“We’re Americans”: The Importance of Us & Horror
**Warning: This article contains mild spoilers for the film Us. Read at your own risk.**
If you’re like me, you went to watch Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out with a bit of skepticism considering his background of creating elaborately ridiculous skits on Key & Peele. However, after the film blew my mind and thoroughly impressed me, I knew we had a new master of horror in the business. Seeing his second horror masterpiece, Us, furthered my belief that Peele is not one to be trifled with. His films are smart, bloody and, most importantly, socially relevant in the best possible way.
Us opens in 1986 with a young Adelaide Wilson (Lupita N’yongo’s character) going to the boardwalk with her parents (the same boardwalk featured in The Lost Boys!). She eventually wanders off and comes face-to-face with a terrifying dopplegänger in an eerie funhouse. Cut to present day, with an older Adelaide going on vacation with her husband, Gabe (N’yongo’s previous cast-mate in Black Panther, Winston Duke), and their two children, Zora and Jason.
Adelaide feels an impending sense of doom, accompanied by the strange reoccurrence of duality seen in repeating numbers and other “coincidences”. Later that night, the family is confronted by dopplegängers of their own, including the one Adelaide faced all those years ago. Adelaide’s dopplegänger, named Red, explains that they are “the Tethered” and apparently the time has come for the “Untethering”. The night and day that follow are filled with blood and violence and terrifying revelations that rightfully belong in every great horror movie.
After watching this film, I was shocked in many ways. I was in awe of the beautiful horror conventions that I was not expecting (That split-focus diopter shot on Red and Adelaide towards the end of the film? Beautiful and reminiscent of iconic horror films such as Carrie.), the incredible performances from the cast and the fact that everything I just witnessed had a layer deeper than the topical one. You see, Us is not just a film with an intent to scare the sh*t out of the audience, even though it does that fairly successfully. It also contains a message that cuts almost as deep as the Tethered’s scissors. According to multiple interviews with director Jordan Peele, the main focus of the film was to address the fear of the “Other” that many Americans face; the “Other” that either lies within our borders or outside of them, the “Other” that will steal their jobs and infiltrate their homes. Peele wanted to shift the focus and have the audience consider the fact that the true evil may be on the inside. He wanted to make the audience squirm by addressing the true villain that may be inside all of us. (As seen in the twisted ending of Us…if you know, you know.) This interpretation is likely the one that most audiences caught on to. However, there is another point that Peele wanted to make. His latest film also addresses and critiques the issue of classism in America.
Lemme explain: first, the Tethered are forced to live underground while their human counterparts get to live happy lives above them. The Tethered have to eat horrid food (Two words: Raw. Rabbits.) and get no say in how their lives will play out, like how Red had to be partnered with Gabe’s bestial counterpart, Abraham, when Adelaide got married. Eventually, the marginalization they face becomes too much and they violently rebel against their place in society. In a morbid twist on the original Hands Across America, once the Tethered have murdered their humans, they join hands and create their own chain, just like the failed one that was attempted in 1986.
All of this to say that the Tethered represent the homeless and the poorer echelons of American society and the macabre Hands Across America they create is a stab at the contradictory attitudes towards the poor that America has faced for a long time. Another hint at this theme is the financial competition that Gabe has with his white friends, played by Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker, and the technologically infused death scene that the two experience at the hands of their Tethered in their very large, very unprotected vacation home. As dark as that sounds, it does make for a fairly humorous scene when Moss’s character tries to get her Alexa-type voice assistant to call the police while they’re under attack and instead it plays “F**k Tha Police” by N.W.A.
Challenging relevant societal ills in his films is a running brand for Peele. In case you’re not familiar, his previous film, Get Out, addressed the horror of current race relations in America. He has mastered the art of hiding messages in his films but he is not the first to do so. Horror has long been a genre of challenging and pushing the limits, not just with how much they can unsettle an audience but also with the subject matter they present.
For example, The Exorcist was an incredible feat for horror in many ways; it was the first horror movie to be nominated for Best Picture, it featured a strong female lead and it was the first horror film to make audiences physically ill and drive people from the theater. In addition to this, The Exorcist has had some hot debates amongst audiences about what it’s really about; some say that it addresses the fear that society has about the burgeoning of female sexuality while others argue that it is a testament to the mysteries of the Catholic church. Regardless of how you take it, The Exorcist is another example of a horror film that can simultaneously scare the sh*t out of you while also educating you about the status of society.
Horror is a genre that is not typically appreciated by day-to-day audiences. It is often ridiculed and undermined due to some slightly cheesy and just downright weird films that come out of the genre (The Gingerdead Man, anyone?). But horror remains to be a genre that is unafraid to produce some truly shocking content. Because of this, there are no restraints keeping them from including topics that are usually taboo in more mainstream media. From The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s encouragement for vegetarianism (Even PETA supports them!) to the idea that consumerism will be the death of us that stems from Dawn of the Dead, horror is a genre that isn’t and has never been afraid to push the envelope. So keep an eye out for the next horror film; you may learn more than how to kill your neighbor.