Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Are We All ‘Home Alone’?

MACAULAY CULKIN STARS in the 1990 comedy “Home Alone.”

This past holiday season, we introduced our youngest children to the film Home Alone. Released in 1990, Home Alone was the highest grossing live action comedy for 21 years and is generally considered a holiday classic. It tells the story of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin in his breakout role), an 8-year-old boy whose family accidentally leaves him — you guessed it — home alone when they travel to Paris for Christmas. Over the course of three days, Kevin navigates life on his own and outwits two bumbling burglars who have his house in their sights.

It had been years since I’d watched Home Alone, but it seems to have aged well (aside from Mrs. McCallister’s enormous shoulder pads and the baffling — to my children — pay phone in the Paris airport). My household critics declared it “pretty good.” But I found the film fascinating: Thirty years after its release, Home Alone now feels like a prophetic clarion call about where our society was headed. And instead of listening, we laughed and called it must-watch holiday entertainment.

What surprised me about Home Alone was not that a family could accidentally leave a child behind. In the film, Kevin McCallister is the youngest of five children in a house full of visiting relatives; when a power outage causes everyone to oversleep their alarm clocks and a panicked pre-airport head count goes awry, Kevin is left slumbering in the attic. This was totally believable to me: In our house, it’s called “Tuesday.”

Instead, what shook me most about Home Alone is how, once Kevin is left home — after the initial euphoria wears off and he realizes he’s the target of burglars — he is so very, very alone.

The police are dismissed almost immediately as a source of aid. In the movie’s opening scene, a police officer stands in the foyer of the McCallister house surveying the chaos. When he finally speaks to an adult, he warns of burglaries in the neighborhood and thereby manages to elicit all the McCallisters’ travel details. This man is not a policeman at all, but one of the burglars casing the neighborhood.

We see the real police when Kevin’s panicked mother calls the local station (from that payphone in Paris), tells them that her son is home alone, and begs them to check on him. Her call is ping-ponged between two bored and incompetent desk sergeants. When a policeman is finally dispatched to check on Kevin and his knock goes unanswered, he shrugs and concludes that everything is fine.

Kevin himself has two direct encounters with policemen, but it never seems to occur to him that they might help him. He’s chased through town by a policeman after he accidentally leaves a store holding a toothbrush he hasn’t paid for — and his only goal is to escape. After the film’s grand finale in which Kevin booby-traps his house to thwart the would-be burglars, he lures them to a neighboring house that they’ve robbed already and then, for the first time, Kevin calls the police to place an anonymous tip. He watches from his window, alone, as the police arrive to arrest the crooks.

The message is: The very people whose profession it is to protect 8-year-olds left home alone are bumbling at best and threatening at worst, and we’re better off taking care of ourselves.

What’s shocking in Home Alone is Kevin’s total alienation from his community. The McCallisters live in what appears to be an affluent Chicago suburb, in a neighborhood where houses are close together, within walking distance of a commercial downtown. And at no point does it occur to Kevin to contact anybody about his dilemma — no friend, neighbor, or family member.

Even more surprising, nobody in the neighborhood notices that an 8-year-old boy is home alone for three days. As the burglars survey the environs, we find out why: Almost nobody else is home. The majority of Kevin’s neighbors are traveling for the holidays, and the neighborhood appears inhabited only because of light timers. Kevin’s neighbors are as disconnected from their community as he is, preferring to celebrate their holidays anywhere but at home.

In one scene, Kevin races through this suburban wasteland with the burglars in pursuit and comes to his neighborhood church. Churches are traditionally considered the ultimate safe spaces, places of sanctuary. But Kevin doesn’t even enter the church, choosing instead to hide in the life-sized Nativity scene outside. Later, when Kevin does enter the church on the eve of the burglars’ planned attack, nobody seems to be “at home” there, either. There’s a choir practice happening and a smattering of people in the pews, but there’s nobody officiating, no pastor or priest in sight; no one is in charge.

The closest Kevin comes to telling anybody about his plight happens on Christmas Eve: Having prepared for the burglars’ attack, Kevin heads downtown to see Santa Claus. Santa has just finished his shift and is smoking by his car. Kevin tells him that all he wants for Christmas is to have his family back. The shadow of a question passes over Santa’s face; then he gives Kevin a few Tic-Tacs and sends him into the night.

The most positive interaction of the whole film happens between Kevin and his neighbor, Old Man Marley. Marley seems to be the only neighbor who is home, but Kevin is terrified of him due to a neighborhood rumor that Marley murdered his own family. As Kevin sits alone in church on Christmas Eve, the weight of the world pressing in on him, Marley approaches and sits next to him. They have a conversation in which it’s revealed that Marley is a kind, sad man who is estranged from his son. Their talk reaches a heartwarming conclusion about the importance of loving and forgiving one’s family. Shortly thereafter, when Kevin is in real danger from the burglars, Marley appears like a snow-shovel-wielding deus ex machina and saves the day.

Then, Marley says, “Come on, let’s get you home,” and deposits an 8-year-old boy alone in his big, empty house on Christmas Eve. So much for real connection and concern.

The one person in the film who does sense that something is wrong is a checkout clerk at the grocery store. As she scans Kevin’s groceries, she grills him: Where are his parents? Why is he alone? Where does he live? “I can’t tell you,” Kevin retorts, “because you’re a stranger.” That shuts her up, and it’s a chilling example of how our own anxiety can trap our children by creating safety boundaries that turn everybody into potentially dangerous strangers.

Look, I know that Home Alone is just a movie and is meant to be viewed on the surface with a liberal suspension of disbelief, not picked apart for its underlying darkness. But like any art, movies reflect the time and culture in which they’re made. Home Alone, a smash hit 30 years ago with an enduring legacy, depicts a society with no sense of community, no meaningful connections between people aside from a generalized warm-fuzzy feeling about “family” (mostly when they’re gone), in which nobody can be trusted and you need to fend for yourself. In this world, homes are just empty shells and we’re all deeply alone.

“None of that would’ve happened if they had cell phones back then,” my children commented, and they’re probably right. Today’s technology would have largely solved the logistical and communication issues that set the premise for Home Alone — but would have made the alienation even worse. By the end of Home Alone, it’s clear that on some level Kevin McCallister does need other people; hand him a smartphone, and I’m not so sure.

If Home Alone was an accurate portrait of what American society was becoming, is it any wonder that, in 2017, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared an “epidemic of loneliness?” In 2020, the American Psychological Association heralded a “National Mental Health Crisis” due to stress from a variety of sources including political unrest and the COVID-19 pandemic, with a majority of adults reporting feelings of loneliness and lack of emotional support. It appears we are reaping the seeds of our Home Alone culture: We’ve been told for decades to strive for independence; then when a pandemic hits and brings complete isolation — when we are finally, literally home alone — we find our centers cannot hold.

There may be some good news emerging in the wake of the pandemic, though: I read a report in the July 2021 issue of Psychology Today that, although an increase in suicide was expected as a result of COVID-19, in fact the overall worldwide suicide rate has decreased during the pandemic. One possible explanation is that people tend to rally around each other during global crises, to support each other. Perhaps this early data on suicide rates is evidence that we are beginning to realize our deep need for each other, and to find creative ways to build community even when gathering in-person is difficult. I hope so, and I hope that this change will last. After all, when a house — whether a literal, societal, or emotional house — is stripped down to its studs, that’s when you start rebuilding.

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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