Warning: This essay contains spoilers for Jordan Peele’s 2019 film, Us.
JORDAN PEELE HAS STOCKED his film Us with enough terrifying, indelible images to haunt viewers’ dreams for many nights after they leave the theater: golden shears, caged white rabbits, hands dripping blood, and a creepy, animatronic owl that gets its comeuppance toward the movie’s end. Among these images is one more: a massive, eerily lit escalator whose toothy, moving grates connect the charmed aboveground world of road trips and rosé with its unseemly and unseen subterranean counterpart. The escalator makes the horrors of Peele’s film possible; it also explains the story that Us wants to tell us about living in the United States in 2019.
Us begins in 1986, when a young Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) wanders away from her parents at the Santa Cruz boardwalk and walks into a nearby funhouse. Amid the flickering lights and dizzying mirrors, Adelaide comes face to face with herself. An exact doppelgänger lurks in the dark recesses of the funhouse. In the present day, we see an adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) embark on a vacation with her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). After settling into their shorefront house, the Wilsons, much to Adelaide’s discomfort, head to the same strand where the funhouse still stands. Adelaide sees enough “coincidences” to make her believe her double is coming back. The truth, it turns out, is even more terrifying. That night, a family — mother, father, two children — arrives in their driveway, clad in red jumpsuits. They are the Wilsons’ doppelgängers.
Once the family has forced their way into the house, Adelaide’s double, Red, haltingly tells the story of her life. A shadow of the aboveground Adelaide, Red has lived imprisoned underground all these years. “Tethered” to her counterpart who has enjoyed a privileged life on earth, Red has endured, unseen and unloved. But no more. She has come from below to claim a place above. No other double is able to speak, but it’s clear by their actions that they, like Red, are keen on replacement. For the Wilsons, the choice becomes clear: kill or be killed by their doppelgängers.
This setup for Us screens like a textbook example of the uncanny — what Sigmund Freud defined in his 1919 essay as “something which ought to have been kept concealed but which has nevertheless come to light.” Freud argues that the uncanny “arouses dread and creeping horror” because it is formed of images and ideas that have been estranged by the process of repression. When the things we have repressed bubble up, sneak out, and climb the stairs into consciousness, we are terrified not because they are alien, but because they are us. Freud writes in the essay about doubles and mirrors, and about downstairs spaces. At the end of his text, he relates the story of “a young married couple” who:
move into a furnished flat in which there is a curiously shaped table with carvings of crocodiles on it. Towards evening they begin to smell an intolerable and very typical odour that pervades the whole flat; things begin to get in their way and trip them up in the darkness; they seem to see a vague form gliding up the stairs — in short, we are given to understand that the presence of the table causes ghostly crocodiles to haunt the place, or that the wooden monsters come to life in the dark, or something of that sort.
The anecdote stresses that nothing repressed — in this case the ghosts of previous residents, the invisible labor congealed in the table, the specter of foreign, colonized places — stays downstairs forever.
For many viewers of Us, the task has been to try to understand what the return of the repressed “means” in the film. The characters’ darkest fears? The revenge of history’s dispossessed? The uprising of those less fortunate living among us today? These questions are propelled by Red’s straightforward yet somehow still baffling declaration when asked by Gabe who the doubles are: “We are Americans.”
Peele’s great insight is not to limit the return of the repressed to a single racial or historical script (e.g., the afterlife of slavery), as many viewers, perhaps wanting a sequel to Get Out, have done. In the middle of fighting their alternate selves, the Wilsons turn on the television to see frantic news reports that doubles have been surfacing all over the place, and, in a macabre perversion of the 1986 benefit event Hands Across America, have joined hands to form an unmoving chain across the nation. This parody of unity holds up a funhouse mirror to the story of all Americans, lending damning meaning to the fact that the original funhouse in which young Adelaide got lost was filled with hoary stereotypes of American Indians’ ancestral bonds. This willful forgetting is an American pastime, the film suggests, ensnaring everyone chasing the American dream. This Is Us: unlike NBC’s popular, nostalgia-driven drama, the statement echoes in this film as a lament.
Peele’s other great insight is to redouble our recognition of that which is most alien, and thus intimate, to us. At the climax of the Wilsons’ battle with their doubles, Adelaide returns to the funhouse, where Red has taken Jason. Adelaide opens door after door, walks through a maze of subterranean tunnels and passageways. Finally, she reaches the escalator. Covered in blood and gripping a fire poker, Adelaide rides wide-eyed down the moving stairs in what is one of the film’s most iconic shots. At the bottom of the stairs she discovers the chthonic world where the doubles have lived. Here in America’s underground, part prison, part science lab, the doubles have planned their insurrection under Red’s guidance. In a fight worthy of the best slasher films, Adelaide kills Red and returns to her family with Jason.
