Lost in the Funhouse: Allegorical Horror and Cognitive Mapping in Jordan Peele’s Us

© 2020, by M. Keith Booker and Isra Daraiseh

Jordan Peele’s debut film, Get Out (2017) was one of the highlights of twenty-first-century horror film—and perhaps of twenty-first-century film as a whole. Little wonder, then, that his follow-up, Us (2019), was one of the most anticipated horror films in years. And, while Us was perhaps greeted less enthusiastically than was its predecessor, it was still a notable success, both critically and commercially. Highly entertaining, Us offers a rich array of horror tropes for fans of the genre. Indeed, much of the pleasure of the film involves the number of reminders that it contains of previous horror favorites. At the same time, Us is a considerably more complex film than Get Out, offering a wide variety of possible interpretations: the film is obviously meant to be read allegorically (read literally, it makes almost no sense), but exactly what it is an allegory of is seriously open to question. The film is undoubtedly meant as a commentary on the inequity, inequality, and injustice that saturate our supposedly egalitarian American society. Beyond that vague and general characterization, though, the film offers a number of interesting (and more specific) allegorical interpretations, none of which ultimately seem quite adequate. Such interpretive failures, in fact, might well be the real point of the film, which demonstrates the difficulty of fully grasping the complex and difficult social problems of contemporary American society in a way that can be well described by Fredric Jameson’s now classic vision of the general difficulty of cognitive mapping in the late capitalist world.

In the main narrative of Us, a typical middle-class American family (except that they are a black middle-class family) arrives at their vacation home near Santa Cruz Beach. The vacation home had once belonged to the parents of the wife/mother, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), but it is clear that Adelaide does not feel comfortable there, despite the best (if a bit lame) efforts of her husband, Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), to make her feel at ease. Their teenage daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) seems a bit sullen, while her younger brother Jason (Evan Alex) seems downright odd, insisting on wearing a Halloween Wookiee mask everywhere he goes and showing a proclivity for holing up in cabinets and closets. Otherwise, the Wilsons seem a pretty normal family, until things quickly turn ugly when a second family, consisting of doubles of the four Wilsons (wearing prison-style red jumpsuits and carrying large gold scissors), invades the vacation home with evil intent.

In this sense, Us most centrally belongs to the horror subgenre of the home invasion film, though in this case the invasion takes on a larger dimension in that it is part of a rebellion on the part of a subterranean underclass, the “Tethered.” Nevertheless, Us clearly recalls more conventional home invasion films such as Michael Haneke’s paired Austrian (1997) and American (2007) versions of Funny Games, echoes of whichsound throughout Peele’s film. Of course, a movie that has twin versions is a perfect referent for Us, in which doublings, shadows, and reflections propagate throughout. Us also contains a number of specific echoes of Funny Games, such as the use of a golf club as a weapon and a murder that involves a motorboat. Most importantly, though, Funny Games (like Us and like many home invasion films) provides a stark reminder that affluent Americans, in their cosy suburbs and comfortable vacation homes, cannot seal themselves off from the reality of life in the rest of the world, no matter how hard they might try.

All of that said, no matter how appropriate it might be to compare Us with Funny Games, this comparison ultimately does relatively little to answer any of the puzzles that are left. And the same might be said of all the other horror films that are referenced within Us. The Tethered doubles of the Tyler twins certainly invoke the creepy twins of The Shining (1980), just as the overhead shot of the Wilsons driving through trees on their way to their vacation home recalls the famous opening scene of that same film. On repeated viewings, we realize that Us is seeded with numerous hints that anticipate its twist ending, a characteristic that it shares with The Sixth Sense (1999). The mask worn by the Tethered Pluto is reminiscent of the mask worn by the leader of the home invaders in Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008), just as Pluto’s striking mannerisms include heavy use of the Michael Myers head tilt. The sinister underground experiments of Us recall the French New Extremity film The Martyrs (2008). And so on. With Get Out,Peele had already established a reputation for the richness of his interaction with predecessor texts, and Us certainly adds to this reputation[1]. All of these connections help to set the atmosphere for Us and certainly enrich our viewing of it, but they do little to truly solve its mysteries, which are considerable.

