Christmas at the Laundromat

A Nation of Kevins: Home Alone Again…and Again

by
on December 11, 2020

A CHICANA GEN X’ER LOOKS AT THE FILM FRANCHISE THROUGH PANDEMIC EYES

The sacrificial smell of 46 million turkeys opens the floodgates of U.S. Christmas.

In that sense, Thanksgiving functions somewhat like Labor Day. Both constitute boundaries.

Before Labor Day, a person can walk safely through the world in white shoes. After Labor Day, that style faux pas might cost you your life. (If you’re unfamiliar with the threat I’m referencing, please watch John Waters’ 1994 thriller Serial Mom. Don’t make the same mistake as Patty Hearst.)

A comparable hostility afflicts Christmas fanatics. When these enthusiasts prematurely array their homes with seasonal lights, plopping mangers by the driveway on All Souls Day, neighbors become enemies. In some cases, premature adornment has triggered vandalism. It is turkey day that establishes the line of demarcation, the fourth Thursday of November officially ushering in the yuletide season, and though I’m not fond of fruitcake, eggnog, or sap, I do enjoy candy canes, hot chocolate, and vegetating in front of the TV to classic Christmas movies.

My favorite titles in this genre tend to be structured by the monomyth English teachers browbeat into their students, the hero’s journey, and this Thanksgiving, COVID-19 disrupted the annual fall journey I make to my hometown, Santa Maria. Not wanting to kill my parents, I maintained my two-hundred-mile distance from them. I spent Thanksgiving in my sparsely furnished Long Beach apartment and let a lover to cook for me. He baked cornbread and mashed sweet potatoes, grilled some asparagus and roasted us a chicken.

As we cuddled on my couch, the lover’s cat and I sniffed at the air, our mouths watering.

After the meal, I loosened the drawstring cinching my sweatpants.

The time for Christmas cinema had officially arrived.

We built a pillow fort on the living room floor and in the spirit of 2020’s unrelenting weirdness, a film I hadn’t watched in ages felt perversely relevant.

“Have you seen Home Alone?” I asked the lover.

When he answered, “No,” I grinned. It’s fun to watch an audience experience a classic for the first time.

I urged, “Let’s put it on! It’s got…Culkins!”

As opening credits reminded me that John Hughes penned Home Alone, I turned nostalgic.

As opening credits reminded me that John Hughes penned Home Alone, I turned nostalgic.

My siblings and I grew up during the 80s, in a household so Mexican a statue of Mictlantecuhtli sat on the mantle, and this environment made Hughes’s films matter to us in ways they didn’t for our peers. The movies gave assimilationist lessons, transmitting important cultural information to my brother, sister, and me. We relied on these films to teach us what white Americans, people our parents called Anglos, expected of us. For my sister and me, the femme fatales, girls next door, and female sidekicks in Hughes’s comedies were especially critical. They gave us gendered templates, providing gabacha archetypes for us to absorb and embody.

Sloan Peterson of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off taught us romantic loyalty. Her juvenile delinquency demonstrated that when a smooth-talking white boy invites a girl to ditch school and go on an adventure, the right answer is, “Let me get my fringed leather jacket!” Andie Walsh of Pretty in Pink encouraged us to boycott department store shopping. To be as cool and pale as her, we would have to lurk in record stores and thrift for dead people’s clothes at secondhand shops. Thanks to National Lampoon’s European Vacation, we aspired to be as ungrateful as Audrey Griswold. If our family ever won an all-expenses paid trip overseas, our job, as gringitas, would be to whine about it while racking up massive long-distance phone bills.

My sister and I craved this cinematic tutelage. While our father, a Chicano, often modeled how to be a Yankee, our immigrant mother did not. Her Mexican accent, full face of bright make-up, and talent for stoically consuming jalapeños raised Anglo eyebrows. This response signaled that if my sister and I wanted to acculturate, we had better avoid following in the size four snakeskin heels of the muchacha we called Mom.

twenty five cents christmas
photo by Geoff Cordner

20th Century Fox released Home Alone two quinceañeras ago and it exists in a category apart from those films that de-Mexicanized us. Instead of a teen ingénue, or a bumbling father figure, Hughes’s script called for a bootstrapping boy hero, eight-year-old Kevin McAllister. Having recently directed Macaulay Culkin in the 1989 comedy Uncle Buck, Hughes thought the charismatic child actor would make an ideal Kevin. Whether or not Culkin would be cast in the part remained up to the film’s (ridiculously named) director, Chris Columbus.

