The Gift that Keeps on Giving: The Incarnations of “And All Through the House”
By Brian Keiper
Holiday horror has been part of Christmas celebrations for longer than many will even acknowledge. The tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas has been common in parts of the world for centuries. The greatest Christmas story of all time, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843), is, of course, a ghost story that includes a number of frightening elements, some of which are rarely included in the many film adaptations of it. The seasonal horror tradition was largely scrubbed from American celebrations in the 20th century, but eventually, holiday-themed horror stories and movies worked their way back into the holidays. Perhaps the most enduring of these in the modern era is the grisly little tale “And All Through the House.”
The story was both written and illustrated by Johnny Craig, known at William M. Gaines’s EC Comics for his naturalistic drawings and preference for the psychological elements of horror over the gore that EC had become notorious for. “And All Through the House” was published in the February 1954 issue of The Vault of Horror, the first issue for which Craig served as editor-in-chief. The brief story begins with a woman killing her husband with a fireplace poker on Christmas Eve as her daughter, Carol, sleeps upstairs. She then goes about disposing of the body as an announcement comes over the radio warning of an escaped mental patient dressed as Santa Claus in the area. She hears a knocking at the door and looks out the window to see the maniac lurking outside. She goes to call the police but stops realizing that her husband’s body is still laying in the living room. She hastily grabs some wood and nails from the cellar and begins boarding up windows and doors. She runs to her daughter’s room but discovers that her bed is empty. She races back downstairs to find her daughter saying, “look mommy! Look! Santa Claus is here! I let him in!!” as she holds the hand of the maniac.
Watch YouTube Video: EC Comics Original Version of “And All Through the House”
It is a perfect example of the kinds of stories Gaines published in Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and The Haunt of Fear. The story is told from the perspective of a person who is or has done something unsavory, they are caught up in a frightening situation, and receive a comeuppance appropriate to their crimes, usually with an element of an O. Henry style twist. Johnny Craig tells the story with speed and zest but also leaves the more gruesome elements to the reader’s imagination. In his original story, we do not see the wife kill her husband nor do we see the maniac dressed as Santa attack her. We are assured in the story that the killer will not harm children, so we know that little Carol will be safe though we assume orphaned after the final page.
Unfortunately, within the year, EC’s horror comics were no more as Gaines was forced to cease publication on September 14, 1954, due to the restraints of the new comics code. The code was the result of Congressional hearings on juvenile delinquency in which psychologist Frederic Wertham was the star witness. His book Seduction of the Innocent (1954) blamed comics of all kinds, particularly horror comics, for the rise in behavior problems and delinquency among children and teenagers in the 1950s. This is clearly an absurd charge, but Gaines failed to make an impression on the Congressional committee, forcing the comics industry to self-police — some would say self-censor — as the code was extremely restrictive. The legacy of EC Comics, however, has had a lasting effect on the horror world, inspiring a generation of creators including George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Robert Zemeckis, and Stephen King among others.
By the 1970s, EC Comics had gained cult status. Though it had been out of publication for nearly twenty years, producers Max J. Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky of Amicus Productions were keen to make an anthology film based on stories from EC’s horror comics. Amicus was created by the two New Yorkers in the 1960s as something of a rival to Hammer Films and used much of the same talent in front of and behind the camera. Anthologies were the bread and butter of Amicus for a decade. All seven of their portmanteau features have their strengths but the crowning achievements are 1971’s The House that Dripped Blood and 1972’s Tales from the Crypt.
“And All Through the House” has the distinction of being the latter film’s first segment, starting it off with quite a bang in the form of a fireplace poker to the back of the head. Here, the murderous wife is played by Joan Collins and, unlike in the original comic, we see her perform the deadly act. One of the most effective elements of this version is the accompanying soundtrack of traditional and sacred Christmas carols. Collins cleans the poker, says goodnight to her daughter, and hefts her husband’s corpse out of the living room all to the strains of “Once in Royal David’s City” and “Away in a Manger” issuing from the radio. Director Freddie Francis effectively juggles the simultaneous problems conveyed in Milton Subotsky’s script. She is cleaning up after the murder of her husband, keeping the maniac outside her house at bay, and all the while doing her best not to wake her daughter. The segment has the feeling of the clean-up sequence after the shower murder in Psycho (1960) combined with the stalking sequences from Halloween (1978) with a dash of Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). It is funny, tense, and above all creepy. Of all the versions of “And All Through the House,” this remains the most iconic and effective of them all.
For this reason, when Fred Dekker was called upon by the producers of a new television series based on EC Comics stories to adapt the tale, he was skeptical that it could be topped. Dekker was also in no position to turn down a job at this point in his career. Though his first two films Night of the Creeps (1986) and The Monster Squad (1987) are revered cult classics today, they were not successful at the box office. When one of the producers of the upcoming Tales from the Crypt television series (1989–1996), Joel Silver, hired him to write the episode, he was elated but worried. Robert Zemeckis, who had become one of the major players in Hollywood by 1989, was to direct this new version of “And All Through the House.” Dekker and Zemeckis worked together to break the story and expand it into something that would work in a thirty-minute time slot. This required several changes to be made to the original and Subotsky versions of the tale.
In this iteration, Mary Ellen Trainor plays the wife, and the murder sequence at the beginning is far more gruesome than in either previous version. There is a great deal of kineticism to the proceedings as she drags her husband’s body out into the snow, struggles with the maniac on several occasions (injuring his arm with an axe at one point), and figures out how to deal with her competing situations. Dekker adds the element of the wife deciding to make it look like the maniac killed her husband for an extra dash of complexity. The episode strikes the balance of terror and gallows humor that would become the hallmark of the HBO series.
According to Dekker, Zemeckis filmed exactly what he wrote and didn’t change a single word. “And All Through the House” was the first episode produced for the series but aired as the second story of a three-part pilot on June 10, 1989. The show would go on to be a huge success, running for seven seasons. It provided early opportunities to many new voices, innovated new technologies, and played an important role in the rise of premium television. We may well have never gotten The Sopranos (1999–2007) or Dexter (2006–2013) without Tales from the Crypt. The episode itself has become a holiday horror staple and remains one of the series’ most beloved.
It is fascinating how enduring this little tale has been. What exactly is it about this story published nearly seventy years ago that remains so effective today? Why something is or isn’t successful is practically impossible to know. Perhaps it’s the simplicity of the story, the fact that it can be bent to various times, or its familiar domestic setting. The fact is, “And All Through the House” could be remade again today and work just as well. I think the biggest reason it works is it preys upon two major fears. First, that danger can visit us from the outside. This is the “evil is out there” story that has always fueled our nightmares. The second and more complex fear is that our dirty little secrets will be found out. This is the uncomfortable truth that we as humans are not only capable of evil but harbor it within ourselves under a veneer of civility. With these two types of fears wrapped up in a humorous and ironic package, you happen upon a gift that keeps on giving: a story that makes us squirm at our own shortcomings but allows us to pretend that they belong to someone else. Whatever the reasons for its success, “And All Through the House” remains a gift to holiday horror fans. 🩸
Brian Keiper is a featured writer for Manor Vellum. Brian’s also written for Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, F This Movie!, Ghastly Grinning, and others. Follow him on Twitter @BrianDKeiper.
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