Greetings once again. This time, THE UNSEEN HORROR takes place not in a graveyard , but in a far more urban setting. This year saw GET OUT become a critical darling by mixing horror and African-American culture. It deserves all the praise, but it’s not the only mix of the two in the film. So this week, we start with one of two horror films that come directly from ‘the African-American experience’ — THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS.

The Plot

Pointdexter ‘Fool’ Williams faces eviction from his L.A. ghetto home while caring for his sick mother. Thieves force the thirteen-year-old to help rob the ghetto’s wealthy landlord couple, the Robesons. However, these landlords are psychopaths that murder Fools accomplishes.

The Robesons nearly feed Fool to the cannibalistic children they keep in the basement. Fool escapes with the help of the couple’s ‘daughter’ Alice. He learns the Robeson’s are actually brother and sister, the latest line of a wealthy, inbred family that has grown more and more unstable with each generation. Fool vows to re-enter the house, expose the landlords, and rescue Alice.

Horror In Themes

Writer/director Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) stated in an issue of FANGORIA that the idea for the film came from a real event in 1978. Two African-American burglars broke into an L.A. home, which led to the discovery of two children locked away by their parents. Craven expanded on that event for THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS, adding more social satire and commentary. The Robesons act as the most obvious piece of satire.

This brutal, greedy, inbred family resembles Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

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The idea of conservative icons like the Reagans being greedy, cruel, and uncaring sends up years of criticism against conservative practices. It also helps that President Reagan’s ‘trickle down’ economics theory was criticized for allowing the wealthy to hoard money instead of redistributing it back into the country.

The Robesons’ method of gaining money is also a criticism of gentrification. The Robesons buy areas of the ghetto, raise the rent to force out the occupants, and then sell the land to build condos and office buildings. This is an effect of gentrification even today; in ‘improving’ these areas, the people already there often find themselves unable to afford their homes because of the rising property value.

The film tackles these areas in a way that becomes chilling because of how realistic it is. The ideas come across just enough that people can recognize them. It’s horrifying because these practices exist, and can cut people far more than Freddy Kreuger ever could.

Heroic Youth

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The themes of THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (like the gore of DEAD SNOW: RED VS DEAD) only work with real human characters to play against the caricatures of capitalism and greed. Thankfully, the film has strong performances from its hero, Fool. Fool is shown as a child of the ghetto. He demonstrates strong morals instead of falling to stereotypes. He wants to save his mother, only engages in the robbery to help her, and chooses to go back and rescue Alice despite now having the funds he needs.

The film treats him as intelligent enough to survive the armed Robeson’s and their attack dog. However, he still feels very human. Fool isn’t a shining knight. He’s just a good kid trying to do the right thing the best he can. It makes him seem more human, and as such, more relatable. He also gets one of the most badass lines a child actor could ask for when he holds Mr. Robeson at gunpoint.

“You know a prayer? Say it.”

Alice, the girl Fool goes to rescue, avoids being a damsel in distress. Alice provides Fool with vital info, despite living in terror of her ‘parents’. When she does realize the truth (she and the other children were stolen), she almost instantly takes an aggressive stance against the Robesons. It’s a solid arc that lets Alice be her own character, not an object to be rescued. Like the titular people under the stairs, the young characters are all victims of the Robeson’s but show how much more they can be.


THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS is one of Wes Craven’s stronger and most criminally underlooked movies. It’s a horror film that delves into social commentary and satire, without losing its sense of suspense or even gore at times. It treats its characters with respect, never making the heroes into the cartoons the villains have to be.

THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS plays like a cousin of John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE. It arguably should be held in the same light. Go and check out Scream Factory’s special edition release of the film until next time, when we walk the halls of another house with tales of urban horror.

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