Columbus met “hundreds and hundreds of kids” before finally auditioning Culkin. After reading with him, the director called Hughes to tell him that Culkin was, indeed, “amazing.”

It took Hughes nine days to finish the first draft of Home Alone and it shows. The plot is a series of loosely strung together gimmicks. The extended McAllister family (played by a cast of pasty, long-faced people) converges in a suburban Chicago M-A-N-S-I-O-N. Ostensibly, this fortress belongs to Peter and Kate, the parents of Buzz, Megan, Linna, Jeff, and Kevin. It is the evening before this rich clan will fly to Paris to spend Christmas with more McAllisters and everyone takes turns subjecting Kevin to abuse or neglect. Hurt and angry, Kevin wishes for his tormentors to disappear.

Due to a power outage, alarm clocks fail to wake the McAllisters on time and in their morning rush to make it to the airport, they forget to drag Kevin along. When he wakes up, Kevin is thrilled to discover that his abusers have vanished.

Initially, Kevin revels in his abandonment. He jumps on the bed, eats junk food, and practices shooting a BB gun. Hollywood, however, has a history of fetishizing white kids in distress and the plot succumbs to this tradition. Kevin frets about a potentially malevolent neighbor, old man Marley, a hermit rumored to have slaughtered his family. Kevin must also contend with Harry Lyme and Marv Merchants, a crime duo who call themselves the Wet Bandits. Kevin overhears the two planning to burglarize vacant homes, his included, and in preparation, he gets to work outfitting his estate with torturous booby traps.

While Kevin’s chief tormentors, his family, manage to reunite with him, the McAllisters stay horrible. During Home Alone 2, they re-abandon Kevin, this time in New York City. In the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, Kevin portentously encounters Donald Trump, the man who will one day abandon a nation in the midst of a pandemic.

The repetition of the abandonment cycle confirms just how American the McAllisters really are. These dicks prefer not to study and learn from their own history and if you think I’m exaggerating, understand that Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York are followed by Home Alone 3, Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House, and Home Alone: The Holiday Heist.

COVID-19 shut down production of Home Alone 6. With vaccines on the way, production will likely resume.

As mentioned earlier, albeit Spanglishly, it is the thirtieth anniversary of the film franchise’s original artifact. Home Alone debuted in theatres on November 10, 1990, and it was then that I first watched it. Our parents took us to see it at the only movie theatre in town, a ratty cavern that tunneled into our mall, the Santa Maria Town Center. Because I was thirteen, I watched it with an uncritical eye. I do remember that Culkin’s looks and charm impressed me. He seemed a blonde cherub in a cable knit sweater. The film’s abundant violence also struck me. In one grotesque scene, Harry, one of the burglars, attempts to invade the McAllister home. He reaches for a doorknob that Kevin has preemptively heated and its scorching metal cooks his hand. Flesh sizzles, sounding like fajitas on a steaming comal, and Harry plunges his arm into curbside snow for relief. When he lifts his hand to his eyes, the burglar discovers the letter M seared into his palm.

Upon witnessing the brand, I recall having thought, “M is for Myriam!”

Watching playful sadism often invites playfully sadistic thoughts.

Cat and Christmas Stockings
photo by Geoff Cordner

This year, I empathized with Kevin in ways I couldn’t in 1990. This Thanksgiving was my first time spending the holiday without my parents and siblings and because of the coronavirus pandemic, we all have been forced to adapt to varying degrees of isolation. We are all, symbolically and materially, home alone, and like Kevin, many of us have been abandoned by institutions of care. In his case, nuclear and extended family vanished. For the rest of us, it is the state, and in particular the federal government, that has figuratively flown to Paris.

