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See No Evil: The Current Social Relevance of ‘The People Under the Stairs’

See No Evil: The Current Social Relevance of ‘The People Under the Stairs’

Wes Craven had a gift for reading the room. He was always in touch with where society was and made his movies accordingly. A Nightmare on Elm Street perfectly married the rise of the 70’s slasher to the bombast of the 80’s. New Nightmare was a bellwether for the ironic self-awareness of the late 90’s upon which Scream then fully capitalized. But looking back, arguably Craven’s most reflective and socially relevant work was The People Under the Stairs.

If you haven’t watched People in the last few years, you may vaguely recall it being about a bizarre brother and sister couple keeping a pack of feral teenagers locked away in their basement. Or since Craven deliberately cast Wendy Robie and Everett McGill together as ‘Mommy’ and ‘Daddy’ Robeson, you might remember it as the fourth-strangest episode of Twin Peaks. Either way, you’d be forgiven for wondering how such a wild hodge-podge of cannibalism, leather fetish suits and incest could possibly be that important.  Watch it today though, and it becomes apparent Wes Craven was trying to have a conversation much of society wouldn’t catch up with for decades.

The People Under the Stairs is plainly about the marginalization of minorities, class inequality, sexism, the patriarchy, isolationist nationalism and even healthcare. All the topics at the center of today’s rising culture war were highlighted on-screen a quarter-of-century ago in a movie that came and went with little fanfare during a period when horror was in a supposed decline.

Given this degree of prescience, it seems fitting People should begin with a reading of tarot cards.

The reading is for a protagonist called Fool, so-named for the tarot card that represents the blindly ignorant. “Ain’t the stupid kind of fool,” Ruby the reader says, “only the ignorant kind, ‘cause he’s only starting out.” This is Craven’s way of initially addressing the audience and engaging them in what they about to see. It’s not that you’re stupid, it’s that you don’t know any better. Here, let me show you.

Fool, played by Brandon Quintin Adams, is a young black boy living in a Los Angeles ghetto. His mother has cancer and they can’t afford her surgical treatment. On top of this, the entire family is being evicted from their home because the rent is three days past due and there’s a clause in the lease agreement stipulating triple the standard payment when late. This sort of brutal gouging is by design. The landlords, Mommy and Daddy, simply wait for their tenants to fall behind and then evict them in order to bulldoze the property and sell it for office space. It’s a predation scheme all-the-more insidious because the Robesons also happen to own at least one nearby liquor store, giving them the opportunity to simultaneously feed peoples’ desperate addictions and profit from the consequences of them. And profit they do. Mommy and Daddy are sitting upon a mountain of stationary wealth. It’s not even in a bank accruing interest; it’s an actual pile of gold and cash actively collecting dust in the cellar.

This is all just subtext in relation to class inequality. The specifically racial elements are more overt, with Mommy and Daddy dropping the worst of epithets while shooting or attempting to shoot a black man, child, and woman, all unarmed.

While the movie is immediately steeped in these grounded, realistic horrors that millions of people face every day of their lives, the more fantastic horror elements eventually come from the fact that Mommy and Daddy are one-hundred-and-ten percent insane. The latest fruit borne of a family tree with exactly one branch, they’re Cersei and Jamie Lannister by way of Ebenezer Scrooge with a dash of Dahmer. And despite being cruel sadists who literally eat the poor, they view themselves as unfairly persecuted, telling police officers, “It’s as though we’re the prisoners and the criminals roam free.” Mommy and Daddy don’t see themselves as a lunatic fringe of society who have walled themselves off from outsiders. They see themselves as under siege by the undesirable and unclean masses. They’ve fortified their home with padlocks, steel doors and explosives, preventing anyone from getting in or out aside from a stream of adopted boys who each inevitably step out of line and are sent to live forever under the titular stairs.

