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Michael Dougherty’s Krampus: Interpreting The Ending

Krampus ending

Six years after Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat was dumped to video, after sitting on a shelf for a couple years prior, his follow-up Krampus spread holiday fear at the box office this past weekend. Much to the delight of the horror community – or at least the fans who actually like horror movies – the film surpassed expectations, garnering both rave reviews and an impressive $16 million in domestic sales.

Not only is Krampus an original horror movie – based on an ancient legend that had somehow never before found its way up on the big screen – but it’s also a damn good one, as well as one of the most fun theatrically released horror films of the past decade. Family-friendly yet not afraid to be mean-spirited and scary, it’s the sort of wildly imaginative movie that Hollywood just doesn’t really make anymore.

If you saw Krampus this past weekend, good on you for getting out there and supporting original horror. You are awesome. If you haven’t yet had the chance, I don’t fault you for that, but I do strongly encourage you to avoid reading any further until you do. As you probably gathered by the title of this post, spoilers aplenty will be found down below, as we’ll be discussing the ending of the film. You have been warned!

In a way there are two twist endings in Krampus, and the first brings along with it the realization that Max had, in so many words, imagined the events of the film. After Krampus kills his whole family and tosses him into the fiery depths of what is presumably Hell, Max wakes up in his own bed on Christmas morning. Downstairs, he finds his family opening up presents by the tree – happy and very much alive.

A normal Christmas is exactly what Max wanted, and the film seems like it’s going to end on a very happy note. But then Dougherty hits us with another twist. The camera pulls back to reveal that Max and his family are in some sort of hellish snow globe, which Krampus sets down in his underworld lair. They’ve seemingly become part of his collection, suggesting that the film’s events weren’t a dream at all.

The assumption one might derive from the second “twist” is that Max and his family are literally trapped in Hell for the rest of eternity, doomed to live out that particular Christmas morning on an endless loop. Spending eternity inside of the perfect Christmas memory doesn’t seem all that terrible, but that interpretation of the ending certainly makes it a mean-spirited one, as it indicates the whole family is dead.

But is that what Michael Dougherty really intended to convey? Did he give us a happy ending and then immediately rip it away from us in favor of a super depressing one? It’s certainly a valid interpretation of the film, fitting in line with Krampus’ penchant for taking rather than giving, though my personal take-away from the ending was the Dougherty was imparting genuine holiday cheer. Allow me to explain.

The way I viewed Krampus, the events of the film weren’t an extended dream sequence but rather a hellish vision that Krampus forced Max to see – think A Christmas Carol, which was obviously an influence on Dougherty. Since Max learned the lesson Krampus wanted him to learn, the vision, in so many words, did not end up coming true. It would have, of course, if Max didn’t learn his holiday lesson.

It was immediately after Max lost his inner Christmas spirit that Krampus and friends arrived, and it was precisely because he lost sight of the true meaning of the holiday that they came knocking. Max wished that his family would go away, and by taking him on a nightmarish journey, Krampus showed Max that what he thought he wanted wasn’t what he wanted at all. Max realized that, and so Krampus gave him his family back.

But how is it a happy ending if they’re all trapped in a snow globe? Well they’re not, really. The way I saw it, that was just Michael Dougherty’s way of showing that those snow globes are Krampus’ portals to the real world. He has one for every family, and when they’re not respecting the spirit of the season, he strikes. He’s keeping tabs on every single family in the world, quite literally like an evil Santa Claus.

As for the bell that Max opens up on the happy Christmas morning that may or may not be real, I viewed that as Krampus reminding Max that he’s watching, and letting him know that though none of those awful things actually happened to his family, it was all more than a mere nightmare. Should Max lose sight of the Christmas spirit again, Krampus will return, as the family is forever under his watchful eye.

Though he may not be as cute or cuddly, it seems clear to me that Michael Dougherty views Krampus in much the same way he does Trick ‘r Treat‘s Sam. Like living, breathing cautionary tales for their respective holidays, both Sam and Krampus exist for the purpose of teaching people to respect, appreciate, and uphold holiday traditions and values – and if they don’t, well, you know what happens to them.

Do you agree that Max’s family got a happy ending or are they all dead? Sound off below!

