Between Meritocracy and Marx: An Analysis of “Christmas Evil”

#movie #filmanalysis #philosophy #capitalism #christmas #advent #JacquesEllul #MartinLutherKing

If I had to pick a Christmas movie to list as my favorite right now, I think I would say the 1980 film, “Christmas Evil.” Because of the title and a few of the tropes related to slasher films of that era, many are quick to dismiss this film as another cash grab trying to imitate the success of John Carpenter's “Halloween.” Though I'm fine with this film sitting within the horror genre, and I'm not trying to minimize the artistic possibility of slashers, I think this film encompasses much more than people often give it credit for when they keep the discourse at the level of “cheesy Christmas horror film.” In fact, and this is perhaps my boldest claim, I think this movie is almost more related to a Shakespearean tragedy than a conventional slasher.

“Christmas Evil” follows the plot of an alienated, unstable, middle-aged man, whose delusions and identification with Santa Claus overtake him, ultimately leading him on a quest of mayhem, violence, tragedy, and surprising amounts of sincere love, kindness, and the true spirit of Christmas. Imagine Hamlet meets Taxi Driver meets Frankenstein, and you have “Christmas Evil.” This film was not released to critical or audience acclaim back in the 80s, though now it has received a bit of a re-appreciation, taking on something of a cult status amongst horror enthusiasts on the Internet. Some might find this movie campy or silly, but I personally think it is a well-made film with competent acting and unabashed sincerity, showing our main character as both hero and villain. In what follows, I will sketch out my interpretation of the film as depicting the tragedy of alienation and the need to form a collective movement beyond the meritocracy of capitalism.

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Here is a more in-depth summary of the main plot points.

Harry Stadling lives on his own and works in an assembly-line toy factory for a large company. His relationship with his family is strained, and it seems as if he has no friends — often being the object of teasing by his colleagues in the factory.

Quite early on, we learn that Harry believes that he himself is actually a type of Santa Claus figure — even going so far as to spy on the neighbor's kids and keep his own “naughty and nice” list. In the first scene of the film, we learn that, as a young boy, Harry's father dressed up as Santa on Christmas Eve to surprise Harry and his younger brother, Philip. Philip understood that the man in the Santa costume was really their father, but Harry wholeheartedly believed it was the real Santa. To prove that it was the real Santa, Harry went back downstairs, whereupon he found Santa (his father) kissing and fondling his mother. Harry experienced this moment as the ultimate betrayal and came to believe that Santa Claus is of ill repute. For Harry, this betrayal is experienced as a “death of God” moment. To cope with this loss of his divine hero, Harry takes up the mantle of Santa for himself — to be the figure of good the “real” Santa could never be.

In the present, Harry is busy creating his own Santa suit and fake beard, becoming overjoyed that he has finally completed the ensemble and found his true self. As part of his new Santa identity, he discovers tremendous joy in making his own toys by hand rather than the cheap plastic ones at the factory.

For the rest of the film, we witness instances of great joy and horrendous tragedy. Harry finds out that one of the leaders of the toy company is making empty promises about donating toys to a children's hospital, using these promises of charity as a PR stunt to make more money without concern for the children. Enraged by this duplicity, Harry goes to the hospital himself, dressed as Santa Claus, and delivers the presents he made by hand (as well as some he stole from the factory). As an aside, I think this is a sincerely beautiful moment, and I’ll admit I actually teared up during this scene.

Soon after visiting the hospital, Harry finds the owner of the company at a Christmas Eve church service. Harry plans on killing the owner in revenge but ends up killing three other people in the crowd who harassed him. Harry then flees the scene and escapes to a Christmas party where he spreads Christmas cheer and brings joy to those around him. Again, a beautiful moment.

However, the police are out looking for him, and the next day while Santa Harry is walking through a part of town highly decorated with Christmas lights, families see him and suspect him to be the killer that the police are looking for. However, the children in the families sincerely believe he is the real Santa. One of the fathers tries to attack Harry, but Harry manages to escape.

The police and town catch up with Harry, and he is chased through the streets like Frankenstein's monster. Harry tries to escape in his van, and he accidentally drives off a bridge. But instead of falling to his death, Harry's van flies in the air, and he glides into the night sky like Santa Claus. We are then left to wonder if this is merely Harry's final delusion or if he really was Santa Claus all along.

I left out a few elements from the summary, but that should be more than enough for us to talk about the themes and philosophy at work in the film.

Santa Claus is a deeply embedded archetype within American society. On the one hand, Santa reveals the ideological meritocracy of society — that the good should be rewarded and the bad should be punished without exception. But on the other hand, the figure of Santa stills holds an excess of quasi-liberatory principles outside of that ideology, which is perhaps grounded within the archetype’s origins in the St. Nicholas mythology. Let's break this down more.

Within the Santa mythos, those who are deemed good are rewarded with commodities. Those who are bad are punished with coal. However, the criteria of moral evaluation are left vague. What exactly is it that determines who is good and who is bad? What virtues should the children possess? Should they be following the categorical imperative or maximizing utilitarian good? Goodness and badness are simply assumed standards that perhaps are merely regurgitations of wider capitalist values like working hard, being obedient, submitting to authority, and not complaining. Furthermore, the reward and punishment system neglects material circumstances that might influence a child’s behavior. Growing up in abusive homes will often lead children to certain behaviors deemed bad. But to dismiss the child as merely a bad kid without working to end the abuse and bring healing to the trauma is grossly unfair and disingenuous. It seems that Santa’s evaluations are lacking in this essential nuance.

