He wasn’t handsome or well-dressed. In fact, he wasn’t dressed. He was the size of an elf, made of fuzzy red chenille. But most striking—considering he arrived in a box of gifts from Vienna in December—was that he had a devilish head with horns and clutched, not a gift, but a bundle of ominous twigs.
Why was my Austrian friend Susanne sending me a pipe-cleaner devil?
“That’s the Krampus,” she told me when we spoke. “Before Christmas, on December 5, the Krampus shows up at houses where children have misbehaved.”
“Why is he holding sticks?”
“Birch switches to beat the bad children.”
Whoa. And then she told me the Krampus drags the really bad ones down to the underworld!
It was love.
The name Krampus comes from the Old High German word krampen, which means claw. (There were no claws or tail on my pipe-cleaner version, and the chenille made him seem almost cuddly.) Some say the Krampus’s mother was the Norse god Hel. In Germanic countries, the Krampus and Saint Nicholas are pretty tight and sometimes hang out together in that good cop/bad cop sort of way. Krampus (and there are actually gangs of them) is Saint Nicholas’s unforgiving, dark sidekick, half goat and half demon, with claws and a serpentine tail.
I have empathy for all animals, and that goes for half animals as well. I feel for mermaids, of course, but especially for creatures drawn from Greek mythology: satyrs, fauns, centaurs. And let’s not forget Pan, with his goat horns, legs, and hooves—all of which have been bequeathed to the Krampus, along with Pan’s primal, animal impulses. The Krampus, too, lusts after women. According to nineteenth-century holiday greeting cards called Krampuskarten, he even drank champagne with them. He was particularly drawn to those who were guilty of any of the seven deadly sins. The text on my favorite Krampuskart—the one where a woman is practically sitting on the Krampus’s lap, raising her champagne—reads: WHIPS AND CHAINS AND PEANUTS AND ORANGES … AND A LITTLE FIRE.
The Krampus, whom I suspect is largely a teetotaler, since I’ve only seen him drinking twice (though rumor has it he likes Schnapps), is not drinking in this drawing, but he certainly has fire in his eyes. Where Pan was impulsive and merely lusty with the girls, a spontaneous sort who was never judgmental, Krampus always ventures out with an agenda.
We crave the Krampus’s gothic, goaty intensity around the holidays. Shoved aside for the commercial glitter of Santa, he deserves his day in the sun, or rather the moon. Unless he starts leaving store-bought gifts, his kind is not useful to a culture of commerce; I suspect that’s why he never really made it here in the U.S. But a good feature film could change all that. Which leads me to this: I think it’s high time Krampus play the misunderstood, romantic lead villain in cinema.
Imagine my disappointment last winter when a film called Krampus came whimpering into theaters. I went with my nephews. Rupert, eleven, was far more terrified of a trailer for a film about a doll that comes to life than he was of the Krampus. Sure, the Krampus and his nasty sidekicks had a foreboding, terrifying presence throughout, but we rarely saw him: he had what amounted to a mere cameo.
Omi, the German grandmother in the film, spells it out for her grandson, who foolishly rips up his hopeful letter to Santa and offers the shreds to the wind: the Krampus, she warns, shows up when people have lost all vestiges of the true “Christmas spirit.” Omi tells the family that Krampus took everyone in her family in post-World War II Germany except her, explaining: “He left me as a reminder of what happens when hope is lost, when belief is forgotten, and when the Christmas spirit dies.”
But this ignores so much of what makes him great. Like the villains in fairy tales, the Krampus has style. He knows how to make an entrance. He wears chains and bells—I love a little “musical” flair with my villainy—which give him an ominous omniscience. It brings to mind the nearly supernatural stealth of Robert Mitchum, who sings as he stalks two children in 1955’s The Night of the Hunter. The young boy, John, hiding in a barn, awakens to see Mitchum on the horizon; he appears as a foreboding black silhouette on his stolen horse, man and horse as one, the sky illuminated behind him as he pursues them during the night. “Don’t he never sleep?’ John asks.