Mommy and Daddy’s one successful attempt at raising a child, as far as they’re concerned, is their stolen daughter Alice, played by pre-My So-Called Life A.J. Langer. And it’s Alice who really illustrates and drives home the central theme at the core of the movie; See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

This phrase – a reference to Japanese imagery of three wise monkeys covering their eyes, ears and mouth – is repeated and alluded to multiple times. It’s primarily used by Mommy and Daddy as an admonition to remind their unruly children to mind their own business and keep quiet, lest they lose their offending body parts and be locked away. This is a perversion of the maxim’s original meaning, which is a reference to those who would knowingly or unknowingly overlook impropriety.

Both contexts apply to Alice, who has been kept so isolated from the rest of the world she’s literally never seen a black person. When Fool encounters her and asks how the People came to live Under the Stairs, Alice says “Some saw things they weren’t supposed to, others heard too much, others talked back.” This response represents the bastardized interpretation of the three wise monkeys,while the original interpretation is represented seconds later in her assertion that the boys down below “get flashlights and food of some kind. I suppose they’re happy in their own way.”

“Not the stupid kind of fool, only the ignorant kind...

Alice’s ignorance is absolutely forgivable as she herself is a victim of horrifying abuse, bludgeoned into submission with a puritanical brick of fire and brimstone. Every scene shared with her parents is a nightmare. She’s beaten, scolded and scalded while being told “Speak when spoken to, that’s what good girls do,” and “Bad girls burn in hell.” Every second of her life with Mommy and Daddy has told her if she speaks up in defense of herself or others she’ll be severely punished. So when Fool asks her how she managed to avoid getting sent to live in the cannibal basement with her adopted brothers, it’s no surprise she repeats “I do not see, or hear, or speak evil. It’s the only way.” Alice, like many women, is silent to survive.

The title of The People Under the Stairs refers not only to the characters imprisoned by Mommy and Daddy, but to Fool and his family, to Alice, to everyone pushed down into Sunken Places by Robesons and those like them. The other central theme of ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ refers to the system that compels people to look the other way as these atrocities are committed behind the flimsiest of facades.

As much as it’s worth pointing out how on-the-nose People was in 1991, it’s doubly worth pointing out not much has changed in twenty-six years. Maybe that’s why Craven had been working on remaking or adapting the movie to television prior to his death; the concept didn’t truly penetrate public consciousness the first time around, but with socially-conscious horror like Get Out and the Purge series having a moment, it probably felt like a good time to take another swing at it. I submit a late sequel would work just as well. Call it The People Are Still Under the Damn Stairs.



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COMMENTS

87 Comments
  • Munchie Strikes Back

    Needs to be rebooted with a female as Fool, yeah? How about Foolette?

  • Evil One

    Please, bloodyDisgusting stop with this Liberal nonsense. You will lose a lot of faithful readers.

    Please

    • Daniel Baldwin

      Whether some fans want to believe it or not, Craven, Romero, Carpenter, and a great majority of the other 70s/80s filmmakers were/are all liberals who packed their horror and science fiction films with socio-political commentary. This one included.

      • djambi

        THANK YOU! What the hell do people who watch these films think that People Under the Stairs, They Live, Dawn of the Dead, etc. were all about?!

        • Hugo Orozco

          My thoughts exactly. And I don’t give a f**k about political statements

      • Nahuel Benvenuto

        what is a liberal and why does peopel make such a fuzz over if you are one or not, i am from America, but from another country that is not the USA, so i do not get it, i hate pc culture and all that bullshit thought, and every movie has commentaries on every level including socio-political, but this kind of articles… iugh

    • Monkeymanbob

      What utter rot.

      Carry on BD – why would they lose readers because of what is plainly there? To ignore it would be worse. If don’t like it, don’t read it.

      • DukeStKing

        Precisely.

      • Hugo Orozco

        Even if there’s politics subtexts on wes craven or carpenter or romero. no one can’t argued about their rich (on favor or not) way to treat a horror film screenplay. So if anybody just want to not-think about the movies subtext. Well.. as you said… don’t read it.

    • dukeblues

      Sure would be nice if we talked about horror movies and not 1.) Politics and 2.) Toys. It’s bad enough I have to hear this garbage on ESPN where, ya know, we are supposed to talk about sports. Funny thing is I don’t hear conservatives shoving their opinions into every facet of life on these sites unless it’s in response to a liberal.