Almost every scene of Us seems slightly out of kilter, as if the film is taking place in a strange alternate, mediatized reality. And, in a sense, it is, given that it is set in a world that is designed to model the real world not in a representational way but in an allegorical one. As such, it is a film that invites us to read significance into its every gesture, even though it is also filled with false clues that lead nowhere, while even clues that pay off only do so in a partial and limited way. For example, the film begins with a pre-credits prologue in which a small girl sits alone on a couch watching television, a stuffed toy rabbit at her side. And yet, we do not see the girl directly. All we can see is her faint reflection in the screen of her 1980s-style cathode-ray-tube television. We can perhaps take this motif as a commentary on the way in which this film, like so many things in our culture, will be viewing the world not directly but through its reflections in the media.

This suggestion is also reinforced by the fact that we see commercial VHS tapes (themselves iconic 1980s objects) of a number of 1980s films on the shelves surrounding the television, surely asking us to consider whether the selection of films shown has any significance. Moving from left to right, the first film we see is Steve Martin’s The Man with Two Brains (1983), a farcical spoof of a certain kind of mad-scientist movie, such as The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (1962). One might take this as a signal that Us, while a horror movie, is also going to include occasional doses of comedy—as anyone who had seen Get Out (or who was familiar with Peele’s career in television comedy before that film) would already expect. This nod to The Man with Two Brains, which involves the transfer of a brain from one body to another, also serves as an indirect nod to Get Out. The next tape we see on the shelves is of the classic children’s adventure The Goonies (1985), exactly the sort of film that has served as a focal point for the recent wave of 1980s nostalgia that has swept through American popular culture in recent years. And this fact might well be its main significance here, alerting us to look for ways in which this film either follows or challenges (it will turn out to be the latter) the trend toward 1980s nostalgia, epitomized by films such as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018), directed by Steven Spielberg (who also wrote the story on which The Goonies was based). C.H.U.D. (1984), the next film whose jacket we see, seems the most directly relevant to Us, in that it features an invasion of the surface world by subterranean monsters, products of conspiratorial government actions, who arise from New York’s sewer system to attack those on the surface. The next film, The Right Stuff (1983), seems the least directly relevant to Us, but might in fact be the most important of this group. This film is essentially a paean to the heady early days of the space race, focusing on a group of test pilots who were selected to be America’s first astronauts (in the Mercury space program), sending the U.S. on its way to victory in the race to the moon. But this is 1986, and the main development in the space program during this year was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of January 28 of that year. The explosion of the Challenger on live televisionshortly after takeoff was perhaps the darkest moment in the history of the U.S. space program and a sign that the triumphant days of the race to the moon were now long behind us. Finally, the shelf by the TV contains a tape of A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which launched the third of the major slasher franchises (along with Halloween and Friday the 13th), reminding us that 1980s pop culture had a decided dark side that provides an important background to Us. Freddy Krueger, the notorious slasher figure of A Nightmare on Elm Street, also has a face that has been badly disfigured by fire—as has the face of Pluto in Us. But so what?

In short, all of the films we see on these shelves provide some help in establishing just what sort of film Us is going to be, though none of them provide very much help in interpreting what follows. Meanwhile, what the little girl actually sees on the television in this scene is a series of commercials, reminding us of the capitalist motivations that lie behind American popular culture. The first of these commercials is a teaser for the eleven o’clock news, beginning in mid-sentence as a newscaster ominously says “spread of this, happening outside the walls.” Meanwhile, this ad continues with the potentially apocalyptic promise that tonight’s news will “show you what would happen to the Bay if some scientists’ predictions come true.” Perhaps the oddest moment in this segment is its end, when the voiceover announcer ends her spiel by saying, “All on 7 at 11,” even though she is clearly pitching the news on channel 11 (CAL 11, it is called on the screen), and even though the screen itself reads “11 AT 11.”

