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Film

GateBuster: The People Under the Stairs

Rob asked for extra cards because of Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs

Content warning: the film this concerns contains gore, violence done to children, violence done to animals, and the implicit threat of sexual violence. 

There is an aisle lined with images that used to frighten you. 

In the center is a sky, and a house, and a skull.

The moment you read this, I become a voice.

***

Maybe you remember your local rental. Maybe you aren’t old enough; maybe you only remember things after a corporation absorbed them all, or drove them out of business. Or maybe you grew up after they died. If you can remember the aisles, if you were a child back then, think about what it felt like to walk away from your parents and wander. If you are too young, still, just try to picture it. Put yourself in the role of the young millennial. There’s a wall of new releases on your left. There’s comedies, and kids movies, and even a sparse selection of cartoons from Japan. And then there’s the aisle in the back, the one that scares you.

***

My family owned a house, once. They were going to build another, and a third, and then even when the children grew up we could all still be together. 

For twelve years, my mother planted things on the hill next to the house, hoping to eventually find something that would grow.

And my father continued to fill potholes in the driveway, but it would never stop sinking, never settled to the point where it might be paved.

They might have succeeded eventually.

***

But there’s an aisle in your memory, or in your imagination, and at its center is a tape with a sky, and a house, and a skull, and I want you to pick the tape up. 

***

Wes Craven is a name that probably sounds familiar to you, even if you can’t place it right away. And if you can place it, you know it’s all over that aisle. He’s responsible for at least two franchises: A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. You know their antagonists; you’ve seen Freddy and Ghostface. They’re on t-shirts. They have action figures. They’re like Jason, or Chucky, or Jigsaw; if you’ve never seen a slasher movie, you can probably still pick them out of a lineup.

But the thing is, these aren’t just franchises with surreal and metafictional gimmicks. They’re both series with an actual point of view: the society of white, middle-class suburbia that has come into being is dangerous. Mom & Pop might try to keep their community safe and unleash something monstrous. Their bored and malevolent children might torture you for fun. And dreams and fictions, movies themselves, might not be real escapes. They might be part of the trap. They might contribute to the rot. 

***

The tape is called The People Under the Stairs. Don’t walk away from it. Pick it up. Take it to the counter. In this version of events it doesn’t matter if your mother gets it for you, or if the teenager behind the counter just doesn’t care enough about his job to deny you its rental. What’s important is that you take it home, and you wait until your family is asleep, sneak down to the TV room, turn down the volume, load the film into the VHS player, and push play. And watch it all. And think about what you see. And think about the world.

***

The People Under the Stairs is Home Alone as directed by Guillermo Del Toro after reading both volumes of Capital.

The People Under the Stairs is the story of modern America as told through a dark fairy tale and the major arcana of the tarot.

The People Under the Stairs is a haunted house movie where the ghosts are landlords who have made us all into the monsters lurking in the dark.

***

Practitioners of Chaos Magic create sigils that represent the things they desire to come to pass, and they charge those sigils with some kind of emotional ecstasy or agony, and they sometimes even work to create hypersigils, sigils that exist not only in space but in time, and thus are often expressed as a narrative. And they are charged with the audience’s orgasms, or maybe the sharp intake of breath as they react to a jump scare, or a death, or a revelation. And there’s a number of folks that, regardless of how you feel about magic and energy and whatever, that the art we admire has a real power over us. In a certain school of thought you can bring to an audience the grace of God through a startling picture. In another, the great factories of the Culture Industry churn out art that homogenizes the populace.

Art might make magic, or it might make a saint, or a revolutionary, or a willing victim of the state. 

Or it might be, according to a different school of thought, quite useless.  

***

The People Under the Stairs is a horror-comedy about late stage capitalism, but not about capitalism in the abstract; no, it’s a movie about the horrors of capitalism and gentrification, capitalism and the inner city, capitalism and the suburbs, capitalism and the nuclear family, capitalism and racism, capitalism and purity culture, and so on and so forth. It’s a movie that begins with a boy learning both that his mother is dying because she cannot afford treatment for her cancer and that his family is going to be evicted on the same day. The movie cuts from this scene to the incestuous, child-abusing, cop-wooing landlords, who are consuming flesh from a human corpse. 

