Of the many holiday specials that have aired on television, from Frosty the Snowman to A Charlie Brown Christmas, very few have come with a parental advisory warning over violent content. That changed in 1989, when HBO debuted “And All Through the House,” an episode of Tales From the Crypt in which a psychopathic Santa Claus wields an axe and terrorizes a single mother on Christmas Eve. (In true Crypt fashion, the protagonist is single because she just murdered her husband with a fireplace poker.)
The story may have pioneered a novel holiday horror trope: a Santa who is far more naughty than nice.
Santa’s slaying started in the 1950s, when the market for morbid tales was at an all-time high. Tales From the Crypt and other EC Comics anthologies—in which amoral characters get their comeuppance in ironic and frequently violent twists—were popular but courted controversy. One cover of a woman’s disembodied head dripping blood for Crime SuspenStories #22 was thought to be particularly inexcusable. At a Senate hearing on comic books and juvenile delinquency in October 1954, EC publisher William M. Gaines could only muster a feeble defense of his lurid product. Asked if he thought the image was in good taste, he said, “Yes, sir, I do. For the cover of a horror comic.”
The fallout resulted in the formation of the industry’s self-censoring Comics Code Authority and the eradication of many of Gaines’s goriest (and most popular) titles. But the EC aesthetic endured—particularly in the form of one story that featured Santa on a crime spree.
“And All Through the House” was originally published in The Vault of Horror #35 in early 1954, just prior to the Senate scolding. In the story—written and illustrated by Johnny Craig, who also conjured that infamous Crime SuspenStories cover—an unnamed woman terminates her unhappy marriage on Christmas Eve with “one swift blow of a poker.” As she contemplates how best to dispose of the body, she has to grapple with her young daughter, Carol, who’s anxiously awaiting the arrival of Santa Claus. But a different Santa is lurking—a maniac dressed as Saint Nick has murdered four women, and is reported to still be on the loose.
The comic story is a scant four pages, just enough time to introduce the characters and present a mild twist: tiny Carol has let the killer into the house, believing him to be Santa Claus.
With its perverted sense of seasonal cheer, “And All Through the House” became a memorable EC story, and one that was frequently revisited. In 1972, production company Amicus released a Tales From the Crypt anthology feature film adapting the story; Joan Collins plays the widow, and Santa is largely absent from the 12-minute segment until the very end.
Subsequent movies like Christmas Evil (1980) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) depicted a marauding Santa. Film critic Gene Siskel dubbed the latter “quite sick”; the critical furor led to television ads for the movie being pulled.
"Quite sick" is what HBO’s incarnation of Tales From the Crypt was going for. The series started with mega-producer Joel Silver (Die Hard, Predator), who purchased the rights to more than 500 EC stories in the 1980s. Silver marshaled directing heavyweights Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), Richard Donner (Superman: The Movie), and Walter Hill (The Warriors) with the promise they would be able to capture the lurid EC tone thanks to HBO’s gleeful lack of decorum. The premium cable channel had little concern for sex, violence, language, or an axe-wielding Santa.
“While we were filming [Who Framed Roger Rabbit], Joel mentioned that he was working on getting EC Comics on cable, and I thought that was a smart way to do it,” Zemeckis told author Digby Diehl in 1997’s Tales From the Crypt: The Official Archives. “I knew Tales From the Crypt would never succeed on network television. They’d ruin it. If it was going on cable, I told him I was interested.”
So beloved was “And All Through the House” that it became the second episode of Crypt and part of a three-episode premiere on June 10, 1989. Zemeckis helmed the segment himself, which he shot in between Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future sequels. The adaptation was written by Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad). Zemeckis’s wife, Mary Ellen Trainor, played Mrs. Kamen, the scheming widow; Larry Drake appeared as Santa.
There was some shock value in casting Drake, who at that point was best known for his portrayal of Benny Stulwicz, a kind-hearted man living with intellectual disabilities, on NBC’s legal dramedy LA. Law. (Drake won two Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmys for the role.) His Santa was a largely silent cipher who hunts Trainor while she tries to figure out a way to make it look like he’s the one who killed her husband.
“I wanted something different,” Drake said of the role. “I don’t worry about my image. I didn’t have an image before L.A. Law, and I don’t want to have it forever.”
Zemeckis was somewhat challenged by the fact the story had been previously adapted in the 1972 Crypt film. “I wanted to start fresh,” he said. “I didn’t want it to look like we were trying to remake the prior film. I went back to the comic book—there were lots of images that I wanted to evoke or replicate, including the final image with Santa Claus.”
Drake’s Santa doesn’t actually kill anyone onscreen; his four prior murders are only reported on the radio. Unlike in the comic, he has time to stalk his victim, who realizes she can’t summon the police because of her husband’s fresh corpse. By the time Santa is let inside the house by the guileless daughter Carrie Ann (formerly Carol), it’s time for the Crypt-Keeper to close out the episode, assuring viewers that Santa didn’t harm the kid. (The wife, one assumes, is another story.)
The lack of extreme gore may have been one reason “And All Through the House” got a more tepid response than Silent Night, Deadly Night, which drew protests. The Washington Post critic Tom Shales declared Drake’s casting “tacky” and the evil Santa premise one that “stinks.” Tucked away on pay cable, it was deemed tasteless but not worthy of a moral panic.
Tales From the Crypt wasn’t totally done with Christmas: In 1994, John Kassir, who voiced the Crypt-Keeper, released a holiday album, Have Yourself a Scary Little Christmas. The show itself wound down in 1996, after seven seasons—though there have been attempts to mount a new version, most recently with M. Night Shyamalan. If it is revived, it’s likely “And All Through the House” will once again be resurrected along with it to spread some holiday fear.