This moment will subsequently seem more important as it becomes clear that Us is filled with various versions of doubled elevens, from a man carrying a sign touting the Bible verse “Jeremiah 11:11” (and another, his double, with 1111 tattooed on his forehead), to a televised highlight of a baseball game in which the score is 11-11 in the seventh inning (information that seems to bother Adelaide), to a digital clock on which the time reads as 11:11, seemingly to Adelaide’s consternation, as well. Presumably, all of these doubled elevens are meant to reinforce the theme of doubling and mirroring that runs through the film, while all of these seemingly coincidental double elevens apparently bother Adelaide because they remind her of that Jeremiah guy at the beginning of the film.

Incidentally, a version of those double elevens also appears in the form of the four vertical bars on the Black Flag T-shirt worn by a character in an early beach scene, those bars forming a stylized flag that has long served as the logo of hardcore punk band Black Flag, a band that originally broke up in 1986 but that has had several reunions, including one in 2019[2]. Interestingly, this T-shirt is itself doubled in the film, because another Black Flag T-shirt (bearing this same logo) is worn by the operator of the Whac-A-Mole game that appears in the 1986 Boardwalk sequence early in the film. This particular 1980s-vintage T-shirt, though, also employs a figure of a gloved hand wielding a large knife, irresistibly suggesting the slasher craze of that decade and making the shirt seem terribly relevant to a film such as Us. It might also be noted that there exists another Black Flag T-shirt, not shown in Us, that shows a pair of hands holding a large pair of shears, much like the iconic scissors of Us. But what does this information really tell us?

Signification runs rampant in Us, perhaps excessively so, so that we find ourselves nearly drowning in a sea of signs and allusions in trying to make sense of it all. As that opening prologue in front of the TV continues, for example, the sequence of commercials continues with an ad for Hands Across America, the iconic charity event that was one of the most memorable occurrences of 1986. This event, designed to raise funds to fight hunger in America, involved a utopian (but ultimately ridiculous and not literally possible) gesture toward solidarity that involved the organization of millions of volunteers to join hands (“tethering themselves together”) forming a human chain that would reach from coast-to-coast across America, “from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Twin Towers.” This event, of course, plays a highly prominent role in Us, serving as a central inspiration for the Tethered rebellion that drives the central plot of the film.

Finally, this opening sequence ends with an ad for the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, an ad that, among other things, shows two girls running through the shallow water at the edge of the beach, the reflections of their legs trailing behind them, forming still another image of a double eleven. The film then cuts directly to a scene at that boardwalk, where young Adelaide (Madison Curry) has been taken by her parents, Russel and Rayne Thomas (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Anna Diop), to celebrate her birthday. In the first scene, Russel wins a prize for his daughter at a carnival game; she chooses prize no. 11 (of course), which turns out to be a “Thriller” T-shirt, bringing Michael Jackson, one of the most iconic figures of 1980s popular culture, into the intertextual network of the film, via a reference to the classic 1983 music video that is essentially a short horror film.

It seems a happy moment, but the childish-seeming Russel appears to be more concerned with his own entertainment than his daughter’s, while Rayne appears to be mostly concerned with pointing out Russel’s shortcomings. For her part, Adelaide seems distracted and withdrawn. Then, at the first opportunity, she slips away from her father (who is too busy playing Whac-A-Mole to notice her departure). Moving almost as if in a trance, she descends stairs down to the beach and then enters a funhouse hall of mirrors in which she encounters her Tethered double, who has possibly exercised some sort of psychic control to draw Adelaide to her. We don’t get this information until the end of the film (and, even then, it is not entirely clear that the information is reliable), but the double then overcomes the “real” Adelaide, drags her into the underground quarters of the Tethered and handcuffs her to a bed, subsequently donning her “Thriller” shirt and returning to the surface to take Adelaide’s place in the world above.