Geographer and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has explored the aforementioned socio-political phenomenon in much of her writing. In an essay she contributed to Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship, Gilmore wrote that “forgotten places are not outside history. Rather, they are places that have experienced the abandonment characteristic of contemporary capitalist and neoliberal state organization.” Forgotten places also belong to what film scholar Noel Carroll has termed the “geography of horror.” Carroll locates “marginal, hidden, or abandoned sites,” such as the McAllister mansion, within this geography.

photo by Geoff Cordner

Seen through the lens of abandonment, Home Alone comes into focus as a Christmas horror classic. The world of Home Alone is atomized and Kevin-centric, and, as its petite but rugged hero, Kevin seemingly survives by wit alone. At least that’s what Hughes’s barrage of clever violence leads audiences to believe. But ignoring the film’s long and iconic slapstick sequences compels a shift in analysis. Looking elsewhere enables a reckoning with Kevin’s positionality. 

Though still a child, Kevin is an unambiguously white boy defending his family’s property. These social factors justify and even purify Kevin’s violence. Audiences root for him as his boobytraps succeed in maiming the bandits, in particular Harry. It’s no coincidence that Harry happens to be the burglarizing duo’s darker partner and as the Home Alone franchise spawned more sequels, racialized threats to Kevin, and Kevin surrogates, became undeniable. By Home Alone 3, it was scheming North Koreans who set the film’s plot into motion and as the franchise grew, so did the scope of abandonment. In Home Alone, suburban police fail to protect Kevin. By Home Alone 3, the military fails to protect him. All told, the Home Alone franchise makes an excellent case for defunding institutions of organized violence.

In her posthumously published essay On the Supernatural in Poetry, gothic novelist Anne Radcliff wrote, Terror and horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” The horror of Home Alone blunted Hughes’s creativity, annihilating a dominance he held in the film industry. Jason Diamond, author of Searching for John Hughes, identified this transformation, determining that “the triumph of the first Home Alone movie marked the end of Hughes’s great run.” Home Alone, like Thanksgiving, became a point of demarcation, with Hughes’s proceeding films “[growing] more polished, but [missing] the originality and distinct appeal of his earlier works.”

The contracting and freezing effects of horror also extended to Culkin. In February of this year, Ryan D’Agostino profiled the forty-year-old actor for Esquire Magazine. “Mack” told the journalist, “People assume that I’m crazy, or a kook, or damaged. Weird. Cracked. And up until the last year or two, I haven’t really put myself out there at all. So, I can understand that.” Culkin described himself as being peerless, as being utterly unique, a “snowflake.” It might be a stretch to connect the actor’s icy metaphor to Radcliff’s explanation of horror and its freezing effects, but Culkin remains frozen in 1990 in our collective cinematic memory.

When Culkin’s name is spoken, I think of him in his iconic role. I also think of home.

When Culkin’s name is spoken, I think of him in his iconic role. I also think of home.

On May 11, 2005, across the street from the mall where I first saw him portray Kevin, paparazzi aimed their lenses at the actor.

Actor Macaulay Culkin puts his hand through his wind-blown hair as he leaves the courthouse Wednesday after testifying as a defense witness in Michael Jackson’s child-molestation trial.” This caption appeared under a photograph printed in The Santa Maria Times. Culkin had journeyed to my hometown to tell the court that while he spent a significant amount of his childhood alone with Michael Jackson at nearby Neverland Ranch, Jackson never harmed him. Culkin characterized Jackson as being frozen in time, as having “kid-like qualities,” and he told Esquire that he and Jackson shared a “special bond,” attributing this sentiment to their “unique childhoods—or lack thereof.”

Fans, nonetheless, remain committed to the ironic infantilization of Culkin. Nostalgia embalms him, morbidly trapping Kevin in the McAllister home. 
“If you want to spend your Christmas like Kevin McCallister, now you can!” said Nicole Nielsen, a Dallas reporter who recently took CBS viewers on a televised tour of an immersive Airbnb named “the Kevin.” The seasonal stay, which will cease operation after January, allows its guest to recreationally experience abandonment, a coping mechanism in keeping with 2020’s zeitgeist. In a time when so many have been abandoned by the state, some of us grow willing to spend money to make a pilgrimage to a home at once familiar and strange, a home where we can exercise control, a home where we can be abandoned by choice, a home where we may recall, with nostalgia, the slapstick violence of our youth.


Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.