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If you don't get enough of me here on Halloween Love, you can also find me on Dread Central, iHorror and Shock Till You Drop. Contact me via JohnSquires@HalloweenLove.com
  • Sammy Hain

    Wow, I hadn’t even considered the “Trapped in Hell” ending. I just assumed, like you said, that Krampus had his own way to watch over those on his list just like Santa. Dougherty said in an interview that you can see the Bates Motel in one of the snowglobes–which took place around Christmas. I assume this suggests Krampus had some involvement there and is still watching-in a wink wink nudge nudge kind of way.

    I also assume the events did happen and got reversed as the whole family seemed to get a sense what the bell meant. If you learn your lesson Krampus lets you go…..which brings up the question, “Why wasn’t Grandma’s family returned?” I guess they didn’t learn

  • Tom Atkins Diet

    I believe more in the not so happy ending. The reaction of the family at very end when he opened the box with the ornament (stone faced, kind of emotionless) and how it panned out to see where the scene was taking place (in a globe sitting Krampus’s lair) leads me to believe it was some kind of purgatory and not necessarily real. After the camera pans out, what is happening in the globe? Dose Max realize the world he is in isn’t actually real? Dose all hell break loose?

    “Krampus did not come to give but to take” kind of stuck with me at the end as well. Could this be part of Max’s end, believing he has his family back but than realizing that he really has lost them?

    I think the ambiguous ending was given to satisfy both kinds of viewer. One who might be turned off by a creepy kind of sad ending and the other half who would be disappointed that everything they watched up until that point didn’t really happen and it was just a dream.

    I liked it and it had almost a Gremlins feel to it (possibly the Christmas connection). The opening montage was also actually quite brilliant and sadly accurate depiction of the holiday season nowadays.

  • Sammy Hain

    I also look at it through the lens of the graphic novel which, while avoiding spoilers, presents Krampus as more a trickster style teacher

  • Walker Porter

    I don’t think they are dead either. I think it all happened but it was Max’s sacrifice that saved them all. Krampus returned them all and gave Max the bell as a sort of covenant that as long as his family keep “Christmas as it used to be” they were under his protection. Krampus’ collection of snow globes is his way of keeping an eye on all of the households he has dealt with.
    Also, I suspect something was going on with the grandmother. Ever since Predator I don’t trust people who pretend not to speak english only to become fluent when they need to narrarate the backstory. That animated sequence was absolutely awesome by the way! She kind of put out the vibe like she failed her test from Krampus and was hoping her grandson could make amends for her failure years ago. which of course he did.
    I really want to see it again because I am sure Dougherty has all sorts of hints and clues spread throughout the movie that I just didn’t get on one viewing. I read somewhere that one of the snow globes is actually the Psycho house.
    I just really enjoyed Krampus and look forward to rewatching it for years to come. Michael Dougherty has brought Halloween and now Christmas to life so perfectly I can’t wait to see what he does next. I would love to see him do something with the summer camp or carnival setting.

  • Walker Porter

    Yeah that’s pretty much the way I took it. As for the grandma’s family not being restored, she hid when Krampus took her family instead of offering up herself as a sacrifice. I assume Krampus being such an ancient deity that only the ultimate scrifice would appease him and when Max offers himself in everyone elses place that is when Krampus laughs, knowing he has won.

  • Sammy Hain

    I’m thinking where Krampus goes from here. You can only pull “it’s all a dream” once. I want to see St Nicholas. Is he Krampus’ rival, or are they partners and Nick is complicit in the horror? I like going deeper in to mythologies

  • John Squires

    It’s a definitely a “Choose Your Own Ending” sort of ending, which I think makes the movie that much more fun!

  • Walker Porter

    Absolutely. It’s almost like we get to take away from it what we need. I have to request you get busy on the article showing all of the easter eggs I keep hearing are peppered throughout the movie.

  • JW

    Your interpretation is exactky how I interpreted the ending-to the letter! All my friends went with rge ‘mean spirited’ interpretation. So nice to agree with someone about this!

  • John Squires

    Haha, I’m looking into it!

