The Shadows of “Us”

Us” represents Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort as American cinema’s latest auteur. Following the highly inventive, social commentary-laden, and award-winning Get Out, Peele and his production company Monkeypaw Productions decided to go arguably even more ambitious in Us with premise, characterization, and bone-chillingly existential horror. I think the film is a masterpiece. After having seen it only once, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Not since Inception have I been so paralyzingly fascinated with a film and its many-layered storytelling and well-crafted mythos. Us and its indelible imagery (and unspoken messages) also happened to have terrified me to my core. {To Jordan: Great job! 👍} Here are my {rather wide-ranging} thoughts on the themes and revelations in Jordan Peele’s work thus far in the horror genre and within the film Us.

Peele’s Twilight Zonian ‘premises’

Jordan Peele comes from a background of comedy {see: Mad TV, Key & Peele}. Specifically, his art has been sketch comedy. When considering the origin and purpose of what a ‘sketch’ actually is, it isn’t so difficult to see Peele’s impressive turn as a newly iconic horror filmmaker. In a sketch, the improviser/writer {or group of them} starts with a premise. That is, a scenario, situation or circumstance especially absurd in nature. This premise is then utilized by the creator or improviser for the express purpose of drawing out some short scene or vignette to comedic ends. Whether simplistic or complex in nature, the parameters of the premise are generally easily conveyed, or progressed upon, to the eyes and ears of the audience. The best sketches, or at least the most ambitious, will go to the most naturally (or unnaturally) extremified endgame of said premise to wring out every last drop of potential comedic material. Go watch any Key & Peele sketch and witness the escalation at play.

However, for Peele, and other masters of sketch comedy, when it really works it is moreso because of the effectiveness of the execution, than it is the creativity of the premise alone. Oddly enough, ideas are cheap. To make something hit, one has to get to the bottom of why “something’s” hit generically, and then thrum a new note in that song. For example, you can give any potential improviser or comedian a zany premise to work within {e.g. a chronically mispronunciating substitute teacher with a short temper}. The better the premise, the more likely the performers will have some success. But only the most skilled, or worldly, or ingenious ones will carve out sincere laughter from the audience — the kind of laughter that makes one consider the jokes, the premises, and the decisions the performers made within that space, long after the show is over. In hindsight, the premise will perhaps always be more memorable, and the quality of the execution that made the sketch actually funny more challenging to enumerate. But this nuance is probably what makes the difference. {And what makes good comedy hard.} That being said, certainly both idea and execution need to be present, fully realized, and understood by the creator(s), in order to create good comedy. In short, Key & Peele is brilliant, and it’s no accident. They are the masters of inventive sketch-crafting.

No doubt, ideation and execution also need be present within good horror, or science / supernatural / speculative fiction {or any work of art for that matter}. I would argue both of Peele’s submissions to the cinematic space thus far {Get Out as a self-proclaimed social thriller and Us as a more prototypical horror/psychological thriller genre film}, feature this kind of sketch-like structure and presentation. Except this isn’t comedy Peele is pouring himself into now. And so the stakes, and the material, is much different. Retained across both mediums however, is the setting of expectations. For absurdity and for mayhem. In cinematic horror, as in sketch comedy, there is an intention — in creator and audience alike — thatpeople are going to go mad, situations will become extreme, things will get out of control. Quickly, and very entertainingly so. People are going to scream {or just try to}. And they are going to die. We know this. And we want this. {or maybe just our shadow selves do. More on this later.}

The ‘sketches’ of Get Out and Us, and their imaginative premises and endgames, resemble the original source of cinematic speculative fiction: The Twilight Zone. TZ (run from 1959–1964) has all the same component parts of a sketch at its dark heart, it simply bears different ends in mind in its artistry. The heart of any given episode of this 20th century classic lies within its core conceit, dealing in the absurd, often hilarious, manifestations of flights of fantasy across a parallel past, present and future of human misadventures. TZ’s formula: Imagination + Madness + Truth = A+ television that both stands the test of time as culturally, historically and aesthetically relevant, and goddamn entertaining.