***

And one of the oldest traditions concerning the usefulness of fiction comes to us from Aristotle. Tragedy provides a catharsis, a safe purging of the negative emotions associated with whatever is depicted in the fiction. But this poses a problem for those who think that art might be revolutionary. If your anger, your despair, your rage at the status quo is all worked out safely on screen, if you take your emotions and place them in the gaps between each of the 24 frames you see per second, what will you do when you leave the theater? Sleep peacefully, this train of thought imagines.

Does the anti-capitalist film perpetuate capitalism?

Sorry To Bother You made Comcast, the notorious Worst Company In America, millions of dollars. This is, of course, a very minor dollar amount as far as that company is concerned, but it remains a dollar amount.

***

The People Under the Stairs argues that capitalism is unsustainable, that the infinite growth required by the model will only lead to its own self-destruction, as the same people who carefully designed this prison, this haunted structure, show no regard for it; they allow flies and dust and human feces to pile up, they shoot through its walls, they load it with explosives.

The People Under the Stairs argues that resistance is possible as long as you remember that, regardless of what those with power over you would say, you are human, you have dignity, you have the capacity to love.

The People Under the Stairs argues that revolution can be imagined if we remember that we are in community, that we are not alone. 

***

And while I’m giving you information, we should talk about the Death Card in tarot, which signifies, above all other things, transformation and change.

***

The People Under the Stairs shows us the wealth of America as a dragon’s horde and a rat’s nest, a prize we may seize and a keg that might at any moment explode. 

***

And I occasionally walk around the neighborhood in the cool air of night, and sometimes I see the local fox, and suspect he has begun to follow me, or pace beside me in the brush. I worry, of course, about the neighbors I have now, and what they would think of a strange man and a fox in the dark.

***

The People Under the Stairs is so packed with ideas and images that it does not dwell on the Secret Chapel that appears in a single scene, in which Jesus and Ronald Reagan are placed in opposition to the portraits of the hundreds of children that these landlords have abducted or murdered. The chapel is just, in one scene, there. 

***

The Nine of Swords. The Page of Pentacles. The Nine of Staves. Judgement. Death. The Devil. The Fool.

A boy reading DuBois. His sister attending to his sick mother. A friend, a thief, not a good man, but a man who has chosen the right enemies. 

Another man, gnawing on flesh in a room that looks like a dungeon. A woman with an innocent child. Screams in the distance.

The masses of the lost and downtrodden. A plan. An honest-to-god treasure map

The innocent. A grotesque hand, uncut nails, emerging from a grate in the wall. A belt in the hands of someone who enjoys what he is about to do.

And more, so much more; the shifting stairs, the lockdown protocols, the bombing of Baghdad on an old tv, the lake of refuse, guard dogs and bayonetts, pens of the forgotten, dolls for ghosts and bowls for buckshot, a hunter in a gimp suit, candles and coins, chapels and armories, skeletons, dungeons, dynamite, a house, a skull, the sky. 

***

The People Under the Stairs is the kind of movie where a landlord gets punched in the dick. It is also the kind of movie that names its main character “Fool,” and tells you explicitly in the first lines of dialogue that yes, he is named for the Fool of the tarot, and that, as in the tarot, this is going to be a coming of age story, that this child will, through his confrontations with death and suffering, become an adult ready to face the world. Given everything else said above, then, it’s also a movie about how, in the modern age, one can only truly leave childhood behind when one is ready to die for liberation, when one is ready to plunge a knife into a capitalist’s guts.

