Security Lessons from Home Alone
You probably remember the classic holiday film Home Alone. The McCallister family goes on vacation and forgets 8-year-old Kevin, leaving him to defend their home from two burglars. Hijinks and booby traps ensue. It’s a heartwarming and hilarious movie, to be sure. But what lessons does it hold about home security? What do the McCallisters get right, and where do they slip up? And is it legal to set traps in your house the way little Kevin does?
Booby Trap Laws
Setting booby traps for thieves certainly looks fun. But are booby traps illegal? Let’s get this big question out of the way first.
Before you start planning how to booby trap your house a la Kevin McCallister, consider the ramifications. Most of the burglar traps Kevin sets in Home Alone cause some serious physical (and psychological) damage. Blowtorches. Icy stairs. Red-hot doorknobs. Paint cans to the head. Nails to the foot. Brutal injuries, one on top of the other.
It’s a wonder that the Wet Bandits are still standing at the end of the film. In fact, an article from The Week asked a doctor’s opinion. The diagnosis? Marv and Harry should be at least unconscious and permanently, horribly disfigured, if not dead.
What the Courts Say
As you’d expect, killing a burglar could put you in hot water. You have a right to defend your home, but using deadly force is another matter, legally speaking. And these laws vary from state to state. There have been plenty of cases where homeowners set a trap and the courts sided with the intruder.
- Katko v. Briney: In perhaps the most famous case, the Brineys were held liable for Katko’s injuries when he tripped a spring-loaded gun at an abandoned property they owned.
- People v. Wasmund: Much like the Brineys, William Wasmund rigged a gun trap. But in his case, the gun killed the burglar, Jeffrey Spicer. Wasmund was charged with homicide. Wasmund’s attorneys are still appealing this case as of November 2022.
- McComb v. Connaghan: Business owner Phillip Connaghan outfitted his warehouse with multiple traps for intruders. One killed teenage burglar Michael McComb. Connaghan pled guilty to manslaughter and paid damages to McComb’s family for the wrongful death.
So why are booby traps illegal or at least ill-advised? Deadly force is usually only defensible if the intruder poses an immediate threat. So Kevin McCallister might have been in the right, but don’t trust that the law will be on your side if you set up traps before you go on vacation. If you need another reason, many municipalities have banned security traps because they pose a problem for first responders during an emergency.
Legal Traps for Thieves
But are there legal burglar traps? In a sense, yes. Think more “security gadget” and less “dropping an iron on someone’s face.”
For example, you can install a door stop alarm that will screech if a burglar breaks your door open or motion-activated lights that strobe when an intruder is near. Or you could go old-fashioned and perch a bucket of smelly or colorful liquid on top of a doorway. Stick with something strictly non-harmful. That way, at most, you might be legally responsible for some dry cleaning bills.
Then again, we’re not lawyers. So proceed with caution.
Other Security Tips from Home Alone
Illegal burglar traps aside, Home Alone is chockful of wisdom about keeping your home safe. Here’s what we can learn from the McCallister family.
Burglars Use Ruses to Case a House
Near the beginning of the film, Harry (Joe Pesci) visits the McCallisters dressed up as a cop. He asks about their travel plans, how strong their home security is, and whether they’re aware of the spike in burglaries around the holidays. Little does resident Peter McCallister know that he’s talking to the burglar himself.
Though this scenario from Home Alone might seem farfetched, it’s more common than you might think. Burglars often visit homes they’re planning to hit later. They might pretend to be a cop, a utility worker, a lost stranger looking for directions, or any number of things. Why? They’re checking to see if you’re home, what your security is like, and what valuables you might have inside.
Be on your guard. “Don’t talk to strangers” is still a good rule for adults. Ask for credentials to verify their identity. Step outside to address them. Snap a photo of them on your phone if you can. Anyone who has a right to be there shouldn’t object to these measures, but a criminal will make an excuse to get out of there.
This is just one of many ways to tell if a burglar is watching your house.
Don’t Tell People You’ll Be Away from Home
Poor Peter McCallister. He doesn’t think twice before telling the “cop” that the family is leaving on a trip to Paris. Telling complete strangers that no one will be home for an extended period is never a good idea.
Nowadays, that applies to social media, too. Only tell close friends that you’ll be gone. Keep those vacation photos off of Facebook and Instagram until you get back.
Bare Minimum Security Is Not Enough
When asked about his home’s security precautions, Peter replies, “Oh, well, we have automatic timers for our lights. Locks for our doors. That’s about as good as you can get these days.” Keep in mind this movie debuted in 1990. Are lights on timers and locks on doors the best the McCallisters can get? Hardly.
While it’s true that, in the history of surveillance cameras, home surveillance systems weren’t common until the mid-90s, other options have been around for longer. The McCallisters could certainly have had a hard-wired alarm system and motion sensors.
When it comes to keeping your family and home safe, “good enough” is not good enough. Get the best security you can comfortably afford or risk the consequences.
At least Kevin’s brother Buzz mentions later that the house has smoke detectors.
