Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a series that has given us eight chilling stories by eight brilliant voices. Hosted by the titular acclaimed director, this is yet another solid effort by Netflix to revitalize the anthology genre, in the vein of Black Mirror and Love, Death and Robots. We’re given new adaptations of HP Lovecraft’s work, chilling gothic horrors, and, right in the midpoint of the series, a stealthy, yet still spine-tingling, Christmas special.
Season one, episode four: “The Outside.” Loosely based on the webcomic Some Other Animal’s Meat by Emily Carroll and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour of A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, the story follows Kate Micucci as Stacey, an awkward banker and amateur taxidermist who struggles to fit in with her attractive, self-obsessed co-workers and becomes increasingly insecure of her appearance. Entranced by intoxicating commercials on the television, and with nothing but a frequently absent husband (Martin Starr), the town sheriff, for company, she becomes addicted to Alo-Glo, a new lotion that promises to totally reinvent her into something better. The only problem is, she seems to be incredibly allergic.
At its very core, this story is an uncomfortable body horror. While not at Cronenberg levels, it makes your skin itch as you watch Stacey’s body break out into worsening rashes in a way that feels real before it tailspins into the surreal. There are certainly a lot of layers to this story, and while there have been discussions about its themes of body image and the beauty industry, there is much that can still be said about “The Outside” as a new holiday horror story.
The Untapped Potential of Yuletide Horror
Being set shortly before Christmas, the mise-en-scene of this episode is decorated with tinsel and caroling, with the inciting incident being set during a workplace secret Santa exchange. This is nothing new of course, Christmas has been a setting for horror films and TV episodes for decades now, with notable entries such as Black Christmas, Krampus, and Silent Night, Deadly Night. These films usually strive to take the comforting aesthetic and iconically joyous symbols of Christmas and twist it into something that terrifies and disturbs: killer Santa Clauses and gingerbread men and murderers at Christmas parties, subversion is key here. Simple, yet effective: what if this traditionally happy and child-friendly holiday was full of blood, guts, and profanity?
While these films are effective at the best of times, which admittedly can be few and far between, there is a lot of potential for Yuletide terror that seems to be missed. Because as much as the holidays celebrate the best of humanity, charity, love, good will to all, that’s not always the case in reality. For many out there, Christmas can be the loneliest, most stressful time of the year. For the people dreading seeing their families back home for reasons personal and political; the poor retail workers getting trampled in last-minute present rushes; for those that can’t afford to heat their home, let alone buy presents. Seasonal depression, financial issues, or having no one to celebrate with, all while being choked out by rampant consumerism and forced merriment. There are so many expectations that come with Christmas, that it needs to be perfect, that everyone has to be happy, which usually ends up exacerbating issues more than it fixes them.
It’s why I vow to never host a Christmas party. I’m no cynic about the holidays, but the weight of expectation can be terrifying. Walking across snow covered streets under sparkling lights can feel cold and empty when you’re just not feeling it. And while some films like Krampus and The Lodge touch on the horrors of family dysfunction during Christmas, or a film like Silent Night which depicts forced joy while the world burns around you, but I’ve never seen the personal and psychological dread that this time can bring portrayed as well, and as subtly, as “The Outside.”
How “The Outside” Shows Us the Worst of the Season
While “The Outside” is more set at Christmas than about it, it still manages to portray the themes previously stated, mainly isolation and insidious commercialism. While the body horror doesn’t start until Stacey first applies the Alo-Glo, the first part that really makes you itch is when she’s invited to the Secret Santa party, seemingly by pure obligation as a coworker because she’s usually ignored by the gossiping ladies around her. Outcast at the party and left out of any present-giving plans, her homemade – if a bit disturbing – taxidermied gift is rejected by pretty much everyone. She is further embarrassed by her allergic reaction to the Alo-Glo, and then thrown out of the party. We’ve all been where Stacey is, either at school or work, having to go to a party where you either don’t know or don’t like anyone and are forced to give someone a present despite having no idea what they like. But you have to be nice to them – it’s Christmas, after all, even if that kindness is not exchanged. It’s upsetting to watch her sit there, take it, and internalize the interaction.
This makes Stacey believe, more than ever, that there is something wrong with her. Despite the insistence of those who actually care for her, she wants more than anything to be anyone but herself. This is made worse when she turns on the TV, her only other escape, and the spokesman for Alo-Glo (Dan Stevens) seems to intimately tap into her self-consciousness to, of course, encourage her to take out her credit card and buy more. When watching this, one could easily be reminded of the string of deeply sentimentalist advertisements that can appear over Christmas. Make your holidays perfect by buying our product, Christmas isn’t complete without this, your kids will love you if you buy that. Especially with the living room covered with tinsel, the commercial speaking directly to Stacey about how Alo-Glo will completely transform her, mind, body, and soul, you’re reminded of all the other commercials that promise the same thing.
This time of year can be a warm and welcoming escape, the sights, tastes, and smells that come with it are my personal sensory heaven, but it is an escape one can easily get lost in. It’s an escape that those without your best interests at heart can take advantage of, and of course it’s one where you’ll feel the need to sacrifice your own happiness for other people, or even their perception of you. Blood covered tinsel and an axe-wielding Saint Nicholas isn’t what you should be fearing this holiday season, as this brilliant episode of Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities shows us, what you really need to fear is what’s on the inside.