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Home Alone’s Secret Meaning: Adulting is Hard

What’s the secret message of Home Alone? The Macaulay Culkin movie was meant for kids and perfectly captured their fears and desires—but it also has a deep meaning that speaks to young adults, in our era of perpetual kidulthood. Are we not all, in a sense, “home alone”?

TRANSCRIPT

Home Alone perfectly captures a child’s deepest frustrations, fears, and desires. But looking back 30 years after the movie’s release, Kevin’s experience actually seems similar to that of many young adults today.

In our era of perpetual kidulthood, it’s easy to feel a little like Kevin — like you’re just pretending to be a grown-up, faking it, and kind of waiting for your mom to come home and fix everything. Because as actual adults, aren’t we all, in a sense, “home alone”? Here’s our Take on the deeper meaning of Home Alone and what it has to say about growing up (or failing to).

Kevin McCallister: “I’m the man of the house.” - Home Alone

A Kid’s Point of View

With Home Alone, screenwriter and producer John Hughes, called the “king of teen comedy” for penning classic 80s hits about young adults, proved he understood kids as well as teens. Movie historian Neal Gabler wrote about Hughes’ insight: “He takes the issues seriously, never talks down to the kids.”

The script, set design, and cinematography of Home Alone are all geared towards expressing a child’s perspective. As Julio Macat, the film’s cinematographer put it, quote: “We thought about every shot in terms of the point of view of the kid. Because of that, we used wider angles. The height of the camera was lower than you would normally have. Our ceilings were important, because we were looking up a lot. Because we thought that kids see everything in an amplified way, we made the lights in the house feel a little bit brighter.”

The visual emphasis on Kevin’s point of view complements the script’s insight into child psychology. Hughes captured the quintessential truth of childhood — that when you’re young, you don’t necessarily think of yourself as young. Kevin sees himself as an independent human being with his own rights and demands. He talks to his parents like they’re equals. But as the youngest of the McCallister family, Kevin feels he never gets the respect he deserves. He’s perpetually ignored, overlooked and picked on. Kevin’s problem is a universal one — when you’re a kid, you have no power or control, even over your own life. As a result, you feel like a second rate citizen.

Because of all the indignity he suffers, Kevin longs for independence, which to him is synonymous with being an adult.

Kevin McCallister: “When I grow up and get married, I’m living alone! Did you hear me? I’M LIVING ALONE!” - Home Alone

There’s a paradox in Kevin’s statement there — he says he will both be married and be alone. And that tension — between the desire for independence and the fear of it — is central to the movie’s premise. When Kevin wakes up and realizes that he is on his own, it’s both frightening and exhilarating.

Hughes observed that childhood exists at the intersection of these two conflicting drives. Children have a strong desire to explore the world, but they also need to stay safe and they’re not yet equipped to protect themselves. Often, children, rather than resenting limits, actually want external rules, to feel secure. By removing Kevin’s family from the picture and leaving Kevin alone, with no boundaries or limits, Hughes forces his young protagonist to go into overdrive in experimenting with his curiosity and facing his fears head-on.

And we participate in that mix of glee and terror, like little kids ourselves suddenly being let loose on the world for the first time.

Being Home Alone or Growing Up

Kevin’s time home alone has three clear stages. The first is pure, ecstatic wish-fulfillment. This stage represents the child’s fantasy of adulthood, which is essentially freedom. Kevin gleefully toboggans down the stairs, snoops around his brother’s room, dines on ice cream sundaes, and watches TV till he passes out, providing endless vicarious pleasure for kid viewers. Likewise, with no realistic conception of adulthood, a kid imagines that when he grows up, this is how he’ll spend his days: doing everything fun, as much as he feels like, all the time.

Kevin McCallister: “A lovely cheese pizza, just for me!” - Home Alone

Next, we see stage 2: Kevin trying to fill his parents’ shoes and mimicking the adult behavior he’s observed. This mode reflects Kevin’s inherited idea of adulthood — which seems to be based on a combination of habits he’s witnessed in older family members and things he’s seen on TV. This TV-as-nanny phenomenon is a reflection of the era Kevin grows up in. Statistically, ‘80s and ‘90s kids spent a lot more time home alone watching TV than other generations before them.

And finally, the third stage of Kevin’s Home Alone adventure is: payback. The action portion of the film represents a child’s imagining how satisfying it would feel to get back at the grown-ups who’ve mistreated and underestimated him.

When Kevin has to face one of childhood’s greatest fears — home invaders — he’s inspired by his new independence (and probably, as we’ve said, the violent media he has been consuming) to stand his ground. The following sequence of painful booby traps is both enjoyable and disturbing to watch. Kevin’s budding sadism and violence prompted Vice to call him “America’s favorite child soldier,” and there’s even a conspiracy theory floating around the web that Kevin grew up to be the murderous Jigsaw from Saw. This potentially darker side of Kevin’s story was spoofed to great effect in 2015:

Macaulay Culkin: “Your whole family, alright, goes on vacation. And they forget their 8-year-old f-[bleep]-ing son. You’re all by yourself… in the house for a week! I mean, I still have nightmares!” - DRYVRS 1x1

But from a kid’s point of view, the burglars’ punishment is simply a gleeful vengeance on adults. The violence is cartoonish and accompanied by exaggerated sound effects.

