Over the last few years, Hallmark Christmas movies — thinly scripted rom coms based around a truth, universally acknowledged in late November through December, that a single woman committed to her career must be in want of a husband, preferably a hometown widower raising a child already out of diapers — have shifted from cheap purgatory for formerly bankable prime time stars to quasi-ironic centerpieces of the winter comfort-TV binge-scape.
Their predictability is part of the allure; leave the Hallmark Channel on and you can drift in and out of consciousness safe in the knowledge that the snack in a sweater who works with his hands will plant a single chaste kiss on the lips of the efficient corporate henchwoman who finally learns the true meaning of Christmas at exactly two minutes 'til credits roll, right as she decides to give up her lonely, pitiful life in New York to be folded into the loving bosom of this life-size snow globe into which she has stumbled by accident or emergency holiday week assignment or both.
Overwhelmingly white and Christian, these movies dramatize the attainment, after the requisite miscommunications and crises of faith, of a specific American suburban fantasy that seamlessly blends the following ingredients: a nonthreatening career that never demands evening and weekend work or relocation; a heterosexual marriage to a handsome employed man who values family, with at least one child guaranteed; and a palatial suburban home located within walking distance of one or both sets of parents, surrogate or real.
And yet a recent episode of the podcast "A Very Hallmark Christmas," hosted by Loree Stark and Medium columnist and former i09 editor Rob Bricken, breaks down the many ways in which the Hallmark film "A Veteran's Christmas" veers into barely concealed horror territory. Consume enough of Hallmark's addictive confections and you start to see the horror isn't a one-off, rather it's baked into the entire enterprise: these films are a smorgasbord of gaslighting, emotional abuse, and passive-aggressive forcible confinement, with entire communities conspiring to sabotage competent women into accepting less ambitious, more domesticized roles in which their considerable gifts are only allowed to be used in service of hot widowers and their small towns, to which they will be permanently bound going forward. If the heroine resists, the narrative suggests, she might find herself joining the parade of dead girls who came before her.
As Hallmark's Countdown to Christmas grows more manic and self-aware every year, it's only a matter of time before the network realizes, due to our collective hunger for psychological horror and crime stories, that the terror lurking beneath their cookie-flavored romances is a feature, not a bug. After all, the ingredients are already there. Here are some stock Hallmark Christmas movie scenarios that show how easy — an ominous music cue here, a lingering reaction shot of confusion there — the transition will be.
"God Rest Ye, Meredith"
It’s the Saturday before Christmas, and all the flights are already full when advertising hotshot Meredith has to make a last-minute trip to St. Louis to meet with a major client threatening to drop her firm’s contract. If she saves this account she's a lock for promotion, and everyone’s counting on her. She's not leaving for that much-needed solo vacation to Aruba until Christmas Day, anyway. So Meredith rents a car and starts driving.
When a deer appears out of nowhere in the middle of the highway somewhere in Pennsylvania — that was a deer, wasn’t it?—Meredith swerves and loses control. Fade to black, to the wistful sounds of acoustic guitar.
She wakes in a bed. She's in a cozy bedroom decorated with handmade quilts and … wearing women’s cotton pajamas? Whose pajamas are these?
Meredith scrambles frantically for her phone, desperate to know what day it is, to tell someone she's still alive, to find out where exactly she is, and who put her in these clothes. There’s a knock at the door and a man wearing a flannel shirt enters, followed by a little girl bearing a tray. Hush, he says. You need to rest. Someone’s been working too hard.
He feeds her a spoonful of oatmeal while the little girl beams. I made it myself, she pips. The world goes black again.
Every time the man visits in the bedroom Meredith asks him for her phone, and he looks at her like she's a disappointment. Is work all you care about? He shakes his head and whittles a sharp point onto the end of a stick. Whatever happened to living in the moment? He holds the stick up to the light, testing the pointy end with the tip of his finger.
Drink the cocoa, he commands. With shaking hands, she picks up the snowman mug and obeys.
It’s been three days according to the giant Advent calendar taking up an entire downstairs wall of the cabin, which she sees when she finally has the strength — and courage — to creep downstairs. Meredith catches a glance in the mirror and starts. Someone curled her hair and applied a pink tinted gloss to her lips while she slept.