“… A sickness known as hate. Not a virus, not a microbe, not a germ — but a sickness nonetheless, highly contagious, deadly in its effects. Don’t look for it in the Twilight Zone — look for it in a mirror. Look for it before the light goes out altogether. “

In the TZ episode, as well as in Peele’s nightmarish visions of modern American life {with specific supernaturally existential twists} in Get Out and Us, the creators are setting our expectations for rising tension, and eventual climaxes rife with meaningful revelation. It is apparent that speculative fiction, and the best forms of horror, relay a message of some kind. To be most effective, they must contribute something to the cultural tapestry they are being submitted unto, something the viewer can take with them beyond the madness played to its end upon the screen. This is clear with both of Peele’s cinematic creations. It was also part of Rod Sterling’s sincere mission with his writings and with the showrunning of The Twilight Zone. {Unsurprisingly, Peele was offered and is scheduled to produce and star in the latest reboot of the TZ series, coming very soon in 2019.} It conveyed powerfully conscious messages to mass audiences in the United States at a time in history when worldly atrocity was fresh in the collective subconscious, with fear and prejudice rising as fast as our technologies and communicative capabilities did. For both Peele and Serling, as filmmakers, even more than they want us to be absolutely terrified of the things we are capable of doing to one another in the name of power and prejudice, they wish for us to think about why we perpetually do. With these supernatural tales of madness and existential disquiet and horror, one is meant to sincerely consider the meanings and messages of the work of art far beyond the borders of the escapist entertainment one might tend to mistake it for.

And by the way, all this is done — the crafting of meaning, the layering of socially conscious symbolism, the artistic interpretations on what ails society at any given moment in time — in TZ and in Peele’s work, while ALSO maintaining the core of what makes good stories generally: relatable characters.

~ Get Out is about a black man going to meet his white girlfriend’s parents and family in present day America. Already a socially tense scenario, Peele raises the stakes with an unnameable but unmistakably present horror at the heart of the den he willingly walks himself into.

~ Us is about a woman — a mother and wife, a seemingly introspective, reserved person — who experienced trauma in her past and is forced to face up with it again in the form of her ‘shadow.’

Through the content of their stories, their origins, their inner ‘character’ itself {and via excellent writing} we come to care about these characters. And we desperately want them to survive their ordeals! This is where I believe the integral power of horror comes into play, especially with Us.

The Power of Horror

For Us, Peele has chosen to tell this story through the lense of horror. Like everything else in his work, this is deliberate, thoughtful, and meant to maximize meaning for the discerning viewer.

Horror is an intriguing genre in film. A minority of people would brand it their ‘favorite’ genre of fiction; and yet those that do are undoubtedly die hards. There are a variety of flavors within the vein of horror, all valid and seemingly existent for every kind of fan: paranormal, monsters, slashers, psychological, cosmic … zombies! It’s always been popular, one way or another, and in recent years it seems to be experiencing a kind of resurgence. Horror, and our fascination with it, is arguably as old as storytelling itself. Or put another way, as H.P. Lovecraft said {ironically, given his extreme xenophobia}:

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

For both filmmaker and audience alike, horror allows one to plumb the absolute depths of the human condition. In horror, death is the signature dish upon the menu. Abstractly, death holds the greatest kinds of meanings for us as humans beings; in its full-fledged, violent physicality, death offers gratuitous fascination. Blood and gore and the repulsions we naturally experience at the sight of violent ends upon the screen often give us obscene delight, scratching itches in our mundane lives we wish we didn’t have. Observing acts of killing and of pain, as if in a battle, our natural capacity for empathy runs up against our sheerest curiosity. It seems to me that within us, both sides win and lose, and this is where the thrills likely spawn from. Horror is where all of the dark and depraved thoughts, the ones we forbid ourselves from engaging upon, may allowably surface into the fiction upon the page or screen. In the experiencing of horror, in prose or cinema, one transacts a reliable exchange with the creator: to engage with the rare but powerful emotions of truly existential fear, terror, horror, and dread in the safety of an imaginative space.