***

And there used to be a picture of Jesus in the upper window of our house, and I haven’t driven past in some time, but a google car recorded it for their maps in 2020, and you can see the window stands empty, I think the whole house is empty, I think there’s nothing and no one there, just land and structure taken to be held, held like my funds, so would you please donate to my ko-fi, and while you’re here let’s talk about piracy, what you would and wouldn’t download, and the importance of Intellectual Property, all your favorite franchises, playing now at a theater near you once more, theaters with Disney Distribution deals that push out any movie not backed by a billion dollar budget, and let’s talk about the message that you must go, you simply must go, theaters are struggling, and it’s your duty to make sure they survive this pandemic, or else they’ll be yet another industry the millennials killed, so go today, and go all Summer, and keep going in the Fall, because yes, cases will certainly uptick, and variants will spread, and vaccines will become less effective, and we have no real plan for boosters yet, but think of the economy, won’t you, we can’t risk another quarantine, we’re told, so we’ll be keeping our theaters as open as our schools, now that those teachers unions lost, and they’re going to teach our masses of unvaccinated children, and listen, here’s the news with a special report on what your governor thinks you should be really concerned about, not death tolls, not extrajudicial murders, not children in Gaza, no, the governor wants to talk to you about CRT, he says it’s warping children’s minds, making them think America might be racist, and at no point does he define CRT, or trace exactly how it made its way, in his mind, from a complex area of legal study to grade school pedagogy, and at no point does he address how the parents who he has successfully made panic have begun to object to teaching major swathes of history in their entirety, have begun to label any mention of Ruby Bridges as an example of CRT, and at no point will he go over actual state curricula standards, nor review how Texas has an incredible influence on our nation’s textbooks, nor describe the revisionist conservative slant that results, and he will not speak of Henry Adams, who found no education, but I sat once where Henry Adams sat on the steps of Ara Coeli, and I thought of Henry Adams thinking of Edward Gibbons thinking of the fall of the Roman empire, and I can see from my bed a deck of tarot cards, which I never had as a child, which I was scared of as a child, because I read stories of demonic possession, and I can imagine an unseen army in the desert at night, silently moving towards us, bayonets at the ready, ready to drain our blood to slake the thirst of Moloch, and I see the blood turn to rivers, and even now I am shocked that death had undone so many, which of course reminds me, I saw Cats in theaters, the 2.0 version, I think, the update that had been rushed to theaters with a CGI patch, so that we might only witness the finest in digital fur technology, and I saw Cats immediately before I saw Little Women, a strange double feature, and particularly strange because I saw them on Christmas, after I had seen my sister, and my father, and his wife, and my mother, and her husband, not knowing how strange Christmas would be just a year later, and I still dream sometimes of the house my family built and lost, I dream that I’m still there, two floors above a concrete foundation where we buried various holy objects we had acquired, objects that would ensure our peace and prosperity. We completed the ritual according to all specifications, but something else soon inhabited our home. Now it dreams there alone.

***

You’ve put the tape into the player, remember, and begun to watch. Think about the movie. Think about the world. Shudder from the terror and rejoice in the triumph.

***

Who is your narrator this evening? Who am I?

The moment you read this, I become a voice.

Where is that voice? Where do you imagine it?

Am I in your head? Am I contained? Is this voice one you’re imagining, creating, or is it from outside of you? Did you give me my tone, my timbre?

Picture a woman slowly walking towards the girl she raised. Picture a glinting knife..

Picture a torso hung for the butchering. Bones scattered on the floor. Viscera smeared on a mouth.

Where is the knife? Where is the blood?

I am a voice in your head, but I’m also text on a screen. I’m in the signal beaming to your cell phone or from your router. I’m being broadcast through your air. 

I am being broadcast through your walls.

And even if I’m dead by the time you read this, as long as coal-powered turbines continue to turn, as long as the electric grid holds fast, as long as you pay your bills, the servers keep running, satellites continue to orbit and oceanic cables go unperturbed by the things in the deep, as long as all these things go on, the voice remains.

***

So watch it again, and again, until you notice that the sun is up, and you’re in danger of your mother realizing that you’ve stayed up the night again. Remember to rewind the tape; it’s common courtesy. Go to school and drift through algebra, or King Lear, or whatever it was you were learning that year, some time after the local rentals had been killed, some time before the rise of the stream. Look around you, at the school, and the hierarchies. Drop off the tape on the way home. Look out the window as you pass businesses, restaurants, office buildings; look at your home and those around it. Then go inside. Turn on the news. Pay attention.

Is anything different now?

Does anything diverge in the years ahead of you?

So many people remember a horror movie, seen far too young, as a formative experience. But what if this was your formative experience? What if you had the hilariously and horrifyingly grotesque structures of everything around you presented so strikingly, in shadows and blood? Would you learn anything from it? Would you remember? Would you be prepared for all that would follow? Would have some hermeneutic key for the wars, recessions, and bankruptcies? For your own failures, dead ends, and mountains of debt? Would you see the evil? Would you still end up like this?

Of course we can’t know. We can guess where you’d be; but in the end it’s just a movie. You can watch it now if you’d like. I think you’d enjoy it.

And who knows; if you watch it now, maybe you’d take something away from it. Maybe you’d end the stream and look to your stairs to see who has been imprisoned under them. Or maybe you’d look to the walls, and start to think of a way out. Or maybe, your anxieties purged, you’d just settle down again, and sleep without worry for another night.

Maybe the Fool will step off the cliff. Maybe the Fool will turn towards the Sun.

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