Almost all of the remainder of the film takes place decades later in the “present day,” as the Wilson family returns for the first time in a year to the vacation home that “Adelaide” has perhaps inherited from “her” parents, even though she seems decidedly unenthusiastic about being there (and, in particular) about being near that boardwalk, given what happened there in 1986. Of course, this very boardwalk also has sinister resonances given what happened in 1987, the year of the release of the stylish vampire film The Lost Boys, much of the action of which was filmed on that same boardwalk. Indeed, the very first scene of The Lost Boys takes place on the Looff Carousel of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, while in the boardwalk scene of Us Rayne points out to Adelaide that someone is currently filming something “by the carousel,” suggesting that what they are filming might be that first scene of The Lost Boys.

This nod to The Lost Boys can be taken as another nod to the dark side of 1980s popular culture, while the fact that young Adelaide experiences a traumatic loss during what is seemingly a happy outing can be read allegorically as a suggestion that the seemingly idyllic Reagan years of 1980s nostalgia in fact introduced a number of traumas into American history with which we have yet to recover. Indeed, historical trauma seems to be a central focus of Peele’s work, as when the traumatic experiences of slavery and the racism that followed provides the central allegorical referent of Get Out.[3] In this sense, Us differs dramatically from the depictions of the 1980s in films such as Ready Player One or television series such as Stranger Things (2016– ), while anticipating the dark depiction of the 1980s that followed in Joker (2019) only a few months after Us.[4]

When the Wilsons go to the beach in present-day Santa Cruz, they meet up with the Tyler family, who serve essentially as their white (and slightly more affluent) counterparts in the film. Josh Tyler (Tim Heidecker) is a heavy-drinking, somewhat loutish boor, who is unable to avoid reminding Gabe that he is winning their competition to see who can get a bigger piece of the American dream. Josh’s wife Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) seems to be a bored suburban housewife, possibly nursing a grudge against her husband for the fact that she had to give up a potential acting career due to the birth of their twin daughters, Becca and Lindsey (played by Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Kitty and “Adelaide” are friends of the kind often found in suburban life, which means that they know each other and speak to one another, but are really more competitors than comrades, even if their competition is more subtle than is that of their husbands.

The portrayal of these two families and of the relationship between them provides some of the most important social commentary of Us, even apart from the main plot involving the rebellion of the Tethered. Though Gabe’s sweatshirt suggests that he is a graduate of Howard University (a historically black university known for its emphasis on black identity and black pride), Gabe himself is a classic case of the upwardly mobile black man who has essentially traded his black identity for a shot at the ever-elusive (white) American dream. Of course, Howard itself is a prestigious institution, and so the wearing of the sweatshirt, advertising his alma mater, is another form of status-seeking for Gabe. Meanwhile, he seems to have had some success in more traditional, materialist ways as well, though not as much as Josh, who doesn’t seem particularly brilliant or gifted, but who has parlayed his white privilege into a better car, a better boat, and a better vacation home than Gabe can realistically hope to achieve.

Discussing this aspect of the film, Soraya Nadia McDonald notes that the Wilsons are

invested in an Eisenhower-era ideal of normalcy that is quickly becoming outdated: a married couple with two kids, a house, and a vacation home. They are black, and so they are Americans in a country that does not always fully regard black people as such—and thus are immigrants in their own nation, in a way. For the Wilsons, assimilation is mostly economic, finding ways to signal that they, too, are the American dream. (McDonald 2019: 44)

However, in the course of the film, this dream turns into a nightmare, as status objects such as golf clubs and motorboats are converted into deadly weapons in a desperate fight for survival. And, by the end of the film, we learn that Gabe’s ideal American family is itself based on a deception and that his beautiful, talented wife is apparently not who she appears to be.

All of this can be taken as a commentary on the fragility and fundamental duplicity of the American dream itself, with those who achieve the dream to its utmost only being able to do so at the expense of those who are less fortunate. Indeed, it is the fundamental unfairness of this situation that is the true topic of Us, a film whose status as a sort of American national allegory is also signaled in its very title, which might also be read “U.S.” It is here that the story of the Tethered comes into play, because of the obvious way in which they stand in precisely for the less fortunate ones who have never had a legitimate shot at the American dream. Indeed, at first glance, this allegory is almost too direct and simplistic, with its stark contrast between the above-ground haves and the below-ground have-nots. This contrast is explained graphically by “Red,” the leader of the Tethered rebellion (who also apparently turns out to be the “real” Adelaide) as she confronts “Adelaide,” the double who consigned her to a life underground, explaining the difference between them in the form of a fairy tale:

“Once upon a time, there was a girl. And the girl had a shadow. The two were connected, tethered together. When the girl ate, her food was given to her warm and tasty. But when the shadow was hungry, she had to eat rabbit, raw and bloody. On Christmas, the girl received wonderful toys, soft and cushy. But the shadow’s toys were so sharp and cold they’d slice through her fingers when she tried to play with them. The girl met a handsome prince and fell in love, but the shadow, at that same time, met Abraham. It didn’t matter if she loved him or not. He was tethered to the girl’s prince, after all.”

Here, Red encapsulates the key differences between her life and “Adelaide’s.” The latter has material comforts that Red could never hope to have underground. Moreover, she has the freedom to make choices, whereas Red, when underground, had been bound, thanks to the nature of the tethering process, simply to shadow the choices made by “Adelaide,” until the moment when she was finally able to break free and begin her rebellion.

The exact nature of this tethering is never explained in the film, nor need it be. It is clearly not meant to be taken seriously as something that might literally happen, but seems designed primarily as a reminder that, in America, the more fortunate ones have many options that the less fortunate simply do not have. What we are told about the tethering again comes from Red, but is this time couched as her theory of what happened, suggesting that she doesn’t really know. Her conjecture is that humans found a way to make copies of their bodies, but not their souls, leaving the original soul to be shared by the two bodies. It was hoped, according to Red’s theory, that, via this connection, the Tethered copies could be used to control the human originals above ground, “like puppets.” The experiment, however, failed, causing those running the experiment to abandon it, leaving the Tethered in their underground facilities, where they have lived on their own for generations.

From what we see in the film, the nature of the experiment’s failure seems to be that it backfired, causing the Tethered to act as puppets controlled by the humans above rather than the other way around. Thus, we see scenes in which the Tethered move about jerkily and clumsily like bad puppets (and somewhat like zombies), awkwardly replicating the movements of their above-ground doubles—and even dressing like them, though with some poorly replicated details. “Adelaide,” though, was able to break through this reverse tethering, because she and the original Adelaide were “born special.” Similarly, Red was later able to lead the Tethered rebellion because she had more agency than the others, given that she was originally from above ground. This whole motif, of course, makes no literal sense whatsoever, despite the fact that most reviewers seem to have adopted Red’s conjectures and “Adelaide’s” memories at face value, often adding in the invented bit of information that the Tethered were produced by a government program, even though Red never mentions the government at all in her theory of the origin of the Tethered. For example, in one left-leaning review, Cozzarelli and Bain acknowledge that the state is missing from the film, but insist that it was nevertheless the state that created the Tethered:

In “Us” there is a horrible but absent villain: the creators of the Tethered. Those people who created this pseudo-class structure in which there are people below ground, unbeknownst to those aboveground. The state, the creators of the Tethered who created the oppressive system, are entirely absent from the film. We cannot be angry at something that isn’t there. And thus, [t]he tethered do not seek their revenge on their creators but on their doppelgangers. (Cozzarelli and Bain 2019)

We think this easy assumption that of course the government is the villain here is indicative of a dangerous tendency in American society. Granted, one might ask who else might be able to carry out such a program; we would answer that no one else could. And the government couldn’t, either. The Tethered program is not a real, possible program; it is simply a symbolic indication of the kinds of evils that have underwritten so much of American history. The impossible and nonsensical nature of the Tethered program as described by Red and “Adelaide” might partly be explained by the fact that Red’s theories are based on little or no actual information, while “Adelaide’s” memories are of what was clearly a traumatic moment in her life and might therefore not be reliable. More to the point, however, is that the entire story of the Tethereds is clearly not meant to be taken literally—as signaled by the fact that Red tells much of it in the form of a fairy tale (suggesting that the story has symbolic or allegorical resonances but is not bound by verisimilitude), while supplying many more details in the form of mere guesses—which are of limited reliability, especially given that she appears to be quite mad and to have a very faulty memory of her own. There is no clear sign in the film, for example, that she even realizes that she had been switched with “Adelaide” in childhood, even though the film seems to indicate this fact fairly clearly in its final scene.

