The 1991 film My Girl, otherwise known as the movie where Macaulay Culkin gets stung to death by bees, taught me about sudden, abject horror. It was Thanksgiving weekend, 1991. I was 10 years old. It had been twelve long, agonizing months since Home Alone was released—shattering box office records and finishing third all-time behind E.T. and Star Wars—and finally, there was a new Macaulay Culkin film in theaters.
Along with the rest of America, I was fiending for more paint cans to the face, more jumping on the bed and eating pizza, and most of all, more Culkins—more Mack, more Kieran, while waiting for baby Rory in the wings. Instead, I was horrified by the 14-second long death sequence in which Culkin’s severely allergic character, Thomas J., desperately swats at the bees. He cries out “Oh no!” as he becomes aware of his doom, before being overtaken by hundreds of them.
The wretchedness didn’t let up there. There was the way his glasses fell to the ground in slow motion. There was the way the camera lingered on the bees as they crawled over the lenses for four full seconds. There was the fact that Thomas J. had been looking for best friend’s mood ring near the beehive, and that he found it just before realizing his error. There was Dan Ackroyd—Ray from Ghostbusters—delivering the line, “There were just too many of them.” There was the sight of what New York Times critic Janet Maslin called “America’s favorite child in a coffin,” his dead face covered in still-fresh welts. There was 11-year old Vada, collapsing in grief at his funeral, sobbing. “Where are his glasses?” she screams. “He can’t see without his glasses!”
I’m an older Millennial. When I was a younger, more naïve person, I used to joke that this kind of entertainment—let’s call it “trauma-tainment”—was the source of my anxiety. Compared to the children’s programming of the present, which tends to foreground self-esteem and the magic of play, Hollywood producers in the 80s and 90s seemed strangely obsessed with the idea that films and TV should offer lessons about death and mortality—often with the effect of disturbing us all. There was the horse sinking in the Neverending Story, and cartoons being dipped in paint thinner in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. What about that last episode of the television show Dinosaurs, where everyone died in a nuclear winter? Spoiler alert: In the final scene, the parent dinosaur puppets huddle around the Not the Mama baby, comforting him that he won’t die alone in the apocalypse. This stuff made shooting Bambi’s Mom and taking old Yeller out back seem tame in comparison.
As we got older and began facing the actual unflinching stress of adulthood, many of us began joking that this stuff had “traumatized” us. Tell the therapist where it started: Artax. Little Foot’s Mom dying in The Land Before Time. Maybe it was the refrigerator episode of Punky Brewster, where Cherie almost suffocated in a game of hide-and-seek, or maybe it was the one where the orphanage burned down—pick your poison. And I’ll never forget the younger sister getting axed from Family Matters. She was sent to her room one episode and then never mentioned again. The disappearance of Judy was a generational trauma.
Lately, though, we’ve been telling a different collective story. As the real world increasingly resembles the stuff of nightmares, these scenes from our childhoods are finally starting to make sense—and they’re resurfacing in our social media timelines. Current Pandemic Mood: Artax in the Swamp of Sadness. My Plans: a picture of a toddler in yellow overalls.
For a moment this year, it seemed like things might be getting better: We celebrated the arrival of hot vax summer, or whatever we were calling it. Then, the Delta variant came along and wrecked our plans. As one Twitter user observed, it felt like the crockpot that burns down the family’s house and kills off Jack Pearson in This is Us.
This is gallows humor in its purest form: jokes that make light of death and terrifying situations to provide relief. In his 1927 essay Humour, Freud theorized that “traumas are no more than occasions for [the ego] to gain pleasure.” Actual trauma survivors would be right to call BS on Freud and on Millennials being traumatized by sitcoms and movies, but there’s no denying that gallows humor can be a form of catharsis. Things got so grim last summer that Psychology Today assured readers that it was okay to laugh at all the “sick jokes” people were making: “For many this pressure valve means psychological survival,” advised writer Judith Matloff, who teaches conflict reporting and recently wrote a book titled How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need. “You’re staring down the Grim Reaper and not letting it get the better of you.”
For Millennials, these memes also provide solace by reminding us of the common bonds we share as people who grew up in a specific time and place. “Who is old enough to get this,” posted one user on Twitter, noting that a picture of Tonya Harding gliding past Nancy Kerrigan seemed like the perfect metaphor for the Delta variant upending our lives. Two weeks ago, younger Millennials and Gen Z took comfort in Steve from Blue’s Clues telling them he never forgot them and that he was “so proud” for all they had accomplished. That he had left the show suddenly, two decades ago, was like a trauma-tainment for the younger generation, albeit a kinder and gentler one.
Still, my vote for the most accurate trauma-tainment meme of the pandemic goes to the bees from My Girl. In the left panel, there’s hapless, grinning, severely allergic Thomas J. who just got his first kiss in a willow tree. In the right panel: the bees that are going to kill him. It’s the absolute worst timeline for the kid. I can relate.
