In the heart of Southern Indiana’s rolling hills, Bloomington is a quintessential college town, known for its vibrant music scene, local craft beers, and historic limestone architecture. For the past decade, however, the darkness of early December has brought with it something far more sinister.
It starts with growls and the sound of cowbells. A pair of glowing red eyes shines through the night. Suddenly, they appear, their roars met with cheers and jeers. Fearsome, hairy, and horned, they attack residents with bundles of branches, snatch candy out of children’s mouths, and even breathe fire.
These twisted creatures are Krampus, and for the last ten years, Bloomington has been home to the largest gathering of them in North America. The Krampus character comes from Alpine Christmas folklore and traditionally serves as a companion to St. Nicholas, punishing the naughty children while St. Nick rewards the nice ones. (There are differences of opinion on how to pluralize the word Krampus in English; this article uses “Krampus” as both a singular and collective plural noun.)
For centuries, some European communities have held Krampus parades on December 5 (the night before the Feast of St. Nicholas), during which performers dress as Krampus and march through the streets, terrorizing onlookers. It is only more recently that the tradition has begun to spread to the United States. The rise in the popularity and participation of Krampus festivities in Europe and abroad has brought increasing scholarly attention to the tradition’s complex history and social dynamics.
With thousands of attendees, coming from all over the state, country, and even globe, Bloomington’s event has become a major attraction and a significant celebration of the Alpine tradition. This year, however, was its last.
As a result, the organizers of Bloomington’s Krampus Rampage are finally able to lift the veil and discuss the nuts and bolts of establishing, maintaining, and concluding the town’s Krampus festivities.
“For ten years, I’ve never talked to a reporter about actors or costumes or suits,” founder Kel McBride explained. “Because Krampus don’t wear costumes. They’re Krampus. But since at this point in time, we will have hit that line, we are ready to break down the fourth wall.”
According to McBride, the Krampus tradition has its roots in the intermixing of beliefs. As the Christian church moved into the Alpine region, its traditions began to blend with local ones. “For the Alpine areas, one of the things that they had in their cultural history were these creatures called perchten. They were wild men of the woods that always come out in early winter.” Eventually, these local wild creatures combined with the mythology surrounding St. Nicholas to create the Krampus. “They claimed the wild beast and put him under the control of the church.”
According to Smithsonian Folklife curator James Deutsch, in an interview with WTOP, the Krampus was “a way for the authorities to not really enforce obedience among young children, but just to promote the idea that, at the end of the year, if you want your gifts from St. Nicholas, then you should be good, and if you’re not good, then you will be taken by this other figure.” The Krampus is one of many Christmas monsters that serve the same purpose.
For McBride, it was important to portray the Krampus accurately. “Horror is really an Americanized representation of Krampus. And that’s not really where we’re coming at it from. He’s not just there to shock you. He has a point.”
There were three elements that attracted McBride to creating Bloomington’s Krampus Rampage. “One of them was the idea of consequences, that good behavior has good consequences, and bad behavior has bad consequences,” something which transcends cultural, religious, and linguistic divides. “That’s something we should all feel strongly about.”
Secondly is the focus of Krampus traditions on “driving out the winter and the bad aspects of it.” In the case of the Krampus, they quite literally beat away the gloom. Finally, she said, it is special to give something joyful and fun. During the darkest part of the year, “having something that comes together and creates a joy for the community at a time when we tend to isolate a little bit more is just glorious.”
The Krampus Rampage is held in downtown Bloomington, right next to City Hall, and lasts from sundown to around 8 p.m., after which the Krampus are unleashed to make trouble around the city. The program begins with a bazaar, where hundreds of attendees line up to buy Krampus merchandise, participate in sack races (Krampus are believed to carry children off in sacks), and craft masks and horns. Participants choose between “naughty” and “nice” stickers, which will determine their treatment at the hands of the Krampus. Naughty attendees might be subject to shoves, growls, and beatings with ruten, the Krampus’ bundles of sticks, while nice attendees receive candy.
As the daylight fades, attendees line up along the parade route, pressed against the caution-tape barriers that provide some level of safety between them and the wild Krampus. Soon, a distant glow appears, and a group of angels—dressed in white and performing with lit-up Hula-Hoops—make their way through the streets. These “halo-hooping” angels toss candy to the nice children as they pass, and McBride views them as playing an important role: “I appreciate the joyful lightness of them getting things started, because it’s a little bit of a false sense of security.”
