It’s Christmas time, there’s no need to be afraid. At Christmas time we let in light and we banish shade. And usually sit down to watch a number of Christmas films including one or both of Home Alone (1990) or Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)*. Both films were written and produced by John Hughes and directed by Chris Colombus and star Macaulay Culkin as Kevin McCallister as a young boy left home at Christmas in the first film and who ends up in New York in the second. In both he has to defend himself against a couple of bumbling burglars ‘The Wet Bandits’, Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern). Home Alone remains the highest grossing live action comedy in the US and only lost the worldwide title in 2011 to The Hangover II. Both films are firm fixtures for Christmas watching.
Yet, on a recent viewing the other day there was an easy question in my mind. Not the sad decline of Macaulay Culkin from childhood star to example for any child who becomes famous or even the fact that the McCallister family would clearly have social services swarming over them. No, this question was about the character of Kevin himself. Beyond all the jokes and slapstick, is Kevin McCallister a psychopath?
I’m not a psychiatrist so I first had to look up the criteria to make a diagnosis. Turns out psychopathy doesn’t really exist anymore as a diagnosis and has been largely replaced by anti-social personality disorder (ASPD). So this changed my question for this musing immediately; does Kevin McCallister fulfil the criteria for ASPD?
As Kevin McCallister is American it seemed right to base any diagnosis against the criteria of the American Psychiatric Association. Fortunately, they publish their diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM) now in its 5th iteration published in 2013. The DSM defines the essential features of a personality disorder as “impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits.” The DSM 5 details very clear criteria to make a diagnosis of ASPD.
First there needs to be significant impairments in self functioning AND in interpersonal functioning.
DSM defines impairments in self functioning as either identity or self-direction:
a.Identity: Ego-centrism; self-esteem derived from personal gain, power, or pleasure.
b.Self-direction: Goal-setting based on personal gratification; absence of prosocial internal standards associated with failure to conform to lawful or culturally normative ethical behaviour.
Kevin certainly has high self-esteem. In Home Alone he genuinely believes that through his own power he has made his own family disappear. A belief that prompts celebration:
In terms of conforming to legal or ethical behaviour at no point in either film does he seek to tell the police or authorities that he’s home alone or at risk of the Wet Bandits. Indeed, he shop lifts albeit inadvertently in the first film and uses his father’s credit card to book into a luxury hotel in the second. He certainly uses his freedom for personal gratification spending $967 ($1,742.98 in today’s money) on room service alone in Home Alone 2.
So far it seems like he’s ticking the boxes without us even mentioning the vigilante justice. More of that violence later.
On to interpersonal functioning, defined by the DSM as either in empathy or intimacy:
a.Empathy: Lack of concern for feelings, needs, or suffering of others; lack of remorse after hurting or mistreating another.
b.Intimacy: Incapacity for mutually intimate relationships, as exploitation is a primary means of relating to others, including by deceit and coercion; use of dominance or intimidation to control others.
Speaking as a doctor in Emergency Medicine let’s get this straight: Kevin would have killed the Wet Bandits several times over. Especially in the second film where to start he throws four bricks on Marv’s head from height. Marv would be dead. No question. Kevin McCallister is attempting murder:
Later on, he sets up elaborate traps and stays around rather than running away (like most would do) merely to supervise Marv getting electrocuted and Harry setting fire to his head:
At no stage does he show any remorse and actually celebrates what he’s doing. Prior to meeting Kevin the Wet Bandits were cartoon villains, non-violent and stupid. Did they deserve to die? Kevin obviously felt it was worth risking it and enjoyed it.
He does form friendships in both films with people he previously feared; Old Man Marley and the Pigeon Lady. He inspires the former to re-connect with his family and gives the latter a present. This does suggest that he can form bonds with people. However, both were useful to him by helping him escape the Wet Bandits so it could be argued he was exploiting and rewarding them for his own benefit. This bit is open to debate but for the benefit of the blog lets assume this was Machiavellian manipulation and move on.
The patient then needs to have pathological personality traits in antagonism and disinhibition.
The DSM defines antagonism as:
a.Manipulativeness: Frequent use of subterfuge to influence or control others; use of seduction, charm, glibness, or ingratiation to achieve one„s ends.
b.Deceitfulness: Dishonesty and fraudulence; misrepresentation of self; embellishment or fabrication when relating events.
c. Callousness: Lack of concern for feelings or problems of others; lack of guilt or remorse about the negative or harmful effects of one’s actions on others; aggression; sadism.
d. Hostility: Persistent or frequent angry feelings; anger or irritability in response to minor slights and insults; mean, nasty, or vengeful behaviour.
We’ve already looked at Kevin’s violence and cruelty. He’s also certainly a master of deception. Throughout both films he is adept at speaking to adults and painting stories with great ease. Lying comes very easily to him as does using props and music whether to pretend to be his dad in the shower, a gangster with a gun or even a house full of celebrating people:
This is a crafty kid who is willing to lie and smile while doing it.
Disinhibition is defined by the DSM as:
a. Irresponsibility: Disregard for – and failure to honor – financial and other obligations or commitments; lack of respect for – and lack of follow through on – agreements and promises.
b. Impulsivity: Acting on the spur of the moment in response to immediate stimuli; acting on a momentary basis without a plan or consideration of outcomes; difficulty establishing and following plans.
c.Risk taking: Engagement in dangerous, risky, and potentially self-damaging activities, unnecessarily and without regard for consequences; boredom proneness and thoughtless initiation of activities to counter boredom; lack of concern for one’s limitations and denial of the reality of personal danger
In both films Kevin shows poor regard for his own safety, whether climbing down a rope soaked in kerosine, zip-lining from the roof of his house or climbing his brother’s shelves:
Early on in both films he is shown impulsively lashing out in anger when he feels frustrated at having his pizza eaten or embarrassed in public during his choir solo. Kevin is not inhibited:
And violence is clearly natural to him. So far…seems to be meeting all the criteria.
Finally these factors must be consistent across time and place. They must not be due to intoxication or head injury.
As Kevin behaves the same in Home Alone (1990, set in Chicago) and Home Alone 2 (1992, set in New York) we can assume his behaviour is consistent to time and place. At no point is he seen taking drugs or drinking alcohol so we can rule those out as a cause. He does hit his head slipping on ice in Home Alone 2 but that’s very late on and isn’t shown to effect his behaviour in any way. Once again he’s meeting criteria.
They must not be better understood as “normative for the individual’s developmental stage or socio- cultural environment.”
Kevin is a remarkable child acting in a way we wouldn’t expect of a boy his age. He definitely has, at best, a chaotic family and there’s no doubt that after Home Alone 2 social services would have come down on the McCallister family like a tonne of bricks:
However, the house is pristine and all the children look well nourished and dressed. While there’s plenty of questions about what kind of job the McCallisters must do in order to fund this lifestyle there’s no indication that this is a family where violence is the norm. Box ticked again.
Finally, the individual is at least age 18 years.
Ah, here it falls down right at the last. Kevin is 8 in Home Alone and so well below the age where we can diagnose ASPD. NICE does have a Quality Standard (QS59) first published in 2014 aimed at identifying children at risk of ASPD. This includes interventions for the whole family. But in no way can a conclusive diagnosis be made in a child.
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So is Kevin McCallister a psychopath? By the DSM diagnostic criteria the answer is no. Does he show some traits that might set off alarm bells? The answer is yes. However, there is a debate about whether ‘psychopathy’ is an evolved trait which has been able to survive through natural selection as it has benefited human society to have individuals without morals prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals (Glenn, Kurzban and Raine, 2011). Maybe we should celebrate Kevin’s innate traits as he uses them to defend himself and his family. After all, it means the bad guys get caught and it wouldn’t really make good films if he just rang the police like a good citizen.
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Time to be serious now. This blog does highlight a big issue I find with mental health. Almost ahead of any other profession people are all too willing to play ‘keyboard psychiatrist’ and diagnose public figures such as Donald Trump with a mental illness. Whilst this blog is meant as a bit of fun it shows how mental health has very clear diagnostic criteria to be met before we use loaded terms such as ‘psychopath’. That can be my Christmas message: before you make a stigmatising diagnosis make sure you know what you’re talking about. In fact in general: research first, speak later. Let’s be nice people.
Merry Christmas, you filthy animals
*Yes, I am aware there is a ‘Home Alone 3’ and even somethings called Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House and Home Alone: The Holiday Heist. I just choose to ignore them as we all should.
Glenn, A., Kurzban, R. and Raine, A. (2011). Evolutionary theory and psychopathy. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16(5), pp.371-380.
Hopwood, C. J., Thomas, K. M., Markon, K. E., Wright, A. G., & Krueger, R. F. (2012). DSM-5 personality traits and DSM-IV personality disorders. Journal of abnormal psychology, 121(2), 424-32.