Psychic Disintegration in Jordan Peele’s Us

Unfortunately, there is no doubt about the fact that man is, as a whole, less […]

CJ Green / 3.25.19

Unfortunately, there is no doubt about the fact that man is, as a whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. – Jung

Nighttime: inside a secluded beach house, a family is getting ready for bed. There is the mother, Adelaide, and her husband Gabe. They have two children, a teenage daughter and a mischievous young son. Adelaide has been seeing doubles all day: a spider crawling alongside a spider-shaped paperweight, a circular frisbee landing perfectly on a circle-patterned beach towel. Now it’s 11:11 p.m.

Outside, four strangers appear in the driveway, exact doubles of each member of the family. Adelaide is instinctively terrified. She has seen her doppelgänger before, as a child, in a mirror maze: not her reflection, but another self, a human girl like her.

(I won’t spoil more than what you can find in the previews. In the premise alone there is plenty to sift through. As enjoyable and thoughtful as I found this thing to be, it is first and foremost a horror movie. Consider yourself warned.)

Adelaide’s son, Jason, appraises the doppelgängers and realizes, “It’s us.” The title indicates many things but one is that the bounds of us are unlimited. It is you, me, the family in the film, whoever dares to look in the mirror. In some obvious ways, Us is also about America, what creator and director Jordan Peele has referred to as “the state of this country.” It’s about the finger-pointing and paranoia which have become regular elements of everyday life, especially political life. It’s about the us v. them dynamic that seems to exist in the air we breathe.

But it’s also about the ‘shadow’, which Jung said lingered in both individuals and collective bodies; it’s a word that is used repeatedly in the film. To NPR, Peele described these shadows as “everything that we don’t face in ourselves…a representation of the guilt, the trauma, the fear, the hatred that might be buried underneath layers of pleasantry. All that stuff that we don’t deal with: When it comes out, it’ll come out in crazy ways.”

The doppelgänger-shadows become enemies of their real-world counterparts. Each is a match for their respective family member, challenging their unique strengths, whatever traits they might have used to distinguish, perhaps even justify, themselves. For example, the father is the protector, the headstrong head of the family; his doppelgänger, however, is equally strong, and more brutal. Zora, the daughter, is a track star, and her double is likewise fast but inexhaustible. Red, Adelaide’s double, is an equally invested mother with the single-minded goal of caring for her family.

Peele has his own evident double: the preeminent comedian who has also become one of the great horror writers of recent history, and possibly ever. Talk about a dark side. But comedy and horror, he explains, are not as incongruous as one might think:

Both of these things are about getting a visceral, uncontrollable reaction from the audience. These are not genres that can end with just silence, you know? If it works, then something we don’t entirely understand happens to us, you know, in the scream or the shudder or the laugh…that visceral pop.

It’s a movie for our time, the age of the doubling. We have never been more surrounded by pictures of ourselves and friends or loved ones. Online and off we multiply personas, in the best lighting: the best of us. Moreover, we have begun to discover how, with time, these personas can become frightening, the sources of anxiety or comparison, envy and fear. Old pictures resurface at the least opportune times. They have come to remind us not of who we would like to be but of who we once wanted to be, or who we have failed to become. Often they persist even beyond death, multiple bodies for one soul.

In a recent “Week in Review,” I referenced Meghan O’Gieblyn’s essay on mirrors, but its overlap with this film is too stunning not to re-post. If Us portrays a world of repetition, reflection, and echoes, O’Gieblyn alights on a similar idea that the place we all live — the Internet — is “an endless hall of mirrors where the line between our selves and our shadow souls is blurred.” She continues:

We have become the pale custodians of these digital eidolons, the marionettes of our shadows.

Freud believed that doubles were a sign of psychic disintegration… Unlike the primary narcissism that occurs in children, which is a source of power and delight, the adult narcissist finds her double uncanny and comes to believe she is being persecuted by it… The unease we experience in the digital maze recalls the deeper, more primal logic of horror stories and our most unsettling nightmares. There is a moment when you’re forced to acknowledge that the voice on the other end of the line is eerily familiar. You flee down a corridor, only to turn the corner and come face to face with yourself.

