There’s something about twins that resonates with audiences of theater, fiction, television, and drama. Whether it’s Viola and Sebastian in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1602), Spiderman, Susan and Sharon of The Parent Trap (1961), or those cousins, identical cousins, Patty and Cathy (The Patty Duke Show, 1963-1966), they keep reappearing in story after story. Many of these stories speak to the comical possibilities of twins–how mistaken identity can lead to a comedy of errors, how twins can work together because they have some kind of super sensory connection, or the marvel of people who act similarly to each other but still have important but benign differences in personality.
But there’s also a dark side to twin stories. There’s the evil twin who can steal one’s identity (Face Off, 1997), the twins who are so completely different that they represent archetypal differences between good and evil (The Man in the Iron Mask, 1998), and there’s the anxiety that one’s twin might have received the better genes (Twins, 1988).
Stories involving twins include a type of mimesis being represented on two different levels. There’s the representation of twins on the screen or stage. But then there’s also the fictional representation of how others mirror us, whether they be identical or fraternal twins or any other kind of doppelgänger. In other words, we all have twin anxieties even if we don’t literally have a genetic double. There are stories that might appear completely different from twin tales, but at their heart, ultimately share the same anxieties and joys of those stories. For instance, though it might seem completely different at first glance, the anxiety that comes with usurper stories bear a strong resemblance to twin stories (All About Eve, 1950; The Tempest, 1611). Stories where siblings try to break free of each other (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”), where strangers are connected to each other (The Defiant Ones, 1958), or where children try to separate themselves from their parents (Like Father, Like Son, 1987) are ultimately twin stories too–or at least very similar.
Twin stories really speak to our anxiety that we are alone and our fear that we aren’t. There’s something thrilling about knowing there’s at least someone out there just like us, and there’s something terrifying too in that realization. There’s equally something horrifying and inspirational about our uniqueness. Stories about twins are really just a sub-genre of a larger genre that I don’t think has a name–stories that involve look-a-likes of all kinds. It’s the beauty and horror of the other you.
And that brings us to Jordan Peele’s horror film, Us (2019). In some ways, Peele is an ideal director to bring to the silver screen a story of look-a-likes because of his background in both comedy–Key and Peele–and horror, Get Out (2017). But this film is decidedly more on the horror side of the twin genre spectrum. Early in the film, the Wilsons, a family of four, decide what they want to do with some time off. Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke), an easy going father of two and husband to Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), suggests meeting their friends near the beach. Adelaide, based on a traumatic experience in her childhood, resists this idea, but she can’t bring herself to explain why. Ultimately, she relents, and the Wilsons, with daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and son, Jason (Evan Alex), head to the beach.
That’s where Adelaide’s fears start to emerge, that’s there’s something, or someone, waiting for them in the distance. Later that evening, as everyone is settling for bed, there’s a strange grouping of people outside the house. It’s a family of four, dressed in red. They are saying nothing; they are merely standing there, silently staring at the house where the Wilsons are staying. Gabe emerges out to see what the disturbance is, and there to his horror and amazement, stand four doppelgängers, each one a mirror image of Gabe and his family, respectively. All members of the Wilson clan are horrified, but quite ominously, Adelaide is far more horrified than the other three but not at all surprised by this surprising turn of events.
Of course, the audience already has a premonition similar to Adelaide’s because the film begins with a childhood memory of her with her parents at the fair grounds of that same beach–and how she met with surprise and terror her own doppelgänger. Though we–as the audience–don’t know the details of that childhood encounter, we know it was traumatic, that she refuses to speak about it, and that it has shaped her life and convinced her she can never go back to that beach again. As the film progresses, we are slowly introduced to more details concerning the emergence of these ominous visitors, that almost everyone in the film is utterly confused by, except for Adelaide. We slowly discover that these doppelgängers arise from the tunnels and shadows to enact some revenge for a reason that is at first unclear.
As the film progresses, we learn that everyone who lives above the ground in the United States has a doppelgänger, not just the Wilsons. These counterparts live below the ground. Somehow, the government–a shadowy deep state that’s never really specified–has tried to create a system whereby they can control the population by splitting everyone in two. One half lives above the earth, and the other half lives below, in abandoned tunnels and caves. Their original conspiratorial plan was for the deep state to control the surface people by moving and manipulating the people below. Basically, it’s a voodoo doll approach to social control, something combining science fiction, behaviorism, and magical realism.
The government eventually gives up on its plan and just abandons the shadow people below the earth, who are then forced to live carbon copies of the lives of their counterparts above the surface. If Gabe eats a beautiful meal, then Abraham, his counterpart, eats a decidedly less delicious meal in a far uglier place. If Adelaide receives a beautiful t-shirt that she desires, then Red–her doppelgänger–receives an ugly t-shirt she doesn’t want. These echo experiences by the people underground force them to live in misery, and slowly they are driven mad–in both senses of the word–by their lack of agency over their own lives. But soon, and in mysterious ways that won’t become clear until the end of the film, the underground counterparts break free, rise up, and try to sever the cosmic chains that bind them to their more fortunate surface twins. To do so, they must kill their surface dweller counterparts. So, in a way, this film is a depiction of a violent revolution.
If this film sounds familiar, there’s any number of reasons that might be true, and that’s because this film draws from several different thematic traditions in cinema, though it’s not clear how self-consciously it does that. There are strong thematic similarities between Us and Metropolis, a 1927 film directed by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang. The earlier film concerns a wealthy elite who live in luxury on the surface of the earth and the large swell of workers below the earth who toil and die to enrich the titans of industry above. The story involves the workers uniting to upset the tyrannical social and political order and the troubles that come from the conflict between these two groups. At least in terms of broad thematic similarities, the two films are remarkably similar. There’s also a distinct Zombie-esque genre quality of the film, Us. Though the characters are not technically zombies, they are half dead, walking the earth, and ruthlessly killing the humans who are confused about their presence. And just like in Zombie films, this one clearly has an an apocalyptic feel to it. Both of Peele’s films, Get Out and Us, are covert zombie films.
Finally, this film addresses another genre, the revenge tragedy. The Revenge tragedy had its heyday in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, but its echoes can still be felt today. It often involves a family member, wronged or betrayed by someone close to themselves, and their quest for justice, that they must enact themselves. The Oxford Reference website observes some of this genre’s characteristics including “the hero’s quest for vengeance, often at the prompting of the ghost of a murdered kinsman or loved one; scenes of real or feigned insanity; a play‐within‐a‐play; scenes in graveyards; scenes of carnage and mutilation,” and the sometimes include “counteracts.” Though I don’t want to suggest that this film is a perfect fit for the revenge tragedy genre, there are similarities that cannot be ignored, and these similarities help to inform an understanding of what this film’s about.
So what is this film about? Well, I would suggest that any interpretation of this film would need to consider how this film mirrors the socio-economic conditions that Americans find themselves in late in this second decade of the twenty-first century. This film is about the fear of displacement; it’s about the rage of exploitation, and the need to be heard. There’s a line in this film where one character remarks to another that there could have been another way, a way defined by cooperation rather than zero-sum annihilation. Whether that other way could have realistically happened within the film is left answered. The unresolved ambiguity about whether the characters are necessarily in a Hobbesian nightmare mirrors a similar–perhaps identical–problem in America today. This film is the dark, counterpart of the 2019-2020 world we’re living in, but we–hopefully–get to decide how our story ends.