Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ contends with unresolved trauma, and a host of other unsettling things
They come from below, from within, from the mirror.
This essay contains spoilers for Us.
In the surface story of Us, the Wilson family travels to Santa Cruz for summer vacation and finds themselves stalked by doppelgängers in a sudden home invasion, but there is so much more to be found beneath it. Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and Gabe (Winston Duke), with daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son Jason (Evan Alex), battle their shadow family, known as The Tethered, in a tale with so many twists and turns that it will either leave you relishing in its boldness or undone by its audacity. It’s a narrative that purposely does not fit together neatly, and it’s quite clear that Jordan Peele takes great pleasure in creating this world of mystery.
The most significant thing about Us is its multiplicity. As an enigmatic instrument, it provides audiences with a sundry of avenues to pursue in our interpretation of this latest story from the award-winning director of Get Out. The film is a study in the duality of things, from its compelling premise to its seemingly simplistic title. It’s “us” as in us, as in people, as in our protagonists and the mysterious beings who uncannily resemble them. Then again, it could be “us” as in us, as in the U.S., as in America.
Some interpretations of Us will reveal the film to be about American Imperialism, or American Exceptionalism, or class warfare, or undeserved privilege, or presumed innocence or guilt, or xenophobia, or religion, or Marxism, or all of the above, or things I haven’t yet considered. It all depends on the knowledge and experiences and anxieties you carry with you as you watch. One aspect, though, is unmistakable: the monsters are us. They don’t come from above, or from across the universe, or from the other side of the world. They come from below, from within, from the mirror.
This lends itself to a reading about home-grown terrorism. There is a pervasive fear in the U.S. of the Other, of immigrants, of refugees and asylum-seekers, of Muslim and Jewish communities. The nation-state erects and empowers forces meant to defend itself, its white supremacist structures, from “alien” invasions, from across the sea and across the border and even from the unknown skies. The U.S. continually stokes this fear of the Other invading its borders, yet refuses to either contend with forms of domestic terrorism nor acknowledge the violence America enacts against others, precisely because these violences work to help maintain the status quo.
One other unmistakable aspect of the film, at least for me, is its exploration of unresolved trauma.
The story begins with the traumatic incident which set these events in motion, when Adelaide was just a girl. She attends a carnival with her bickering parents, her father pounding beers and her mother irritable and detached. As children are often want to do, she wanders off and becomes trapped in a house of mirrors on the beach. It’s here where she first sees Red, her shadow self, and the event haunts her for the rest of her life.
From the moment the Wilsons first arrive at the summer home, Adelaide struggles with intrusive memories of the incident and fears related to it. Her anxiety is high and it’s clear she has carried this with her for a long time. When Gabe suggests that they visit the very beach where it happened, she is concerned about returning to this place, and even though she says nothing to her family about it, they can tell she is on edge. Somehow, coming back to the site of her trauma will bring about the end of the world. Anyone surviving with PTSD and its accompanying anxieties and constantly navigating triggers will understand this as a familiar feeling.
Red, along with the rest of the shadow family and the ensuing devastation they bring, is a manifestation of Adelaide’s girlhood trauma, and that trauma’s destruction seeps out to touch the entire Wilson family.
Trauma is even woven into the character of Red by Lupita Nyong’o’s acting process. To produce Red’s broken, gravelly voice, she drew inspiration from spasmodic dysphonia, a syndrome which causes vocal chords to spasm. “It’s a condition that’s brought about by trauma, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical and sometimes inexplicable,” Nyong’o said during an interview with Radio 1Xtra breakfast show.
With this in mind, one could further interpret Us to be about a trauma that is transgenerational.
Adelaide’s childhood years were defined by her terrifying experience meeting Red in the house of mirrors and not having the words to talk about the experience, but it is also marked by the dysfunctional environment of her parents’ unhealthy marriage and the distance between them, both between each other as a couple and between her and her parents. It was negligence that precipitated her wandering off to inadvertently find Red in the first place, after all.
As a parent now, the manifestation of her traumas come out in the form of PTSD and anxiety, and also in The Tethered. Their presence represents the ways we destroy ourselves and our relationships when we lack the tools or the words to fully address the dark things in our past, but also the fact that our children will have to fight our demons, our monsters, our shadows. They will have to fight ours as well as their own, until they are finally able to find a way to untether themselves from the cycle. Zora and Jason seem to represent the ending of such a legacy, as they demonstrate the best understanding of their darker selves.
Or maybe none of this is the case. The thing about Us is that it leaves you questioning everything you thought you knew and gives no unambiguous answers, instead leading you further and further into a maelstrom of questions and perplexities. It’s a rabbit hole. It’s a wild, chilling, disorienting experience that is also a social treatise, as most horror films are or try to be. An integral part of horror is that it’s meant to tap into social fears. It’s meant to hold up a mirror and show us how the monsters we create are reflections of ourselves, our biases, our phobias, and our sometimes unsettling desires.
Peele achieves this with a Black family (technically, two Black families) at the center, which most horror films refuse to do and often go to great lengths to avoid. That, in itself, is enough to consider it an important contribution to the horror genre. But the way he has chosen to tell this story with a Black American family and with so many layers, even with its flaws, makes it a malleable experience outside of the typical horror narratives of our era.
There is far more to come from the fascinatingly weird mind of Jordan Peele, and I’m deeply interested to see how he will keep pushing the genre to refreshing places while creating more space for Blackness in horror, even if it doesn’t always make perfect sense or lend itself to straightforward readings. I will definitely be visiting Us again, nightmarish as it is, because I know it has more secrets for me.