Dinner and a Murder: Death at Thanksgiving

THANKSGIVING (2023), official movie poster
THANKSGIVING (2023), official movie poster

Now that Eli Roth’s THANKSGIVING has been released to theaters, fans of blood, splatter, and gore can now celebrate that pretty much every holiday on the calendar has now been the subject of a horror movie*. While Christmas may hold the record for most holiday-themed horror films (with a whole sub-genre dedicated just to Santa Claus), eponymous holiday entries like MOTHER’S DAY (1980), APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986), FATHER’S DAY (2011) and, of course, HALLOWEEN (1978), are just a few of the many (mostly slasher) movies that come to mind. But what about the real-world horrors that have happened on Thanksgiving? Does the gathering of family and friends set off something violent and horrible in some people?

One report from 2018 showed incidents of domestic abuse in Los Angeles were up on Turkey Day. Albuquerque recently saw a rise in domestic violence, too, as evidence in this 2022 article. Some point to stress during — and unrealistic expectations of — the holidays as possible reasons for an increase in violent behavior. Even seasonal affective disorder might play a role, or so says ABC News, citing SAD and all other aforementioned reasons why the holiday season is a tough time for families.

Some worse than others.


Take the case of Ayalis Clay Oliver, 76, of El Paso, Texas, and the anger he felt toward his son Keith Oliver, 49, over the younger man’s refusal to help out around the house on Thanksgiving Day 2009. A .357-caliber revolver settled their argument, with father shooting son to death.

Also in 2009? Di riguer “Florida Man” Paul Michael Merhige killed four of his relatives in a Thanksgiving Day shooting rampage after he finished his dinner, left, and returned with a handgun. It was a premeditated murder twenty years in the making. Why he chose Thanksgiving Day for the atrocity is a bit of a mystery, but it is suspected that the gathering of family (albeit different locations for some), afforded Merhige the opportunity to commit his mass atrocity.

Then there’s the unique case of Omaima Nelson, the Egyptian model who killed, castrated and ate her husband on Thanksgiving Day in 1991. In Orange County, California, the unassuming Omaima repeatedly plunged a pair of scissors into the chest and stomach of Bill Nelson, her husband. Then she pummeled him to death with an iron. Why? She claimed Bill had subjected her to horrible sexual acts — including forcing her to have sex with other men for Bill’s personal gain (including a new car!). When Bill died, Omaima butchered his body in the kitchen. She boiled his hands in oil to remove fingerprints, and stuck his head in the freezer so she could later more easily pull out his teeth. Fittingly, Omaima castrated her husband, as well. She cooked and ate pieces of him for dinner.


Writing in The Huffington Post’s “Psychologists Explain How To Deal With The Nightmare That Is Thanksgiving Dinner,” journalist Kristen Aiken argues that “Every Thanksgiving…your kitchen can become a microcosm of your deepest insecurities.” Though the rest of her article is essentially advice for dealing with holiday stress, it is curious to note that the paragraph which contains the quote above ends with the almost menacing “Thanksgiving has the uncanny ability to zero in on your vulnerabilities and hammer away at them with brute force.”

Does it come down to vulnerabilities? It is curious to note that the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin noun vulnus (“wound”). The Latin verb vulnerare? Means “to wound.” And in this light, the aforementioned quoted from The Huffington Post takes on an even more sinister tone. Vulnerabilities are wounds that leave us open to emotional AND physical damage.

For many the emotional damage comes down like a hammer at the dinner table. Insecurities about the meal, years of unresolved issues coming to the fore, annoyances of character and personality, or familial tensions over past fights, slights, or differences of opinion. Very few people let the stress of these vulnerabilities get to them beyond the need for a valium or a trip outside for a clandestine cigarette. Some, however, seem to snap. The result of a deep-seeded trauma, a long-standing grudge, a diabolical premeditation, or even a blink-of-an-eye reaction to something as mundane as doing the dishes, violence at Thanksgiving is real. The wounds are deadly.

And despite what movies like THANKSGIVING may have you think, it’s not the mask-wearing serial killer that you have to fear this time of year. It’s the person sitting next to you at the table.

Or the one in your own seat.

Technically, THANKSKILLING is the first movie with dedicated death on the Thanksgiving holiday, but it was released direct to video in 2009, and not to theaters (what was it with the year 2009????). And Eli Roth’s own mock trailer for Thanksgiving in GINDHOUSE (2007) — the inspiration for his 2023 release — certainly counts.