The Scariest Christmas Movie

by Tom Ingram

The worst fears come from within.

That’s why they don’t show you the monster. Your mind will come up with better monsters than their special effects people if it’s just shown a glimpse of hair and a claw. The monster isn’t a fictional construct, it’s part of you. It comes from inside.

The scariest thing in the world, next to spiders, is nothing at all. Vague existential dread that sits like a bowling ball in your stomach is one of the worst feelings you can have. Enemies can be defeated, monsters slain, tyrants overthrown, but the all-pervading sense of your own mortality, inadequacy, and meaninglessness is inescapable.

That’s why everyone’s favourite Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is the most horrifying movie ever made.

I’m in the uncommon position of never having seen the movie all the way through, which makes me especially qualified to express this opinion. While I’m aware of the full plot of the movie, I’ve only seen the first half where George Bailey sees his hopes and dreams slowly torn apart before his eyes.

Merry Christmas!

That puts the movie into perspective for me: a bright-eyed, hopeful young man with big dreams gets caught up in the business world, and before he knows it twenty years have passed and he’s stuck in a hopelessly banal existence. He attempts suicide, but is convinced through feeble trickery to accept his place in the world. He goes home happily and never questions anything ever again.

There is nothing inspirational or uplifting about the movie. Its message is clear: be satisfied with what you’ve got. Don’t try to improve your life, and if you’ve got any aspirations beyond being well-liked in Bufu, New York, might as well forget it now. It is a message of submission and complacence, the very laces of the boot stomping on the human face. Personally, I blame Jimmy Stewart.

The fact is, Jimmy Stewart is just a nice guy. He brings such a loveable charm to the film that it’s difficult not to like him. You feel like you know him personally as you watch him grow up, suffer tragedies and experience great joy. He feels more like a sibling or close friend than an actor you’ve never met. A complete stranger who’s managed to accept that he’ll never accomplish his big dreams seems almost heroic. But when it’s your sibling or best friend with the box of old drawings they can’t bear to look at anymore, the violin languishing under the bed, the Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, it’s a tragedy.

He’s the man who makes the movie. If any other actor had starred in It’s a Wonderful Life, it would be a moderately watchable movie with a vaguely feel-good ending. Hey, that guy solved his inner turmoil. Good for him. Now what’s on TV? But this is Brigadier-General James Maitland motherfucking Stewart we’re talking about, and his presence alone makes the film into an epic work of tragedy.

It’s a Wonderful Life taps into the universal fear of failure, of dying and returning to the earth forgotten. Maybe it’s good that we’re afraid of failing–to the extent that it keeps us working. But this is a movie that shows you the futility of even trying, and says you might as well give up now. Instead of actually doing something, use all your effort to justify whatever you’re doing right now.

So this year instead of watching It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time, pick up A Christmas Carol–any movie version. It’s a story about happiness, about learning to become connected to humanity, about redemption. Instead of wallowing in misery and self-loathing for two hours, watch a movie that shows all the great things humanity can be, if we’re just willing to work for it. When the movie’s finished, go out and do something charitable. How’s that for inspiration?

Merry Christmas, everybody.