Fantasies of Functional Accumulation

We’re looking at a basement. It contains all the normal basement things—tools and holiday decorations, half-empty paint cans, a kettle-style Weber grill, laundry accouterments. But it has a few abnormal touches, too. For instance, there is a talking furnace that waits with a human-like grimace at the ready, and there are three—yes, three—mannequins. The camera’s slow pan reveals one of them tucked in next to a sewing machine; the others, meanwhile, are piled up in a corner, legs and torsos severed from their pallid, plasticized busts.

This basement could be yours, or mine, except it isn’t, it’s better. It’s the McCallisters’—the beloved dysfunctional family at the center of the 1990 holiday film classic Home Alone. And, unlike most of the basements of the world, it actually adds up to something. Every item in it—from the garden hoses looped around the rafters to the steam iron sitting innocently on top of the dryer—is fated for a glorious kind of use. This is the basement that our basements dream of and look up to.

In Home Alone, director Chris Columbus famously gives us the ideal American home. Less famously, though, he also delivers on a fantasy about the ideal American basement. The fictional McCallister family’s stately house in the Chicago suburbs, which sold six years ago for a very real 1.5 million dollars, conceals a fantasyland of function and utility, where nothing ever gets wasted or goes to die and where buyer’s remorse is as unheard of as a Christmas without snow. We catch a glimpse of it early on in the film, when eight year-old Kevin, famously played by Macaulay Culkin, discovers that his family has flown to Paris without him and left him home alone. Kevin stumbles sleepily about the house in plaid pajamas, calling out the names of his many relations. His search eventually leads him to the basement, where he confronts an array of junk that appears nonetheless charged with meaning and with purpose. This is a movie, after all. Those mannequins (a fourth can yet be found upstairs in the master bedroom), they’re not allowed to be accidental. If we’re seeing them, then they must be destined for something bigger.

Indeed, as anyone who’s ever seen Home Alone knows, they are. The mannequins resurface a few scenes later, during Kevin’s staged holiday house party. In an effort to deflect the crooks who would break in and steal from his family’s vast trove of possessions, Kevin puts the mannequins to work—along with other household items—to make the house appear occupied. Two dummies are brought to life in the form card players; another is perched atop a record player and gently revolves to the tune of Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; a cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan, meanwhile, traverses the room with the help of a miniature train set. But it is Kevin who is pulling the strings, Kevin who, in god-like fashion, has granted temporary life to the contents of his family’s basement. Compelled by the ropes that bind them to him, these inanimate objects wriggle and spin. They try for life, for a version of what Kevin has lost in being forgotten by his family. They try to be that family.

I return to Home Alone every year at about this time, and I am always jealous of the McCallisters’ basement, of all the ways that it means. Perhaps this is because I stand at only a slight distance away from the practice known as hoarding. There are hoarders in my family, as there are in most American families today, so I am no stranger to its logic. I have seen how, through hoarding, individual lives become despotically governed and then held hostage by someone else’s fantasies about what stuff means—what they insist it’s worth, what they think it represents, and what should be done with it.

In Home Alone, Kevin lives the modern hoarder’s Chekhovian fantasy when he puts his family’s stockpile to splendid use. Their conventionally bourgeois hoard becomes an arsenal as, in the final scenes of the film, he subjects the Wet Bandits to one homemade obstacle after another. The steam iron descends through a dumbwaiter and hits the character Marv in the face; the half-empty paint cans form a gauntlet leading up to the second floor; the Christmas tree decorations are placed beneath an open window, in anticipation of Marv’s bare feet; and, perhaps most sinister of all, the Weber grill’s electric charcoal starter is affixed to the handle of the McCallisters’ front door. When the character Harry attempts to enter that way, the heated metal leaves an Mseared into the flesh of his hand. Previously, Kevin demonstrated his prowess for converting objects into subjects, but here he succeeds in doing the opposite: he effectively brands Harry with the McCallisters’ logo, turning him into a possession and making him forever part of their hoard.

The McCallisters aren’t hoarders, though, and this is partly why we love them. Through their stuff, they lend credence to the aspirational logic of hoarding, to the thoughts of what if that nag at so many of us and cause us to stockpile and accrue, especially around the holidays. And their home isn’t a hoarder’s home: it’s bright and clean, ruthlessly laid out in a green-and-red color scheme, and well organized. There is no obsessive compulsiveness on display here, no towering stacks of old newspapers, no rotting food, no carcasses of dead cats. There’s only the story and only those things that are 100% indispensable to it.

In fact, in Home Alone, the material hoard takes precedent over its homonymic cousin, the human horde. The McCallisters’ home is amply peopled, and by a family that is so large that its individual components appear somewhat redundant. This is why Kevin gets left behind: amidst the festive fray of the holidays, the act of taking stock itself becomes impossible. In his wanderings about the empty rooms of his family’s home, human abundance gets swapped for darkness and vacuity. These two words sound the same but they do not mean the same, the movie reminds us, and we lose much when confuse them, when we become blinded by accumulation.

For those of us—and I suspect there are many—who lie awake at night contemplating the number of dumpsters that will be someday called upon in order to rid us of the hoards that we didn’t ask for but are obligated to inherit, the McCallisters’ basement is a refuge. It is a vision of well-ordered, functional accumulation, where every castoff object has a calling and a future. It is not our world, but rather a revised version of the one we have been forced to occupy. It is what I want for my own basement and for the basements of my friends and family members: utility, worth, and immortality. I can’t give them these things, so instead I give them Christmas presents and help to fill up the painful spaces and corners of their lives where the absence of these qualities is most apparent.

—Sheila Liming is Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Dakota. Her book about the writer Edith Wharton’s library is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press, while another book on the cultural history of office spaces is forthcoming from Bloomsbury through its Object Lessons series. Find her on Twitter: @seeshespeak.