The Victorians supposedly had a tradition of telling ghost stories during the Christmas season. I say “supposedly” because there’s some reason to believe Charles Dickens more or less invented this “tradition” as a way of selling copies of A Christmas Carol. Regardless of its original genesis, the association of the winter holiday season with ghost stories soon became a real thing. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: winter is, after all, a season of death and darkness, snow and cold. I think it’s likely that societies have developed bright celebrations and life-affirming myths associated with this snowy season as a way of sustaining people during the harshest part of the year. It is inevitable that the gloom and cold of the season should produce stories of its own.
Winter horror movies have a strong pedigree, including of course all those adaptations of A Christmas Carol and its grim phantoms. More recently, The Shining and The Thing (1982) have become mainstays for those looking for horror served up chilly and snowbound, as well as flicks like the absurdly fun slasher movie Happy Birthday to Me and the monster movie Gremlins, my own favorite Christmas story. For this list, I’m looking at more recent entries in this seasonal sub-genre. While two of these movies take place primarily indoors, the winter weather outside sets the ambiance for the stories. The rest of the movies feature lots of trudging through snow, avoiding (or not avoiding) avalanches, and trying to shelter from awful blizzards.
But the weather’s not all here, nor is it (with one exception) the real source of danger. You’ll find psychopaths, aliens, and monsters aplenty, and yes, maybe a ghost or two, all hiding somewhere in the snowy landscape. So, bundle up and hunker down. The darkest season is upon us.
My Little Eye (2002)
We start our wintry horror movie list with this nasty little thriller which takes place mostly indoors, but whose snowy landscape also features strongly. Five strangers are offered $1 million if they stay in an isolated house for six months while their every move is captured on webcams set throughout the building. One catch: if any of them leave before the time is up, none of them will get any money. Another catch: towards the end of the six months, it becomes clear they are being toyed with, as they are one by one given enticements to leave. The last catch, though, that’s a killer.
My Little Eye came out when the Big Brother show and its ilk had begun dominating television. While some of the beats in this movie may now seem a little predictable, at the time it was released, culture was still grappling with the fact that a surprising number of people were willing to sacrifice their privacy (and dignity) for a little fame and cash. This movie takes that idea to some dark extremes. And like I mentioned, this one is nasty, albeit not very gory. If sexual assault-adjacent material deeply disturbs you, skip this one.
Based on the novel by Stephen King of the same name, Dreamcatcher is kind of a mess. King wrote it while recovering from his near fatal run-in with a van and an inattentive driver, and he now notes it suffers due to him writing it under the influence of Oxycontin. His original title for the novel was in fact Cancer, an idea his wife the author Tabitha King fortunately shot down. The novel and the movie sometimes feel scattershot, moving between bro-tastic humor, science fiction, and intense body horror, and the movie drops some of the explanations that made the novel make more sense.
That said, I have to admit that the movie can be pretty entertaining, particularly for the cast, which features Thomas Jane, Timothy Olyphant, Jason Lee, Damian Lewis, and Morgan Freeman, all of whom chew up the scenery in various fun ways. In the story, a group of childhood friends meet up for their annual winter hunting trip after one of their number almost dies in an accident. When they arrive at their cabin, they come across a sick man lost in the woods. Helping him proves to be a mistake, as a creature tears its way out of him in the most uncomfortable way possible.
Soon, the friends are coping with a military quarantine headed by a sociopath, psychic possession, and violent monsters. Like I said, the movie is kind of a mess, but I still enjoy it. And as far as this list goes, it’s one cold and snowy movie.
The Last Winter (2006)
Cult actor and director Larry Fessenden directed this movie, a horror movie about climate change and the conflicts between environmentalists and drilling companies. In The Last Winter, oil workers and environmentalists share an uneasy peace at a drilling base in Alaska. This peace, already threatened by underlying differences in philosophy, threatens to shatter altogether when members of both teams begin having hallucinations of spectral figures out in the snow. When people begin dying in suspicious circumstances, it’s left to a few reasonable crew members to try untangling what sort of threat they’re all up against.
The Last Winter is enigmatic, leaving many of its mysteries unexplained even as it builds to a climax that opens up onto a broader stage. The movie handles the environmental quandaries it raises very well at the same time as crafting a suspenseful narrative that doesn’t go quite where you think it will, all unravelling in the epitome of a winter landscape.
Cold Prey (2006)
This Norwegian horror movie is a no-brainer for anyone looking for a slasher flick set in winter. After an opening scene in which a young boy runs through the snow chased by an unseen menace, we pick up decades later. Five young snowboarders have sought out an untouched spot on the mountain range Jotunheimen, wanting to avoid the crows. Once they reach their spot, however, one of them meets with an accident that soon has them searching for cover from the chilly weather. They find what looks like an abandoned lodge and retreat inside. Before long, someone in heavy winter gear is hunting them one by one, and they’re forced to defend themselves. This is a pure slasher: no filling, no detours, just young adults fighting for their lives against a masked menace in a deeply inhospitable and well-shot snowy landscape.