      • Lil Malk

        Funny thing is, I don’t hear a lot of you “conservatives” giving thoughtful opinions about anything so much as hopping along your bunny trail to whine about how “teh ess- jay- wubyas(!)” are ruining all your little lives. But I guess that depends on where you’re sitting, huh?

      • Why not try to rebuke his reading with a conservative reading of the film then? Everyone objecting to this piece fails to offer anything else except complaint that art has a political bent. Why not refute his interpretation rather than try to suggest there is no deeper meaning?

    • Edward P. Gary

      Triggered snowflake syndrome – everything is about identity politics today. PUTS is not a deep movie by any standard, sorry to break it to you. It marginally entertaining at best.

      • djambi

        “Triggered snowflake syndrome”

        You’re talking about the conservatives here, right?

        Whether or not you found the movie to be entertaining or “deep” is irrelevant, the themes discussed in this article are present in the movie whether you want them to be or not.

  • Chuck McKeon

    No wonder people are getting fed up with entertainment. Writers like this have to throw their politics into escapism movies and articles.

  • Will Coors

    Fucking love this movie and deeply miss Wes

  • Tyler

    It was so nice to come on Bloody Disgusting today and watch the great trailer for “Truth or Dare,” read the great review on Insidious, followed up with the horror themed Turbo Tax commercials….. and then finish it off with a sexist, liberal lunatic’s extreme, over the top analysis of a 25 year old film! Thanks! Bloody Disgusting… what in the HELL IS GOING ON WITH THIS WRITER YOU HAVE HIRED? If we want to read about extreme leftist’s demented world – we will turn to CNN, MSNBC, or ABC. It’s a new year… a great time to clear out the trash – begin with this writer.

  • dukeblues

    Can this author just stop with the social justice garbage on this site? Better yet, how about some editorials from an opposing view with a clue. Gotta check all the boxes for fairness right?

    • Anonymous

      Okay! But, what’s the “opposing view” you had in mind? “Wes Craven didn’t really mean to take the political stance he explicitly claimed he was taking?”

  • djambi

    Jesus christ, this site is occupied with troglodytes. He’s not pointing out any symbolism or social commentary that John Carpenter himself DIDN’T ALREADY POINT OUT WHEN HE MADE THE MOVIE.

    Go back to the willfully ignorant caves you dwell in, I hear there’s a Call of Duty game that needs to be trolled.

    • dukeblues

      Willfully ignorant would be the ones who blame society for keeping people down. Don’t like being in a certain place in life ? Change it and move on up the ladder. It happens every day in America.

      • djambi

        That’s right, there’s absolutely no such thing as systemic prejudice. But hey, ‘merica, amirite?

    • TommyPiano

      Well,for one this John Carpenter didn’t make this movie Wes craven did so carp had no say in this movie.

      • djambi

        I SAID WHAT I SAID.

        I mixed up my directors in the earlier point I was trying to make regarding symbolic horror film directors, but I guess you got me there! Still doesn’t make any of what I said less relevant, but nice try.

    • TommyPiano

      Also,it seems all you do is jump across these boards lamefully insulting anyone with a different viewpoint.Get a life and respect the fact you’re not king of the world with all your social justice warrior crap.

    • Necro

      John Carpenter?

  • Nahuel Benvenuto

    i dont give A SHIT about social and political views in movies, is way better and logical to watch them from a symbolism perspective, stopped reading sorry bro

    • Lil Malk

      And yet. And. Yet. You gave enough of a shit to step out of your self-imposed, willful ignorance to make a comment. Sorry ‘bro’. Not buying your wounded-ass ‘how-dare-people-make-me-think-things’ demeanor.

  • ZIPPERCHEST

    Another biased SJW libpuke writer. Way to chase away horror fans.

    • Lil Malk

      You got chased away by this? ‘Kay. Bye bye, kiddo!

