It is, in hindsight, a well-founded question:
Is Kevin McCallister a psychopath?
Is the 8-year-old boy (played by Macaulay Culkin) in 1990’s pain- and humiliation-filled Christmas classic “Home Alone” in fact more the villain than the hero?
A psychopath can appear normal and even charming. But underneath, writes Psychology Today, “he lacks conscience and empathy, making him manipulative, volatile and often criminal.”
There is ample evidence in “Home Alone” that we’re dealing with such an individual, says University of Nebraska Medical Center professor and psychologist Jonathon Sikorski.
Next week, Sikorski and Kacie Baum, UNMC events and science outreach coordinator, will make the case for Kevin's psychopathy ahead of a screening of “Home Alone.” Their presentation is part of Science on Screen, a national series that pairs classic, cult and documentary films with talks led by people from the world of science, tech and medicine.
"Making science fun in this way is what we’re all about," Baum said. "You can also learn a little something, too."
So how, exactly, does one psychologically diagnose a fictional character?
“It’s easier than it should be,” Baum said. “(Sikorski) has a vast knowledge of the movie. And we can look at certain scenes and Kevin’s reactions to those scenes.”
Like how Kevin responds towards his family. Or how he reacts to someone getting hurt. Baum is going to count the number of fist pumps and celebrations Kevin does every time Harry or Marv suffers a grievous injury.
“One of my favorite pieces of our presentation is a video of a paint can hitting a dummy in slow motion,” Baum said, “and what would really happen. It’s worse than you’d think. You wouldn’t just fall down the stairs and get back up.”
Beyond exploring the real-life effects of Kevin’s cruel contraptions, Sikorski and Baum will address the idea that Kevin could have stopped the plot in its tracks multiple times. For instance, he could have responded to the police when they came to the door. Or he could have told his neighbor that his family left town without him.
Kevin's final showdown with the Wet Bandits happens because Kevin wants it to happen. Sikorski believes Kevin doesn’t seek help from the proper channels because he's found an opportunity to hurt people — to plan and execute a night of torture for two hapless thieves.
“He plots and gets pleasure out of harming the burglars,” Sikorski said. “Dropping hot irons on their faces and blowtorching door knobs and almost decapitating them with paint cans.”
Harry and Marv are just bumbling burglars. But Kevin?
Kevin is a sadistic mastermind, capable of harming the body in ingenious ways.
We wouldn’t be the first to point out that the “Home Alone” movies could credibly serve as the prequels to the “Saw” franchise — with Kevin being the portrait of the Jigsaw killer as a young man. Each mastermind enjoys teaching life lessons through elaborate games of suffering.
Diagnosing fictional characters isn’t something new for Sikorski, he said. In an undergrad class, one of his assignments was watching movies and diagnosing characters with abnormal psychology. Now he looks at movies like “Trainspotting,” “Grey Gardens” and “What About Bob?” through the prism of psychology.
But if you think about it, how many movies aren’t fueled by characters with some form of abnormal psychology? If everyone in a movie exhibited normal, rational behavior, there wouldn’t be much point in letting the story unfold over two hours.
"We’re attracted to that kind of outlier behavior" at the movies, Sikorski said.
A presentation surrounding Kevin’s antisocial behavior is something Baum has wanted to do for years. Partly because it’s such a funny idea for a science presentation but also because "Home Alone" is among her favorite movies.
She watches it about eight times each year. Her fandom even bleeds into real life, as she’s actually met the man who played Kevin McCallister.
It was a few years back, when Macaulay Culkin’s now-defunct band, The Pizza Underground, was playing a show. Baum’s friends were in a band also playing that night. That's how she found herself backstage with the star of one of her favorite movies.
“We were all just goofing around,” she said, “and I asked (Culkin), ‘Can I French-braid your hair?’
“He said, ‘That’s super weird, and I’m totally into this.’
“And we talked for 25 minutes. He was really cool, like a really nice dude. He is not a psychopath.”