What Does The Ending Of Black Christmas Really Mean?

Black Christmas Phone Call
“Agnes, it’s me, Billy…”

With director Bob Clark at the helm, 1974’s Black Christmas is pretty much a horror masterpiece. This was the first movie to introduce so many of the elements you’d associate with a slasher movie today. It has a mysterious killer who goes around offing the leads, there’s a high body count, the murderer makes threatening phone calls complete with the “the call’s coming from inside the house” gag, and the film even features the prominent use of POV shots.

And we also get quite the ambiguous ending. In fact, one of the best things about Black Christmas is that we are never outright told who the killer is. Before it was popular to have an iconic villain that would slice and dice his way through sequels this atmospheric slasher left an open ending. And that’s what we will be disusing today. But first, let’s talk about the events leading up to the woolly finale. Needless to say, a SPOILER ALERT is in full effect.

As they are preparing to leave for the holidays, a sorority gets obscene phone calls from an anonymous, heavy-breathing man who threatens to kill them. Welp, soon enough this all escalates to cold-blooded murder, with sorority sisters being knocked off left and right. The Final Girl Jess (Olivia Hussey) suspects her boyfriend Peter (Keir Dullea) is the killer as his behavior becomes increasingly erratic and aggressive. Throughout the film, however, the audience is privy to an intruder who breaks into the sorority house and spies on the girls. It is suggested that this is an escaped mental patient (who calls himself Billy) and that he’s the one making these obscene phone calls. Could the intruder be Peter?

In the end, Jess receives another call and manages to keep the caller on the line long enough so the police can find out that the call is actually coming from a second line in the residence. They tell Jess to get out of the house immediately. Of course she goes and grabs a poker, ventures upstairs, sees the carnage that has been amassed and the attacker assails her. She hides herself in the basement and Peter tries to get in. Jess believes he is the attacker and bludgeons him to death. She gets sedated and everyone thinks they have got the attacker. But after the hullabaloo passes we hear noises and whispering from the attic implying that the (actual) killer is still very active, and perhaps just biding his time. The telephone begins to ring as the credits starts to roll.

So, what the hell is going on here?

Black Christmas Carolers

Black Christmas Plastic Bag

While it seems pretty clear that Peter wasn’t the actual killer, you would forgiven for thinking that he was. Before you jump down people’s throats with your millionth “it’s not Peter!” rant, think about all the things that made the viewer think it might have been him in the first place:

    Jess tells Peter that she is pregnant with his child.

    It simply doesn’t make sense for her character to tell Peter she’s pregnant if she had already planned to have an abortion, and as she claimed “wasn’t even going to tell him”. She certainly had nothing to accomplish by telling him and was only going to complicate the situation. Obviously, if she’s going to abort the child without his go-ahead, she either knows where she can get the procedure for free or she can afford it. In other words, she didn’t approach him for any financial reasons. This is clearly one of those situations written in simply to give Peter the reason to go off the rails.

    Peter screws up his piano audition.

    People are in different camps when it comes to this as he doesn’t come out and say “I failed” for certain. We know very little about the kind of music Peter plays at his audition, but it seems he is struggling to concentrate, he is sweating profusely, the faces on the assessors seem less than impressed. Later, we see Peter swinging a microphone stand (or was a lectern?) at the piano indicating that things have gone badly. The fact that his life is falling apart so quickly and that he has a violent temper (demonstrated towards that poor piano) is supposed to indicate he could be a killer.

    Peter wasn’t at the Christmas Party.

    Jess doesn’t speak to Peter until some time after the party has ended. This is supposed to be another red herring, because if he wasn’t at the Christmas party, then he could have been “the Moaner” who made the vicious perverted call to the girls. Anytime a call is made, Peter is usually off screen in movie oblivion.

    Ambient music.

    This one is somewhat subtle, but the creepy ambient music used (such as when Billy is creeping around) is low piano tones that do not sound dissimilar to what Peter played or the sounds that came from the piano when he started attacking it. This could be just another subtle red herring to have the audience (without realizing it) thinking of Peter at these moments.