By making it impossible to take the story of the Tethereds literally, Us clearly asks us to seek allegorical interpretations. Given the subject matter of Get Out, for example, we might expect any allegory about inequality in America that comes from Peele to foreground the question of race. However, race does not really seem the proper framework within which to read this film. While the portrayal of the Wilsons does tell us something about race in America—and about the fact that there are still inequalities even within the realm of the “haves”—it is also the case that both the Tethered and the normal humans are multiracial. Given the suggestion that the Tethered might have originally been created to control the surface population, one is tempted to see them as an allegorical stand-in for ideological manipulation—except that this sort of manipulation is actually quite effective and efficient in American society, while the social control experiment of Us seems to have been a failure. Class would seem to be a more likely subject of the allegory, and to an extent it clearly is. However, “class” here does not seem to function in the conventional Marxist sense. The Tethered are certainly not working-class, because they do no productive work from which the humans above ground can profit. The Tethered do not even correspond to the Marxist notion of the lumpenproletariat, the underclass that lies beneath the proletariat in class prestige. And they do not really seem to correspond to the embarrassingly large incarcerated population of the United States, even if they inevitably call attention to it via those red jumpsuits—and even if the attempt to use the prison population to help control the population at large corresponds well to Michel Foucault’s well-known theorization of the functioning of the modern prison. They do not, in fact, correspond to any specific group in American society, even though Red pointedly identifies the Tethered as “Americans.” But they represent, in a general way, all the Americans who have been excluded from the American dream that is being pursued so enthusiastically by the Wilsons and the Tylers, all the huddled masses yearning to breathe free that never quite got there.

The Tethered, then, represent inequality and exclusion in a rather vague and general way, which is, we think, very much the point. Their situation—held underground, kept in ignorance, granted no rights, and ignored by mainstream American society— is one that has been experienced by many groups in American history, even if the specifics do not correspond well to the situation of any one particular group. But this lack of a specific one-to-one allegorical correspondence between the downtrodden Tethered and the excluded Others in real-world American society is a sign, not of confusion, but of sophistication on the part of this film.

The complexity of Us is also indicated by the way in which many of Peele’s decisions seem to have been made, not in the service of political commentary, but simply in service of genre, designed to create an effective horror-film atmosphere, to comment on the horror genre, or even simply to be entertaining. For example, one striking thing about Us is that the white Tylers are killed rather quickly and easily by their Tethered doubles, while the Wilsons all survive, killing their doubles instead. We see this aspect of the film partly as a reversal of and comment on the oft-remarked tendency of people of color to be the first ones killed in horror films. But it also comments on our tendency to sympathize with certain characters and not others—four white “people” are killed, while four black Tethered are killed, but all of these characters are “humans,” Americans all.

Another good example here is the choice of large, gold-plated scissors as the weapon of choice for the rebelling Tethereds. One is tempted perhaps to see these scissors as a reference to all the sweatshop workers who have used such implements in the service of their abusive bosses, but in reality they really seem to have been chosen more for aesthetic and structural purposes within the film. Scissors, which inherently come in “pairs,” resonate well with the theme of duality that runs through the film, while the fact that scissors can be both useful, everyday tools and deadly murder weapons also adds to their duality. Meanwhile, generically, scissors have a rich history as weapons in horror films, perhaps most horrifically in that famous scene in Inside (2007) in which scissors are used to perform a forcible C-section[5]. The most direct referent of the scissors in Us, though, would seem to be Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991), where antique gold-plated scissors, used as a murder weapon, are central to the entire plot[6].