But Peele ends his film with one final twist: a flashback shows that when Red met Adelaide in 1986, she knocked her unconscious, dragged her down the escalator, swapped clothes, and went off into the aboveground world. Thus, the Adelaide we’ve been watching the whole movie is actually the doppelgänger, and Red was the real Adelaide taking revenge on her doppelgänger and all the people callous enough to ignore the suffering of the tethered beings living underground.
Freud does not account for an actual journey to the repressed; for him, the idea is impossible. But that’s hardly an obstacle for Peele, who does something remarkable in this scene: without abiding psychoanalytic hermeneutics, he leaves us with the psychoanalytic insight that what is repressed is always already a (re)turn to “reality.” Adelaide goes underground, yes, but that realm does not afford her some deep insight into herself. Instead Adelaide ultimately kills Red by sneaking up on her from behind. It is a fitting end to the futile dream of comprehension, of arriving at the Real. For as the flashback steadily reveals that Adelaide is the double, we are confronted with the terrible recognition that the promise of a meaningful life — of using lessons from one’s past to confront the challenges of one’s present — has been summarily dashed with the strangling of Red. This isn’t a return of the repressed so much as an acknowledgment that the figure of return — the double — is more “real” than who we presume ourselves to be.
In this crucial twist, Peele wants to make clear just how long misrecognition and repression can go on — how long, say, a nation, can delude itself about what’s real. It’s no coincidence that the film’s primal scene in the funhouse is set in the 1980s; Peele was born in 1979 and would have been just a bit younger than Adelaide is in 1986, when the movie begins. We know it is 1986 because Adelaide watches a television spot about Hands Across America, an event coordinated by USA for Africa (the same organization that produced “We Are the World” the year before) to raise money to fight famine in Africa and hunger and homelessness in the United States. For Hands Across America, 6.5 million people held hands for 15 minutes to form a continuous human chain across the country. Yoko Ono in New York and Michael Jackson in Youngstown, Ohio, participated in the event, as did 50 Lincoln impersonators in Springfield, Illinois, and President Ronald Reagan himself in the White House.
In their uprising, the doubles join hands and stretch their own way across America. This grim recreation of the charitable human chain reminds us that the feel-good, multicultural spirit of such events (and here we might also recall Live Aid and the popularity of “Up with People”) did little to counteract the harsh realities of the 1980s: the rollback of civil rights, the AIDS crisis, a swelling prison-industrial complex, and spiraling urban despair. The decade’s hand-holder-in-chief sat at the helm of an administration responsible for widening the gap between rich and poor, doubling the national debt, backing bloody dictatorships in the Third World, and creating standards of deregulation whose effects still shape today’s markets.
In the film, the menacing red line of doubles stretched across America exposes the hypocrisy of shallow acts of empathy and insists that histories of dispossession and exploitation cannot be masked by a single sentimental act. In this way, Us is not so much a story about one woman’s double, or one’s family’s, as it is a story of structural revenge. Hands Across America was already an attempt to make visible those that had been overlooked; the doubles’ takeover of the imagery is played neither for tragedy, nor farce, but for horror.
In his essay on “Reagan and Theory,” Alex Woloch writes that “like first love or heartbreak, the first government you learn to know stays with you.” For a young Adelaide plodding across the boardwalk in an oversized Thriller T-shirt, for Jordan Peele who has written her into being, and for those of us who came of age in Reagan’s America, the Teflon President’s legacy has indeed stayed with us. Mutating and metastasizing underground while new presidents took office and a new millennium unfurled, it’s the Reagan ’80s that erupts violently to the surface in Peele’s film. How uncanny, that a decade still so familiar — we recycle its music, its fashion, its fads — turns out to have been so repressed! As the doubles join hands, they form an undeniable image for the present. A red wave, a border wall: this isn’t what’s suddenly come back, but what’s always been there, real and waiting for us.
Sarah Wasserman is assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware, where she teaches courses on 20th- and 21st-century American literature, material culture studies, literary theory, and media studies. She is currently finishing her first book, The Death of Things: Ephemera in America, which is forthcoming in 2020.
Kinohi Nishikawa is assistant professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University. He is the author of Street Players: Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2018.