Arts: Tainted Tales

Can horror and Santa exist in the same world?

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Sometimes, discovering the truth about Santa can be dark.

“I was 10 years old—or right around that—when I stopped believing in Santa Claus,” revealed actor Courtney Gains, taking a break from signing autographs at the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival, in Portland, Oregon, in early October of this year. “I remember it happened right after my mom took me to see The Exorcist. That movie really freaked me out, and after that, somehow, I just put two and two together and realized there couldn’t possibly be a Santa Claus.”

In any other setting, this sad tale might have drawn sympathy and tears from those who heard it. But because this was a convention catering to fans of horror and dark fantasy, Gains’ story was greeted with soft, appreciative laughter—and at least one cryptic contribution from a few feet away.

“Take down the old myths,” murmured an eavesdropping young woman with bright yellow hair, making eye contact while perusing the book table adjacent to where Gains was seated. “Take them down. Put up new ones.”

Gains is best known for his role as the murderous Malachai in the 1984 horror classic Children of the Corn. Having appeared in nearly 50 films and countless television shows since, he was at the film festival to introduce screenings of Corn, and to talk about Dreams in the Witch House. Originally released in 2013, it’s a heavy metal rock ’n’ roll concept album executive produced by co-lyricist Mike Dalager, adapted from the short story by Lovecraft, and featuring some very intense spoken-word contributions by Gains himself.

Every year, in the months before the Christmas holidays, I ask interesting people to recall the moment they stopped believing in Santa Claus. This year I decided to ask attendees of the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival. Given Lovecraft’s notoriety as the creator of hundreds of gruesome and nightmarish tales, the festival seemed like the perfect place to talk about discovering the truth about Santa, among the most formative moments in a child’s life.

Well, many children’s lives.

“I don’t remember it being a sad moment,” Gains said. “It just made sense to me that no world in which people made movies about demons, and little girls spitting pea soup, could also contain a happy, magical guy who lives with elves and gives presents to kids on Christmas Eve.”

“I never believed in Santa,” said a gentleman standing in line to meet Gains, a few moments later. Giving the name Paco Bloodhammer (“Paco is short for ‘Apocalypse,’” he said), the 40-ish gentleman was dressed in black, and wore his long beard in a braid that stretched down to his chest. He was also bedecked in a baseball cap emblazoned with the words, “Cthulhu for President 2016.” Asked why he never believed in Santa, Bloodhammer shrugged.

“My dad was a non-observant Jew and my mom was a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness,” he said. “Santa was just never their thing. They asked me, I kind of remember, when I was really little, if I wanted to do the Santa thing, and I said no, not really.”

Philip Gelatt, writer/director of the 2016 horror film They Remain—starring William Jackson Harper, of The Good Place—had a somewhat similar loss-of-Santa experience to that of Gains.

“Weirdly, my recollections of the time in my life when I was beginning to doubt the existence of Santa Claus are all tied up with my memories of reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark,” he said, just after a screening of his film. “You know that book, right? It’s this collection of really terrifying short stories in which terrible things happen to kids. In my mind, the shock of learning that Santa Claus was not real is wrapped up in the shock of reading those stories about monsters and ghosts. I remember it was a very upsetting time.

“But then I got over it,” Gelatt continued, with a grin. “And now I make really scary movies. So … ho-ho-ho.”

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