Notably, none of Kevin’s three modes — wish-fulfillment, aping adulthood or punishing the bad adults — are remotely accurate visions of maturity. They’re what a kid thinks growing up is — a kid who learns about life from TV more than he probably should.

So that leaves us with the question… What is adulthood, anyway?

What is Adulthood Anyway?

Most of the actual adults in the movie also appear to be failing at adulthood. From Kevin’s parents, to his unpleasant relatives, to lackluster law enforcement and unhelpful airport staff, adults are shown to be much less competent and nice than 8-year-old Kevin. Yet even though he lacks positive role models, Kevin eventually carves out an answer to the question of what it takes to be a real grown-up over the course of his solitary adventure. Kevin learns self-sufficiency. He also starts taking personal responsibility for his actions.

Kevin McCallister: “I didn’t mean it. If you come back, I’ll never be a pain in the butt again.” - Home Alone

And most importantly, he learns emotional maturity through his relationship with the character of Old Man Marley. This character — developed in part by the film’s director Chris Columbus — first comes off as the neighborhood Boo Radley-esque bogeyman. But Kevin comes to see that this much older person is not only still deeply human, but also suffers from family problems like the ones that plague Kevin, too.

Old Man Marley: “I’m not welcome with my son.” - Home Alone

Emotional maturity, it turns out, is not a given that comes with age. And while kids like Kevin are forced to figure out how to get along with their flesh and blood (due to sharing a house), the sad truth of adulthood is that no one is making you get along. So if you don’t learn to communicate and express love for your family, over time as you age this distance becomes far more fixed and tragic.

Old Man Marley: “Deep down, you’ll always love them. But you can forget that you love them.” - Home Alone

They find a way through this problem by learning to talk about how they feel and look honestly at the complexity of their family relationships. So the moral is that a healthy adulthood isn’t just about being on your own — being Home Alone isn’t that much fun if you’re isolated from the people you care about.

Kevin McCallister: “My point is, you should call your son!” - Home Alone

In 2018, Macaulay Culkin reprised his role as Kevin in an ad for Google Assistant. While the ad seems designed to stir enjoyable nostalgia, there’s something haunting and a little sad about its portrait of this aged Kevin. He’s still repeating his old tricks without any creative updates.

Johnny from Angels with Filthy Souls [playing on adult Kevin’s TV]: “Keep the change, ya filthy animal!”

Pizza Guy: “Okay.” - Home Alone: Macaulay Culkin Google Assistant Parody

He enjoys his dinner for one, seemingly content with this solitary, stagnant existence. This young adult is still home alone, with nothing challenging him, and no family around. In light of this picture of arrested development, it’s darkly ironic that McCaulay Culkin, the actor who portrayed Kevin, is dogged by the role’s popularity to the point where it feels the public won’t let him grow up.

Perhaps, Home Alone is a story of disillusionment in adulthood, as much as it is an ode to independence and personal responsibility. Kevin (and all of us along with him) learned that being a grown up sort of sucks. The aftershave stings, the grocery bags tear, and the relationships don’t get any easier. And while the adults in this movie appeared pretty unsympathetic on first viewing, watching again we might feel pity for these harried grown-ups who are so frazzled and overwhelmed that they somehow don’t notice a kid is missing until midway through a transatlantic flight.

So Google’s adult Kevin is still a fitting poster boy for the generation of millennials who were raised on this movie, and now might find themselves lonely, emotionally immature, and too dependent on media as a window into the world. What if we (like Kevin) are stuck in kidulthood — all grown up, but still home alone, hedonistic and afraid, with only our devices to keep us company?

Still, there is a silver lining. The “alone” part of Home Alone doesn’t have to be a constant. If Old Man Marley is anything to go by, it’s never too late to get better at communicating with the people you love. Whether you’re 8 or 80, you can work on your emotional maturity — just find someone to talk to, IRL.

Kevin McCallister: “Would you please tell him that instead of presents this year, I just want my family back.” - Home Alone

Worked Cited

Carter, Bill. “Him Alone.” The New York Times, 4 Aug. 1991. https://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/04/magazine/him-alone.html

Dark Home Alone skit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yh7-wAy_8ss

Dische Becker, Leon. “America’s Favorite Child Soldier: ‘Home Alone,’ 25 Years Later.” Vice, 23 Dec. 2015.https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/8gkbjg/americas-favorite-child-soldier-home-alone-25-years-later

Google Advert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lfHXKbsMLE

Ellen interview with Macaulay quote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_wrEYqdTf98

Hughes, James. “Holy Cow, Home Alone Is 25!” Chicago, 10 Nov. 2015. https://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/December-2015/Home-Alone/

“James Wan Reacts To Viral Theory That Home Alone’s Kevin Is Saw’s Jigsaw.” CinemaBlend, 6 Jan. 2019.https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2464594/james-wan-reacts-to-viral-theory-connecting-home-alones-kevin-to-saws-jigsaw

Kamp, David. “Sweet Bard of Youth.” Vanity Fair, 10 Feb. 2010. https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2010/03/john-hughes-201003

Macaulay quote about plot hole: https://youtu.be/Qx54quy9tDQ?t=194

Pai, Tanya. “Home Alone’s enduring popularity, explained.” Vox, 16 Nov. 2015.https://www.vox.com/2015/11/16/9731584/home-alone-popular

The Making of Home Alone / chris columbus quote / And producer quote about the little orchestra:https://youtu.be/k5AnqUwYqrQ?t=47