Krampus: Austrian children fear the festive bogeyman - now a new film helps the rest of us see why

Every 5 December, a demon known as Krampus stalks naughty Austrian children. Now, with festivals and a film bringing the beast international fame, Holly Müller explains why the resurgence of this ancient and brutal tradition is nothing short of petrifying

Holly Muller
Thursday 03 December 2015 20:57
No escape: the Krampus will chase children down with his ‘ruten’, a small bundle of sticks, ideal for whipping
No escape: the Krampus will chase children down with his ‘ruten’, a small bundle of sticks, ideal for whipping

I'm half Austrian and have always known about Krampus. He's a devil, with horns and hooves, goat legs and a long, spear-like red tongue. He carries chains and a bundle of birch twigs as a whip. He was my favourite foil-wrapped chocolate figurine in the goody box sent by my Austrian granddad each Christmas; he was the evil counterpart to confectionary St Nikolaus.

For me, growing up in the UK, Krampus was just a game – a bit of fun. But what my Austrian relations experienced is far more sinister, far crueller than any of that: Krampus visited them in their childhood homes on the evening of 5 December (the night preceding St Nikolaus's feast day) to punish them for their transgressions. St Nikolaus brought gifts, handed out oranges and nuts to any well-behaved siblings, or left treats in their boots placed outside the door, but Krampus brought coal and ruten, bundles of sticks to beat children with. Parents used Krampus as a threat throughout the year to control their brood: Behave, kinder! Or Krampus will get you! Just you wait! And if the warning went unheeded, they arranged for a house call.

On an icy night, amid the snow-capped mountains and manicured beauty of an Austrian village, it is not a mythical demon that hunts you, but your own neighbours. They come to find you where you live. They are masked, wielding whips and chains, and drunk on the schnapps offered at every house. To you, a small child, they are actual devils that haunt your nightmares; you dread them for months, trying desperately to be good, pretending to your friends that you aren't afraid, that you don't care. But when they come, a pack of them following St Nikolaus as his petrifying henchmen, your heart hammers and your mouth turns dry. Their strange voices send a shiver down your spine – they shriek like banshees and clamour to look in at the windows while you cower within, the shutters hooked open to expose you to the night. You dare not glance at the dreadful faces pressed to the glass. You know they've come for you because you've been bad, refused to go to bed on time, played truant, or fought with your sister.

There is a loud bang as the front door is flung wide. You jump with fright, praying fervently, sobbing. But it's too late for that. The Krampuses surge over the threshold, shake their chains as they approach along the hall, then they're in the room, leering, glowering, tongues hanging, guttural growls filling your ears. You can't escape them, you can't switch on the light and make them disappear; you can't call to mama for comfort. She and papa stand nearby and watch with arms crossed while the demons lash you with sharp sticks. Then St Nikolaus begins to read a list of your bad deeds from his magic book, his face solemn, disapproving beneath his tulip-shaped bishop's mitre, the heavy crucifix around his neck glinting amongst the folds of his glorious robes, his white beard wagging. "Show me that you know how to pray!" he commands. You drop to your knees and begin reciting a Hail Mary, but before you can finish, one of the Krampuses grasps you roughly by the scruff and slings you into the creaking basket on his back. He takes you out of the house, into the cold air and darkness. You know he is going to drown you, or eat you, or take you to hell. You holler for forgiveness, peering through the gaps in the wicker for a sign of salvation, hoping to be rescued. But no one comes. It is the end of you.

Many of my Austrian relatives and friends have similar tales of Krampus. They tell them with a shudder, or a strange smile. My dad admitted that even when he was old enough to know the Krampus was only a man in costume, he couldn't help being afraid. Their bulky, shaggy shapes provoked primeval terror. "It was always the waiting that was the worst," he said. "The silence before the onslaught." In the 1930s, the Krampus tradition was prohibited in Austria, thought to be too traumatic for children, and for many years the practice fell out of favour, continuing only in isolated rural areas. But Krampus is now enjoying a resurgence, both in Austria and Bavaria, and also in America, where the custom is recreated in the spirit of entertainment, and street parades of hundreds of Krampuses attract thousands of spectators. Like a reversal of Halloween, straddling silliness and sadism, fun and fear, it's an excuse for adults to wear hideous latex masks, horns and hulking demon costumes, as monstrous as possible (try Googling Krampuslaufen and you'll see), and to frighten children. The chatter online and on US TV contains much laughter and gleeful disbelief about the "sick" tradition from Europe, so much cooler than saccharine-sweet Santa and his elves. "Join the Krampaign! Bring some darkness back into the holiday season," people say. "Teach spoilt brats about the harsher things in life. Let's get pagan! Enjoy yourselves!"

