I don’t know about you, but at Christmas I always find myself in the mood for something a little dark and spooky.
Sometimes that might take the form of a classic TV ghost story, like Mark Gatiss’s new 30-minute play The Dead Room (airing Christmas Eve on BBC4).
Sometimes, though, the best thing to do is crack out a Christmas TV special with a difference, where a typically dark TV series offers their own leftfield take on festive television.
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Sure, anything dark or ghostly sits well at this time of year, even if it’s not festive-themed – but there’s something about the cheerful, cozy images of Christmas being twisted into something chillier, spikier, and downright scarier that always lands perfectly with me, no matter how many times I might rewatch the specials.
With that in mind, here are a few Christmas specials that might leave you shivering ahead of December 25th. Watch at your own risk…
Inside No. 9: The Devil of Christmas (2016)
Twisty anthology series Inside No. 9 has created episodes with a grim subtext, episodes that are filmed with surprising ingenuity and plenty of episodes with a final twist that changes how you view the whole story – but rarely have all three elements come together so perfectly than in this 2016 Christmas special, written by and starring Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith.
Styled as a low-budget, shlocky 1970s TV horror movie (which Pemberton and Shearsmith actually filmed on antique equipment for greater authenticity), the episode sees a director (Derek Jacobi) provide a new commentary for one of his old works, based around a family haunted by a terrible Christmas spirit.
As the story reaches its conclusion, however, it becomes clear something even darker is going on…
The X-Files: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas (1998)
This classic festive twist on a haunted house story sees agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) enter a world of paranormal trouble when investigating reports of ghosts on Christmas Eve, making for an unusually blood-soaked Yuletide story.
After dying together in a suicide pact on Christmas Eve 1917, Maurice (Ed Asner) and Lyda (Lily Tomlin) return every year to haunt their Maryland home– and this time they’re looking for some bloody fun with the two agents, pursuing them through their house with illusions, scary noises and other tricks in an attempt to pit Mulder and Scully against one another.
All Scully wanted to do was keep to her Christmas plans, but in the end, she and Mulder manage to find a more comforting kind of Christmas spirit to round off their ordeal.
Black Mirror: White Christmas (2014)
Dystopic tech drama Black Mirror took its first step into the big leagues with this ambitious feature-length episode in 2014.
Weaving three linked stories together (starring Jon Hamm, Rafe Spall and Oona Chaplin) over an increasingly unsettling Christmas dinner, the episode explores the horrors of digital consciousness, an unsettling dating story gone terribly wrong and one man’s technological estrangement from his family, all building to a truly stomach-clenching conclusion.
Overall, it’s unlikely to leave you warm and fuzzy over the Christmas period. And it might even make you think twice before plugging in any new gadgets you’re given on the big day…
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – A Midwinter’s Tale (2018)
A new entry, Netflix’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch “reimagining” only dropped this seasonal special in December 2018, but quickly made a splash with its slightly pagan, magic-infused yet still oddly festive take on the season.
Full of mischievous spirits, mystical Yule Logs, child-catching demons and enchanted egg nog – plus the usual devious plotting from Michelle Gomez’ Miss Wardwell – the episode sees Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) negotiate her new place within the Church of Night, while also bringing a bit of Christmas cheer to the Spellman household.
Sure, the resurrected corpses aren’t THAT seasonal, but it’s still an intriguingly occult look at this time of year.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – A Midwinter’s Tale is available to watch on Netflix
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Amends
Fan-favourite supernatural drama Buffy only did one Christmas episode, but it combined the series’ trademark wit, imagination and action with some festive moments in such a way that the story has lingered beyond its original airing.
In Amends, first broadcast in 1998, vampire Angel (David Boreanaz) finds himself disturbed at Christmas by visions of his past victims, who urge him to murder Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) to relieve his torture. Instead, he decides to end his life by waiting for the sun to come up atop a hill while Buffy seeks out the source of his trouble.
Later, a malevolent force called The First Evil (later brought back as the primary antagonist for the final season) is revealed to be behind the attacks, and Angel’s life (or rather, unlife) is saved when the rising sun is blocked by a surprise snowstorm, incredibly unseasonal in the series’ California setting.
In the end Buffy and Angel walk off together through the falling snow, ready for whatever evil they’ll face next week – and in the Buffy world, that’s about as close to Christmas cheer as you can get.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Amends is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video
Doctor Who – Last Christmas
OK, Doctor Who doesn’t quite fit the “generally dark or spooky” series mould of these other shows, but this 2014 special – Peter Capaldi’s first festive adventure – combines horror movie tropes with Christmassy fun so well that I couldn’t leave it out.
In a mind-bending, dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams storyline that you’ll need a diagram to keep track of, the Doctor (Capaldi) and Clara (Jenna Coleman) defend an alien base under attack by mind-controlling parasites, team up with Nick Frost’s Father Christmas and encounter some old friends within their own fantasies, all building up to a big twist influenced by behind-the-scenes changes.
Basically it’s Alien meets Miracle on 34th Street meets Inception, though it works a LOT better than that description would have you believe.
Experimental and unusual, it’s a stand out among all the Doctor Who Christmas specials so far. Why did it take them so long to consider just making it a bit scary?