Lights on Timers Are Helpful… Sort Of
The McCallisters putting their lights on timers is a good idea. This method creates the illusion that someone is inside. However, the movie clearly shows how this method falls short. Sitting in their van, Harry and Marv are able to track exactly when every home’s automatic lights will turn on.
When the lights are on a predictable schedule, a clever and determined burglar can figure out the pattern. To counteract this problem, use smart outlets or light timer devices that have a “random” mode. When there’s no predictable pattern, it’s much harder for a burglar to detect whether your home is actually empty.
Close Your Garage Door
When Peter and Kate McCallister are sitting on the plane, trying to figure out what they forgot (hint: it’s Kevin), Peter says that he didn’t close the garage door. And it’s true, he didn’t. You can see that it’s wide open when Kevin goes running outside looking for his family in the morning.
Fortunately, the McCallisters have a detached garage, so the only items at risk are their vehicles and any equipment they store in the garage, like Peter’s fishing gear. Things would be much worse if that open garage connected to their home. Many homeowners forget to lock the door from their home to their garage, leaving an easy entry point for burglars.
Always close your garage door when you leave. Always lock the door to your attached garage, even when you’re home. And if the power goes out, as it does in the movie, you can manually open and close it after pulling the emergency cord to disengage the garage door from the opener. (Caution: only do this if the door is in the “closed” position. If the door is open, call the pros for help, as releasing the door can be dangerous.)
Make It Look Like Someone’s Home
Kevin gets this one right several times. He turns on the lights when he hears strange noises. When he senses that the Wet Bandits are watching the home, he rigs up an elaborate Christmas “party” with cardboard cutouts, music, and mannequins. Then, when Marv comes to the back door, he uses firecrackers and clips from a gangster movie to trick the crook into thinking a shootout happened inside. He even calls to his “dad” while decorating a tree.
For a long time, these tricks are enough to discourage Marv and Harry from hitting the house. A real burglar would probably give up and move on.
So, when you’re on vacation, do anything you can to make your home look occupied. Lights on timers are a good start. Devices that replicate TV light are a smart choice, too. Encourage a neighbor to park their car in your driveway. Have a friend stop by to grab your mail, put out your trash bins, and leave tracks in the fresh snow. Better yet, get a house sitter!
Don’t Rely on Living in a “Nice” Neighborhood
No one in the McCallister family seems concerned about potential crime. As Buzz puts it, “We live on the most boring street in the whole United States of America, where nothing even remotely dangerous will ever happen.”
The real Home Alone house is on Lincoln Avenue in Winnetka, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago. It’s true that Winnetka has one of the lowest crime rates in Chicago and its surrounding areas, at 6.9 crimes per 1,000 residents. (For context, Chicago’s crime rate is 7 times higher than Winnetka’s.) But “low crime” doesn’t mean no crime.
Even if you live in a nice, quiet neighborhood, you still need home security. You never know when the Wet Bandits might strike.
Have a Guard Animal…
…But preferably not a tarantula. As hilarious as it is to watch Kevin place his brother’s pet spider on an intruder’s face, that’s not really the best home defense option. Tarantula venom is mildly irritating at most, and tarantulas are naturally afraid of humans. Not great for something that’s supposed to protect you.
A better choice to keep your family safe would be a big, loud dog. Studies suggest that homes with dogs experience property crime less frequently than those without dogs. Do dogs deter burglars every time? Not necessarily, but some convicted burglars have confirmed that a dog is a deal-breaker.
Plus, dogs are more fun to play with than tarantulas.
Befriend Your Neighbors
One of the unexpected benefits of Kevin’s solo adventures in Home Alone is that he becomes friends with Old Man Marley, his seemingly scary next-door neighbor. When Kevin runs out of burglar traps and the Wet Bandits corner him at another neighbor’s empty house, all seems lost. That is, until Marley shows up to whack the bad guys with a snow shovel. (Spoiler alert.)
Kevin’s family spends a lot of time and spare change calling every neighbor in Kate’s address book, but they must not have Marley’s number, because he never speaks with them. Had the family been friends with Marley all along, Kevin might have avoided the dangerous situations with the Wet Bandits. Old Man Marley would probably have shoveled and salted the McCallisters’ driveway before joining Kevin for his Christmas Eve macaroni and cheese dinner.
If you don’t know your neighbors yet, get to know them! Beyond being the source of fun new friendships, they can check on your house while you’re gone, grab your mail, watch your dog (or tarantula), hold on to a spare set of keys, and keep an eye out for suspicious activity. Just make sure you return the favor!
Have a Happier Holiday with Deep Sentinel
If Home Alone took place in the 2020s, all of Kevin’s woes with the Wet Bandits might have been avoided with advanced home security cameras and live security monitoring. A camera system like Deep Sentinel scares the bad guys off before they have a chance to wreak havoc. And AI threat detection doesn’t just prevent false alarms–it also makes dedicated guard support more affordable than ever before.
Keep the change, ya filthy animal.