Ridenour first became aware of the Krampus while studying German literature -- in Germany, the Krampus’ counterpart is known as the Knecht Ruprecht. Ridenour would later become enchanted by lithographs of the devilish figure while living in Berlin, and in the early 2000s, he would encounter the Krampus again, this time via images being circulated on the Internet. When he learned that many towns still held the Krampuslauf (or, Krampus Run), he decided he wanted to go to Austria and experience the festivities for himself. So in 2012, he visited the Austrian town of Bad Gastein, which he chose because he'd heard their Krampus Run, unlike those in other towns, was the most "unruly.”
"It's been civilized a bit over the years, but in that town, the Krampus Run doesn't take the form of a parade going down a linear route,” he said. “You never know where you're going to see them. You hear the bells and they show up."
These Krampuses, typically young men in frightful costumes, burst into bars and restaurants, snatch passersby's hats clean off their heads, and they even do home visits -- an old tradition, wherein St. Nicholas and his terrifying minions will show up at residences to appraise those inside. Traditionally, during judgement, St. Nicholas would ask everyone if they'd been good, and would test them, perhaps by quizzing them on Catechism or other holy studies. Though not mentioned in the Bible, Ridenour describes the Krampus as a kind of “folk-Catholicism,” a cautionary tale to encourage piety among the youth.
A typical grouping for a home visit is one St. Nicholas, two angels, six Krampuses and an additional party who carries a basket containing treats for those deemed to have been good. The addition of St. Nicholas provides not only a chaperone, but "a moral purpose," Ridenour said, offering the townspeople a chance to prove their sanctity and be rewarded for it, rather than just forcing them to deal with the rampaging Krampuses. Despite their horrifying appearances, the Krampuses, at their worst, could be described as disruptive, offering a playful swat or, perhaps, attempting to wrestle a piece of the family’s furniture out into the snow. They bear a strong similarity to trick-or-treaters, as a resident can beguile them into quieting down by offering them a treat, be it a snack, alcohol, or some coins.
These home visits are vestiges, Ridenour said, of the Nicholas Plays, which contained various scenes involving the pious St. Nicholas and his brutish devils. These contain some of the earliest references to the Krampus and if you're very curious about them, there is one happening next month featuring select scenes from an 18th-century work that has been translated into English for the occasion.
When Ridenour returned home from Austria, he found he had a message from an old friend, Al Guerrero, suggesting they form a Krampus group in Los Angeles. The pair had both previously been involved with LA's Cacophony Society, which Ridenour had run in the '90s. As such, they'd participated in early SantaCon events before they deteriorated into the drunken free-for-all they are today. Ridenour had also worked with a morbid arts group known as The Art of Bleeding, a performance troupe that poked fun at mid-century health and wellness literature. The Krampus thing just feels like a natural extension of Ridenour's Yuletide and macabre interests. In 2013, the pair produced the first Krampus LA event, and it's been going strong each year since, with many going all out on original costumes.
So, if you want to get out your horns and get into the Krampus spirit, here's how: