A Fan Theory
This post is the first in a new series called Fan Theory Fridays, in which we will share and explore a new fan theory about a film, television series, book, or other fictional narrative. For more on what a fan theory is—and what it isn’t—please read D. F. Lovett’s previous explorations of the subject.
I thought I hated Home Alone.
So when a friend invited me to attend a matinee viewing of it at the new Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis, I wasn’t sure whether to accept. The idea of watching the film did not spark nostalgic giddiness or ironic snark, but more a sense of nameless dread that I would be trapped in a dark room for two hours with a swarm of squirming children and a few of my fellow childless buddies, wondering why we had thought this a good idea.
Of course, despite my dread, there were a few reasons I went. Namely: my friend had already bought the tickets and he assured me it would be “more hipsters than children”. That, and as he reminded me, “it’s a John Hughes movie with Joe Pesci, John Candy, and Katherine O’Hara in it.” Finally, I’m currently writing a novel partially set in the ‘90s and I thought it would be good to subject myself to a forced trip down memory lane.
Here’s the thing about Home Alone: I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a much better film than I remember it being and probably a better film than you remember it being. The plot structure should be taught in film school. The performances are sublime. The John Williams soundtrack is masterful.
There was, however, one thing that threw me off about the film: it was both much darker and more vaguely supernatural than I recalled it being.
I remembered the bed wetting subplot but had no memory of Kevin’s uncle calling him “a little jerk” or the objectively bad parenting that resulted in Kevin being left home alone in the first place. I remembered John Candy’s role as a polka king but had forgotten his haunting story about forgetting his own child in a funeral home for an entire day.
I remembered the scary old man and Buzz’s tall tale that he was a murderer or something. I did not remember that his name was Old Man Marley. I did not remember his story about being estranged from his son. I didn’t even remember him serving as a Deus Ex Machina, arriving to save Kevin from what would have been certain death at the hand of two bumbling crooks who, in the film’s final moments, escalate from cat burglars to attempted child murderers.
While Home Alone is indeed better than I remember it, that’s not what I’m writing about today.
I have come not to review Home Alone, but to theorize about it. And, specifically, the role played by Old Man Marley.
The Previous Home Alone Fan Theories Worth Mentioning
Now, before we move forward, I’d like to acknowledge that Home Alone—like Star Wars and Game of Thrones—attracts fan theories like flies swarming a bloated carcass. It is important, therefore, to revisit classic Home Alone fan theories before jumping into a new one.
This is not a Home Alone fan theory listicle. If you wish to learn more about these, I recommend reading them in full. For now, I’m providing brief recaps,
- Peter McCallister is affiliated with the mob: A theory suggesting the crooks chose the house based on McCallister being a criminal with lots of cash or other illegal goods at home. This theory finds evidence in the McCallisters’ fraught interactions with law enforcement throughout the film, plus their lavish lifestyle and propensity toward disrespect.
- Gus Polinski (John Candy) is a demon: This centers around Polinski first appearing when Kate is at the Scranton airport, declaring _____________. He then reveals himself to be a terrible parent and ultimately gets Kate home only moments before the rest of her family, an ironic twist befitting deals with the devil.
- Old Man Marley is Kevin from the future: This is the one Home Alone fan theory I can find that acknowledges the near-supernatural presence of Old Man Marley throughout the film. While it doesn’t quite check out, I think it’s worth mentioning.
- Kevin still sleeps with in his parents’ room: Like Joey wanting pancakes, a needless yet well-argued fan theory.
- Harry and Marv are Christmas Spirits: A fun theory that doesn’t quite check out, as their scenes together pretty heavily suggest they are criminals who are ultimately comfortable murdering a child.
- Kevin is the bad guy from Saw: This is bad and not a fan theory and that’s all I’ll say about it.
Yes, there sure are a lot of Home Alone fan theories out there. Enough that one could comfortably ask why would anyone write another fan theory about this film?
The Mystery of Old Man Marley
The trouble with the existing fan theories and Home Alone takes is that the vast majority of them minimize the role played by Old Man Marley. If you do not recall, Old Man Marley is a neighbor of the McCallisters who shovels and salts sidewalks.
The audience is first introduced to him when Buzz, Kevin, and a cousin watch Marley shoveling and salting what appears to be either their own sidewalk or the one immediate next door:
Buzz: You ever hear of the South Bend Shovel Slayer? … Back in ’58 he murdered his whole family and half the people on the block with the snow shovel. Been hiding out in this neighborhood ever since… Not enough evidence to convict. They never found the bodies, but everyone around here knows he did it. And it will just be a matter of time before he does it again… He walks up and down the street every night salting the sidewalks…See that garbage can filled with salt. that’s where he keeps his victims. The salt turns the bodies into mummies.
Let’s note two things about this scene: a) it’s unclear if Buzz is reciting something he’s heard before or making up a new story to scare Kevin and b) as soon as he finishes reciting this tale, Marley looks directly up at the window, scaring the three boys.
From here, Marley functions as a secondary antagonist until the third act, serving as an additional source of Kevin’s fear (alongside the furnace in the basement, the police, and the Wet Bandits themselves). They encounter one another in the following incidents:
- Kevin runs outside yelling “I’m not scared anymore”, sees Marley, and runs back inside, scared.
- Kevin goes to the drugstore to buy a toothbrush. When Marley appears, buying Band-Aids for an unexplained cut on his hand, Kevin flees the drugstore (thus becoming a shoplifter).
- When Kevin wanders into church on Christmas Eve, he and Marley have a heart-to-heart about fear. Marley reveals he is estranged from his family for unspecified reasons. Kevin stops fearing Marley and suggests the old man reconcile with his adult son.
- When the Wet Bandits finally capture Kevin and threaten to dismember him beginning with his fingers and toes, Old Man Marley appears, wielding his shovel as a weapon and knocking the crooks out.
While the latter two scenes reveal Marley to be fundamentally a good person—or, at the very least, someone who doesn’t think that Harry and Marv should murder an eight year old on Christmas Eve—there are a few questions that remain:
How does Marley know the children tell stories about him? Are there are stories we don’t know about?
In the church, Old Man Marley says to Kevin:
“You don’t have to be afraid. There’s a lot of things going around about me, but none of it’s true.”
First off, that’s a pretty intense thing for an old man to say to a little kid he functionally doesn’t know. (But don’t worry: I’m not taking this fan theory in as dark of a direction as the above piece of dialogue might lead your mind.)
Which begs the question: are the rumors that Marley is “the South Bend Shovel Slayer” something that Buzz didn’t just make up on the fly? Is this an actual nugget of gossip going around the neighborhood?
Has Marley heard children saying “there’s that guy who murdered his family”? Or, even crazier, is this something other adults are saying? Is there a some truth to this?
Why doesn’t Old Man Marley seem concerned that Kevin is unaccompanied for days?
The next big question about Old Man Marley is why doesn’t he care that Kevin is home alone? The church scene is striking, as Marley watches Kevin enter the church, sit down, then checks to see if Kevin has anyone else on their way. When it appears that Kevin is alone, he sits down next to the child… for seemingly no purpose but to tell Kevin that he isn’t a scary guy, that his granddaughter is in the choir, and that he wishes he was on speaking terms with her father.
Again, let’s avoid the really dark take here and simply ask: why isn’t Marley worried that Kevin is rolling into church solo, a day or two after he saw the kid shoplift a toothbrush?
Why don’t Kevin’s parents call Marley from Paris?
A running theme is that Kevin’s parents call literally every neighbor they can and that no one helps them. They leave messages on answering machines. They call the police at least once.
Sure, it’s an acknowledged theme that Kevin’s parents don’t try that hard to reach him via phone or police—their own phone line is down for most of the movie, due to the storm—but surely Marley would’ve been on their roster of calls, right? Especially considering he appears to shovel and salt all the sidewalks in the neighborhood, seemingly including their own… aren’t they on speaking terms with the guy?
This suggests either a) Marley is never home when they call and doesn’t own an answering machine or check his messages b) They don’t have his number and can’t find it, unlike every other neighbor or c) for some other reason it does not occur to them to call him (i.e. they don’t know he exists… )
Finally, why doesn’t Marley tell the police about the attempted child murder he prevented?
After Marley saves Kevin from the Wet Bandits, he brings the kid straight home. Neither of them stick around to talk to the police.
Yes, the police arrive to arrest two infamous bandits—who Kevin has just tortured in his home with a series of traps, before they caught and almost killed him—and Marley doesn’t bother telling them about the near-murder. He apparently just goes home. (Writing for Vice, Larry Fitzmaurice did argue that Marley is the worst character in the film for this exact reason.)
At this point, there are only two explanations for the previous unexplained questions: either a) Marley really is some kind of on-the-lam murderer (or worse), distrusted by his neighbors and afraid of the police, or b) he’s a supernatural being whose entire purpose is teaching the McCallister family a Dickensian Christmas lesson.
Because the first option seems like a little too much especially for a family Christmas movie—and because it fails to explain some other unanswered questions—let’s go with the second one:
Old Man Marley is a Supernatural Being Whose Entire Purpose Is Teaching the McCallister Family a Dickensian Christmas Lesson
In attempting to answer the above questions, it’s hard to think of any explanation for Marley’s behavior other than the idea that he is some kind of magic spirit covertly coordinating the events of the film.
But it’s not just his behavior that drives such a conclusion. There are three other main pieces of evidence: a) the vast number of coincidences that had to occur for Kevin to be left at home b) the dynamics of the McCallister family that make them deserving of a Dickensian Christmas lesson and c) Marley’s name itself.
Let’s start with the name. Marley, himself.
The Other Old Man Marley
This is a good time to remind ourselves of the most famous fictional Marley in the history of literature: Jacob Marley, the deceased business partner of Ebenezer Scrooge. Marley is such a central figure in A Christmas Carol that his name is the first word of the book:
Marley was dead: to begin with.
The Dickensian Jacob Marley appears to Scrooge on Christmas Eve, the first of four spirits—and the only one who is undoubtedly a ghost of a dead human—to warn Scrooge that, if he does not change his ways, he will share the same fate as Marley: an eternal afterlife of chains and remorse.
“I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”
This is not to say that Old Man Marley’s exact nature is identical to that of Scrooge’s old business partner. I am not suggesting that he is the dead business partner of Peter McCallister, come back from beyond the grave to change Peter’s ways.
Although I’m not ruling it out either.
What I am saying is that Marley is both supernatural and responsible for the trials and tribulations faced by the McCallisters in Home Alone. But before we discuss those specific trials, first let’s explore the exact nature of the McCallister family’s debased nature.
The Despicable Behavior of the McCallister Family
We do not know where the McCallisters got their money, but we do know that they had a lot of it. This is not to say that money itself makes someone a bad person. But in the case of the McCallister family, their money only furthers the extent to which they are crude, calloused, arrogant, selfish, and—above all—terrible to one another.
Consider a few of the following examples:
- Peter and Kate McCallister leaves a pizza delivery person standing in the entrance, drags their feet in paying him, and doesn’t tip.
- Kevin is ignored, neglected, and—on the occasions he’s acknowledged—verbally abused.
- He prefers cheese pizza (an ordinary preference for an eight year old) and doesn’t get to eat any of it at dinner. His older brother bullies him for this desire and pretends to vomit on him. When Kevin retaliates, he’s accused of ruining dinner and sent to sleep in the attic.
- His family members call him, to his face, in quick succession, the following insults: “such a disease”, “you little jerk,” and “les incompetents”.
- In addition to the pizza guy, the family (particularly Peter and Kate) also belittles and insults people in almost every level of employment at the airport—while also pushing strangers away from pay phones.
- Uncle Frank steals cutlery while aboard the airplane to Paris; notably, the children are sitting in coach while the parents are all comfortably in first class.
There are more, of course. Until the violent third act and its sudden resolution, every interaction between every member of the McCallister family is fraught with tension, condescension, and aggression.
Kevin’s very abandonment in the home on Christmas is a manifestation of the family’s indifference toward him. Recall, of course, that their realization of their abandonment is not immediate but occurs once they are flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
However, Kevin being left home alone is not solely the result of neglect and indifference. There are a number of incidents that all must occur in order for Kevin to be abandoned, on such a level that it’s hard to believe the catalyzing events are anything but supernatural intervention.
All the Things That Had to Go Wrong in Order for Kevin to be Left Home Alone
While the moment that sticks in most people’s minds is the miscounting of the McCallister children at the airport vans, there are several other crucial elements that contribute to Kevin being forgotten.
- It all begins with the dinner incident, in which Kevin’s airline ticket is thrown into the trash after getting milk and pizza spilled on it.
- Next, a storm moves in, causing both power lines and telephone lines to go down. The power lines come back in, but not before resetting the clocks.
- The neighbor boy is mistaken for Kevin when his cousin is doing a headcount of all eleven children.
- Kevin sleeps in, through the ruckus of the ten other children and four adults getting ready in a panic.
This all is preceded by one other thing, of course. Kevin wishes his family would disappear. He wishes this directly to his mother’s face and, later, in bed alone.
Kate: Just stay up there. I don’t want to see you again for the rest of the night.
Kevin: I don’t want to see you again for the rest of my whole life and I don’t want to see anybody else, either.
Kate: I hope you don’t mean that. You’d feel pretty sad if you woke up tomorrow morning and you didn’t have a family.
Kevin: No, I wouldn’t.
Kate: Then, say it again. Maybe it’ll happen.
Kevin: I hope that I never see any of you jerks again.
And then, once he’s in bed…
Kevin McCallister : I wish they would all just disappear.
He gets his wish, of course.
But who is it who grants this wish? And what intervention ensures that it will be near-impossible for Kevin to escape from his state of being home alone?
Let’s also consider the factors that result in Kevin being left alone through the attempted burglary and his own near murder:
- The police are called and asked to check on Kevin. They knock, once, no one answers, and no one ever bothers again. (A suggestion, again, that the McCallister parents are rather unfit.)
- Marley recognizes that Kevin is alone and chooses not to intervene, help, or tell the police.
- Not a single other neighbor on the block is home.
- The pizza guy is tricked into thinking a VHS tape is an actual attempted murder.
So many things have to go wrong for this child to be left alone and remain home alone. So many coincidences, so many dominoes, so many links in the chain…
“In life I was your partner, Jacob Marley.”
Back to Marley. Old Man Marley. What is the specific nature of this Marley? Is he demon or angel? A spirit from beyond the grave? A ghost only children can see?
Consider this old man, or angel or Christmas Spirit or dead business partner returned to life: has he watched this despicable family, for years, tearing one another down? Has he listened to Kate McCallister sending her son to bed without dinner and blaming him for his own sadness? Has he watched Buzz bully his younger brother for ages, frightening him with tales of murder and threats of tarantulas?
His motives are clear, even if his exact powers remain mysterious. Christmas time is the time of lessons learned, lessons of love and family, death and time travel. People are pushed to the edge and come back with a newfound understanding of the world, people like the married couple in O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” or the suicidal George Bailey or Ebenezer Scooge himself.
It becomes hard to explain Home Alone otherwise. It’s particularly hard to explain the nature and motives of Old Man Marley is he is anything but a close facsimile of his namesake.
But did they learn their lesson?
The film has a happy ending, of course. Kevin’s family returns to him. They apologize. They make up. Everything is okay.
One has to wonder if they hadn’t learned their lesson, of course. Would Marv and Harry have successfully murdered Kevin? Would Marley have chosen not to intervene? It’s possible, considering the moment in which Marley saved Kevin was probably about 10 pm on Christmas Eve night… around the exact time that Peter McCallister and family would be preparing to board their earlier-than-planned return flight from Paris.
If they had decided not to return for Kevin, leaving Kate to make the journey alone, would it have sealed Kevin’s fate?
“You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
There is one final, substantial difference between A Christmas Carol and Home Alone. In A Christmas Carol, there is no implied hope for Marley to escape his fate. He was dead to begin with and he remains dead at the end, a ghost in chains.
Home Alone ends with Marley and his family reuniting—perhaps a suggestion that, by improving the family dynamic of the McCallisters, Old Man Marley earned his family back. For him, it was not too late. He had to rescue a different family, first, in order to return to his own.