  • Sammy Hain

    I just don’t have it in me to see Krampus or Sam as truly evil. I want them to be my buddies and help me take out people who turn off their lights on Halloween or steal from Toys For Tots boxes

  • Steve

    Though I really like this positive interpretation in the spirit of a Christmas Carol I still lean towards that they were stuck in purgatory. One strange clue was the visual dreamlike look to what he thought was the real world after he woke up. The looks on their faces was more of a realization that they were trapped in was more terror. not lessoned learned but more like “oh crap” we are screwed. Just like the grandma told them they were. According to legend Krampus does the binding of the devil, not to give valuable life lessons. “Krampus appears with a sack or a washtub strapped to his back; this is to cart off evil children for drowning, eating, or transport to Hell” that’s why he laughs when the kid tries to trade his life for his family. Krampus didn’t care, he was just another soul to take to hell. He wasn’t going to teach the kid a lesson he was there to punish him. I do wish at one point Santa showed up to fight Krampus in some sort of epic battle for the family but that was just me. Fantastic movie.

  • William Mahaffey

    I took it as they were actually trapped in that moment because that is what he wished for at the end. I think that the real statement it was making was that our idealization of Christmas when we’re children, can only exist as memory; like a perfect scene captured in a snow globe. The whole film follows this kid who is slowly seeing that it’s hard to hold on to the “spirit of Christmas” as you get older. The opening of the film certainly suggests that, and I think family interaction continues it.

    That’s a pretty cynical take, but it’s how I personally feel and it made the film resonate with me more. I think that it’s still saying that you can tap into the positive things, but that perfect Christmas you won’t to recapture is lost when you grow up.

  • Jessy

    My boyfriend and I just saw this movie tonight. We loved it. It was humorously terrifying. How we interpreted the ending was that at first Max was the only one who remembered what happened. The whole family is happy and then when he opens his gift only to reveal the Krampus bell, you hear the events that happened the previous night, which causes the entire family to remember everything that happened and has the family appreciate each other more. The snow globe ending was a way of saying that Krampus now has you on his list of families to watch to ensure they are using their second chance positively otherwise he will come back and take them away from one another.

  • Kade Scott

    In my opinion, if Max was the one to see the “vision” then explain why his whole family remembered what happened at the end when Max opened the bell? If it was just a vision for Max, then no one would have any knowledve of the events that took place. Unless it was a lesson for ALL of them..

  • Adam Pickles

    It would have had to have been a nightmare on all the folks and not just Max, for that to work. I dunno though. The Grandmother never mentioned a nightmare prior it actually happening to her family. Seems a stretch and gets complicated to now say that Krampus knows which person should/shouldn’t get a second chance through a nightmare. Personally, I’ll just go with Krampus placing them in their own little hell or purgatory, where they remember only as a nightmare they all just had. Hence why the look on their faces when Max opened his gift belonging to Krampus.

  • frankelee

    Since the movie was well crafted, I think it’s worthwhile taking into account what we’re specifically shown. The movie began with A Christmas Carol, which famously allowed a wicked main character to experience his terrible path before it happens and allows him to change. Then when Max wakes up on Christmas morning he looks out the window and sees the next door houses, it’s established they’re there. So then later when Max pulls out the ornament and everyone in the room remembers what they did for the last two days, I have to assume that what they experienced has been reality-retconned by Krampus and the snow globe works like a witch’s crystal ball where he can see them all. Maybe even as a trophy of another job finished.

  • Fvktaquito83

    so everyone had the same dream then..??.I mean when the box is opened, it looked like everyone remembered that night….but I feel like if everyone had that dream…they wouldn’t have been all cheerful in the morning……which makes me think maybe they had the same dream at different times in their lives when they each lost their Christmas spirit…it was an excellent horror movie and I love how I think it’ll be remembered years from now :)

  • Fvktaquito83

    One way to look at it is the grandma offered herself when confronting Krampus and that saved the family; the kid and the family would’ve already been saved because of that. On a completely different note and interpretation….so everyone had the same dream then..??.I mean when the box is opened, it looked like everyone remembered that night….but I feel like if everyone had that dream…they wouldn’t have been all cheerful in the morning like they were……which makes me think that maybe they had the same dream at different times in their lives when they each lost their Christmas spirit…it was an excellent horror movie and I love how I think it’ll be remembered years from now :)

  • Shane

    I would love for this to the happy ending, but there were too many clues that this was a darker ending. As mentioned before, there’s a bright afterglow in the last scene and it matches with Max’s original wish. The nail in the coffin though is that while everyone realizes what’s happening when Max opens the gift, you can clearly hear the grandmother repeating “He comes not to give, but to take,” revealing that Krampus was not only able to put them in purgatory hell, but was also able to grant Max’s wish at the same time.