      • ZIPPERCHEST

        If I want horror news I go to a horror site. If I want political commentary I don’t go to a horror site. Gonna be a long next 7 years for the poor little libpukes with Trump as their President. Hahahahah Enjoy. Your kind have made certain President Trump will be re elected. Thanks in advance.

        • Lil Malk

          *grins* You’re my new favorite. I mean, you do realize that you’re, at best, amusing and, at worst (usually), horrifically boring, yeah? If you’ve managed to compartmentalize (don’t be afraid of the big word, honey, it’s okay) your life to such an unsustainable level and still manage to be this dense, I’ll admit, I’m kind of impressed. Deep as a mud puddle, huh? But sweetie, I have an important question: do your type really go around using buzz-gibberings like ‘libpuke’ in public? Or is it just when you’re safely hidden behind a screen? Inquiring minds probably don’t want to know but I like that it makes you more visible if you do. Or are you just not an actual horror fan since you weren’t apparently chased off by the scawwy, scawwy idea of deeper meaning in your (ostensible) entertainment- of- choice? I know, I’m sorry, it’s a lot to read and no doubt a strain, but I have So. Many. Questions for a creature like you, tovarishch.

          • ZIPPERCHEST

            Your delusion is duly noted.

          • Lil Malk

            Is that all? You disappoint me immensely. I mean, you and yours want to get your views out there, da? But you’ve addressed nothing, offered no counter-argument; you don’t even point out what part of my response you feel to be delusional. You weren’t chased away but you don’t want to support your position either? This is saddening! I thought you might be special; I suppose I was wrong. *siiiiiigh* Zippy, Zippy, Zippy… I wanted so much to love you. Pity.

    • Artman009

      Wait, horror fans can’t like horror films with social commentary and political overtones?

  • Colin Perkins

    All the people bashing this story are bashing Wes. The film is very open with its themes, all of Craven’s films are. Show some blasted respect for the king of horror!

  • Dylan Gutierrez

    Truly an underrated film. I remember the first time watching it was pretty taken back by it and until later, the incest between the two adults became more apparent. The laughable bit is when Alice drops from the ceiling onto Mommy and knocks her out.

  • Hugo Orozco

    Wes craven who ever like it or not. Was a real horror artist. His motivations never really matter to me as a child or teenager that I was at the moment I’ve seen his films. But is one of those artist who I can watch his work as an adult and really enjoy with an adult perspective. Earn my respect forever

    • Hugo Orozco

      Apologize if I Made writing mistakes but I’m from a non english spoken country

      • Necro

        No worries there Hugo!

  • Jonathan Larsson

    Considering the many modern cases of parents or other adults locking kids up and hiding them from what they interpret as a sinful/perverted world, and abusing them in the most monstrous and depraved way, this movie has gained considerable significance since the year of its release. Maybe that’s why this hasn’t gotten a remake yet; it would be a little too close to home.

  • Dan Warren (Forgottenretroworl

    One of Craven’s best movies. It reflects what really goes on behind some closed doors, in a surreal looney tunes kind of way.

  • Un Gsund

    Great movie! A Carpenteresque Masterpiece!

  • The Night King

    Justin isn’t here to write about horror. He’s hoping to ignite a shitstorm of opposing views in the comments section of his editorials.

    • And yet all he did was write about horror…

    • Weresmurf

      This is an incredibly ill thought out comment.

  • Lord George Reginald Bailywick

    Ugh…not everything has to be politicized.

    • Necro

      Yeah I definitely agree! I mean although it brings up valid points, any movie can be politicized if you really want to break it down to further enhance political views and how a specific film fits. Hell I can take ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and politicize that if I want to!

      • Lord George Reginald Bailywick

        Exactly. I don’t care about any of that political crap, I just want to enjoy the movie. Also, I didn’t think this movie was all that great.

        • Necro

          I mean I liked it personally, not Craven’s best film, but I enjoyed it. I think he was on to something before he died about wanting the film to possibly get remade, not a bad idea if you ask me. Yeah I’m with you there, I’m not saying politics aren’t important, but that’s one of the biggest reasons I watch Horror films, to escape, even just momentarily, from this shit bag world! And the last thing I want is my favorite thing in this life to be smeared in with this blizzard of bullshit known as politics! That’s just MY OPINION!!

