Us opens with a flashback. The year is 1986, and Adelaide (Madison Curry), at a fun fair with her parents, has wandered off and into a funhouse. As she makes her way through a twisting hall of mirrors, she realises, to her horror, that one of her reflections is real. The little girl’s mouth expands into an ‘O’, her scream silent but strangely piercing.
The greatest scare in horror cinema, according to director Jordan Peele, takes place in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). When the camera turns the corner in the Overlook Hotel and finds a pair of identical twins standing at the end of the hallway, it’s far worse than a mere jump scare. That image of inescapable, expectant terror casts an icy chill on the back of the neck, sending a shiver down the spine. “It’s the protagonist in motion and something waiting for him, patiently and calmly,” Peele told the New York Times, citing it as the same variety of dread as when the audience first meets Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1990). It’s the feeling of walking into a monster’s trap, and realising there is nowhere to run.
Peele made his name with the acclaimed sketch show Key & Peele (2012-15), writing and starring in five seasons of comedy skits that tackled race, pop culture and American politics, before winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Get Out (2017), his frequently hilarious and laser-sharp horror satire of white liberal do-gooders. Get Out was a bona fide smash with audiences, its relatively modest $4.5 million budget reaping $255 million dollars at the box office worldwide, but it was also a hit with critics, who praised Peele’s ingenuity as both social commentator and genre master.
Peele’s second feature picks up in the present day, but sees Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) return to the site of her original trauma. Now married and a mother of two, upon revisiting the Santa Cruz boardwalk (the same location used in Joel Schumacher’s 1987 vampire horror-comedy The Lost Boys), she’s triggered by her childhood memories. When Adelaide senses the double that haunted her youth has returned, she’s right. With her juddering upright carriage, strained, rasping voice and rust-red boiler suit, Red (also played by Nyong’o) is the sanguine Adelaide’s evil identical ‘twin’ – one of the ‘Tethered’, as the doppelgangers are known in the film. Us is a high-energy genre piece that transforms from home-invasion horror into something more sinister.
“I was seven in 1986,” says Peele, discussing the prologue period setting with me in a central London hotel. “A lot of the stories we tell as artists are about that time – these formative years where you’re seeing the world.” One key memory from that time for the director was a primal, ineffable fear he experienced, and one of his starting points for the film was trying to understand what his seven-year-old self had been afraid of. “One of the reasons kids in horror are such a trope is because everything is more vibrant [in childhood],” he explains. “Your love and dependency and fears are front and centre, and the stakes of everything are huge, so when you take something like a haunted house, or the Thriller video, or a space shuttle going up to the sky and exploding and we’re all watching it on television, it leaves a trauma.”
Oddly, Peele’s trauma was caused by the imagery of Hands Across America, a charity campaign to end world hunger that encouraged Americans to join hands on a day in May 1986 in a long human chain that symbolised an “American pride and optimism and hope and naiveté”, and one that contrasted with darker news stories, such as Nasa’s Challenger disaster, which populated the Reagan-era news cycle. There is something shiny and disingenuous about the Hands Across America television advert, which Peele recreated for Us. “The imagery of Hands Across America came up while I was writing,” he recalls. “For a reason I can’t explain, it terrifies me.”
A report on Hands Across America from the WBZ-TV archives
Peele knew he wanted to tell a doppelganger story, which he describes as both “well-trodden and under-explored” in his mind. “When I got the idea of a doppelganger family, I knew I had something that was gonna forge new ground in the pantheon of doppelganger tales. If you see a family of four that looks like your own standing outside your house, that is an iconic horror image because of the questions that are unanswered. How? What? Where did they come from? What do they want?” In Us, the family of four – and their doubles – are Adelaide, husband Gabe (Winston Duke, the film’s necessary comic relief), surly cross-country running teen Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and the younger, sweet-faced Jason (Evan Alex).
Peele names Alfred Hitchcock’s San Francisco-set Vertigo (1958) as his ultimate doppelganger movie, and a set piece that takes place on a lake in Us recalls The Birds (1963). “The Bay Area – it’s Hitchcock land!” says Peele. “Even in the design element: for instance, with the costumes [including the film’s striking red jumpsuits] – we worked with Kym Barrett, who did The Matrix  and Aquaman . We wanted to have this iconic Hitchcockian colour scheme that does justice to this idyllic thing that is the California horror story. I just decided, ‘Look, this needs to be simple.’ In my favourite horrors, [the costumes] feel like clothing you could buy.”
He pauses. “Do you know what I’m dressed up as, by the way?” He gestures to his checked lumberjack shirt and red jacket. “This is Jack Torrance’s shirt from The Shining – and coat. Full nerd on display. I got sent this from a literal Halloween costume shop; I couldn’t bear to take it off because it’s the coolest, nerdiest piece of homage ever.”