  • Paula Windoloski

    I just watched it in the theater, which by the way was completely empty except me and my friend. I got a different interpretation of the movie. When Max opened the gift at the end, the family looked like they were remembering things that had happened. They looked scared. So I believe that they may not be trapped in hell but I do believe everything did happen for real in the movie and maybe he got a second chance because he showed that he learned a lesson. Remember the grandmother’s story, she was left to show a lesson but she didn’t learn a lesson so her family stayed dead. I believe that it did happen and Krampus gave him a second chance. This movie was good, I jumped a few times and the gingerbread men were hilarious. I enjoyed the movie.

  • Paula Windoloski

    I agree with you and I couldn’t say it as well as you just did. Thank you for saying what I was trying to say. I think I may go see it again. Just to see if there are hints I missed.

  • Walker Porter

    I wasn’t sure when I saw the movie but now I can see that Krampus is clearly wearing a mask. To me, it looks very much like he has stripped the face off of Santa and now wears his face Leatherface style. I have not read the graphic novel yet (christmas gift) so I have no idea if this is covered in it or not. So my guess is that the battle with Santa has already happened with Krampus coming out on top.

  • Gabrielle Burns

    I saw Krampus on a whim with a friend last night and I was left unfulfilled by the ending, not because of how it ended, but because it’s been a long time since I’ve watched an ending of a movie that didn’t push toward one type of interpretation. As such, I think they lived those events. Look at how the grandmother looks at Max when he opens the bell. When the voice is talking, the family seems to be terror stricken, as if they had indeed gone through it. Maybe they don’t know how they got back or if it were a dream, but it’s obvious they experienced it.

    Whether they’re actually in that globe depends. To be honest, I could go with either explanation. I saw someone on another site mention the end could be like a Twilight Zone type twist, which would work. Regardless, it was a great movie and definitely put a different spin on Christmas.

  • Tally Thick

    I lean towards the “Christmas Carol” cautionary tale, second chance interpretation.
    You have the story set up with a family full of jerks who do not seem to appreciate, love and respect one another as much as a family ought to. but as they battle to save themselves and each other, it is revealed that there is actually some latent camaraderie shared between everyone. one would think that this revelation would offer some redeeming hope and consideration to spare the family. But if not that, there is Max’s roll in the film. He was the last believer in Santa, the last spark of hope and the one selfless person who was asking Santa to help his family retain the lost love, respect and appreciation they once had for each other. but having to deal with everyone’s foolishness was enough to break even this young man’s christmas spirit. Krampus seemingly saved this family for last, he took his time rounding them up 1 by 1, and left Max alone to confront Max with the torn letter to Santa. the boy’s realization that he had said and done something he didnt truly mean. Max made himself into a saviour by confronting Krampus and offered himself up as a sacrifice to spare his family, in keeping with the boy’s true selfless nature. Self sacrifice seems to be something that was not just left to Max alone. His grandma stayed behind to confront Krampus first, which was something she didnt do to save her parents. Clearly, Krampus was not looking for a sacrifice from her. She was not the reason he came this Christmas.

    The boy then wakes up from his nightmare to look outside and see that his neighbourhood is normal and ordinary. He leave his room to go and find his family downstairs. everyone is in good spirits, getting along, cheerful, excited, loving and seemingly oblivious to and with no recollection of the horrific events that took place. The boy is seemingly getting his true Christmas wish. Max then opens up a gift to reveal a token from Krampus, proving that the events from his nightmare were more than just a dream. We see the look on everyone’s face as they look at the token and it seems as if everyone, all at once, is recalling the events registering them in their minds as an ominous sign. Then we see that the family is in their house inside of a snow globe that is sitting on a mantel in Krampus’ workshop, along with many other snow globes.