    Peter’s comment to Jess.

    When Peter and Jess are talking about the abortion, Peter comes out with a bitter comment about her acting like it’s akin to having a wart removed. In one of Billy’s twisted calls, in a shrill witchy tone, he shrieks “Just like having a wart removed”. The line is to throw Jess off, but in addition, it throws the audience a little in that direction too.

It’s not hard to see (even AFTER watching the ending) why so many people assume the killer is still Peter. The filmmakers were throwing it as a red herring from the very beginning, by the time you get to the last 10 minutes of the film, it’s already ingrained into you. After all, lets not forget that we see a upper profile shot before our killer strikes one of his victims. How unlikely would it be for the killer to have the exact same physique, haircut, facial structure, not to mention be wearing the exact same clothes on the same day (the green turtleneck is visible during one of the death scenes).

Black Christmas Killer

Black Christmas Peter

But really, looking at this from another angle, what it all comes down to is if you believe in the end whether the sounds we hear coming from the attic are diegetic (sound presented as originated from source within the film’s world) or not?

Of course, if the killer’s hysterics are part of the diegetic sound, the killer remains to be discovered and it wasn’t Peter. However, contrary to this, it could be argued that the sound is non-diegetic. If this is the case, Peter was indeed the main antagonist of the film and the sound of hysteria isn’t within the diegesis, ultimately using audio as a technique to unnerve the audience, emphasizing the discomforting visuals on screen.

Though, one of the best things about a movie so open to interpretation is that there’s no real “solution” and there are, of course, many ways to understand it. The God-awful 2006 remake spends the majority of the film building up the back story of the intruder (a la Rob Zombie’s Halloween) and establishing him as the killer. The uncertainty in the original adds to the fear while not taking away from the plot or themes.

What did you guys think of Black Christmas and its rather indistinct ending? Do you have your own interpretation or explanations? Let us know in the comments below.

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12 thoughts on “What Does The Ending Of Black Christmas Really Mean?

  1. I have gone back and forth on this for many years. I’m the biggest Black Chtistmas fan and I’m absolutely sure that Peter is the killer. I feel the director brilliantly led the audience astray many times throughout the film so as to have us feel as though we can’t trust ourselves or our eyes by the end. Peter is set up to appear unstable from the very beginning and the audience is absolutely led to believe he’s our suspect in those early scenes…that is until he happens to be upstairs “taking a nap” while a phone call comes through. That then sets the audience off of the trail of Peter and struggling to figure out who or what is doing all of this. Of course during the climax of yhe film you find out the calls are coming from inside the house. This means it could’ve been Peter but it also explains that the killer who repeated to Jess parts of her private conversation with Peter could’ve simply overheard these things. now the audience is truly confused and doesn’t know what to think at this point. Peter is never shown as the attacker but when he comes directly to the basement window and breaks it without so much as a blink one does have to wonder why he knew Jess was down there. If it is that he heard screaming and was concerned why did he display such insane behavior ie:peering through the windows quietly, breaking the window and acting calm about it all, forcefully coming toward Jess. A normal person displaying concern would’ve said something along the lines of “Jess are you OK, I heard screaming and or “sorry to break the window, I hope I didn’t scare you but I was worried”.
    None of this is normal but the audience has now questioned their own instincts so often that when it is made to seem as though Peter is dead and the killer is still at large that they gladly absolve Peter of these crimes and feel sorry for ever suspecting him.
    Here’s how Peter is still absolutely the killer. IT is said in the end sequence when the officers are standing around a sleeping Jess that “it is hard to beleive Jess is capable of killing anyone much less Peter”.
    This is a clue to the audience to remember that Jess has been painted as a sweet and caring victim in all this, she is not capable of murdering Peter.
    She didn’t successfully kill Peter, instead knocking him unconcious and passing out herself from the shock. It is made clear by the blood on his face that she most likely clubbed him rather than stab him. Jess is not weak by any means but she is sensitive and perhaps a bit fragile. Might I add that a man capable of murder and those insane voices could certainly play dead for an hour. The only person in the house by the end that is even capable of pronouncing anyone dead is the Dr. Who seems to be busy attending to Jess and then Mr. Harrison. It is a possibility that he checked all of the victims pulses but it is a larger possibility (as it shown that the bodies in the attic are either undiscovered or untouche’d at this point) that he didn’t as they had a live victim to attend to and were waiting for the coroner (who would really be the one to pronounce the victims). Might I also add that the house is in chaos and officers at this point haven’t even been able to question Jess to find out what went on as she is somewhat exhausted and in a heavy resting period. next clue is the banter between the officers stating that they’ll have to leave the bodies behind until state lab guys can bring them to the morgue in an hour as the hospital is not equipped to handle all of this. So Peters “body” was most likely left in the house while everyone left on their way to deal with the chaos of the reporters and head back to the station.
    The Dr. Was going to stay with Jess but unfortunately Mr.Harrison passed out from the shock of everything going on. Then Nash was asked to wrap everything up at the house but seconds later asked to help get Mr.Harrison into the car and help take him to the hospital.
    So no one prepped the bodies to go to the morgue and no one was left in the house with Jess and the bodies when the final credits roll.
    I believe these series of events are made to be Suttle so that very few will put together the idea that it can still very well be Peter. In the end as far as I’m concerned Peter went back up to the attic and made another phone call.

