Parents

From 'The Grinch' To Tim Burton, Canadian Malls Offer Spooky Santa Alternatives

Every mall has a Santa. But not every mall has a spooky Santa alternative.

In Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” three creepy, ghoulish children are ordered to kidnap Santa Claus.

It’s not an explicitly malicious order — the film’s protagonist, Jack Skellington, is simply trying to meet Santa to learn how he makes Christmas so jolly. But the kids — Lock, Shock, and Barrel — can’t help but understand it in a nefarious way, and they detail their vicious plans in the barely child-friendly song, “Kidnap the Sandy Claws.”

At malls across Canada, those maniacal kids seem to have prevailed in getting Santa out of the way. Spooky alternatives to Santa visits are popping up all over — and they’re enormously popular.

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Last year, construction worker, father of four, and avid cosplayer Rob Folk started dressing up in character as “The Mean One” — a play on the Grinch — at Victoria Square Shopping Centre in Regina. He had figured out the costume, makeup, and airbrushing required when he dressed as the Grinch for a fan expo a few years ago. So when the mall considered bringing the character in, he was the first person they thought of.

He’s got his costume routine down to a science, and it usually takes him about half an hour, he said. The longest part is waiting for the adhesive glue to dry.

“It’s all in the details of making sure it looks good,” Folk told HuffPost Canada on the road to Alberta, where he’s bringing the character to Westbrook Mall in Calgary for the weekend. He’ll move on to Prince Albert, Sask., and Saskatoon in December.

One thing he’s learned from his experience last year is to get costume back-ups, he said.

“All that handshaking and holding babies and all that other stuff, that takes a toll on your costume,” he said. “So we definitely prepped for that this year, making sure we had a second and third outfit to go.”

Regina resident Rob Folk as "The Mean One."
Regina resident Rob Folk as "The Mean One."

The character was enormously popular last year, Victoria Square’s marketing coordinator Neil Adams told HuffPost Canada. The mall offered six different grinchy visits, spread over two weeks, and they were all well-attended. On the last day, the city suffered a power outage — and so the mall added three more days with the Mean One.

“We had on average about 250 visits a day,” Adams said. “Santa would do 100 on a good day.”

The visits are free, which is how the malls get away with using characters based on copyrighted property.

Last year, Victoria Square donated 1589 lbs. worth to the Regina & District Food Bank — the largest donation the charity had ever received from a mall, Adams said.

Rob Folk with some of the donations he helped bring in to the Regina Food Bank.
Rob Folk with some of the donations he helped bring in to the Regina Food Bank.

But the idea didn’t originate in Regina. A few years ago, Nathalie Lavergne was working in marketing at Billings Bridge Shopping Centre in Ottawa and brainstorming ways she could bring in customers from Carleton University, just on the other side of the Rideau River. Weekday evenings tended to be slow, and she was hoping to attract demographics who didn’t often come in.

She came up with evenings with “Mean Green Santa”, an instantly popular initiative that people still line up for for hours.

“My baby over there is celebrating his third year on the chair,” Lavergne told HuffPost Canada with pride.

She’s now the marketing director at another Ottawa mall, the Carlingwood Shopping Centre. This year, she wanted a new holiday attraction, one that would again bring in visitors on quiet nights, especially people who weren’t regular mall-goers.

That’s how she came up with Spooky Santa, a tall, thin skeleton with a big round head who bears a striking resemblance to Jack Skellington. (There are some differences, and it isn’t that exact character, Lavergne specified. The mall donates all proceeds to the Ottawa Food Bank.)

“Spooky Santa” had his mall debut this Tuesday, and will return on the next three Tuesday evenings. Lavergne was initially a little nervous about how it might go.

“Dr. Seuss is part of your childhood,” she said. But “Spooky Santa is not for everyone. When you think of Christmas, you don’t necessarily think of a skeleton.”

But the event was a huge success, she said. Lots of kids were there — more than she expected — but the majority of the crowds was made up of teens and adults without young children. Some of them were nostalgic for the character. Others had Tim Burton-esque aesthetics — “I’m sorry to use the term ‘emo,’” she said — or were into cosplay.

“They’re different, and they don’t want the traditional Santa picture,” she said.

Folk said the same thing: the visitors he’s seen in Regina range quite a bit in age, but he sees more adults than kids. But when kids do visit The Mean One, he takes pains to remember that they’re experiencing the visit differently than the adults do. He’s seen lots of videos of people dressed as the Grinch who scare kids, but he isn’t interested in doing that.

“You want to not go too far off from what’s in the movies,” he said. “At the same time, he’s got this heart inside of him. You tend to let that soft side of you show.”

Rob Folk said it takes him about 30 minutes to get into costume.
Rob Folk said it takes him about 30 minutes to get into costume.

Lavergne said that at her mall, the elves have a thorough system for gauging a kid’s tolerance for Spooky Santa. He’ll show off his skeleton hands or try to freak them out only if they seem up to it. The same was true when she was working with the Grinch-inspired character.

But with the kids who could handle it, and with the grown-ups, the Mean One would stay true to his name. When kids would present him with their Grinch stuffed animals, he would throw them on the floor. He would offer them a candy cane, and then break it in half. “That’s part of his charm,” she said.

While she wasn’t sure if her gambit would work, Lavergne isn’t surprised that people are attracted to different kinds of diversions. Because Santa is a staple at just about every mall on the continent, many places are trying to differentiate themselves. She’s seen a lot of malls with “Snow Princesses” — ie, Anna and Elsa from “Frozen,” although they’re not explicitly marketed that way — or with Mrs. Claus.

But the subversive Santa alternatives have a very particular kind of charm, she says. “People are looking for different experiences, more than the traditional ones,” she said. “As they get older, they still want magic, but it’s not always easy to attain.”