The holiday season is filled with a lot of joyous times with family, as well as an endless deluge of forced, faked cheer. The last thing anyone wants to see on TV this time of year is a contrived brand of sentimentality that oozes smarmy overacting, which is where many holiday specials fall. Luckily, they're not all cheesy, and many sci-fi episodes that creep and crawl around your half-wrapped gifts are anything but saccharine. Think zombies attending a Dickens reading in Victorian finery, a homicidal Santa Claus, and snowmen that have a craving for human flesh.
If you’d rather go to another planet than another party or deck the halls with horror instead of holly, marathon these nine not-too-Hallmark holiday specials and use it as the best excuse ever to not drag yourself to another gift exchange involving ugly sweaters.
V the Series, 'Reflections in Terror' (1984)
Never accept suspicious holly corsages from deceptively sweet old ladies selling them on the street corner. If you happen to be the human-alien halfbreed Starchild, it's an alien trap to prick your finger and preserve a drop of your blood long enough to get it back to the mothership and manufacture a clone that will inevitably escape its incubator and take off on a murder spree. Because the whole flesh-eating doppelganger thing isn’t scary enough, this voracious reptilian extraterrestrial evolves in a blob of green mucus through which you can see its face warping into something vaguely human. Now imagine this thing looks exactly like you when it emerges. After watching this, you’ll deck the halls with anything but holly.
The X-Files, 'How the Ghosts Stole Christmas' (1998)
Christmas Eve must be that one night a year the Ghostbusters take off, because otherwise Mulder and Scully wouldn’t have to be visiting to the most stereotypical haunted house ever in the middle of the night. What’s even more chilling than the desiccated bodies found under the floorboards are the ghosts who look so human that you'll question whether they really are ghosts... until you see the gaping gunshot wound in the back of the dead man's head. Then things really get terrifying when the spirits infiltrate the FBI agents' brains and try to manipulate them into using their weapons the wrong way. Creepy, but if you think about it, isn’t A Christmas Carol just one fancy Victorian ghost story?
Pushing Daisies, 'Corpsicle' (2007)
Snowmen generally don't hide the bodies of murder victims (or murder people, in general). Nothing gets an investigator in the holiday spirit like frozen cadavers, especially when his sidekick can make the dead come to life just by touching them once (and send them six feet under by touching them again). That’s one way to get a victim to talk. Corpsicle is like a Halloween special dressed up in tinsel and tacky elf costumes, with floating mermaids, unsolved murders, and questionable pies made with a recipe that may or may not involve mood-altering drugs. Don’t underestimate what an unnaturally bubbly charity head who has her own way of granting wishes can do with a baseball bat, either.
Doctor Who, 'The Unquiet Dead' (2005)
There couldn’t be a less picturesque place — even in Victorian England — to spend Christmas Eve than a funeral parlor, especially when the corpses start zombifying and walking out to see a live Charles Dickens reading. The author is skeptical about the glowing blue phantom that emerges from the dead woman’s mouth and frightens his entire audience out of the theater, but it even scares the dickens out of Dickens when the forces behind this reanimation reveal themselves in a séance and claim to be an endangered species of aliens called the Gelth. Except the Gelth aren’t endangered. They’re only trying to manipulate the humans to open a portal through space and time (and borrow their corpses) so they can take over the planet.
The Twilight Zone, 'The Night of the Meek' (1960)
Mall Santas are everywhere — and the bane of many a parent’s existence — during the month of December, and while you might suspect a few of spiking their eggnog, nothing says creep in red suit more than some kid screaming "Santa’s loaded!" Then things really begin to get weird for the scraggly barfly when he discovers a mysterious bag on the side of the road. It only looks empty until people give him their Christmas wishes and he magically pulls out everything from a smoking jacket to (ironically) a bottle of cherry brandy. Just the bag doesn’t mean you’re actually turning into Santa, but a sleigh parked by the side of the rode and equipped with a full team of reindeer waiting to spirit you away to the North Pole might.
Black Mirror, 'White Christmas' (2014)
Holiday office parties are dreaded for a reason. It must be slightly more exciting when you crash one looking for romantic prospects with a really questionable dating guru telling you what move to make through a neural network. As in he's literally the voice inside your head. This all works out for one unfortunate test subject until he realizes he’s trying to seduce someone who really does hear voices inside her head and has a radical plan to obliterate them that was probably fueled by too many martinis. The same brain implant turns another disembodied subject into a sort of Ghost of Christmas Future. Spoiler: Not everybody lives in this episode. If Elon Musk is reading this, he might want to think twice about cyborg-ifying us.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 'Amends' (1998)
Sorting things out with people you might have been on shaky terms is something almost everyone resolves to do around the holidays, but making amends with ghosts and inhuman forces is an entirely different undertaking — especially when you're a vampire. Sometimes the humans whose blood you feasted on over a century ago will come back to haunt you. As if that isn't disturbing enough, they can do it through an entity that can morph into any one of them because she is more powerful than any angel or demon in existence. Saying a vampire is possessed is kind of a double negative, but this is close. Buffy only thinks she's having issues with humans while her vampire boyfriend battles something that could destroy him.
Doctor Who, 'Snowmen' (2012)
Carnivorous snow meets Victorian values in this antique nightmare haunted by ice ghosts and ravenous flesh-eating snowmen. If that doesn’t scare you enough, just try imagining you’re a kid whose dead (and unforgivably nasty) governess emerged frozen from the pond in your backyard to stalk you in the shadows, pointing her finger in your face and accusing you of having been very naughty. That doesn’t even touch the fear factor of the alien being that is using a mad doctor to take over the world. Best scene ever: the Doctor uses a hand puppet to shatter the ice wraith by pointing his sonic screwdriver at her. This is also the episode that spawned the iconic phrase forever associated with Matt Smith: "Bowties are cool."
American Horror Story: Asylum, 'Unholy Night' (2012)
Psychotic even behind that white polyester beard, Ian McShane is the serial killer Santa in this madhouse of torture techniques, blasphemous nuns, and doctors who have a Ph.D. in sadism. The patients are also far from the most disturbed people in this place. You know a so-called holy woman is possessed by a demon when she doesn't really care about the horrific story behind those ruby earrings being dangled in front of her so long as she can get them in her claws. Never mind that they passed through some deranged woman's intestines multiple times before killing her. Oh, and that twinkling tree? Look closer and you'll see people’s dentures, IV bags, prosthetics, hair bows and all sorts of other questionable 'ornaments.'