    At first, my takeaway was that the family was trapped in a hellish limbo until I remember that the boy did look outside to reveal that he could see out of his home, what looks to be, his normal neighbourhood. The snow globe with Max’s house in it does not show his entire neighbourhood; just his house. So it would seem as though the snow globe is just a window Krampus can pear into to check up on Max and his family to make sure they were keeping up christmas in the full spirit of the season. Giving back the family their memories of the horrific events was meant to put them on notice that they were being given a second chance too. This would make sense since it was their fault in the first place that pushed Max to the point of turning his back on his christmas hope.

    This interpretation leave things open to consider the possibility that Krampus is not the bad guy after all. Maybe Krampus is the “real” Santa; the ONLY Santa; he is the one that sets those that have lost their christmas spirit, back on the path of regaining faith in and hope for themselves, those they love and for humanity. this would be a far greater gift then anything jolly ol’ Saint Nickolas could ever deliver.

    or maybe I am reading too much into this movie that so many critics have written off as trash already. but i liked the movie .

  • SkyCommander

    After reading the tie in graphic novel I’m inclined to believe he’s simply watching them via the snow globe because in the comic it’s basically A Christmas Carol and when the real target of Krampus learned his lesson everything returned to normal and everyone who was killed captured or injured was returned safe and sound but with a lesson learned and one of his signature Bells as a reminder so I’m going with happy ending.

  • Sierra benally

    OMG i saw Krampus and it was a badass but i still don’t get the ending but i guess Max had a happy ending cause he wanted hisfamily to go away and that’s when Krampus came and started to take his family away with creepy ass creatures but then he knew he loved his family and so he asked Krampus to give him his family back and so he did but he had put the whole family in the snow globe.So he should be happy he has his family and it was prob a happy ending.

  • Shiraz

    that’s what I was expecting to happen the entire movie, especially when he confronts Krampus at the portal to the underworld.I just saw it (at the dollar theater) for the first time!

  • FlixtheCat

    Brilliant interpretation. Yours makes a lot more sense than what seemed like a more on the nose idea of Krampus keeping them locked in prison. Seemed inconsistent what with Maxs grandmother giving him a thank you when they’re not even free from their torment.

  • Brian Hull

    People are forgetting the clues to it being a lesson learned ending. Scrooge is playing on TV at the beginning which is beautiful foreshadowing, and his grandmother hid herself away as a child instead of trying to sacrifice herself for her family- who on the surface from the flashback seemed much darker than Max’s family.

    Max’s bell at the end is a shock to him because he honestly thought it was a dream- and touching the bell reminds the whole family what really happened (we hear quotes from the incident). This painful reminder of their downfall and souvenir are not necessary if they ARE actually in hell, but serve to remind them to keep things on the up and up.

    Scrooge goes to hell at the end of Christmas Carol and it turns out to be a dream- but one that could have been true.

    Also Krampus in a moment of tenderness wipes the tear away from Max’s eye, totally unnecessary gesture if he could care less because his victims always go to hell no ifs ands or buts.

    Throwing him into the pit is just the way he sent him home. For the entire film to end with them actually in hell it makes Krampus a serial killer (notice he killed the entire neighborhood) which is just silly, one family loses the spirit of Christmas so everyone on the block and nearby delivery men get butchered?

    Nah, those were ghosts of a possible evil future to scare the family into doing what’s right.

    Finally, it isn’t just Max who learns his lesson- virtually every character has a moment of selfless sacrifice in the movie, with long camera shots inviting the audience to consider what is going on.

    The family is safe, but Krampus is watching ;)

  • Frank

    I think they are alive and you’re totally on point seeing the globes as a vessel to watch those who have lost the Christmas spirit. We see the entire neighborhood from Max perspective at the end and when we zoom out from the globe it’s only the house leading me to see it as viewing the house through a portal or whatever you’d like to call it.

  • Zoë

    I think it was more than just a vision as he also opened a present which was the Krampus bell/bauble thingy, which his grandma also had. I can’t decide whether I think they are actually trapped in hell or whether Krampus plopped them back in the real world with the memories of previous night’s events and the bauble as a warning, with Krampus watching them through the globe, but I think the present and the globe show that either way the scary stuff did happen.