    • Artman009

      What are you talking about? Wes Craven has said in interviews that when the film was made, it was social commentary on the Reagan era in America and the politics at the time. So how is the author of the article “politicizing” the film? It’s already politicized!

      • Lord George Reginald Bailywick

        I just hate how everyone these day is all “Oh the patriarchy is evil, down with stuff, boo hiss, our feelings are hurt, blah blah blah blah” No one cares. Let us just watch a movie or play a video game or hear a song.

        • Apolitical stances are neoliberal illusions.

          • Lord George Reginald Bailywick

            Ok. LOL I just wish everyone wasn’t so butthurt about everything ALL the time.

  • Necro

    Loved this film! I have to say though one of the biggest f**k ups in movie history occurs in that film. **SPOILER** just in case…it’s when the cops show up and tell ‘Mommy and Daddy’ about the van and how it was used in the liquor store robbery, and then the cops just take off leaving the van there! I mean hello evidence anybody?

  • DS Ullery

    I’m surprised by some of the comments here. Unless your horror intake consists only of basic slasher films , I’d expect any horror fan to recognize the genre constantly addresses sociopolitical themes, going back a lot further than The People Under the Stairs.

    Someone here mentioned that Cannibal Holocaust could be politicized. It IS political. That entire movie is a criticism of the arrogance of industrialized nations in assuming they are superior to more undeveloped cultures. The entire thing is a perfect allegory for the dangers of Imperialism.

    Politics have always gone hand in hand with horror and Craven’
    s movie was a spot on example.

    • Yeah, I did that blink gif reaction when I read the comment about CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. That’s the worst possible example to use. It’s a very political film. Now I’m imagining some of the people in this thread complaining about “politicizing” Romero’s DEAD films.

      • Necro

        That’s why I referenced ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ cuz it is a political film. That was my point that you can politicize any movie you want, including the most political.

  • All of these people saying they don’t want horror movies “politicized” really don’t seem to get art in general. All art is political, including (if not especially) genre cinema. And this one is particularly overt.

    If you want your understanding of movies to be that shallow, have at it. Just don’t stomp your feet and complain if others disagree.

  • Excellent analysis. Tales From the Hood next, plz!

    • OneFootFriendly

      Worse analysis ever.
      Here I’ll give you a preview of this smug buffoons Tales from the Hood analysis,

      “Tales from the Hood is plainly about the marginalization
      of minorities, class inequality, sexism, the patriarchy, isolationist
      nationalism and even healthcare. And Donald Trump.”

      • Haha have you seen Tales From The Hood? Fuck off, reactionary.

  • I Am Colossus

    This movie is dope

    • OneFootFriendly

      I wouldn’t go that far.
      I thought it was boring.

      But apparently nebulously boring enough for some people to parlay it into a grand statement expressing all of their privileged white liberal bullishter agendas.

      Thats the way liberals work.
      Thats why they hide behind slogans that dont specifically mean anything like “equality”, or their “rights”.

      So they can just make up and pull isht out of their axxes as they go along,
      and then completely pivot into another lie after they get caught for the last one and say that it never meant the thing that they were saying it meant yesterday.

      Watch them play shell games from ozone layer to global warming, and then it gets colder and they change it to climate change… Its all fake news out of the deranged minds and filthy pie holes of liberals who lie for a living.

      They’ve been lying to Black people for the last 50 years and still doing it.

      • I Am Colossus

        Yea, this a comment section for Bloody Disgusting…. You want another site for all that rhetoric stuff. You’re opinion of the movie is yours but I love it….always have, I didn’t even read the article, just seen the movie was finally getting some attention…. I just thought I’d say it’s dope

  • so many snowflake Conservatives in the comment sections here I would of thought I was in the Fox News facebook page comment sections.

    dont like social commentary in Horror movies hey Snowflakes?

    then avoid George Romero, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter and Wes Craven movies

    • OneFootFriendly

      None of those people ever made a sisy libtard movie.
      Not even this Craven stinker we’re talking about.
      Thats as pulled out of your axx and made up in your deranged liberal mind as your privileged white liberal playing victim routine.

