For a brief time in my youth, one of my favorite films was Chris Columbus’s Home Alone, starring Macaulay Culkin. It concerns Kevin McCallister, a neglected, precocious middle child in a bloated, prosperous suburban family, and his violent apotheosis as new master of the house and sadist-in-residence when his parents, in a holiday rush, forget about him and leave him alone in their sprawling house for a week. The antagonists are two bumbling cat burglars, Marv and Harry (played by Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci), who, mistaking the house for empty, unwittingly enter a world of pain. They soon find out that Kevin has booby-trapped every room, making instruments of torture out of seemingly innocuous appliances and home improvement hardware. The eight-year-old, bullied by his siblings and ignored by his parents, at last finds an outlet for his stifled will to power.
Kevin, is utterly unaware of the danger he himself is in, and observes the various injuries the two men suffer, including massive head trauma, testicular bruising, electrocution, multi-story falls, second degree burns, and disfigurements with utter glee, intervening at times like a small, backstage imp to adjust a trap and increase their woe. His goal is no doubt to eventually kill them both. He fails, but nevertheless escapes and in the end is reunited with his family. Marv and Harry are arrested and hospitalized in full-body casts.
The film’s comedy lies in the unmatched conflict between an eight-year-old boy and two adult criminals, and the boy’s unexpected victory.
Though looking back, I have to question what my young self saw in the whole thing. What does it say about me, that I so enjoyed a piece of media that was, at its heart, a depiction of cruel acts done to human bodies, the sick power fantasy of a broken psyche? It goes beyond slapstick and borders on sadism, and as an eight-year-old, I couldn’t get enough of it. Why? And more generally, why couldn’t America’s families get enough of it? Home Alone-and its two even more brutal sequels-were blockbusters, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars each.
I posit that the preadolescent male figure of Kevin McCallister, who, when not engaged in torture, enjoys eating bowls of ice cream, ordering pizzas, and watching crime films on VHS, stands in for the family filmgoing demographic of late 20th century America. Like him, they are characterized by a preoccupation with food and a visual obsession with violence that borders on the pornographic. Like the boy in the empty house, they inhabit a sprawling and formless geography, suburbia, whose busy decour hides a terrifying void. Like the abandoned son, they can only forget their dysfunction and marginalized state by viewing the suffering of others. Xenophobic and paranoid, childish in their disconnection from reality yet jarringly precocious in their choice of hedonistic pleasures, the American family, like young Kevin, is a bit too eager to see the ‘bad guys,’ whoever they happen to be at the moment, ‘get theirs.’ The action they crave is their drug, the theater seats they occupy their shackles. They – we – are only too happy to accept the insidious bondage of that shame-haunted breed of compulsive, the voyeur.