Mitchum is terrifying even without horns, hooves, pointy ears, or tail. Of all the classic actors suited to play the Krampus, my vote would go not to Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Gary Oldman (Nosferatu), or Robert De Niro (what an empathetic “monster” in Frankenstein) but to Mitchum, that child-hunting predator preacher, for his ability to embody dark-souled sinister intentions with relentlessness. Nobody can scream with more “animalistic rage,” as the Guardian put it. Because bottom line, the Krampus is a beastly beast, a demon-goat hybrid who lusts to punish.
When I was in first grade, a second-grade boy named Alan Strissel picked up a piece of industrial wire and whipped it at me, missing my face by a hair. I didn’t flinch. After I passed his “test,” we walked home from school together every day and watched horror movies at his house. Maybe this is why horror movies are forever tinted with romance for me—sitting next to Alan, who wore cowboy boots and put his arm around me while we watched TV from a floral covered sun-porch swing, all those supernatural villains were misunderstood to my first-grade mind. I liked the Wolf Man, who was good at heart and simply out of control.
To me, Frankenstein’s monster had more humanity (and was way cooler) than Dr. Frankenstein. Robert Mitchum and Jack Palance had a dangerous edge, an aura of ruthlessness that nice, noble and righteous types like Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne couldn’t seem to muster. But my view is not the popular one; the world vilifies a villain, even a pretend villain. When Mitchum had the misfortune to die the night before Jimmy Stewart, it was Jimmy whose face made the front page of the papers here in New York. Saint Nick, as usual, will steal the limelight—and it’s true, he’s rosy cheeked and more pleasant, despite the fact that some say it’s Saint Nick who asks the Krampus to do his dirty work for him in the first place.
“Krampus brings onions, coals, and pain,” said Susanne, who has firsthand experience with the offerings of the slithery-tongued goat demon. She’s found her share of onions (she speculates that was her mother’s invention) mixed in with oranges and sweets on the morning of December 6. Why? “I was a wild kid, fighting with boys and ruining my ‘cute dresses,’ ” she explained. “Maybe that was the reason for the Krampus stuff.”
Krampus is famous for being the punisher, but his material offerings might be construed as practical, particularly during the winter months. Who couldn’t use an extra onion in the soup or more coal in the furnace? And let’s not forget that he’s a real ladies’ devil. Sadly, this luxuriating, indulgent, party-animal side of him seems to have fallen out of fashion. My dream Krampus feature film/biopic would encapsulate the erotic beauty of Krampuskarten. To cast his love interest, we’d do screen tests with several stars: Bettie Page (because the queen of bondage was not adverse to a little spanking and a few chains; she could be his dominatrix accomplice); Lauren Bacall (to summon the Krampus you just put your lips together and blow); and the quintessential fairy-tale heroine, the girl to break his heart—Fay Wray (King Kong was mad for her) in a diaphanous gown, forever out of reach. The picture would be heroically filmed in black and white, and directed by James Whale or possibly Neil Jordan for his empathy for the vampire.
Unlike the Vampire, the Krampus won’t drink you, he’ll have a drink with you, and when he’s entertaining a young lady, his chains and switches are purely for recreational use. Fay Wray, of course, will take one look at his horned, cloven-hoofed demonic chain-slinging majesty and faint. Lauren Bacall would be just the woman to whip him into shape, have him eating out of her hand and doing her bidding … but Bettie Page, well, she’ll dress for the occasion, bring out his playful side, and have a spanking good time.
The Krampus is not the one-dimensional villain the Santa lobbyists would have you believe he is. He has depth. Whatever you think about him, he will likely deliver. The Krampus has pansophical insight, superpowers if you like: maybe he uses his horns as antennae to tune in to naughty children and anyone else emitting hopeless vibes. You get the feeling the chain-draped, bell-ringing, switch-bearing, punishing sidekick to Santa can sense your despair on the wind. (When he’s not relaxing and pursuing the ladies, I mean.) And by the time you hear him coming … it’s too late.
Laren Stover is the author of Pluto, Animal Lover, Bohemian Manifesto, A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, and The Bombshell Manual of Style. She writes for the New York Times and the New York Observer and is the editor at large of Faerie Magazine.