by Anders Runestad
Christmas may be the coziest of holidays, but at its heart, it is as ghostly as Halloween. The surface level of twinkling lights, shiny wrappings, carols, bell choirs, feasts, and family gatherings are light years from the celebration of gloom, fear and decay that is less than two months before, yet the comfort and joy of December 25 are deeply intertwined with the great beyond. Whatever one believes, there’s no denying the power of the story of Christmas, involving none other than God, angels, an earthly tyrant, a mysterious celestial object, and a divine new life entering the world—“in the bleak midwinter,” yet warm and safe in a stable full of animals, all so that frequently misguided humanity can be redeemed. This is certainly dramatic, supernatural and extraordinary, and all Christmas stories exist downstream from it.
And, if Charles Dickens’ oft-filmed and endlessly influential “A Christmas Carol” is any indication, Christmas tales should be following the ghost story template as a default. Dickens certainly didn’t shy away from ghosts, with his three Christmas phantoms and the story’s central action kicked off by the arrival of the specter of Jacob Marley. The story even reaches its climatic point by way of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a creepy and Grim Reaper-ish figure who would fit right in during Halloween. So given how much the Dickens story has been adapted and referenced, it’s a little curious that so many Christmas stories in that mass medium of film shy away from the spirits, especially in modern times.
There is, of course, Bill Murray as the Scrooge character visited by John Forsythe’s Marley stand-in from Scrooged (1988), along with endless modern variations on the Dickens story; recently including Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds in 2022’s Spirited. And yet the modern “Christmas classics'' often focus on the here and now, with the supernatural elements relegated to the minutiae of life in Santa Claus’ toy shop. Jon Favreau’s Elf (2003), another one with Ferrell, is definitely in the Santa mold, along with the lighthearted Santa-themed franchises that star Tim Allen and Kurt Russell. The animated musical The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) remains a distinct outlier, the story of a Halloween ghoul who yearns to experience the yuletide.
But what Christmas movies have had the greatest staying power and cult status in recent times? One obvious contender is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), where Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold is in turmoil because of self-inflicted money trouble and the need to look like a big shot. The other clear choice is Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (1983), a blend of eccentric characters and growing-up moments remembered as childhood nostalgia. Both of these films significantly built up over time to the present, where they are still endlessly marketed, merchandised, and watched as a tradition. Given their longevity, this pair of holiday movies may say a great deal about how many people are living their lives today: An endless, grinding addiction to work, and a pining for the freedom of more innocent good old days.
And speaking of those good old days, what were their Christmas films like? Of course, Golden Age Hollywood had plenty of cozy escapism too. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) wouldn’t be out of place in today’s lineup of Hallmark Channel movies, just given a remake (with maybe a country western singer and a soap opera star for the leads). Yet I’m inclined to say that December ghosts were more welcome in the Golden Age. The juggernaut of all sentimental holiday films, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), hinges on the supernatural. Clarence, George Bailey’s friendly guardian angel, is given a role akin to that of a Dickensian future ghost, when George gets to see how rotten life would have been for everyone else without him around. But not every seasonal ghost story from old Hollywood was a clear Charles Dickens variation. For an altogether different group of Christmas spirits who don’t rely on the phantasms of alternate realities or potential futures, take Beyond Tomorrow (1940), from the late Great Depression and right before World War II. There’s more than one ghost on hand at a time, and the story plays out without jumping any timelines. Unlike It’s a Wonderful Life, it did not blossom into a full-blown cult phenomenon but, no matter; that just makes it possible to enjoy Beyond Tomorrow knowing very little about what will transpire.
Without giving too much away, the setting is Christmas Eve in the big city as the film begins, an opening montage establishing that well, and then leaving us in the impressive home of three wealthy business partners played by three extremely recognizable Hollywood character actors. Michael, a merry Irishman (Charles Winninger), Allan, a proper English gent (C. Aubrey Smith), and George (Harry Carey), a hard nosed American, are united in not enjoying the Christmas season as they did in their youth. When they agree to invite a few random strangers into their home to share the evening with them and their servants, they’re rewarded with James (Richard Carlson, the great cool professor of 50s sci-fi), a Texas cowboy who can sing beautifully, and Jean (played by the appropriately named Jean Parker), a goodhearted teacher.
It’s no surprise that the guests begin to fall in love, or that the young couple and the three old-timers become something of a family as the months roll by. But things get increasingly emotional when some of these characters enter the great beyond—I won’t say which—they don’t just leave their friends behind when they need help. And what fascinates and moves about Beyond Tomorrow is how high the stakes are, both on Earth and in the next world. The ghosts don’t immediately go to a judgment and an eternal fate after leaving their earthly lives, and one of them in particular has to make a very tough decision in order to save a friend. There’s no real antagonist here, nothing like a Henry F. Potter, but a series of events that complicate the lives of everyone involved. This storyline probably shouldn’t be compelling, it’s not the standard blueprint for writing dramatic conflict, but it works, largely because the characters are all so likable without crossing the line into cloying.
And this is where the old movie ghosts are at their best. While a modern film like Christmas Vacation is hilarious and takes some great shots at the shallow and vain pursuit of worldly glory, there’s a deeper level to be reached when Christmas stories explore the supernatural. The spirits of Beyond Tomorrow point closer to Christmas’ meaning, and message of hope. They start with selflessness and openhearted caring for others, but don’t stop there. It is that ghost story element that goes looking past the passing concerns of this life and into the hope of eternal meaning in the next one. So let’s not forget that Christmas is a perfect time for ghost stories, and that there’s ultimately nothing to fear about that, only comfort and joy.
Beyond Tomorrow (1940) is available to watch on our Youtube Channel for free here.