‘The People Under the Stairs’ and its Complex Legacy as a White-Helmed ‘Urban’ Horror Story

You know, it’s a shame that it’s taken me so long to talk about ‘The People Under the Stairs’, considering that it’s the film that this site is literally named after. But since I’ve been cranking out so much content in preparation for Halloween this year, I figured I really have no excuse at this point. And, frankly, the film is as topical now as it ever was in the past, so it’s as good a time as any to revisit it.

We’ve been lucky enough, in the past couple of years, to really be hitting strides with making horror a more inclusive genre, at least as far as the diversity of filmmakers is concerned. Black voices in horror filmmaking are becoming more and more prominent, thanks to the success of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, and, recently, Nia DeCosta’s excellent Candyman reboot/sequel. We still have a long way to go as far as equal representation goes, obviously, but it’s been a step in the right direction.

And while this rise in Black horror (or “Urban” horror, as it has been somewhat problematically referred to in the past) is certainly a fantastic opportunity to explore some incredibly nuanced and poignant themes in a genre that so often relies solely on shock value and spectacle, it would be incredibly tone-deaf and reductive to say, like many cultural commentators seem to love doing, that this is the only thing that Black filmmakers can do. There’s this certain cultural expectation, I think, for Black creatives to only make art, be it film or otherwise, that addresses Blackness or the Black experience. It’s the burden of minority artists, to always be under scrutiny from those both in and outside of their cultural group, to be a spokesperson or an ambassador for the plight of the entire demographic.

Which, of course, is unfair. Any filmmaker should feel free to make whatever sort of art they like, as deep or as shallow as they want to. It’s something that I really appreciated the 2021 Candyman for addressing, as its protagonist, an artist, is constantly hounded by critics to incorporate racial pain and suffering into his work. It’s a ridiculous assertion, that Black art has to be made with trauma at its center, when we don’t seem to expect that of anyone else.

I’ll preface this, of course, by saying that I am a white male. My heritage is predominantly European, with a touch of Asian ancestry on my father’s side by way of a Korean grandmother. In other words, I feel about as qualified to speak on the Black experience in the world of film as I do about quantum physics; That is to say, not it all. It’s why I refrained from writing about Candyman: I don’t think that film was necessarily made for me, and while I enjoyed it, I don’t feel comfortable addressing the film’s central themes as if I understand them on a level that’s necessary for real discourse. I recognize what they are on an intellectual level, obviously, but I could never in good faith claim to have the life experience that it takes for the film’s content to truly resonate in the way that DeCosta intended.

Which is why The People Under the Stairs is such a profoundly fascinating paradox of a film. It’s truly one of the first major horror films in the mainstream to really address race as a central theme in a thoughtful, non-exploitative way, it addresses heavy themes like class warfare and gentrification, and it’s central villains are coded specifically as white, racist conservatives. In a lot of ways, it’s the prototype for Get Out, the film that paved the way for frank discussions of race and class to exist in horror films in an intelligently satirical manner. It even predates the original Candyman, another well-known pioneer of “urban” horror, by a full year. And yet, it has the same ideological complication that the 1992 Candyman does as well: The People Under the Stairs was made by a white man.

Not just any white man, to again avoid being reductive. Specifically, Wes Craven, the mad horror genius behind The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and of course, A Nightmare on Elm Street. The People Under the Stairs was really Craven’s first major foray into satire, paving the way for later films like New Nightmare and Scream to go all-in on the concept. And make no mistake, The People Under the Stairs is, at its core, a satire. The villains of the film, “Mommy” and “Daddy” Robeson, are cartoon caricatures of the late-80s, ultra-conservative white wealthy class. They’re inbred, child-stealing, murderous psychopaths who feed on the suffering of the lower classes and punish anyone that defies their WASPy standards by locking them away in their basement. They look like the puppets of Nancy and Ronald Reagan from the music video for Genesis’s “Land of Confusion”. Only somehow less terrifying.

It’s not meant to be overly subtle, obviously.

And the plot of the film is one that is inherently focused on class and economic inequality, filtered through the lends of gentrification. A family is cruelly evicted from their home by their landlords, the Robesons, who derive sick pleasure from doing so. The family’s young son, wanting to save his family from ending up on the streets and to pay for life-saving surgery for his mother, agrees to help a local thief (played by Ving Rhames, dellighfully) break into the Robeson house. While inside, they slowly unravel all of the horrible secrets that the twisted husband and wife have been keeping secret inside the walls of their house, in an increasingly insane, almost gothic horror journey into mystery. 