The Children (2008)
Evil kids are a staple in the horror genre, from little Antichrists like Damien Thorn to vicious mini-psychopaths like The Bad Seed‘s Rhoda Penmark. Some authors have even made the trope the centerpiece of their oeuvre (*cough* John Saul *cough*). But what most of these tiny terrors have in common is a nature so thoroughly corrupt or supernaturally evil that fighting or even killing them is easily justified. What if, however, it wasn’t their nature that made them so twisted, but some sort of contagion?
In The Children, two couples and their brood of cute kids gather to celebrate Christmas in a house buried in rural woods. When the children begin falling mysteriously ill, their parents and older sibling are disturbed at first. But then the kids start turning murderous and everyone is forced to make horrifying decisions that may leave them traumatized, if not dead. This is a chilly movie in more ways than one.
Frozen is a film in which the cold winter weather plays a central role, basically that of the villain. The plot is simple: three friends staying at a resort want to ski one last time down a nearby mountain. When they convince a ski lift operator to send them up alone, a minor miscommunication results in the lift being shut down mid-journey. Now, they’re suspended high above the snowy landscape. The temperature is dropping fast and they aren’t dressed to spend a night in it. Can they survive the fall to the ground below? And is there something worse than frostbite awaiting them down there if they make it?
This is essentially a survival flick, with nothing supernatural or consciously malevolent working behind the scenes. Just a little mistake, freezing weather, and a lot of awful choices to make.
Devil’s Pass/The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013)
True Story: In 1959, nine hikers died mysteriously in the Russian Ural Mountains. When their corpses were found, some appeared to have died of hypothermia, others of physical trauma. Some were dressed for the freezing temperatures, while others were only in their underwear. For decades, the case has been a favorite for unsolved mystery enthusiasts, armchair detectives, and conspiracy theorists. Although a recent investigation claims to have solved the mystery, an aura of the weird and inexplicable still hangs over the incident.
In Devil’s Pass (also sometimes listed as The Dyatlov Pass Incident), five American students set off to make a documentary about (and possibly solve) the mystery. After encountering strange resistance on the part of Russian authorities, the college kids set off for the region in which the hikers died. There, they will encounter a strange threat compounded by the cold weather and in-group tensions. The solution to the mystery will prove far more bizarre than they could’ve imagined.
This movie should be seen by more genre fans, as it provides genuine scares, a compelling enigma at its core, and a twisted ending. It’s all told by way of footage taken by the students, so it’s excellent for fans of found footage movies (and even for many who don’t care for that style) as well as appreciators of winter horror. Devil’s Pass would pair nicely with another underseen and somewhat controversial flick, YellowBrickRoad, another movie about a doomed set of students setting out to solve a historical mystery.
Better Watch Out (2017)
Luke Lerner is a bright 12-year-old with a big crush on his babysitter, Ashley. Lucky for Luke she’s been tasked with looking after him one snowy night near Christmas. While the kid is trying to get cuddly with the teenage girl, a masked figure breaks into the house. Now, it seems Ashley and Luke will have to fight for their lives together. This intruder, however, proves to have a motivation different than might be expected, and the film changes tack drastically while staying both creepy and funny.
If you haven’t yet had the wild plot twists of this movie ruined for you, please just watch it. Skip the trailers and reviews and give it a try, particularly if you’re looking for a darkly humorous and tense Christmas horror story.
The Lodge (2019)
Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
This is a grim one. Also, excellently acted and paced. Richard Marshall is a writer who met and fell in love with Grace, the only survivor of a cult’s mass suicide. Grace is an intense person, simultaneously timid and closed-off. When his announcement that they plan on marrying causes a family tragedy, his kids turn against the young woman. Several months later, he decides they should all spend Christmas at his winter lodge located in an isolated rural area. Richard is soon called away, and Grace and the kids are left to their own devices in the lodge.
Soon, strange incidents begin frightening them all. Grace’s little dog goes missing, as well as her and the kids’ belongings. They’re miles away from any help, snowbound, and someone, or something, is haunting this makeshift family. What follows is a tense, puzzling, and gradually darkening tale.
Anything for Jackson (2020)
Justin G. Dyck
Anything for Jackson is one of the better horror movies released in 2020. Intense and believable acting is buttressed by sudden, disturbing eruptions of terrifying visions, including an apparition bound to upset those of us who are dentally sensitive. It also does something you don’t see that often, particularly in genre films: it’s primary characters are two senior citizens. And the holiday bona fides of this film are tight. The director and screenwriter both cut their cinematic teeth on the creation of more than a dozen made-for-TV Christmas romantic comedies. After you’ve watched this dark, compelling, and often gruesome winter horror movie, that fact will astonish you as much as it does me.
Dr. Henry Walsh and his wife Audrey are a sweet and seemingly gentle older couple who’ve recently suffered a terrible loss. Their apparently harmless façade, though, is shattered during the first ten minutes of the movie, in which they kidnap a pregnant young woman who clearly knows the doctor. They have a plan for this woman as well as her unborn fetus, and while they strive to be as kind and solicitous to her as kidnappers can be, they’re obviously not going to let anyone get in their way. But plans can go awry, and the Walsh’s will soon learn they’ve opened themselves to worse than they can imagine.
While the majority of Anything for Jackson takes place indoors, the setting is the thick of winter, and a cold pall lies over this tricksy, sometimes darkly funny story about love, grief, and obsession.