Personally, horror has never been my favorite genre. Perhaps due to my overactive imagination, the visceral scenery of violence on display in any given horror film is often too much for me to enjoy. As a kid, after watching The Birds, I experienced a trauma from the living room television unlike anything I’d ever seen before or since. Specifically, it came from the scene with the old man lying against the window in the room — his eyes gouged out, the blood streaming down his face, two gaping holes of rather realistic gore. I recall shaking with fear at the sight and being entirely unable to sleep that night. Somehow, even with what little pride there was at that age, I also managed to hide the effect that scene had on me from my parents and my brother. I tried to get my brother to play some N64 with me as nightcap, given we’d also rented some games that night, to get my mind off those bloody eye holes…

Another reliably blood curdling image of horror I can profoundly remember from my childhood were the Scary Stories To Tell In the Dark series from the Scholastic book fair in elementary. I never bought any, but they were available in the classroom and at friend’s houses at sleepovers. From the covers alone, my burgeoning morbid curiosity got the best of me more than once. Reading the stories was one thing; but the art … the art. In those pages were the inky depictions of unimaginable nightmares that would make me unconsciously shudder and drop the little booklets onto the ground at my feet. {shoutout to Stephen Gammell for the nightmare fuel} If there’s anything that turned me away from horror in a flight for a very long time, it was that damned smiling man … {don’t look it up!}

Over the years hence, I primarily got into horror via means I’d imagine many have for decades: Stephen King. For me, the defining moment was checking out his short story anthology Skeleton Crew from the local library. Many of the stories within are fantastic, but it was namely The Mist, a novella{and The Jaunt, a short story} which engrossed me into the potential of horror as a genre I could thoroughly enjoy. In both tales, and by nature of his genius — most of King’s stories, there are tremendous ideas at work. Given his insane body of work, it seems King can craft a great, relatable character out of thin air to thresh along in his New England small towns. But it was the ideas that interested me most, and the overarching premises of King’s style of horror, which drive the stories into absurdly fear-inducing places {such as cosmic horror-laden mists and extra-dimensional portals}.

Beyond King, Poe, Lovecraft, Matheson, Serling I haven’t ventured far in the space of horror literature. In film, many recent entries have impressed me: IT, The Mist, 28 Days/Weeks Later, Cabin in the Woods, It Follows, You’re Next, Don’t Breathe, Paranormal Activity, Scream series. In the intervening years, I’ve managed to catch up on the classics as well, and these are obvious favorites of mine: Halloween, Alien, The Thing, Night of the Living Dead, The Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, Poltergeist, The Shining. The recent Netflix show The Haunting of Hill House is one of the best single seasons of TV I’ve ever seen. The Twilight Zone’s modern spiritual successor, Black Mirror, features darkly brilliant satire and at times, sincere psychological horror. The Resident Evil series, Dead Space, and Amnesia: The Dark Descent are video games I’ve dabbled in, all capable of spawning high art horror experiences for a player.

IMO one of the best opening scenes to any horror film. – 28 Weeks Later

I’ve experienced enough horror in my life at this point {in fiction} to make some distinctions concerning what makes it powerful, for me. I think the power of horror more than anything else lies within the nature of its extremis. By this I don’t just mean the capturing of the sudden dread that the prospect of a painful death brings into the fold of one’s life. That’s certainly part of the vicarious draw of horror, as I mentioned before. But there is something else that draws up the essential lifeblood of this particular art form for me. For the characters at the locus of a horror story, there is a natural culmination. Due to the stakes, the entirety of their lives up to that moment are on display, even if it is only for a single night, a single moment. {There’s a good reason why most horror films — and many Tarantino films — take place in a single place and in a single day or night: tension!}

For that night, for the horror hero or heroine, everything is on the line; everything important to the protagonist, everything in their past, everything they fear or regret or hate or love is drawn up to be played upon in an arc of elevating terror. All that makes a person tick underlying what the audience thought their character was and everything that was before unconscious and going unexperienced, is dredged to the surface of the events and borne for all to see. Horror naturally builds this extremis via its life-or-death subject matter, and thus makes for engrossing story. What better avenue is there to dramatic self-discovery than the desperation in the face of one’s greatest fears? In the way of the fight-or-flight response to a monstrous evil revealed, we bear witness to a certain righteous core within humanity battling back against it. With a slasher in the house, we see the humility in mortality, as well as the lengths we go to in order to try and simply survive. The audience is right there alongside the protagonist, co-experiencing their traumatic suffering in a kind of spectacled solidarity.