There is a kind of nerdy joy to be wrung from Us’s nods to other horror films, including The Shining, Alien (1979) and Dead Again (1991), but what’s clever is that these references never feel like inaccessible in-jokes. Peele calls them shout-outs – “little winks” in the film’s technique. “All my favourite directors are a combination of their influences. The guy who really does homage in a more fun way than anyone else is Tarantino. And that’s the thing to me: you’re not making in-jokes, but you’re being a little bit vulnerable, and open with your audience as to how you got here.”
Peele, it must be said, is a serious horror aficionado. “Fear is a fascinating emotion,” he says, of the genre’s storytelling possibilities. “It’s extremely powerful and extremely dangerous – it keeps us safe, but when we don’t face it and acknowledge it in the right way, it comes out in awful ways. We can be very easily manipulated by fear. Horror movies are one of the ways we can face our fears in a relatively safe environment. That’s a catharsis. I like to provoke; I want to say the thing that is left unsaid.”
The unsaid, repressed fear Peele speaks of seems to relate to the play on words in the film’s title. ‘Us’ could also be read as ‘US’, an interpretation that’s emphasised when Red tells Adelaide, in a moment of delicious irony, that her family are “Americans”. “I thought of the ‘us’ as the United States,” Peele admits, though he’s careful to note that this is only one reading of the film. He points out the amount of American imagery in Us’s mise en scène, and its many symbols of “patriotic hope”. This, he hoped to subvert. “Right now, my country is going through an obsession with the outsider, and the fear of the invader and the Other. This is a movie about the fact that maybe we are our own worst enemy.”
The use of the doppelganger motif in Us might indeed be understood as an illustration of the United States’s self-immolating politics, though the film is open to other readings, too. An ominous title card at the beginning of the film tells of the thousands of miles of tunnels underneath the United States, many of which “have no known purpose at all”; this preface brings to mind, albeit in metaphorical fashion, the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and safe houses used by African-American slaves to travel safely from the South to the country’s free states. The Tethered could also be understood as America’s underclass; an invisible, subterranean people waiting to rise up and confront their oppressors and a manifestation of the nation’s ugly id. Perhaps the Tethered are the country’s mass incarcerated, festering in a sanitorium-like shadow world. Flashbacks to Adelaide’s childhood might be read as an exploration of how trauma fractures the self. The film actively invites a multitude of interpretations.
With forthcoming projects – including a reboot of The Twilight Zone, which he will host and narrate; a “spiritual sequel” to Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992); and an HBO series called Lovecraft County, executive produced by Peele with J.J. Abrams – Peele’s production company Monkeypaw has an obvious interest in horror and sci-fi properties. These titles, along with Spike Lee’s 1970s-set BlacKkKlansman (2018), which Monkeypaw produced, also suggest he is drawn to period material, though Peele insists the company’s tastes are less rigid: he is simply making the kinds of things he himself would like to watch. “If I’m gonna go and watch something, it’s generally high concept, fun, genre; something committed, something clever. We also want to push the boundaries of representation in genre as well.”
Us and Get Out are certainly these things, hitting a sweet spot between highbrow and mainstream. Indeed, Peele seems to be crafting a space, not entirely unlike The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, in which these kind of projects – all of which are being pushed as “presented by Jordan Peele” – could thrive, his name alone suggesting a very particular kind of tone. This, according to Peele, was the plan. “We try to take elevated notions and make them accessible, and take popcorn elements and make them complex, but one thing we never do is talk down to our audience or presume our audience isn’t brilliant, because they are.”
Peele praises his audience’s intelligence; Variety critic Peter Debruge praised Us’s characters for being smarter and more logical than the average character in a horror film. This, Peele says, is surprisingly hard to script – and essential when writing black characters. “Black audiences will be like, ‘Mm-hmm. Mm-mm. No way would she do that,’” he says, laughing. “It’s hard to write because the right response is to run away from the horror, which is basically to run out of the movie. So, my rules are: characters have to do what they would do in real life, and if they do something out of the ordinary, I have to at least emotionally understand why that person made that choice – or somebody’s gotta call it out. Somebody’s gotta say, ‘Excuse me, what? What are you talking about?’”
Us’s terrifying absurdity is interspersed with humorous moments throughout, as when an Amazon-Alexa style voice-controlled speaker plays The Beach Boys’s Good Vibrations in the midst of a home invasion, amplifying both the horror and comedy. The deftness with which Peele balances the two has become a defining characteristic of his writing. “There’s a reality that intersects both, if it’s done right,” he says. “A scary movie becomes scarier if it feels real, and it gets funnier if it feels real. If you write with that in mind, people just latch on to it and are immersed in it.”