Want to make snow angels now, the little girl chirps from behind her. It’s not a question.
Meredith pulls on the boots and coat the girl hands her — they’re not hers, but they do fit — and follows her outside to see the cabin completely surrounded by impenetrable woods, no neighbors as far as her eye can see.
Let’s play a game, Meredith says brightly. Let’s see who can sing “Jingle Bells” loudest. Meredith lies down and sings and sings and sings, her arms flailing against the snow. She's screaming really, but nobody comes, nobody can hear.
“Dance In Her Head”
Lauren was almost fired today. Her head hasn’t been right for a while now and the director, he knows it. But when he lost his temper during rehearsal for the big holiday show, she looked at him, and she looked at her broken feet, and thought about all those years she spent in ballet class, in love with the costumes and the shoes and the way the music made her forget her sadness over her mother dying and her father spending more and more time at work until “The Nutcracker” became the only Christmas tradition they would share, and she didn't even know if it was worth it anymore. You know what? I quit, Lauren said, and out she walked.
She collides with the stranger in a very expensive suit in the lobby of the performance hall, and while she apologizes over and over while scrambling to pull all of her stuff back into her bag, including two bills stamped OVERDUE, he starts talking fast in a British accent about how he was looking for her, actually, he’s seen her dance and he’s seen how good she is with the little girls in the company and on behalf of his employer he’d like to offer her, Lauren, a temporary job for the holidays, and he quotes her a number she hasn't heard since her dad’s last tuition check bounced after he was laid off by a greedy corporation and she had to drop out of school and really make a go of dancing professionally. And now that’s gone. Merry Christmas!
How much did you say? She looks up to meet the man with the vaguely British accent’s gaze. There’s a catch: The man is boarding a plane in an hour and if she wants the job, she needs to come now. My employer is a very exacting man, he says. I’ve arranged everything. Is that her passport in his hand?
She's whisked by limousine from an unfamiliar airport to her destination, which turns out to be an actual castle. The very exacting boss? He's an entire king of this sovereign micronation Lauren's never heard of; his daughter, the princess, doesn't want to be put on display for the royal performance of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy that she must, as tradition dictates, perform for her subjects every Christmas, so Lauren's job is to ensure she executes the program flawlessly.
The princess has sad eyes and mentions her dead mother at least once an hour. Princesses don't go to therapy. The entire staff seems obsessed with the late queen, in fact, and every person describes her a bit differently, like they all saw something uniquely special in her.
The king's been giving Lauren the eye while she runs the princess through rehearsals and sure, everyone knows it's bad form to flirt with the boss, but he seems so sad, and plus, he's cute. And hey, Lauren's only temporary, right? She'll be heading home after Christmas. There's no internet in the palace and none of the other staff members will look her in the eye, even when she inquires directly on the whereabouts of her passport, so sure, Your Royal Majesty, I'd be happy to help you practice your waltz.
The butler or whoever the guy is who hired her walks in on them and the king beats a hasty retreat. Lauren's flustered, she knows this is inappropriate, please don't fire me, she begs. But the butler is beaming with approval. I haven't seen the master so happy in . . . a while, he says with an approving smile. Lauren blushes, because of course she does, and pirouettes on her way to her chambers because she's spunky like that. Master?
The next day while rummaging through a storage room for a sled that she and the princess can take to play hooky from royal obligations, Lauren stumbles across what looks like a royal family portrait, but the woman sitting next to the king with the princess on her lap is not the woman whose portrait hangs on the wall in the castle entryway. She's not the woman whose face graces the country's currency, either, none of which Lauren has had a chance to spend because there's always some reason why she can't be driven into town. Behind it are five more — the princess, it's weird, she looks exactly the same — but in each portrait, a different woman wearing the crown.
How many queens have there been? And where did they all go? Is something — someone — killing the wives? Lauren has a bad feeling about this. She needs to find her passport and get to town somehow. Someone will help her there. She's sure they passed a town on the drive in. Didn't they?