Next come fire performers, with flaming hoops, nunchucks, and even a bullwhip. According to McBride, “Fire performers weren’t anything that you would have seen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the Alpine region.” Fire performance became more popular in European Krampus nights in the 1980s, but this tradition was eventually phased out. “They mostly had Krampus acting as the fire performers, which as you might guess, resulted in a lot of injury and accident.” The Bloomington event has taken up the fire-dancing tradition, although with heavy safety precautions.
As the fire performers pass, a pair of red glowing eyes approach, announcing the arrival of the Krampus. Hidden behind masks and shrouded in large, furry suits, the performers lunge at the crowd, growling, pushing, and swatting with their ruten. They might also smear ash on the foreheads of naughty onlookers. Some of the beasts are accompanied by young children, dressed in pajamas and dragged in chains.
Jim Baber, who portrays Kindergobbler during the Rampage, has performed as a Krampus for the last six years. Baber is a cybersecurity engineer, and Kindergobbler is a far departure from his life during the other 364 days a year. “Once you’re in the role, you are a different person. You’re not even a person. You’re a Krampus. If I see somebody with a naughty sticker on them, and they are being a little sassy, I’ll swipe them a little harder with the ruten. Don’t disrespect the Krampus.”
According to Baber, “Every Krampus has a personality.” Kindergobbler’s characteristic trait is the petty theft of naughty onlookers’ belongings. “I’m going through, and I see a naughty sticker, they might lose their toboggan, or their glasses or whatever, I will snatch them and take them away.” (Kindergobbler is accompanied by a handler who returns all stolen items).
Keeping the costumes as traditional as possible was of the utmost importance to McBride. “We didn’t want to get horror-focused with our masks. We didn’t want to have things dripping with blood. We wanted to make sure that they were beasts like they are in Austrian and German culture.”
However, the event’s limited budget and Indiana locale also meant that they had to be creative. “Where we strayed from tradition is we don’t have a whole bunch of yaks and goats and other animals around this area that would give us the materials that we would need to make traditional Krampus suits. We don’t have a history of wooden mask making in Southern Indiana. We also were a scrappy ragtag group of friends and volunteers that didn’t have $1,500 to $2,000 for each outfit, which is very common in Austria. We ended up focusing on upcycling.”
The Krampus costumes are built around sweatsuits, ghillie suits, and even monkey costumes, onto which various materials are layered to give a fur-like effect. A byproduct of the volunteers’ upcycling efforts is localization: they received leather scraps from a local leather tooling expert, yarn from a nearby blanket weaving factory, and even wigs from drag queens.
Although menacing, wearing the Krampus costumes is a challenge. Covered in yarn, leather, and wigs, Baber notes that “it is very hot and sweaty.” Even more difficult, though, is visibility. “The interior of the head is a roller derby helmet or a biking helmet with the mask put on top of it. So your face is further away from your mask.” Particularly during the end of the Rampage, when the Krampus are set loose on downtown Bloomington, the limited visibility and tall horns of the costumes pose a safety issue for the performers, so they are accompanied by handlers.
Even with these challenges, Baber says, “It is a blast. You can see enough of the people to see if somebody’s got a naughty or nice sticker, and whether you need to swat them with the ruten. It’s very difficult to operate in them, but it’s well worth the effort.”
The community response to the Krampus Rampage has been one of great excitement, particularly in the event’s last year. Many attendees interviewed throughout the night noted that it was their first year going, but that they had heard about it for years and couldn’t miss the last iteration.
Jonas Fos, a first-generation German American Indiana University student from Louisiana, was curious about the event. “From my own perspective, I felt it would be interesting to see how ‘my’ folklore, so to speak, was being represented, especially in Indiana, which has a far higher density of people with German backgrounds compared to where I’m from.”
According to him, the Rampage was quite accurate to what he and his family have experienced in Germany. “While speaking to my father, he mentioned that American events tend to leave out St. Nicholas, so I was surprised to see him leading the parade.” Fos connected the halo-hooping angels to a German tradition of cherubs accompanying St. Nicholas and discussed how these were an “adaptation of that particular aspect of the Krampusnacht.” He did note that the Krampus were more reserved than in Europe, where events can sometimes get out of hand.
