‘Us’: How Jordan Peele Used Doppelgängers to Craft an Uncomfortably Familiar Nightmare

     March 22, 2019

His hair stood on end, and he almost fell down with horror. And, indeed, there was good reason. He recognized his nocturnal visitor. The nocturnal visitor was no other than himself…

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Double”

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Jordan Peele‘s sophomore feature, Us, pretty much since the second the film cut to credits in my first screening. It’s one of those beautifully traumatizing horror experiences that works on the type of visceral level that creates screams, jumps, and nervous laughter in the moment, but also manages to burrow its way into your brain for long after the theater lights are up and the bedroom lights are off. The premise is as short and simple as its title: The Wilson family—father Gabe (Winston Duke), mother Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph), and son Jason (Evan Alex)—are in the middle of a summer lakehouse getaway when four home invaders turn the vacation into a horrorshow. The assailants turn out to be twisted, identical copies of each family member — doppelgängers armed with golden scissors come to cut out their mirror images for good.

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Image via Universal Pictures

Really—without delving into any spoilers—the one nagging question that’s stuck most with me since seeing Us is just why, exactly, that simple premise is such a disturbing one. The concept of a doppelgänger is nothing new; the actual term itself, literally “double-goer” in German, first popped up in Jean Paul‘s 1796 novel Siebenkäs, but human history and folklore is filled with the mysterious “other-self”, from the Ancient Egyptian Ka to Peter Pan’s untethered shadow. For as long as humans could tell stories, we held on to the idea that you are not the only you.

And I think it’s telling that the idea of meeting yourself just naturally morphed into a sign that you are about to fucking die. It’s hard to tell when exactly doppelgängers evolved into a guaranteed portent of doom and death, but I can tell you for sure that looking into it will lead you down a gosh dang rabbit hole, my friend. (Rabbits, by no small coincidence, are a reoccurring image in Us.) Like, for one of many examples, this extremely unsettling passage from The Life of Abraham Lincoln by biographer Henry Ketcham, in which the 16th president of the US United States allegedly describes seeing two versions of his own face in the mirror:

“I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler–say five shades–than the other … When I went home, I told my wife about it, and a few days after I tried the experiment again, when, sure enough, the thing came back again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was worried about it somewhat. She thought it was ’a sign’ that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term.”

But again, it’s not entirely the who or when that’s intriguing but the why. Why is the idea of meeting yourself so innately wrong on several levels past a jump scare? I think it mostly boils down to a simple truth that anyone who has ever gone to therapy and/or opened the iPhone front facing camera by accident — we don’t like to see ourselves. More specifically, we don’t like to see the parts of ourselves, literal and figurative, that we on some level reject as “wrong”. Our greed, our lust, our vanity, our jealousy, our dark and hidden whatever. This consciously-ignored side of the psyche does, on some level, create another “you,” standing right to your left like a shadow in the corner of your eye.

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Image via Netflix

Doppelgänger horror as a subgenre is absolutely ripe for picking this idea apart, because a monster made up of something recognizable will always be hard to look at. (What else is feeling afraid in a perfectly safe movie theater other than a fight against your own body?) Think of a good portion of David Lynch‘s output, from Twin Peaks to Lost Highway, which often makes the filmmaker’s characters look at their own perversions by literally drawing them out of their own bodies. Or the supreme effed-up-ed-ness of Andrzej Żuławski‘s 1983 fever dream Possession, a twisted allegory for divorce that sees Isabelle Adjani‘s Anna and Sam Neill’s Mark becoming impossibly ideal versions of themselves born from a Lovecraftian nightmare. Or even more recently, on Netflix, with Cam‘s sex-worker nightmare giving horrific life to that other face we so willingly put on the internet; sexier, more adventurous, wilder. To me, the peak of the doppelgänger horror genre is still Joel Anderson‘s Lake Mungo, which climaxes on a jolting face-your-own-face moment that—not to put too fine a point on it—fucked me right up in ways that will probably never go away. Experience that one for yourself. (Or selves…)

Peele’s Us is operating on long-standing, well-earned territory, is the point here. But I also think it takes things just a bit further in a way I didn’t expect, and to elaborate I do have to delve a bit into spoiler territory. If you haven’t seen Us, kindly make like Peele himself and Get Out. (But please come back when you’re caught up.)

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Image via Universal Pictures

We’ll have full explainers for Us‘ ending up on Collider soon for sure, but the gist is this: The beginning of the film suggests that Nyong’o’s Adelaide met her doppelgänger—or, more accurately, her member of the Tethered, the horrifying shadow people who exist underground—as a child. But the end reveals that the doppel switched places with our Adelaide, the one who was born on the surface, the “normal” Adelaide, who then was forced to live out her life in darkness.

It’s a killer, if not a bit obvious twist on a simple storytelling level, but under evaluation, it’s asking a seriously uncomfortable question of the audience. What if you faced yourself, fought yourself, your “other” self, the self you ignore because it makes you uneasy, and found that the “other” is a lie you tell yourself? What if you, bad, good, and all, are just…you?

“We are in a time where we feel the need to fear the other…” Peele said before premiering his film at SXSW. “Maybe the monster we need to look at is us.”

Us doesn’t offer any easy answers. Peele has shown in his first two feature films that he isn’t interested in holding anyone’s hands. (Across America or otherwise.) That uneasiness is the point of Peele’s brand of horror. Get Out made a lot of us uncomfortable with the people we are. Us tops it by asking just what we plan on doing about it.

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