Stateside interest in Krampus has sky-rocketed in recent years, driven by the media and the publication of books such as Krampus, the Christmas Devil by Krampus postcard collector Monte Beauchamp, and the illustrated fantasy novel Krampus the Yule Lord by the artist Brom. Online sharing of Krampus images increases year on year, videos making their way from German-language YouTube channels to American blogs; Krampus now even has his own comic-book series. He has also featured in an episode of American Dad, Scooby Doo, and the series Grimm, as well as being discussed on The Tonight Show where Austrian actor Christoph Waltz explained the Krampus tradition to the host, Jimmy Fallon. "It's a Catholic country – it works through traumatisation", he said; "You have to remember Sigmund Freud was Austrian."

Scary movie: Emjay Anthony as Max, who inadvertently conjures the Krampus, a horned demon

As an indication of just how mainstream Krampus has become, Hollywood has released a film called Krampus, which screens in UK cinemas from tonight: the usual American yuletide tropes but with a gigantic, CGI Krampus thrown in. They blithely reinvent the tradition, pairing Krampus with Santa Claus, and granting him menacing sidekicks including a carnivorous jack-in-the-box; there is a snatch-and-grab feel to it all.

I wouldn't want to be accused of bah humbug, though, or of resisting change for the sake of it. Aren't customs always evolving, being altered and adopted into different cultures? European Krampus was itself poached by the Church from ancient Alpine traditions; it was reinvented and attached to St Nikolaus as late as the 17th century. There are many regional variations in Austria itself, and many similar but differently named dark servants of St Nikolaus found in Germany, Holland, Switzerland, and Alsatian France, but the Krampus (deriving from the German word krampen, meaning claw) is thought to originate in pre-Christian culture. Some associate him with the Horned God of the Witches, or the son of Hel, who rules the realm of the dead in Norse mythology, as well as Alpine mountain spirits called Perchten. The birch whip – aside from its phallic symbolism – has been linked to certain initiation rites of witch covens. The Krampus's chains might represent a Christian attempt to "bind the Devil", but in any case, it is clearly a mixture of heathen folklore and Christian doctrine, blending Krampus with Satan to enforce Catholic ideologies about sin, penitence, confession, and fear of God and hell.

Initially, the US attraction to Krampus seems to have been about his brutality, his disciplinarian nature, and adults craving a counter-balance to the leniency of modern-day child rearing, as well as a novel salve for their disillusionment with the glitzy consumerist excesses of American Christmas. Ironically though, Krampus has rapidly become commercialised – just another market to be exploited and another form of hedonism. Sales of costumes and masks, cards, Krampus T-shirts and ticketed events are burgeoning. Krampus parties, balls, and festivals are springing up everywhere, with annual Krampuslaufen in Portland, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and dozens of other American cities. LA Krampusfest, a multi-venue sell-out event, is now heading for its third year, hosting Krampus-themed happenings throughout December, including Krampus art exhibitions, a Krampus choir, Austrian Oom-pah-pah and street parades with performances from the popular LA Krampus Troupe. Al Ridenour, the director of LA Krampusfest, says that they do strive for some authenticity, inviting those "knowledgeable in the tradition to present public lectures and slide shows, as well as contribute articles on the topic".

