, discovering that the calls are coming from somewhere inside the house. Jess is attacked by an unknown assailant, and after escaping, takes refuge in the basement. When her boyfriend arrives – whom she secretly suspects is the killer – she bludgeons him to death with an iron poker. With the mystery solved, Jess is left by the police to recover, but the real killer’s voice is heard nearby, suggesting that Jess has killed the wrong person. As the film ends, the phone begins to ring ominously, leaving Jess’ fate – and the killer’s identity – both unknown.

Modern images of Christmas are largely centred around the home, conjuring feelings of comfort and familiarity. Songs like Bing Crosby’s I’ll be Home for Christmas, or Darlene Love’s Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home) recognise that this is an important part of the festive season, stressing the significance of returning to a safe, loving place. Black Christmas subverts this idea significantly, presenting the sorority house as something more like a Gothic mansion, complete with gable roofs, twisting corridors and baroque-style wallpaper. In this way, the house performs the function of the ‘Terrible Place,’ particularly when we realise the killer is somewhere inside, hidden from view. Carol J Clover suggests that “the house may seem a safe haven, but the same walls that promise to keep the killer out quickly become, once the killer penetrates them, the walls that hold the victim in.” Instead of depicting the house as having safe, familial connotations, the sorority house is a place that can easily be invaded, where killers can hide in plain sight, and innocuous items can become weapons. Similarly, in the absence of parental figures, the girls are forced to fend for themselves – both physically and emotionally. The House Mother, Mrs Mac (Marian Waldman), is the closest thing they have to a guardian, but she is also a subversion of traditional maternal roles, swearing and drinking heavily, and stating that she is not responsible for the girls in the sorority. Unlike conventional Christmas narratives, the female characters are forced to go without their families, gradually realising that, if they want to survive, they will have to save themselves.

In much the same way, family and familial relations are an integral part of seasonal iconography, implying that the festive period is meant to be filled with happy family reunions. In Home Alone (1990), for example, our fear is not that Kevin might be injured by the burglars, but that he will end up alone for Christmas: something we recognise as being inherently wrong. In Black Christmas, two parental figures are used to punctuate the narrative, all of whom subvert the audience’s expectations of what a festive family should look like. The first is Mr Harrison (James Edmond), the tragic centrepiece of the film, who arrives in order to take his daughter home for Christmas. The audience is already aware that she has been murdered by the killer, and that her body – covered in a plastic sheet – is hidden in the attic of the sorority house. This not only disrupts the audience’s expectations of a family reunion but refuses to provide conclusions altogether, granting him no relief from his increasing anxieties. To further emphasise this point, the film ends with a shot of Clare in the attic, alone and forgotten, her eyes fixed glassily on the window as if waiting for him to find her.

The second parental figure in Black Christmas is Mrs Quaife (Martha Gibson), whose thirteen-year-old daughter is raped and murdered by the killer. Quaife – whose husband is often away – realises her daughter is missing when she fails to meet her for a shopping trip. The police enlist a group of volunteers (a group which includes Mr Harrison) to canvass the local park, and after searching for most of the night, they discover her body in a grove of trees. Here, Mrs Quaife is used to defy the traditional Christmas iconography of mothers and children, of happy reunions and communities coming together for the greater good. It is also important to note that we never actually see her daughter’s corpse. Unlike other slasher films, Black Christmas is less concerned with the degeneration of the body than it is with the emotional implications that come afterwards; we see only Quaife’s reaction to finding her daughter. The audience plainly see the emotional resonance of these familial ideals being thwarted, but so too do the central characters, all of whom suddenly become aware of the danger that lies ahead.

In their essay on home invasion films, Jürgen Felix and Marcus Stiglegger suggest that horror is most effective when it “exists beyond the pale of all reasonable behaviour, psychological motivation, or logical explanation.” The contradiction between the rational and the irrational is explored in Black Christmas through the character of Billy, the faceless killer who is seen only partially. While his phone calls are initially sexual, they become increasingly more unstable as the film progresses, often containing an implication of childhood trauma. Speaking in multiple voices, Billy says, “What your mother and I must know is…where did you put the baby? Where did you put Agnes, Billy?” The suggestion is that Billy has killed his baby sister, but this is only ever hinted at; virtually no information is given in regard to his motives or intentions. But Billy is also abnormally strong, given to violent fits of rage, and unaware of the world around him – the perfect antithesis to the educated girls in the sorority. Where they are rational and self-possessed, Billy is irrational and dangerous, acting without any kind of logical reason or explanation. In the first phone call, he veers between sexual frenzy and icy menace in a matter of seconds, calmly stating, “I’m going to kill you” after shouting a string of expletives. This is the most frightening aspect of Black Christmas, largely because it implies a total lack of interiority. No matter how intelligent or capable the girls in the sorority are, they are completely ill-equipped to deal with someone so emotionally disturbed.