Other generic horror images (spiders figure prominently in at least two scenes, for example) also add to the atmosphere, but seem to have almost no allegorical resonance. The same might be said for all those rabbits, whose fate seems horrifying to most of us and who might be taken as a comment on the cruelties of the meat industry, but who are there, according to Peele, primarily because he finds rabbits disturbing. The even more central use of the 1986 Hands Across America Campaign has more allegorical significance, perhaps as a comment on the need to make systemic changes to eliminate poverty rather than to construct stunt-like spectacles to make ourselves feel better. But this campaign seems to have been added to the film’s catalog of referents primarily because, as Peele himself puts it, the image of those interlinked individuals, so like a chain of paper dolls, “terrifies me” (Hans 2019: 35).

Us, as much as anything, wants us to realize just how complex and multifaceted are the many problems facing American society. And it does this in ways that go beyond the mere difficulty of unpacking its allegory of inequality. For example, if the Tethered serve as a sort of all-purpose Other, the “Them” in the “Us vs. Them” logic that drives so many of America’s social and economic inequities, it is also the case that Us (as its very title implies) complicates and undermines the polar structure of that logic, reminding us that it is not always so easy to tell who is “Us” and who is “Them,” while also reminding us that our worst enemies might not be some mysterious Others but the darker versions of our own selves. Indeed, while at first glance the rebellion of the Tethered, emerging from underground, would seem to be an excellent example of the returned of the repressed that Robin Wood so famously saw as crucial to the horror genre more than forty years ago, the fact is that, in a very real sense, the real horrors of this film have been visited upon the Tethered by the humans above, a motif that is furthered by the typical tendency of American popular culture to at least pretend to side with the underdog.

And yet, on the most literal level Us is a film in which the most of the obvious horror emanates, not from the oppressors, but from the oppressed, who emerge (like the creatures of C.H.U.D.) from beneath the surface to attack and murder the “normal” humans who live above. It is here that the home-invasion aspect of Us is of crucial importance, because the conventions of this subgenre tend to ensure that viewers will sympathize with the families being attacked in their homes, while rooting against the strange, violent invaders. That these invaders seem to be damaged copies of those being attacked certainly adds a new element to the subgenre, but the fact that this damage seems to have rendered the copies as psychotic killers only shifts our sympathies more strongly into the camp of the “normal” humans. On the other hand, whatever the details, it was surely such “normal” humans who conceived the monstrous experiment that created the Tethered in the first place, while “Adelaide’s” ability to function so well among the normal humans suggests that the difference between normal humans and Tethered ones is not an essential one but is really more a matter of nurture than of nature. The film clearly suggests that the Tethered seem so damaged, even subhuman, because of the horrific conditions into which they were born and under which they have lived their entire lives, while the humans of the surface world have lived in relative comfort and richness of opportunity.

One of the strengths of Peele’s political cinema is his consistent tendency to avoid easy and obvious targets. For example, any sane, intelligent, and decent person can see that white supremacist racism is an unmitigated evil, and it is one that certainly still needs to be called out, but Get Out is so effective partly because it focuses on the more subtle problem of liberal racism among Obama-voting affluent white suburbanites. Similarly, Us is so effective largely because it fails to target a specific form of inequality in American society, allowing it not only to point out that there are many such forms, but also allowing it to demonstrate just how difficult it can be, in our complex postmodern world, to fully understand our social, economic, and political landscape. In this way, Us also reminds us that there is no magic fix for what ails us, and that we certainly can’t count on a single horror film to teach us how to achieve the justice that has so long escaped us.

Ultimately, Us hits us with a barrage of signs and images that beg to be decoded but that never congeal into a simple and straightforward interpretation. In this way, the film mimics the situation of life in postmodern America, in which we receive so much information from so many sources that it is virtually impossible to fit it all within a single coherent system. This situation has been accelerated by the massive growth of the internet and social media in the past thirty years, to the point that talk of “information overload” is now a virtual cliché. However, this phenomenon was already well understood in Jameson’s crucial theorization of postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism through the 1980s, culminating in his book on the topic in 1991. In particular, Jameson argues that a key element of the postmodern experience is the exposure to such a complex and contradictory array of information that we can’t possibly make sense of it—and therefore have little chance to change it (for the time being). Drawing upon Kevin Lynch’s classic discussion of the disorienting geography of modern cities, Jameson argues that the complexity of the postmodern world leads to an inability of the individual subject

cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world. It may now be suggested that this alarming disjunction point between the body and its built environment—which is to the initial bewilderment of the older modernism as the velocities of spacecraft to those of the automobile—can itself stand as the symbol and analogon of that even sharper dilemma which is the incapacity of our minds, at least at present, to map the great global multinational and decentered communicational network in which we find ourselves caught as individual subjects. (Jameson 1991: 63)