This was something McBride discussed, too. In Austria and Germany, she said, “they’re used to a very violent Krampus. It’s just part of their culture in that area.” Particularly in the early years, the Bloomington Rampage took a cautious approach: “We wanted to make sure we were kind of friendly, so that people could learn the culture and the traditions.” Over the years, Bloomington’s Krampus became more aggressive as they got a feel for the boundaries of their specific community. Still, the Bloomington festival is noticeably more restrained than one might see in footage of European Krampus practices.
Dena El Saffar attended the Rampage for the first time, accompanied by her daughter, Layla Moore, who had attended previously. El Saffar expressed, “I’ve always been interested in coming because I just like anything extraordinary where people take on some other spirit. Going through these rituals is really interesting to me.”
This folkloric side of Bloomington Krampus was salient and fascinating for many participants. Abigail Leonard, another attendee, took similar interest in the cultural aspect of the Rampage. Although she and her children are Muslim, they love participating in the Krampus event, and she said that “sharing in other people’s traditions is always rewarding.”
The Bloomington Krampus practice has also found its way into local schooling. Vanessa Domizlaff, a German-language teacher at Bloomington High School North, has brought the school’s German club to the event for the last several years. “I’m from Northern Germany. We have no such thing as Krampus, so I never knew about it growing up.” It took an unexpected post-Rampage Krampus sighting in downtown Bloomington for her to become aware of the tradition. “There were monsters and people in costumes banging on the restaurant window, and then I saw St. Nick pass by and got really confused.” Since then, she has become a dedicated Rampage attendee and has incorporated it into her classroom instruction on medieval German history and folklore.
Her students were at the front of the crowd, most of them wearing naughty stickers and excited to get up close and personal with a Krampus. Several discussed the relationship between their coursework and the event; they said that they learn about German folklore and culture, not only of the past, but also modern applications like the Bloomington Rampage. One student noted, “It’s a really cool way to keep folklore and traditions alive. We’re so lucky to have this in such a small town.”
Robert Ping-Slater was a first-year member of the Krampus Krewe—the group of volunteers who produced the event—and oversaw the sack races while doling out naughty and nice stickers. Dressed in a vest, leather arm bands, and red and yellow contact lenses, he connected his costume and role to his passion for theater. “It’s fun to try to get people riled up, whether they’re going to be naughty or nice, and explain Krampus to them. If you can make it all into a performance, they’re more likely to have fun.”
McBride says that one of the biggest reasons Krewe members are so dedicated is that “they really like being part of the community, doing this for the community.” One volunteer expressed to her that the Rampage “shortens the Christmas season, and extends the Halloween season.” Another Krewe member said that “we get to bring folklore to life.”
Most attendees at Bloomington’s 2021 Rampage expressed sadness that the tradition was ending. For McBride, this has always been planned: “We decided we’re going to do this for ten years. If we can do it for one year, we can do it for ten years. So let’s do it for ten years, and that’ll be our cap.” She notes that a decade is the sweet spot for event planning, particularly given how intensive and expensive the Rampage is to produce on an entirely volunteer basis. However, she expressed that she will miss the community of the Krewe, who have become incredibly close over the last ten years.
Baber discussed the life skills he gained through his Krampus performance. He had to learn how to interact differently with anxious children (waving and approaching cautiously) and drunk college students (roughhousing and ruten attacks). “In my job as a cybersecurity engineer, I have to work with end-users frequently, and you have to judge their personalities on how to interact with them. My job is not a performance, but in the same way it’s about interpreting other people’s reactions. I think the Krampus probably made me better at that.”
Both McBride and Baber expressed hope that the Krampus activities might continue in Bloomington in the future, either through another event or in peoples’ personal festivities. Baber wanted to issue a reminder: even though Bloomington Krampus has come to an end, “St. Nicholas is still watching. If they’re naughty, Kindergobbler may visit them.”
McBride said that what she will miss most about the Bloomington Krampus night are “the screams of terror and delight. Because that’s what the night is all about. That’s how we all get paid.”
Joelle Jackson is a former intern with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a Wells Scholar at Indiana University, studying folklore and anthropology. Special thanks go to Kel McBride, Jim Baber, Jonas Fos, Vanessa Domizlaff, the BHSN German Club, and all who were interviewed for this article. Additional thanks go to Wade Bartlett for assisting with fieldwork.