But Billy is also frightening because he is reflective of the base, animal instincts in all of us, a symbol of the inarticulable depths of our primal identities. Paul Wells suggests that true horror “resides in the recognition that humankind is fundamentally driven by obsessive and compulsive needs and desires, often rooted in childhood anxieties.” This is certainly true in Black Christmas, in which Billy’s trauma has affected his ability to function within society. The implication that he has killed his sister (and been sexually abused by his parents) is in direct opposition to the happy, familial images of Christmas, directly resulting in his psychopathic tendencies. In this way, the film operates as a reverse of typical Christmas narratives, stories that focus on the most redeeming qualities of the human condition.

If traditional family units with conservative standards are valued in Christmas stories, then the female characters in Black Christmas subvert this considerably, with the film being reappraised by feminist theorists in the years since its release. The girls in the sorority are sexual without being sexualised, and it’s never once suggested that they need a man to help them reach their goals. Final girl Jess is the most interesting example of this, particularly as she plans to have an abortion, telling her boyfriend Peter that she’s already made up her mind. “You can’t make a decision like that. You haven’t even asked me,” says Peter, to which Jess replies, “I wasn’t even going to tell you.” Jess makes it very clear that it’s a decision she hasn’t made lightly, and when Peter explodes in anger, she merely tells him that they ought to try to have a rational conversation. A similar moment occurs a few scenes later. Peter, trying to coerce her into keeping the baby, declares that they’re going to get married. Dumbfounded, Jess says, “I still want to do things. You can’t ask me to drop everything I’ve been working for and give up all my ambitions because your plans have changed.” When he becomes more threatening, she tells him, “You’re not going to tell me what I can and cannot do.”

Jess has no interest in following a conventional path towards marriage, and it’s clear that her personal goals and ambitions are far more important than her boyfriend’s whims. While this defies the familial ideals of traditional Christmas narratives, Peter’s reactions are also incredibly important, particularly as he becomes increasingly violent towards her. Peter is twinned with Billy for the purposes of the narrative (so that Jess can confuse him for the real killer later), but this also suggests an emotional immaturity in men, that their inability to process emotions is what causes them to become unstable. If the female characters are wilful and self-possessed, then the men are woundable, overly-sensitive and, ultimately, violent. Not only does this subvert the traditional views of women being emotional and irrational, it also subverts the conservative values that Christmas narratives propagate, suggesting that self-actualisation is a far more significant goal than maintaining a family. But the comparisons between Peter and Billy are even more insidious than they first appear, largely because they suggest that only a thin line separates an innocent man from a killer. If Christmas stories reinforce the idea that people are inherently good, Black Christmas offers a more realistic approach: that everyone is capable of acting on violent impulses. Peter destroys a piano after ruining his recital, later becoming so angry with Jess that he warns her she’ll be sorry for not agreeing to keep their baby. Ironically, it is Jess who ends up killing Peter, but only in an act of self-defence. In doing so, however, the symbolic connotations are clear. By killing him, she is actually killing the final vestiges of control he exerts over her, banishing him from her life once and for all.

Black Christmas is not only one of the best Christmas movies of all time, but one of the best slasher films as well, focusing on characters and their emotions rather than excessive gore and violence. Almost all of the deaths occur off screen, and the film avoids framing the victims in a sexualised way – a recurring theme within the genre. But it is the rejection of traditional conservatism that really sets it apart from other horror films, populating the narrative with strong, complex women, all of whom drive the story forward in an organic way. These women are intelligent and self-regarding, completely rejecting traditional gender roles in order to follow their own paths. Unlike the preoccupation with conjugal families that feature in most seasonal narratives, Black Christmas disregards them entirely, never once implying that women need a family to make them happy. But this is also what makes the film so frightening. By subverting images that we instinctively recognise as being comforting, Black Christmas succeeds in continuously thwarting our expectations, suggesting that nobody is ever really safe – not even in our own homes, not even with the ones we love.

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