Early in the movie, we see a man on a boardwalk holding a cardboard sign which reads “Jeremiah 11:11”:

Therefore, thus says the LORD, assuredly I am going to bring disaster upon them that they cannot escape; though they cry out to me, I will not listen to them.

Jeremiah is warning of impending judgment, the just desserts for Israel’s persistent iniquities. Like in the film itself, repetition abounds in Jeremiah. (Compare for example 7:1-15 and 26:1-9, or chapters 39 and 52.) There are even, as Alissa Wilkinson points out in her review for Vox, repetitions within Chapter 11 — not to mention the repetition of this general drama throughout the entire Old Testament: God’s people fail to uphold the covenant, God gets angry, God re-instates the covenant, time and again.

Wilkinson argues that within the context of the passage and of the movie, forgetting one’s past, and repeating old, long-forgotten iniquities, is the catalyst for the day of judgment. This is true. We have indeed overlooked the darkest parts of our American history. We have also overlooked more than that. Not just American history but the biblical history at the foundation of so much of our civilization, the old stories that so compellingly illuminate what it means to be us. We take ancient texts like Jeremiah and Genesis 3 for granted (though it is essentially a miracle they even exist today) — possibly because we don’t like what they tell us about ourselves. But their message could be, at times, useful.

Like Us, these ancient texts indicate the violence, unrest, and anguish we see everyday comes not at the hand of some faceless them. If there is danger afoot, we need only enter the house of mirrors to find the source. “I think when we fail to point a finger inward,” Peele says, “we’re capable of really messing up in big ways.” He recently told Newsweek, “My thesis is that there’s a demon in human DNA that we can’t get away from.”

When we confront our shadows, or when they confront us, inevitably the question becomes what we can do about them. It is easiest, and most instinctual, to try to dominate them. “In short,” Camus once wrote, “I wanted to dominate in all things… I discovered in myself sweet dreams of oppression.” Emotions, we think, are better when they are balanced, controlled. We ought not get too angry. We ought not act this way in public (or ever). So we lock our shadows away.

Yet “a mere suppression of the shadow,” Jung says, “is just as little of a remedy as is beheading against headache.” It might be more effective, he suggests, to befriend them. Henri Nouwen wrote about this plainly. In a meditation I read years ago, which I have never forgotten, Nouwen says:

How do we befriend our inner enemies lust and anger? By listening to what they are saying. They say, “I have some unfulfilled needs” and “Who really loves me?” Instead of pushing our lust and anger away as unwelcome guests, we can recognize that our anxious, driven hearts need some healing. Our restlessness calls us to look for the true inner rest where lust and anger can be converted into a deeper way of loving.

Stray notes (spoilers follow):

  • Nouwen’s conclusion about befriending your unwelcome guests would obvs not work in the film. However: there is a poignant moment when Adelaide looks upon her daughter’s doppelgänger with something like concern
  • Lots of reviewers have been writing, and I think it’s true, that if Get Out was more about race in America, this film is more about class. The Tethered are kept underground, denied basic necessities, are quite literally a lower class. Adelaide descends — down the rabbit hole — into the realm of the ‘untouchables’ to confront this divide; I think all of this can also be read, though, psychologically, as I have tried to do above
  • At least twice in the film, Mom is chained up inside (cf. Janelle Monae, “I like my woman in the kitchen”). Meanwhile, Dad is escaping out of the house, to his [repeatedly breaking-down] boat
  • Red says something along the lines of: ‘It didn’t matter that the princess loved her husband, the shadows came anyway.’ I feel like there’s something here. Often movies try to patly illustrate how love dominates all evils. But: Does love always dominate in the way we would like it to? In this film, Adelaide’s love for her family cannot destroy her own shadow who likewise loves her family. The shadow goes with us even in love relationships
  • Adelaide and Red dance in their final face-off. Creativity is located in the shadow self who is a more proficient dancer than her surface-world counterpart. The dance is also reflective of how the two selves might, alternatively, interact
  • Linked above, but if you read any other reviews of Us, read Alissa Wilkinson’s. Enlightening, and true