Hello, miss. The butler, or whatever he is, whispers in her ear. She turns around, trembling. He places the crown atop Lauren's head and bows, then sweeps backward to reveal the king standing behind him, holding out his hand, an expectant smile playing on his lips. Or shall I say Merry Christmas . . . Your Royal Highness. The butler's eyes go black, then the king's. The crown tightens around her skull.
"Carol of the Dells"
Carol had avoided her small Wisconsin hometown like the plague since she left for college twelve years ago and moved to New York to build a law career. But when her boss dispatches her in mid-December to help close a crucial land acquisition deal for a major client, she agrees to go with the promise that this deal could help her make partner in the new year.
She spends the first morning trying to answer emails and calls from her boss while dodging her mother’s attempts to get her to ditch work and bake cookies.
"Where's your Christmas spirit?" her mother demands.
"It's only December 15th, and I'm trying to dial into a meeting. Do you want me to get fired?"
She slips out to place her very complicated latte order in a coffee shop overloaded with Christmas decorations. Jack, who grew up next door to her, pops up from behind the counter.
"Hey there, stranger!" he beams at her. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"
She went on one date with Jack in high school — to Junior Prom — because her mother made her ask him when she and her actual boyfriend Spencer were on a break. The handmade presents he'd leave on the back porch for her, Boo Radley-style, escalated in ambition after that, until she made Spencer tell him to stay away. Jack watched her every move with binoculars from his window instead, and she didn't open the blinds in her bedroom for two years. Ugh, Jack. Of course he still lived here. Of course he owns this twee café.
"I never thought I'd see you back here," Jack says. "Carol the high powered lawyer, too good for Christmas in the Dells!"
"I'm just here to help my client who's buying the old Doc Wagner property to develop it into vacation condos." Jesus Christ, what a weirdo.
"Have you forgotten that's where the town has our annual Christmas Eve party?" he whines. "Don't you care about traditions, and Christmas, and Christmas traditions?"
Carol walks away with her latte. Someone mutters "stuck up bitch" behind her, but when she whirls around to say something, nobody's there. She heads to a table to study her files, but she can't focus. She catches herself humming "Ding Dong Merrily on High" on the walk over to Doc Wagner's house, where she runs into Jack again. He's a property manager, too?
"There's Carol the genius! Carol with the New York apartment! Carol the cat lady!" Jack's smile is wide, menacing.
Carol opens her mouth to tell Jack to get bent, but he cuts her off. "Vacation condos are great and all, but has your client ever thought about getting into the annual town Christmas Eve party production business instead?"
Is he high? she thinks, but she hears herself saying, "That's a wonderful idea. And we can do it without cutting any jobs!" Wait, what? Her brain feels foggy, like it's packed with fake snow. She tries to run down her mental checklist for the upcoming negotiations, but all she can think about is a game plan for winning the town's annual Deck the Halls Tree Trimming Race. Of course if she's going to take home the Golden Gingerbread Man, she'll need to make partner. No, she needs a partner. What about . . . Jack?
The next week is a blur of Cookie Party Dance-Offs, Silly Sweater Scavenger Hunts and midnight snowball fights with Tom the town's mascot reindeer. Carol can't quite remember how she ended up sleeping in her childhood bedroom again, sending Morse code flashlight messages about Secret Santa strategy to Jack next door. Didn't she used to have a job? She lived alone, she thinks, far away in a city where snow shows dirt. She must have a life to get back to, people who are wondering where she's been. Maybe once she leaves town, she'll be able to remember, to think clearly again . . .
Her rental car gets as far as the edge of town before a 12-foot pine tree falls, blocking both lanes. When the sheriff's car pulls up, Jack gets out, wearing a badge. He drapes a shock blanket around her shoulders and drives her home.
With every Christmas-themed event, part of her memory fades. Her phone rings and rings, but the caller ID names mean nothing. Finally she drops it into a donation kettle on her way to the town's annual Christmas Eve party, where she and Jack dance to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" while everyone who watched her grow up beams at the sight of them together. This is enough, she thinks, and she daydreams about the new muffin recipes she'll make to serve in Jack's café after Christmas. This is all I'll ever need.