The Robesons have built their wealth off of the exploitation and suffering of the poor. They ran a scam funeral home before getting into real estate, getting rich on buying low and selling high, which anyone who has ever paid attention in an economics or social studies class can tell you usually means the lower classes are getting shafted. That’s gentrification in a nutshell. This alone would make them an excellent narrative device to convey the class warfare themes that The People Under the Stairs wants to covey, and yet the film goes a step further by introducing its central horror element: The titular dwellers in the basement.

Unable to conceive children of their own, presumably due to their twisted, corrupt bloodline, the Robesons have been kidnapping children for decades, intending to raise them as their own. But as soon as the children are old enough to step out of line, even slightly misbehaving or acting outside of Mommy and Daddy’s archaic rules and structure, they are maimed, disfigured, and cast into the basement, where they have turned to cannibalism in order to survive. The family is obsessed with the “hear/see/speak no evil” mantra, and have taken to cutting out the tongues of some of their “children.” Only one child, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl names Alice, has so far escaped their wrath, by laying low and playing along with their insane demands as closely in line as possible.

Let’s break that down, shall we? We have an unethically rich white family who takes children from the poor until they no longer match their exact demands, and then strip them of their voices and cast them underground where they’re forced to eat each other to survive. The only child not punished by their wrath is one that conforms as much as possible, despite knowing how wrong the situation is. The whole thing is about as clear a class metaphor as a film can reasonably have. (It’s also pretty much the exact thematic through-line of Jordan Peele’s Us, only decades earlier.) If it was handled in any other way, with a less clever and deft hand guiding the story than Craven’s, it would seem too on-the-nose to work. And yet it does, because the writing is nuanced and complex enough to support the weight of its intended message. The message is the primary focus.

Of course, that’s where things get complicated. The main character of the films is a young Black boy. The family being evicted is Black. The People Under the Stairs is a film about the Black economic experience at its core. And as you can imagine, this has ruffled some feathers over the years, due to Craven himself being a white man. Is it wrong for him to adopt this perspective in the film if he himself doesn’t necessarily have the cultural background to reflect it?

It’s a complicated issue, one that I’m not sure has a real correct answer. I can certainly see the arguments for either side of the debate, on whether or not Craven was in good taste making a film tacking this sort of thematic and narrative content. I can only offer my interpretation: This is a film about class warfare and capitalism. It’s a film that is primarily concerned with how the wealthy upper class uses and abuses the lower classes mercilessly for their own benefit. It’s a film about gentrification, about the plight of the poor and the voiceless. And it takes place in a late 80s LA ghetto. Frankly, it would be a missed opportunity, I think, for the protagonist not to be Black.

If your story is one that’s meant to tackle inequality and oppression, is it not more realistic, more relevant, and more effective to have your characters be part of the group that would most realistically be affected by the themes that you’re aiming to explore? If the narrative is about class warfare, then to me, it makes sense to have the characters be of the demographic that experiences the most pressure from the inequality of the classes.

It helps that nothing in The People Under the Stairs feels cheap or stereotypical. The characters feel real and authentic, and don’t veer into caricatures or offensive archetypes. In fact, the only exaggerated figures in the film are the white villains. I think, had Craven approached the character writing in this film a bit less respectfully, it would be a much larger issue. But as it stands, I think he truly painted a genuine, mindful depiction of urban plight in the early 90s, without having to rely on tired tropes or offensive archetypes. And I think the film has aged particularly well, mostly because, sadly, many of the issues that the film explores are still painfully relevant.

And again, I understand and recognize perfectly that my perspective on the film is one of a White viewer, of someone who doesn’t have the economic or cultural background to truly comment on the film’s authenticity or level of respect. I could be extremely wrong in my assessment. But I feel that, at the very least, Craven’s intentions were noble, and that at worst, he was misguided rather than malicious.

I love this film. Even outside of its deeper thematic components, it’s a funny, well-paced and entertaining urban-gothic horror film with some excellent surprises and some truly reprehensible villains. But its real strength is its satire, its aggressively honest and blunt examination of the economic disparities in this country that are still in play even thirty years later. I think that it’s sadly been overshadowed by other similar films like Candyman, and deserves its place in the cultural lexicon as a figure of discussion and analysis. And certainly, it serves as all the more reason to love Wes Craven as a filmmaker. What other horror director has made a film like this? With this perspective? Not many, that’s for sure.

More than maybe any other piece I’ve written for this blog, I’d love to hear what you guys think about this one. Where do you fall in the debate? Does The People Under the Stairs pay proper respects to the real-life situational struggles that it’s pulling from, or was Wes Craven out of line? Let me know in the comments!

And Happy Halloween!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s