Christmas as a Site of Childhood Trauma Then and Now: Home Alone, Happy!, and Nos4a2

An instant classic, Home Alone is a Christmas family movie that was produced and released at a time of prosperity and relative social stability. It is about well-to-do parents (gorgeous house, big family, nice neighborhood, holiday vacation to Paris) who forget their youngest child, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), at home as they head out for the family vacation. The movie ends up being a lighthearted, hi-jinks film that wonderfully choreographs catch-the-burglar scenes. But its lightheartedness masks a darkness that lies deep beneath its surface. Released in 1990, nine years after the kidnapping and death of Adam Walsh shocked the country to its core, it may be the first childhood Christmas trauma story on film. Yet, it only delicately skirts around issues of childhood loneliness and abandonment. Adam Walsh’s and, later, Jimmy Rice’s kidnappings dominated discussions on television and radio shows for years and partly drove the latch-key kids of the 70s and 80s into the so-called helicopter parents of today. And, Home Alone marks that turning point: Kevin was probably among the last latch-key kids in America, even if he was a temporary one. His parents came back and begged his forgiveness for leaving him alone for a week to take care of himself, while an entire generation before had spent much of their childhoods playing in the streets and taking care of themselves and the house while their parents were away at work. Home Alone may just be, among a good deal many other things, about a nation that saw its past ways of child-rearing as an unfathomable and unforgivable mistake.

Fast forward to 2019 and with it have come Happy! and NOS4A2, two tales of the supernatural that scratch at that dark Christmas itch and seem eager to grind into dust the notion that children can be protected and sheltered well into adulthood.

Happy! is a black comedy that relishes in goopy revolting messes and stylish and stylishly insane characters, not to mention a roller coaster ride of a plot. It is an alcohol-soaked, wild-ride into the other world and NYC’s seedy underworld. Happy! follows two former lovers and corrupt NYPD detectives, Nick Sax, who is played fearlessly and with true gumption by Christopher Meloni (whose bushed out eye-brows do quite a bit of the heavy lifting) and Meredith McCarthy, played by Lili Miorjnick, whose sarcasm and wit brings some balance to the pandemonium surrounding her. The two former lovers/detectives find themselves partnering up again, springing into pugilistic action to rescue Nick’s daughter, Hailey (played brilliantly by Bryce Lorenzo) from a kidnapping. Nick is also aided by Hailey’s (former) imaginary friend, an earnestly goofy, goody four-hooves blue unicorn named Happy (voiced by the ever-delightful Patton Oswald). In addition, Francis Scaramucci (Ritchie Coster), McCarthy’s uncle and former crime boss, becomes the center of the maelstrom when he is possessed by a demon of death and emerges as the mastermind of the ensuing chaos.

NOS4A2 (a nod to the cinematic classic of the silent-film era, Nosferatu) is a dark, moody story that has made a psycho-thriller out of Krampus’ (2015) black-comedy Christmas horror film. It is a dark show that revels in its gloom. NOS4A2 follows Charlie Manx (Zachary Quinto), the owner of “Christmas Land” and “The Wraith” Rolls Royce. He is a vampire-like man who uses children as his own personal youth serum-filled needle. He kidnaps children from their “bad” parents and buries them still partially alive in Christmas Land, after having sucked up their souls/life-force. He too has an aid, the not-quite-all-there Bing Partridge (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who has suffered his own childhood Christmas trauma (he catches his father dancing with his dead mother around the family Christmas tree). He is an easy recruit for Charlie.

With these two shows, SyFy and AMC reach into the towns and psychological spaces network television rarely dares to venture. The Home Alone parents and their network television counterparts are the shining examples of the “perfectly imperfect” parents. Their lives come replete with stable careers and sprawling three-car garage homes, and their children are well protected in a suburban bubble. The parents in Happy! by contrast are quickly sliding from middle class into homelessness as they are engulfed by relentless mayhem. Everything is piling up around them, and with no justice or semblance of help from the NYPD, it becomes harder to keep Hailey properly housed and, more importantly, safe from various human and other-worldly monsters who have come after her: season one’s monster is a deranged, creepy, kidnapping Santa Clause, with ties to all the malignant adults of season two. Season two’s main monster is the demon of death and destruction who, through a variety of proxies, slowly plays on Hailey’s fears and sense of alienation and abandonment while preventing Nick, Merdith, and Hailey’s mother (played by the illuminating Medina Senghore) from rescuing her. Eventually, the demon is able to recruit Hailey into killing, during a live Easter special, a kids’ show host; a beloved global megastar and a closeted politician-bribing psychopath (whose wickedly-hilarious hair is shaped to resemble the poop emoji). The demon of death’s ultimate goal in apprenticing Hailey as an assassin is to create a new generation of demoralized, fearful, and complacent adults. Having apparently done quite well for himself when he orchestrated the assassination of JFK and the 9/11 attacks, he is jonesing for more.

The nameless parents in NOS4A2, by contrast, range from the too overworked, too traumatized, too sexed, and/or too drunk to notice their kids to the fathers who pimp their daughters out for extra cash. And NOS4A2’s main heroines also differ from Hailey’s care-giver heroes in Happy!. Two teenagers are set up to be the only ones equipped psychologically and emotionally to take down Charlie Manz and rescue the “lost” children. The first is an older orphan, Maggie Leigh (Jahkara Smith), who gains insight into deep mysteries by reading tiles, and the younger one, Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummings), has the preternatural ability to find lost things. But in addition to beating the soul-sucking demon, Vic is tasked with protecting a younger talented friend, Haley (!), from her unsympathetic mother and, so, from Charlie. That they have to rely on supernatural forces to save children is telling. Both Maggie and Vic also seem destined to struggle against the adults in the room. Maggie so far fails to convince her friend, the detective whose hands are, of course, too tied to send out a search party to look for her missing friend. Vic meanwhile finds that she must navigate the mine-field that is her parents’ relationship. Former childhood sweet hearts, her father (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) is a charming yet garden-variety lout (a daydreaming musician-now-mechanic, adulterer, alcoholic, and occasional wife-beater) and her mother (Virginia Kull) is the put upon wife who scrubs toilets in the houses of the town’s wealthy. Their favorite battle ground? Vic’s dream of going to art school. For her mother, her dreams are too lofty when there are bills that need to be paid.

It remains to be seen how these shows will come to terms with all the damages by the end of their respective runs (they may be bound, after all, to their original source materials). Meanwhile, two episodes in, and NOS4A2 focuses on the by-turns casual and gut-wrenching cruelties inflicted daily upon children. Happy!, over the course of two seasons, taps into parents’ anxieties over their children as the tears in the economic, social, and political fabric of society keep widening.

George Lucas is reported to have said, “if you want me to make you feel something, that’s not hard. I’ll choke a kitten in front of you, and you’ll feel something.” Nearly forty-precent of families are currently struggling just to stay above the poverty line and tent cities for recently-homeless families continue to expand. The staggering statics on child abuse is a national crisis wake-up call. Some children rarely, if ever, get a break. Not even during the holidays (whichever holidays they may be). Happy! and Nos4a2 rightfully have disenchanted the childhood Christmas genre in their acknowledgment of this simple fact. In other words, they have bow-tied and wrapped and placed their kittens under the Christmas tree.

* Featured image credit:

** Update! I just watched episode 3 and guess what?! Nos4a2 just killed Hailey’s cat for the fun of it. And there you have it.

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