  2. I was brought to this movie by an aunt when I was 6 and it did and still does scare the he’ll out of me. So many unexplained answers! Who is Agnes and Billy??

  3. Brown eyed Billy and Blue eyed Peter. And yet, how DID Peter just happen to wander to the obviously rarely used basement to look for Jess? Still not quite explained. I actually think Peter was going to kill Jess. And Billy was upstairs in the attic. Jess screamed more than once which seemed like the amount of time for a struggle to me. As for Billy, did he get Jess in the end while she was passed out? The policeman was on the stoop but that wouldn’t stop Billy. I’m only hoping that the ringing phone signaled he was calling to taunt and hadn’t killed yet, and that Jess’s parents made it in time.

  4. What about the cop in the car outside? Peter was hiding outside behind the tree, then later we see that the cop‘s throat is cut… So I assume it was Peter Who went outside, waited that all be cleared for him to go back inside and get rid of the cop in the car.

  5. On the other hand it is a very good idea that Billy killed Peter in the basement while Jess was screaming. Maybe it would‘ve been too obvious but I wish they would’ve shown some shoes coming down the latter in the end… As a prove that it wasn‘t Peter!

    1. Right at the very end of that scene you do see the attic door opening slightly though.
      How did the killer do so many voices that overlapped though? A recorder? Was there someone else involved?

  6. My sister took my to see this movie in a double-feature with Jaws. The ending scene – with it’s quiet, almost relaxing atmosphere, is one of the best of the genre. Though, as I’ve grown older, I’ve found that the overblown wind effects are distracting. Billy’s barely audible singing in an empty, quiet house would have worked better for me.

    As for the ending, I didn’t find it ambiguous at all. Peter isn’t the killer, the killer is unknown, Billy left the attic, two minutes later, the telephone rings. The Detective says in the final scene that Billy made a call after each murder, and Billy himself even uses his calling-card line, “Agnes, it’s me Billy”, which is the creepiest final lines in film history. To me, this just isn’t an ambiguous ending at all, but I think it’s fantastic that it’s open to several interpretations.

  7. It was said above, but I figured I’d reiterate that their eyes are different colors (which is something I just noticed for the first time the other day after maybe 6 lifetime viewings); therefore, Peter is not the killer. Billy is an anonymous boogeyman who we never get to meet or really know anything about; that’s a huge part of why this movie is so effective and creepy.

  8. Its got to be Peter…. Looks just like Peter when he raises the unicorn to kill Barb…. The hair, the height, the sweater, the build, the eyebrows and as far as the color of the eyes goes, in the darkened room, blue eyes can look black…

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