“Horror isn’t about extreme sadism; it’s about extreme empathy.” ~ Joe Hill

Grotesquely enough, sometimes it is only through the terror and dread of impending death that one can really understand a person. And in all stories, this is implicitly what we trying to do: to enter into, if only momentarily, the emotional state of another being.

Us and the Myth of the “shadow”

In Us, the horror-producing threat is personalized in the most primal of ways. Peele’s masterpiece deals in the somewhat cliched conceit that ‘we are our own worst enemy.’ And yet, he manages to find purchase upon the collective imagination once again with his tale melding America’s vast underground network of supposedly purposeless service tunnels with scissor-wielding doppelgängers and … rabbits?

^ This is the scene. The moment Us kicks off its thrills. Where the audience’s blood really starts pumping. When the horror begins. The Wilson family cowers and coos against the silhouette of an ominously silent family in the driveway of their summer home. They call the cops, like anyone else would do. But they are 14 minutes out.

Adelaide, the matriarch of the Wilson family played by the beautifully talented Lupita Nyong’o {Oscar nom worthy x2}, is shaking violently in fear of what beckons in the driveway. To the audience, up to this point she is a coolly introspective reader, an eater of strawberries and a reluctant beach-goer who cares about her kids {and hates the idea of them wandering away on said beach}. But like her, by way of the opening scene of the film, we understand just how much life can change in about 15 minutes.

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Adelaide is haunted by memories of her silent past; she fears the reprisal of her shadow. She feels as though this person she encountered long ago in a house of mirrors at the Santa Cruz beachfront, a girl looking exactly like her, is getting closer to her. There is a sense that them coming back to the place of her trauma on this vacation is somehow a coming culmination of her life’s course, and it’s all coming to a head.

Us

We soon learn her fears are utterly justified. From here on out, the Wilson family is engaged into a life-or-death struggle with their shadow selves. Red {Adelaide’s double} deems the night as “The Untethering.” On this night of Adelaide and Red’s latest visceral trauma, the myth of the unconscious self, the shadow, is borne out within the film’s thrilling and puzzling exegesis of what it means to encounter one’s darker self {in an individual and collective sense}.

~

All my work is pointed at this idea of humanity’s dark side … We have demons sewn into our DNA. Evolution has brought us to a place where we want to be good, for the most part. But we’ll never be all good. We’ll always have this other side.” ~ Jordan Peele

With the premise of Us, Peele perhaps presents his take of the Jungian shadow literalized into being.

In the realm of psychology, Carl Jung, 20th century psychiatrist, presented his grand theory of the unconscious: all human beings house stimuli and experience within our unconscious mind, full of automatic thinking, complexes, and the repressions of our life’s course. In a singular sense, in one’s unconscious there is everything that is not currently present for a person, but can be {as in our dreams}. In a collective sense, the unconscious is filled with the instinctive dreams of society, known as archetypes and myths. Also within this unconscious network, there is something known “the shadow” — the unknown aspect of one’s personality; the ego one does not identify with. The person we do not wish to be. The anti-self. Our dark side.

“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.” ~ Carl Jung

This allusion is easily drawn at the viewing of this film; the “tethered” are wayward manifestations of the people of Santa Cruz {and presumably, across the United States.} Incommunicable, ever scowling or smiling or unblinkingly presenting murderous menace, they are anti-people. Previously, they were cursed to forever mirror the surface world to no realizable end, a pack of failed experiments. In the events of Adelaide’s nightmarish night, they come from below en masse, now moving only to kill their surface selves as efficiently as possible.

In Jungian psych, there is this idea of the shadow becoming worse, denser and darker, the more one is not conscious of it. The further away one runs from their problems, their past traumas and past sins, the more one is disintegrated from their darkest tendencies — the worse for wear their shadow becomes. I love the way Us deals with this concept to the effect of the surrealest kind of horror.