However, at the same time, there is something positive about the Santa archetype. Santa represents gift-giving instead of industrialized capitalist exchange. This is especially the case when the Santa lore is engaged with the more original and less modernized depictions of Santa in his toyshop making toys by hand rather than in a Fordist factory. There is a gratuity and excess within Santa in that, in its purest form, he wants to bring joy to children by giving them gifts that need no financial reciprocity. Perhaps this is the leftover sense of Christian charitable love from the original St. Nicholas mythos, in which Nicholas gave gifts to children in need. In the Christian understanding, gift-giving is a form of relation that mirrors the grace of God, who gives salvation freely out of God’s abundant love. Indeed, all of Creation is considered to be a gracious gift from God. Of course, charity in-itself is not the death blow to capitalism, but it perhaps shows a type of relation that could help us imagine a post-capitalist mode of relating to one another and to society as a whole.

Additionally, there is something admittedly appealing (at least to me) about Santa's insistence on goodness. The philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that freedom emerges from our knowledge of conformity to the categorical imperative — a universal moral law. In other words, we are free because we are moral agents. Freedom is linked to morality. There are certainly problems and objects to Kant's theory, but if one applies this to the Santa mythos, then there could emerge a possibility of helping children gain a deeper appreciation for their own agency. And helping children become empowered by understanding their own agency — especially that this agency can be used for good — seems to me like a necessary and good aspect of raising children.

But one of the main problems with Kant's theory, as well as the Santa mythos, is that Kant is too individualistic. In order to experience the true flourishing and freedom of a just society, we need each other's help. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be... This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Santa’s failure is not exactly a call to virtuous living (albeit an undefined call), but a call to virtuous living without taking into account humanity’s interdependence upon one another and how moral living cannot truly flourish without communities addressing issues of material, emotional, or spiritual scarcity.

Santa is a naive Kantian, and so is our main character, Harry. But instead of the universal law of the categorical imperative, we have the universality of capitalism. This film hits hard on the alienating effects of capitalism. Toward the beginning of the film, Harry expresses the tragedy of how industrialization and Fordism have separated the laborer from the results of production, resulting in flimsy objects and planned obsolescence. As Harry says, “Nobody here is interested in good toys. ... You've never felt the thrill of making a good toy. And how could you in this (factory)? ... Don't you understand how useful rigidly constructed toys are? How inspirational? Their value goes way beyond making money.”

Capitalism within the film brings about an alienation within labor and a devaluing of craftsmanship, but the narrative also shows the devasting impact of alienation on mental health. There is an unfortunate trope in films (especially the horror genre) where neuro-divergent people and those with mental disabilities are portrayed as monsters or threats. One might initially assume that “Christmas Evil” falls prey to this same trope, but I think the film actually is critical of how capitalist societies treat neuro-divergent people. As we see in the scene at the hospital, it’s entirely possible for Harry to flourish in society. In a better society, Harry would have a community that supports him, helps him, and encourages his gifts, heart, and craftmanship. I’ve seen it happen before in a church ministry that fed the homeless. A neuro-divergent man was one of their top workers in the charity, and his unique gifting was able to flourish and be celebrated. Neuro-divergent people offer a unique gift that could be received by society, but, as we see in this film, more often than not, neuro-divergent people suffer the most from alienation.

Furthermore, “Christmas Evil” shows how the marginalized and needy are neglected by society, and how easily charity can be co-opted for capitalism’s own self-interest. The children in the hospital are neglected on Christmas, and the toy company exploits this reality with pseudo-charity aimed at increasing their own profits. In the eyes of the factory owners (the purest archetype of the bourgeoisie), the children in the hospital are nothing more than a PR stunt to improve the company’s repertoire with consumers. I don't think charity isn’t wrong in-itself. In fact, as I said before, charity radicalized toward a gift-giving relation to society might be a virtue that could help move communities toward post-capitalism. But often, charity is reduced to merely treating symptoms without engaging with the structural causes of those symptoms.

When the alienation of capitalism and the death of God within society (as I mentioned earlier regarding the incident with Father-Santa) are combined, it leads to tragedy. Without a social support system or a wider vision of the Kingdom of God, Harry becomes a law unto himself. In Kantian philosophy, this ought to be a point of freedom: the individual gains autonomy by following the categorical imperative which is given to oneself through the faculties of practical reason innate within the human mind (or something like that). But instead of freedom, Harry becomes his own law is a form of vigilantism that merely radicalizes the meritocracy of his society. The good are rewarded and the naughty are punished. Harry takes that meritocracy and then flips it back onto the people who are most responsible for maintaining that ideological system (as well as some other bullies). If you want only the good people to live and the bad people to be resigned to death, then the exploitive greedy bourgeoise should be punished. However, the film also shows the perils of trying to maintain this revolution using the ideological forms of meritocracy — or, as Jacques Ellul often pointed out, when one’s means are not in accordance with one’s ends. One needs a revolution that no longer abides by the capitalist bourgeois ideology.

Meritocracy is empowered by structural and systemic violence against those deemed “naughty” or not fitting the cultural ideal. Thus, violence can be easily incorporated back into the ideological system. As Martin Luther King said, “You can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.” The pleasure we get when Harry is about to kill that greedy capitalist who exploited children in the hospital shows just how internalized this absolutist and merciless meritocracy has conditioned our consciousness. When the other petty hecklers are killed instead of the factory owner, and their friend is left screaming in pure traumatic horror, we are forced to recognize the misguided ways of this form of consciousness.

All of this is why I think this film is better understood as a Shakespearean tragedy rather than purely a horror film. At the heart of “Christmas Evil” is a tortured soul who could’ve been a force for good. But instead, he is brought down by the tragedy surrounding him. And we are left to wonder what it would take to rearrange our society so that those facing similar plights to Harry might not fall into such tragedy but rather find communities of redemption.