  • Queen Guillotine

    I totally agree!! I wrote something up myself about it for kicks as my favorite horror director is Wes. I know he sometimes resented the hell out of the horror genre and it sometimes showed with some questionable films he helmed towards the end but this is definitely one of my faves. I love the social commentary that’s strategetically added.

  • OneFootFriendly

    “The People Under the Stairs is plainly about the marginalization
    of minorities, class inequality, sexism, the patriarchy, isolationist
    nationalism and even healthcare.”

    In a honest way?

    Is it about the way white liberals dont live next door to Black people after 50 years of “helping them”, and keep them trapped in liberal governed welfare ghettos while you play outraged about it and blame it on everybody else, and are more concerned with bringing more people in through open borders to further deflate wages and flood the job market instead of helping Black people become self sufficient becasue then they wouldn’t need you and you wouldn’t be able to exploit them for your own white liberal profit?

    From your pricey liberal enclaves where you have the privilege of expecting to be compensated for playing victim about your gender and lifestyle choices for a living instead of actually working for a living like everybody else has to?

    Or maybe work in a hospital in a liberal community of the biggest disparity between the wealthy and the impoverished handing out and driving up the cost of expensive healthcare to a liberal created welfare state of dysfunctional dependence and through open borders who dont pay for it so you can stuff your pockets sending the bill to the rest of the country to “fix” the problems that you create around you wherever white liberals go?

    Or in a dishonest way?
    Blaming it on everything and everybody else except the smug white liberal who’s always at the center of all the problems and none of the solutions around here ever since the 60’s.

    The only solution you’ve ever offered for the problems you create for a living is how its all always everybody else/da whitemaan’s fault.
    Da whitemaan other then you of course.

  • Chuck Farels

    Even horror movies aren’t safe from the PC police!

  • Chuck Farels

    The writer forgot to mention Wes was pointing out how living behind the walls of a house is a metaphor for the voyeur tactics which Russia uses to tamper with elections. GIVE ME A BREAK!! Who would have thought Bloody Disgusting would turn libtard on us!

  • OneFootFriendly

    ” …sexism, the patriarchy,…”

    You mean like the patriarchy of smart mouthed white liberals like you?

    When are you gonna let chicks run libtard hollywood?
    When are libtard new york or california gonna have a chick governor?
    Or a Black person for that matter.

    Anybody other then more smug white liberals like you.

    Nobody runs new york, california or hollywood except for smug white liberal gender and race-baiters like you. Theres nobody in power in any of those places other then you stopping you from doing whatever you feel like doing, which is exactly what you ARE doing and habitually do.

    You know why there isn’t?
    BECASUE YOUR A LIAR!

    Becasue a liberal is a murderous scumbag and LIAR by trade.
    Who habitually runs around accusing other people of YOUR OWN CRIMES.
    Playing outraged and pointing your fingers at other people for not doing things that YOUR NOT DOING.

    And you instigate fights between OTHER PEOPLE,
    from your pricey well policed white liberal safe space,
    and get OTHER PEOPLE killed to misdirect and dodge your own blame.

    YOU GET PEOPLE KILLED.
    SHAMELESSLY.

    Becasue your a SPOILED WHITE LIBERAL PIMP,
    A PRIVILEGED PLAYING VICTIM INSTIGATOR,
    and a MURDERER!

    • You’re doing a great job of reinforcing the stereotype of the borderline illiterate right winger. Also, lay off on the capslock, dude.

      • Chuck Farels

        Hope you’re not referencing what I commented on, guy with a girl name.

        • Guy with a girl’s name? What are you, twelve years old?

    • Monkeymanbob

      Somebody’s tired and needs a nap nap

  • Sorkin006

    Speaking of the patriarchy, why do the female writers keep leaving this site? Food for thought.

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