Red explains to Ade and her family that in her underworld of unconscious mimicry she was forcibly drawn to marry Gabe’s doppelgänger {known as Abraham} and birth monstrous children she did not wish to have. Each of her children, Umbrae and Pluto, are scarred in their own way. As Adelaide’s children, Zora and Jason, played with toys and tried little magic tricks, Red’s children suffered with spines and fire. Later, we see the existence of the tethered as they mindlessly mirror their surface cousins, making due with closet roller coasters and raw rabbit meat. Presumably one can theorize that this unconscious mirroring has no limit for these human lab mice; as one moves cross country, so must the double trek it through the tunnels of America’s underdark; as one undergoes elective surgery, so must the double carve themselves similarly; as one commits suicide, so must the double end it as best they can.

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“We’re Americans.”

This relationship posits a psychological manifestation of the shadow into a flesh and blood being — a person, an ‘other,’ whose life is made worse the more ours is made better. Unknowingly, Adelaide and her family were committing daily atrocities upon their tethered selves simply by going about their lives. Terrifying to consider. Even more terrifying to understand that this under-person may come to know of your existence and your role in their own suffering. Naturally drawn to destroy you, these shadow-selves carry the same intellectual capacity as their target but without any distractions {such as the ability to talk it out}. And they also have the element of surprise … There is no more blood-curdling an assailant to have than yourself wielding only the parts of you that hate you. It knows what you fear, and in Red’s case, she wishes to make her process of untethering a ‘game’ full of fearful anticipation and murderous mayhem.Like I said at the start, this is personal and primal ish Peele is dealing with here. And it’s so good.

“There’s innately something about a doppelgänger that suggests one of you must die. There’s only space for one.” ~ Jordan Peele

Many others have theorized Peele is generating commentary in Us concerning the stratified classes of society, the displacement and suffering of the poor at the hands of not only the rich, but the middle class. After all, Adelaide herself is an escapee from the squalor of tetherdom {as revealed in the closing shots of the film — who attacked and switched her underground life with the ‘real’ Adelaide, later the revolutionary Red}. She presents the case of the formerly impoverished who later works {or steals} their way into middle America, only to turn their back on their former self and do everything in their power to protect their newfound interests and repress their past misfortunes.

This interpretation is highly valid. It and the manifestation of the Jungian shadow seem to be in play as inspiration in Peele’s horror tour de force. And yet, I think there is something even more essentially conveyed within Us, something elemental, fundamental to our experience as humans. It is interrelated with the above two conceptions — our unconscious shadow and its influence upon our life, and our collectively unspoken spurning of the poor. It has to do with evolution and with the role of circumstance and of environment within the modern game of the world.

Call it ‘nature versus nurture.’ Call it luck. Us is about witnessing the possible people we might become, given a different go of things. In the wide arc of the film’s events, its internal mythos, and in the case of the protagonist herself, Adelaide, it is clear that the tethered are not inherently evil. They are not truly the dark side between the duo; Adelaide is not the anti-Red, or vice versa. Peele presents the tethered simply as beings brought up into being in an environment in which they cannot develop into fully actualized human beings. They have no speech because they had no one to teach them. They are unconsciously drawn to mirror their upper selves by way of some strange scientific or supernatural cause they cannot control. As a result of their abandonment to fend for themselves, they are animalistic in movement and in thought. But they are human. Given the right changes in their environment and the right kind of worldly experience, they can be just like us. They will be just like us. {See: Adelaide, the most fortunate tethered of all time.}

Assuming the mysterious experiment birthing all of these doubles is exactly replicating the DNA of every American, then there can be no doubt that they are us. The only difference is the fact that they’ve been living in the underworld, feeding on raw rabbits, locked perpetually into the world of instincts. That is, until Red comes down from the overworld of humanity, with language and a past to hold onto. She holds the key to their revolution. Her plan involves an emergence from the darkness of America’s collective unconscious, to make their 1986-esque statement of red jumpsuits+one glove combo by going ‘hand in hand’ across the country. Red knows, at that point, they cannot be ignored.