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But the Krampus Rumpus party, the climactic event of Krampus Season in LA, is anything but authentic: a bizarre cocktail of Halloween culture, role-play, street theatre, carnival, fetishism, and heavy metal, with a generous dash of Oktoberfest. Costumed guests come to partake of faux-Austrian festivities; they wear lederhosen and dirndl, blow Alpine horns; Stiegl beer is served at the bar, with DJ KRAMPWERK spinning discs, and performances of the YouTube hit "Here Comes Krampus". At the centre of it all are people dressed as various interpretations of the Krampus, competing in the costume contest: some look like cartoon devils with red painted faces, and others wear more traditional wooden masks and shaggy-furred suits. There are Krampus-themed burlesque performances, spilling on to the back patio where you find the "Krampus Spankery". Here, a handful of adult "children" have all the naughtiness beaten out of them by seductive, switch-wielding Krampettes. Then the doors are thrown open and the Krampus LA Troupe arrive to terrorise and flog the festival-goers. To finish, there is a raucous stage show with music from bands such as KRAMMPSTEIN, originating from Salzburg, Austria, but now located in LA. They describe themselves as "the high-concept, hard-rocking industrial Ragnarök of Rammstein hybridised with the horns, pelts, and masks of our favourite Alpine devil".

Holy horror: men dress as Krampus – a demonic counterpart to St Nikolaus

I can't help finding it all a bit crass – a bit asinine and grotesque. Still, I'm not glorifying the older, Alpine version either – far from it. There is a far more unsettling side to the "real thing" than I can find in any of the American revelry, and one that is human rather than demonic. On Krampus Night, my Austrian relatives tell me, it is not uncommon for things to get badly out of hand. A custom aimed to correct and control unleashes a kind of anarchy. Men and boys dressed as Krampus are notorious for sexually harassing girls and women when wearing the identity-concealing masks. Note the imagery on some 19th-century Gruss Vom Krampus postcards, portraying the Krampus's long tongue thrusting towards a young girl, or licking her cheek.

The schnapps-soaked Krampuses often turn vindictive and beat up boys, too. One Austrian man I know was severely lashed as a youngster; another chased and terrified, his glasses dislodged and crushed to fragments by the pursuing Krampuses; an elderly Austrian woman recounted the head injury sustained by her sister after a brutish wallop from a Krampus. Another was recently hospitalised in Salzburg, and some Krampus parades now enforce the numbering of participants so that they can identify people in the event of such crimes. It appears that something happens to the men when they are in the Krampus role – something dangerous. Like a masked voodoo trance, like the immoderation and orgies of masked balls or carnival season (another big event on the Austrian church calendar), the Krampus masks seem to let loose what is normally hidden or suppressed. Usual boundaries fall away; forbidden urges are given outlet. Can a simple mask transform us; change us? Or does it simply permit the demon already within to emerge? It's a theme I was inspired to explore in my forthcoming novel My Own Dear Brother, as well as in a PhD thesis on mask-wearing.

Austria is, as Waltz acknowledged, devoutly Catholic, a culture that arguably contains no small measure of sadomasochism in its ideologies, its people no strangers to religious guilt. The considerably more liberal Viennese branch of my family complains about the rather narrow outlook – traditionalist, conservative, and conventional – that characterises much of Austrian society. They express little wonder that the sadistic Krampus tradition finds a place there. They feel real concern and serious dislike, seeing it as evidence of something wrong in the Austrian psyche. One wryly pointed out that the bundle of twigs Krampus carries is also called a faschi, a symbolic item used in the Roman senate to represent the power to judge and sentence – it is also the root of the word Fascism.

So, now Krampus is back and hitting the big time, spreading further afield. With the Krampus film showing imminently in UK cinemas, and the accelerating effect of the internet, I wonder how long it will be until Krampus-fascination takes root among the British, following in America's footsteps as we so often do. Of course, it's compelling. Horror has a garish allure and playing the baddie is by far the most fun. But ought we to be a little careful? Austrian child psychologists are still pushing for a ban, calling the tradition a malicious disciplinary aid, instilling fear; they ask why we want a symbol of brutality and sexual threat, control, power, patriarchy and base aggression when there is so much of that in the world already? Should we ask ourselves then, whether we really want to invite this creature into our Christmas, into our homes – into our children's nightmares?

Holly Müller's novel, 'My Own Dear Brother' (£14.99, Bloomsbury), will be published in February; @mullerism

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