THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE CHRISTMAS FILM
Updated: Jul 27, 2018
ARCTIC LION CULTURAL THEORY
Whether it is being shown a glimpse of an alternate reality or memories of the past, being on the edge of suicide, divorce or the delusion of being transformed into Santa Claus, I believe the American Christmas film has a hidden formula that says something deeply disturbing about humanity, bizarrely glossed over by superficial, saccharine themes of family togetherness and holiday joy.
Simply put, the Christmas film is either a coming of age story or a return to innocence. It is about a child becoming an adult or the reverse, an adult remembering what it is to be a child.
Coming of age stories, such as Home Alone, A Christmas Story, Gremlins or A Charlie Brown Christmas, are well documented. The often family oriented plot causes a maturing process and hence a greater understanding in the child protagonist. Elf is essentially a coming of age story but is about the realisation of adulthood as the main character is already an adult.
But looking at the other side of the coin, what I’m calling the return to innocence stories are not grouped together under one banner and yet, in my opinion, they are more psychologically interesting as a collective of films.
The basic structure goes something like this: a disenfranchised individual has some dreamlike psycho-spiritual experience that questions their fundamental principles and so they are renewed as a different (and debatably, a more morally conscious) individual.
In American cinema in the 1990s and prior, the main character in the return to innocence stories tended to be a cynical, middle-aged, white male and so it is very important to note that whilst many of my examples fit this stereotype, I am not suggesting that the formula is exclusive. In the future of cinema, for both the sake of representation and artistic quality, we need to move away from stereotypes so that new, richer, deeper, interesting, and different stories are told even if they fit within the same character or plot structure.
It is also worth noting that this formula does not exclusively fit Christmas films, indeed much of American cinema deals with the midlife crisis and overcoming cynicism, such as American Beauty, The Apartment, or A Serious Man.
In general, Dickens’ Scrooge character is the archetype in this formula. Applying Scrooge, the formula substitutes in a circumstance or trait such as depression, divorce, debt, death, selfishness etc. Then the character has to overcome this conflict through a spiritual miracle, in Scrooge’s case, via the psychoanalytical visitations of ghosts, which show him his former self. Often, the shadowy cover of night or the overuse of drugs, in particular alcohol, masks the miracle. This allows the audience to suspend their disbelief and suppose that the fantasy is a hallucination or a dream in the character’s mind.
This psycho-spiritual experience brainwashes the character through relentless torment until a point where they are essentially beaten into submission of a new ideology. For instance, in Scrooged, Bill Murray’s character is tortured by being shown his funeral where he is literally burned alive. The scaffolding or the mechanism behind the curtain of reality is revealed and thus, the character questions the fabric of their identity, mortality and purpose. This can also be seen in Groundhog Day and The Family Man.
The trauma of this experience forces the character to take on a child-like state concerned with the immediate and the localised. In the extreme, the character is tortured into a delusion, moving from a space of cynical understanding to a neo-innocence, which is often a blinkering of reality. The character accepts some spirit (not necessarily the Christian God – it could be fate or reincarnation or enlightenment or Kermit the Frog). This new state of mind could be read as some achievement of mindfulness where the character focuses on the present and immediate connections and priorities, such as family or friends, but this often masks an acceptance of failure to conquer the initial instigator of the cynicism. For example, In It’s a Wonderful Life, there is not much resolution to the conflict with Henry Potter. In Bad Santa, the character derives satisfaction from the realisation his own cynicism, failure and immorality as they become reaffirmed as part of his identity.
It is unquestionable the main character in the formula achieves a sense of happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment through acceptance, for happiness can simply be the state of fulfillment within certain means. Whilst the problems still exist, their achievement is in tackling the issue with positivity rather than negativity. However, negligence is not necessarily the solution when a film can always remember that it is simply a story, meaning when the end comes (unless there is a sequel) it bares no lasting consequences that are shackled to the character. Additionally, the idea that the psycho-spiritual experience the character goes through is often a morally warped process of being toyed with by a higher power in order to become more ‘moral’ is questionable. For example, The Grinch is a disenfranchised pariah that rejects consumerism and society. He can only overcome this through an awakening caused by mad acts of violence and crime.
So the Christmas film is not simply a frivolous, cheery children’s movie, it is a coping mechanism. It can be read as showing weird and absurd fantasies of the mind in order to understand and overcome some form of trauma or deep rooted mental illness or psychological delusion. So next time the family gather around the fire to watch Jingle all the Way, remember this, what may look like an innocent film could in fact be a bleak introspection into the degradation of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s psyche.
Hamish Muir 15th December 2017