As the mascot of the Christmas season (sorry, Jesus), Santa Claus has become a universal symbol of kindness and generosity. The magical, jolly fat man and his team of flying reindeer are known to virtually every child in the world. After all, how could they not love the man who brings them presents every December 25? Sorry, mom and dad.
In most Christmas movies, Santa is presented as a good-natured saint who espouses wisdom and brings magic into the lives or ordinary folks. In others, he's an axe-wielding killer with a penchant for chopping people to death. After all, few things are as shocking as turning the typical image of Santa on its head.
Some of the Santas on this list are scary because their writers and directors intended them to be. Others are scary for entirely unintentional reasons. But they all deserve other. After all, these are the 10 most terrifying Santas in cinematic history.
Billy Bob Thornton has never been better than he is in 'Bad Santa,' where he plays a vulgar crook who becomes a mall santa so he can scope out a robbery. The result is one of the most unpleasant characters in movie history, a sleazeball who does everything in his power to undermine the power of his costume. The only reason he's not ranked higher is because he's ultimately more sad and pathetic than frightening, but this is one Santa you don't want to be in the same room with.
'The Nightmare Before Christmas'
The actual Santa Claus in 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' is pretty standard, albeit intentionally so. He has to be traditional so that the takeover of the Christmas holiday by Jack Skellington and Halloweentown can be all the more twisted. When Jack himself dons the red suit and beard, he becomes one of the freakiest Santas of all time, delivering shrunken heads and all other kinds of ghastly nonsense to children all over the world (prompting the military to shoot his sleigh down). He may not have been Santa for very long and his intentions were never evil, but his actions speak for themselves. He's one scary Santa.
On the surface, the Santa Claus in 'The Santa Clause' isn't that creepy ... until you delve into the details. He seems jolly and friendly and loving and ready to fight to preserve the spirit of Christmas, but Tim Allen's Scott Calvin is actually pretty upsetting. First, he's only Santa Claus because he inadvertently murdered his predecessor, making him a violent usurper. Second, his son now has a father who knows when he's sleeping and knows when he's awake. Being young is already a horrible experience, but knowing that your dad can see you at all times? Ick.
'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians'
'Santa Claus Conquers the Martians' is one of the greatest bad movies of all time, an unintentionally hilarious sci-fi family movie that's unwatchable without a little alcoholic eggnog. Like the movie itself, the character of Santa is a complete failure. He's supposed to be sweet, resourceful and kind, but his actions speak louder than this thin facade. Early in the film, he defeats a killer robot by literally talking it into an existential crisis, forcing it to commit suicide. When imprisoned by the Martians, he defeats a coup by the bad guys by unleashing an army of toys, laughing maniacally while they get cut down by wind-up toys and bubbles. It's weird stuff.
On paper, there's nothing wrong the Santa in 'The Polar Express,' but the execution is a nightmare worthy of David Lynch. An early experiment in motion capture animation, every frame of this film looks like a nightmare, with each character's waxy face and dead eyes looking like something out of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers.' This problem extends to the big man in red himself, so while he may seem gentle and nice and perfectly fine, he looks like an alien wearing a bad human face mask so he can infiltrate the human race.
Most of the Santas on this list are supernatural in some way, making them creepy for magical reasons beyond our typical understanding. However, the mall Santa in 'A Christmas Story' is all-too-real and therefore, much scarier than many of the others. After waiting in a long line to speak with the master of Christmas, young Ralphie quickly learns that this Santa isn't going to grant him his Christmas wish for a Red Ryder BB gun and that his reasoning lines up exactly with that of his mother ("You'll shoot your eye out!"). The disappointment is already crushing before the disgruntled Santa and his frustrated elves remove him from the premises in the most traumatizing fashion possible. It's a dark and cringe-worthy moment that should make the blood of everyone's inner child run cold.
In the horror subgenre of "Santa Claus kills a bunch of people," the title character in 'Santa's Slay' is actually one of the most clever. You see, Santa was never a good-hearted bringer of cheer. Rather, he was a vile demon who was cursed to perform centuries of good by a higher power. And guess what? The curse just got lifted. The movie itself isn't always effective (although its goofiness is intentional), but wrestler Bill Goldberg's crazy-pants performance is memorable and the film's reinvention of such an iconic character is so good that it belongs in a better movie.
'Silent Night, Deadly Night'
There's an entire subgenre of movies that recast Santa Claus as a crazed killer, but none are more famous (or infamous, rather) than 'Silent Night, Deadly Night.' After seeing his parents murdered by a man in a Santa Claus outfit when he was a young boy, Billy is raised in an abusive convent where he's regularly tormented by cruel nuns. So it's no surprise when he grows up, snaps, puts on a Santa Claus outfit and goes around punishing "naughty" people with bladed weapons. It's a trashy performance in a trashy movie, but you really can't argue against it being one of the freakiest depictions of St. Nick ever put on film.
'Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale'
Of all the films on this list, 'Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale' is probably the best, but it's also the least seen. For that reason, we'll sidestep the specific reasons why the Santa at the center of the film is so freaky (and incredible) and just say that ever Christmas-loving genre fan needs to see this movie. Here's what you need to know: an archaeological dig in the mountains of Finland uncovers the "real" Santa Claus, who, to put it mildly, isn't a nice guy. All kinds of truly original adventure and craziness ensues, making this the best Christmas horror movie of all time. Seriously. You really should see 'Rare Exports.'
Pan American Entertainment
'Christmas Evil' is far from the best film on this list, but the "Santa" at its center earns this number one spot and then some. Very much like the lead in 'Silent Night, Deadly Night,' the killer in the Santa suit here was traumatized and child and grows up thinking it's his duty to kill people to preserve the spirit of Christmas. What gives Harry the leg up over Billy is that he's crazy enough to think that he's actually Santa Claus, making his slide into violence all the nuttier and more disturbing. This is not a good movie in any traditional way, but it's fascinating trash with a utterly insane Santa at its center. Watch this one at your own risk.