Marginalization and Redemption: We go beyond the surface scares and explore the deeper meaning behind The People Under the Stairs
In Inspecting the Horror, we look beyond the details of the set and focus more heavily on the story and the messages the story is trying to tell the audience. Dig deeper into the film and discover more meaning, more significance, and perhaps a different opinion.
We’ll start by taking a deeper dive into The People Under the Stairs, a 1991 horror film written and directed by Wes Craven.
A 13-year-old boy and his struggling family risk eviction by the hands of their cruel slumlords. Now the man of the household, the boy seeks a rumored treasure within the even more rumored household of the landlords, a sadistic couple known as ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ to one another. Realizing their sick nature and finding himself trapped, he must not only seek freedom but also freedom for the other prisoners that are kept hidden within the house.
What Makes ‘The People Under the Stairs’ Scary?
- Art Imitates Life: The political and social messages within the film are exceedingly transparent to viewers and they are stated in a satirical but frightening way; the couple representing the wealthy, the boy representing the up and coming lower class, and the prisoners as the failing and the dying members of society.
- No Longer People: The prisoners/kidnapped boys that are kept under the stairs in the basement have lost a certain amount of their humanity- they’re deformed, their eyes haves have gone black from the darkness, and they growl and scream as a form of communication. Not to mention they have also turned to cannibalism as a means of survival.
- Abuse: The couple in The People Under the Stairs also have a “daughter” whom they abuse in every aspect. The girl has learned to ‘see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’ in order to avoid as much punishment as possible. The couple also abuse religion by hypocritically claiming it as a means to justify their “cleansing” and their own warped sensibilities.
- Hiding in Suburbia: It’s disturbing to learn of not only the present crimes of the couple but also the past misgivings they have easily gotten away with. They hid behind a façade of a loving, well-to-do white husband and wife in a city with its fair share of crime. They lured people into their home and managed to make prisoners or meals out of them, simply because of their well concealed sadism and the image they uphold.
- Impure Thoughts and Actions: The husband and wife are revealed to be brother and sister, making their relationship even more unsettling.
Side Note: Wendy Robie (Mommy) discusses the intensity of the bathtub scene in this interview for The People Under the Stairs:
Dissecting the Messages
The story of the characters in The People Under the Stairs is able to stand alone without the supports of the political motifs that express Craven’s feelings on the world’s current, although they are a key component of the film. The protagonist, Poindexter aka Fool, earned his nickname from his sister’s tarot card readings, which was kindly explained within the opening credits. The Fool is not stupid, merely ignorant. He has choices to make which determines this, thus lying down the foundation for the rest of the boy’s journey throughout the film.
The child is bombarded with choices; to be the man of the house or to live out the rest of his childhood, to turn to crime or stay at home and wait for fate’s decision, and to keep his own interests in mind or help those who need it most.
The idea of masculinity and manhood is presented to him by his sister’s boyfriend, a negative exemplification of what a man is. The boyfriend is crass, disrespectful to men and women, welcomes crime, and harbors hate, and this is the only male figure Fool has to learn from. Thankfully, the boyfriend is Fool’s foil character and serves to only showcase the opposing qualities of him.
Fool’s next choice is to earn the money his family needs honestly or to go along with the plan to rob the rich landlords. Touching upon the tarot reading again, the Fool is faced with a problem when he’s just starting out; he can either take the high road or he can falter and see what his future will be. With this particular decision, he falters and chooses to be a part of the robbery scheme. This leads him to be trapped within the house, fighting for his life, and exposed to other horrors.
Although Fool made the wrong choice, his chance for redemption is possible, albeit tough. The couple’s captive daughter, Alice, helped him survive the constant attacks from Daddy and their vicious dog, Prince. Fool sees the girl is also a victim and lends his sympathy and thanks to her. He’s also assisted by Roach, the tongue-less mischief maker who scurries through the walls, and witnesses the depravity he and the other boys live in.
Once Fool escapes, he can either choose to forget the hellish ordeal and take what gold he was given or he can take the high road by rescuing the others. He chooses the latter and his decision ultimately earns him the bigger reward of more gold, saving innocent lives, and stopping unreal cruelty.
Despite his hardships, Fool rose above in the end. By overcoming the limitations of outside factors and influences, one can resolve to make the right decisions- no matter how difficult they may be.
Combining his representation of the struggles of youth and “coming of age” with the turmoil of racial, social, economic struggle, Craven successfully made a statement in The People Under the Stairs — providing a glimmer of cinematic hope for audiences at a time where horror was more at home and less on the screen.