The film, along with its 1994 sequel, was recently added to Netflix, coinciding with its 30th anniversary. Co-starring Culkin, Ackroyd, and Jamie Lee Curtis, and introducing Anna Chlumsky as Vada Sultenfuss, the film tells the story of an 11-year-old girl who is obsessed with death, after losing her mother during childbirth and growing up in a funeral parlor. Fortunately, she has her childhood best friend, Thomas J., to help her navigate.
Although the movie’s themes were adult subjects like misplaced guilt and starting over, the producers seemed eager to cash in on the Macaulay Culkin lottery they had won: They'd cast him in 1990, well before the success of Home Alone. Though he only appeared as a supporting role in a handful of scenes, he narrated the trailer, as though the movie would be told from his point of view. Images of what looked like a children’s movie flashed before our eyes over the bass line from the eponymous Temptations song: kids diving into lakes, riding bikes, first kisses in trees, a quirky grandma. “This summer, things are changing for everyone,” narrates Thomas J., who will literally die that summer.
The film poster showed Culkin and Chlumsky posing back-to-back, as though they were starring in a buddy comedy: “Your Dad’s an undertaker, your Mom’s in heaven, and your Grandma’s got a screw loose…it’s good to have a friend who understands you. Even if he’s a boy.”
Maybe it wasn’t quite the hilarity of Fuller drinking too many Pepsis and wetting the bed, but children wanted to see the film. It felt like the unofficial follow-up to Home Alone, and Columbia Pictures unleashed a “Mack is Back” marketing blitz that included press junkets and coincided with an appearance in Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video. Still, the headlines coming out were ominous. Word of the infamous death scene had leaked ahead of My Girl’s release. Parents were angry. Child psychologists were alarmed.
“Although My Girl is being promoted as a children’s coming of age movie, it is awash in death, dying and abandonment from its opening scenes to its closing lines,” a mother wrote in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Esteemed child psychologist Lee Salk spoke out against the film in Entertainment Weekly: “Look what [Culkin] did in Home Alone,” Salk said. “He held his own against these intruders and managed to survive without his parents, every child’s dream. To them, this is a real kid […] in some ways it is like seeing themselves in the casket. It would be somewhat shocking to children who see this film."
Ahead of the release, Columbia Pictures went into damage control, including quotes from child psychologists in the press kit encouraging audiences to Feel the power. Feel the healing. “The only thing that makes [the death] a big deal is Macaulay Culkin is a giant movie star and this is his first movie after Home Alone,” producer Brian Glazer told Entertainment Weekly. “Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for,” added the film’s executive producer.
The gambit worked. The marketing blitz drove audiences to the theater, as did America’s morbid curiosity. My Girl opened at number two, roping in more than $17 million in its first five days.
It was as shocking to kids as the psychologists had predicted. It trauma-tainied a generation. I decided to track down the writer of the film, Laurice Elehany—now Molinari—who orchestrated the very script that traumatized me, hardened me, and prepared me for my worst anxieties to come true. I’d always wondered why it was bees.
Molinari, who also wrote The Brady Bunch Movie, was happy to chat. She explained how she wrote the script in film school, announcing to her teacher that she was going to kill off the grandmother because Vada had to confront death. The teacher pointed out that the grandmother was already dead. “She has bad Alzheimer’s,” Molinari remembers the teacher saying. “She’s already been taken away from Vada. You need to take away somebody that’s really going to hurt. Don’t be a coward. Go for the guts.”
Molinari said that the original script, titled Born Jaundiced, was even darker. “I knew they would never keep that title,” Molinari said. “Vada was born with all these strikes against her, even as she came into the world. She was surrounded by and terrified by death. You can’t escape it.”
As for the bees, she explained that the idea stemmed from her own feelings of anxiety as a child, growing up in small towns in Pennsylvania and Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “‘Stay away from the bees,’” she remembers adults saying. “‘If you see a beehive, don’t attack it.’ Of course, the boys in the neighborhood would anyway. You just sort of grew up with a fear of bees.”
Molinari had not been aware of the memes or her role in trauma-taining Millennials. She told me she re-watched the film with her 20-year-old daughter ahead of our phone call. “She began crying during the last 40 minutes of the film and calling me a bitch,” Molinari said, laughing. Still, she said she has heard from many people over the years who say the film helped them cope with a child’s death.
My Girl taught me about cruel twists and the sudden harshness. It taught me about the crassness of Hollywood and studio deception. It taught me that a single bee sting could send someone into anaphylactic shock within seconds, killing an average of 62 people per year. Finally, My Girl and all of the other trauma-trainments taught me how to take it on the chin, which is why its arrival on the streaming platforms couldn’t be better timed. It’s rough out there. It’s the third upswing of the pandemic and God only knows what’s coming next.
I can only offer you this: The Gen Z daughter of the mastermind behind the bees called her mom a bitch. I hope that heals a tiny bit of your tortured soul tonight.