This failure of cognitive mapping is, for Jameson, crippling to any project of legitimate social and political change. This seemingly baleful situation, though, is not a hopeless one, but simply one that points toward the fact that any program devoted to progressive change needs to include a struggle toward more effective cognitive mapping as a central element. In that sense, then, Us, by undermining any and all attempts to map its actual content onto its allegorical referents, provides a lesson that helps us to understand our current failure of cognitive mapping and that therefore potentially takes us a step closer to being able, to paraphrase Marx’s famous words in the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, not only to interpret the world, but to change it.

WORKS CITED

Blake, Linnie (2008), The Wounds of Nations: Horror Cinema, Historical Trauma and National Identity, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Cozzarelli, Tatiana, and Ezra Bain (2019), “‘We’re Americans’: Class and the State in Jordan Peele’s Us,” Left Voice, https://www.leftvoice.org/were-americans-class-and-the-state-in-jordan-peeles-us. Accessed February 29, 2020.

Daraiseh, Isra and Booker, M. Keith (2019), “Unreal City: Nostalgia, Authenticity, and Posthumanity in ‘San Junipero,’” in T. McSweeney and S. Joy(eds), Through the Black Mirror: Deconstructing the Side Effects of the Digital Age, London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 151–63.

Foucault, Michel (1979), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (trans. A. Sheridan). New York: Vintage-Random House.

Hans, Simran (2019), “The Lives of Others.” Sight & Sound, 29:5, pp. 34–36.

Jameson, Fredric (2019), Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Laine, Tarja (2019), “Traumatic Horror Beyond the Edge: It Follows and Get Out,” Film-Philosophy, 23:3, pp. 282–302.

Lynch, Kevin (2014), The Image of the City. Joint Center for Urban Studies, 1964.

McDonald, Soraya Nadia (2019), “Free to Be You and Me,” Film Comment,55:3, pp. 44–47.

Ovenden, Olivia (2019), “These Are the Horror Films Jordan Peele Thinks You Should Have Seen,” Esquire, https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/film/a26906562/jordan-peele-favourite-horror-films-us/. Accessed March 1, 2020.

Wood, Robin (1979), “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in A. Britton, R. Lippe, T. Williams, and R. Wood (eds). American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film. Toronto: Festival of Festivals, 7-28.

NOTES

[1] As an indication of the importance of previous horror films to Peele’s vision in Us, the director famously gave Nyong’o, the film’s star, a list of horror films to study prior to her performance in his film. See Ovenden (2019) for a convenient overview of this list.

[2] We should also note that, in this same beach scene, Jason wears a Jaws T-shirt, one of several nods in the film to Spielberg, the director of that film. Of course, by simultaneously including a Jaws shirt and a Wookiee mask, Jason’s garb references both Spielberg and George Lucas, perhaps the two most powerful figures in American film in the 1980s.

[3] Trauma in horror has, understandably, received a great deal of critical attention, with the volume authored by Blake (with its emphasis on national historical traumas) having particular relevance to the work of Peele, though it was published well before his first film. On the representation of trauma in Get Out—and David Mitchell’s It Follows (2014)—see Laine (2019).

[4] For a discussion of the nuanced, dialectical treatment of the utopian and dystopian sides of our memories of the 1980s in the “San Junipero” episode of the Black Mirror television series, see Daraiseh and Booker.

[5] Interestingly, we learn in Us that both Jason and Pluto were born via C-section, with Red having had to perform Pluto’s C-section on herself (perhaps with those scissors?).

[6] Dead Again was one of the films recommended by Peele to Nyong’o to prepare her for Us.