{It’s fascinating how the stakes of the film turn from the insular survival horror of a single family, into a science fiction level dystopian event horizon for all of America; Adelaide and the decisions of her smiling, voiceless childhood self carry the weight of the world.}

We see that over the course of their untethering ‘game’ of high stakes chase, Adelaide becomes more and more like her double. She resorts to brutish violence, going further than anyone else to ensure her family’s survival. Ade wields a fire poker, while the others of her family carry a bat, a golf club, and a rock; she is looking to pointedly kill while they try to bluntly fend off.

At the film’s finale, in her existential reckoning with the woman who took everything from her, Red beckons Ade back to her roots. The two women’s behaviors seem more similar than different now. By the time Ade is taking the ride down the golden-lit escalator, her shirt is blood drenched crimson. She has bridged the gap to Red; they’ve met in the middle. It’s up to the audience to distinguish who now carries more of the mythic ‘shadow’ self.

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Before the film’s final revelation, Adelaide’s descent into savagery and madness is understandable given the circumstance, even heroic. However, after Ade’s origins are revealed, one’s consideration changes. It’s devilishly unconscious, to immediately reverse one’s empathy toward the one actually more like us {Red}. Now she is the understandable one, seeking vengeance for a grievous wrong, a theft of what should’ve been her life; and besides, who wouldn’t go mad living life down there? Adelaide, who was our guiding force of experiential point of view for the whole film, who we have been deathly afraid for — is suddenly the ‘other’ {and the one we are more afraid of}.

The twist complexifies everything. This nuance changes the experience of the film and its primary character. It demands one see it again. And for me, it meant hours of thinking about the film well beyond the credits. Peele’s narrative twist here is of the kind that is supremely effective. Like the best kinds of Twilight Zone reversals, it is one where you do not see it coming right up until the moment when it strikes. It is at that point that your unconscious mind, which has gathered all of the necessary evidence to point to such a thing making complete sense, finally catches up and you instantly feel dumb for not having seen it coming. But then you realize the satisfying rush of the revelation, which you would not trade for the foreknowledge and you thank your unconscious self for not jumping the gun… {Maybe that’s just me.}

In all this, a primary question arises:

What is more evil?

  • The young tethered child, Adelaide, seeing an opportunity for escape, knowing nothing of the real world above and likely in constant suffering, taking it violently and with an unknowingly sinister grin.
  • The adult Red, a full blooded human, deciding that enough is enough, in a mad return to her old world, plans to make a grand statement to it concerning America’s collection of shadows via a mass “untethering.”

Other questions to ponder concerning the duality between Red and Ade: who cares more about their family throughout the film’s events? Who actually kills more people? Who is the one smiling in 1986, and who is the one smiling in present day, and why are they smiling?

Who is to blame for what? Who is more or less human? Which one has the archetypal shadow taken ahold of?

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“You could’ve taken me with you.”

But Adelaide didn’t. And on the whole, when it comes to wealth and power, especially with strangers — we definitely don’t either. Red was a ‘stranger’ after all, despite their inherent similarity. Red was Ade’s ticket out. Red was a sacrifice for a better future. The obvious question extrapolates to us: who have we sacrificed, knowingly or not, to get to where we are right now?

~

At the end, after coming out of her ordeal, Adelaide seems ready for life to go back to normal. She’s certainly changed from where we saw her at the start of the film’s events; no longer will she be so passively introspective. The events of the previous night were a necessary culmination resulting in a final answer to her life’s greatest question. She’s driving the Wilsons now, literally and figuratively. The world, on the other hand, may never be the same. The tethered’s hands across America looks like it will be stretching from sea to shining sea. But Adelaide doesn’t care. She’s going away from it all. Her family is safe. She defeated her shadow; it is destroyed, its neck snapped by her old bedside in the wake of her own mad laughter…

But the audience knows better. There are unseen consequences within the Wilson’s sphere. Jason, her young son, sees her now. Her mask has slipped its place. One can assume nothing will ever be the same between them. On this drive, he again dons his own little mask. Perhaps to hide away from fresh trauma. Or maybe to mirror his dear mother. ~