The holidays are here and what better way to celebrate than by curling up with some eggnog and a classic Christmas movie? Most people opt for staples like Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life, or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. But if you’re a fan of horror, chances are your tastes are a little darker, and you’re more likely to be found watching Bob Clarke’s slasher classic, Black Christmas.
Black Christmas is a psychological slasher film which follows a group of sorority sisters as they receive obscene phone calls and are picked off one by one by an unseen killer, just in time for the holidays. Largely credited with spawning the slasher sub-genre, Black Christmas is all about subversion. As its title suggests, this is a film which takes the innocent and twists it into something dark and unrecognisable.
Unrecognisable too, is the person Claire Harrison (Lynn Griffin) has become to her father, Mr. Harrison (James Edmund), when he comes to pick her up from school for the holidays. Standing in her bedroom at the sorority house, Mr. Harrison is appalled by the sexual themes of the posters on the wall, and the photographs of young men adorning her bedroom. He intends to make a complaint, but what he doesn’t realise is that this is simply who his daughter is now. She’s not a child anymore, but her own person.
Mr. Harrison also doesn’t seem to realise that a new decade has dawned, leaving the patriarchal and repressive ideals of its predecessor far behind it. During the women’s rights movement of the 60s and 70s, women fought against discrimination on the basis of sex, and argued for equal treatment in the workplace and beyond. Black Christmas is a product of its time, and the feminist idealism of the era is largely reflected in its female characters, most obviously in Jess Bradford (Olivia Hussey).
Jess embodies the 70s idea of a modern woman: independent, bright and autonomous. She is rational, intelligent and clear-thinking, traits in diametric opposite of her emotional, whiney, and dependent boyfriend, Peter (Keir Dullea). The differences between them are most apparent in their interactions. For example, in one scene, Jess calmly reveals her pregnancy and decision to have an abortion, and Peter responds in abject anger and indignation. Jess remains calm, explaining that this is her choice, not his.
Jess also upholds the feminist idea of solidarity between women, such as when she accepts one of her sorority sister’s desperate invitations to go skiing when it’s obvious she doesn’t want to endure the holidays alone. Jess’s attitude toward other women prevails in bigger ways as well. At the end of the film, she is instructed to calmly walk out the front door and leave the killer inside with her sisters, who are asleep upstairs. Instead, she chooses to rush back upstairs and warn them, risking her own life in the process.
Despite her progressiveness, Jess is still held back by the suffocation of the past. The first time we see her, she wears a black sweater bearing a graphic of white hands stretched across the chest, which she wears over a yellow collared button-up and matching yellow paints. Silhouette wise, she’s dressed quite modernly, but the abstraction of hands around her breasts suggests that she’s still dragged back, both physically and idealistically, into the past. She’s still an object of the male gaze, as well as the male touch.
And she’s not the only one. Claire Harrison’s bedroom, the one that angered her father so much, is another example of this paradox of progressiveness. Although she adorns her room with images of sex and free love, the wall paper behind it is in a bright yellow colour embellished with a repeating pattern, much like the walls in Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s early feminist text, The Yellow Wallpaper.
In this text, the central character is confined to her bedroom by her domineering husband as she is plagued by postpartum depression and visions of the wallpaper coming to life. Like Jess, Claire is unaware of the symbolic significance of her surroundings, and she has haphazardly slapped suggestive posters and photographs over the wall. Despite Claire’s forward-thinking nature, the threat the wallpaper represents still looms in the background, threatening to pull her back through time at any moment.
And pull her back it does. The men of this film have a lot in common: Peter, Mr. Harrison and the killer himself are all suffering from a loss of control. Women have gotten away from men, in a sense; they are no longer able to control their daughters, their girlfriends – their victims. So what do they do? In the case of the killer, they reduce them to a more malleable state: death.
In the first kill of the film, the unseen, unnamed killer hides in the closet before pouncing on Claire and suffocating her with a plastic dress bag. We see this kill through his point of view, a technique which both obscures his identity and allows him to embody the male gaze. Once she is dead, he can do whatever he pleases with her; she has unwillingly conceded all control back to a man. As we see later on, the killer brings her body up into the attic, where he sits her in a rocking chair and places a baby doll in her lap. The doll infantilises Claire, regressing her to a child-like state through death, a state which the killer is finally able to maintain control of.
This theme is perpetuated in the killer’s final victim, Barbara (Margo Kidder). In her death scene, perhaps the most beautiful death scene in slasher history, Barbara is stabbed to death with a glass unicorn, a creature associated with purity and childhood. Although we never see her or anyone else in the film have sex, Barbara is coded as the “whore,” and this subversion of such a pure symbol into something phallic and deadly brands her as such, and reduces her back into the child-like death state.
Although the men of the film want nothing more than to control the women around them, ironically, it is the women that are mature and composed, and the men who act child-like and irrational. When things don’t go their way, they act out. Peter throws a fit and smashes a piano, Mr. Harrison threatens to make a formal complaint over nothing, and the killer breaks out into a fit of rage in the attic, screaming like a toddler and breaking everything in sight.
Luckily, the women of the film have banded together in order to defend themselves from the men. Their lives may be in peril, but they stand by each other’s side, supporting one another emotionally and otherwise. They are compassionate and mature where they men aren’t, and we see them as real people because of this. The women are fleshed out, the killer is not. In fact, he is not even given a name, only a pair of hands, a hysteric voice over the phone, and a wild eye gleaming from the dark of the attic.
The killer may have changed the female characters of the film irrevocably, but they are still whole human beings, while he remains forever in pieces: a touch, a voice, a gaze. In the end we leave the film with a lasting impression not of its killer, but of its women, forever cementing Black Christmas not just as a Christmas horror classic, but as a feminist essential.
by Kat McCollum
Kat is a graduate of St. Edward’s University with a degree in English Literature. She loves curling up with a good horror movie, and her favorites are Rosemary’s Baby, The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. She writes fiction, poetry, and reviews, and you can find her at https://katmccollum.medium.com. She lives in Austin, Texas with her chunky but lovable pet rat, Kirby.
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