Doppelgänger stories have been around for centuries. Originating from the German word for "double walker," the Germans believed evil twins signaled an ill omen. It's happened at least once. In 1822, English poet Percy Shelley, husband of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, claimed to have met his doppelgänger prior to drowning in the Bay of Spezia in Italy.
This early mythology of the "evil twin" in Germanic fairy tales endured through the centuries and evolved in modern media, popping up in everything from The Twilight Zone to How I Met Your Mother. But just two years ago in 2019, comedy actor-slash-horror director Jordan Peele took on the doppelgänger in Us.
Taking root in Regan's America, Peele makes a subtle but unmistakable point that the sins of '80s socio-economics are still poisoning us now all these years later. Here's why Us is the horror movie you need to watch on HBO Max before it leaves on February 22.
In Us, Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong'o) brings her family of four on a vacation to Santa Cruz. As a child, Adelaide suffered a traumatic incident on the boardwalk in which she met her identical twin in a hall of mirrors. As an adult, Adelaide has (maybe?) grown past her trauma to enjoy a carefree weekend with her family.
But soon enough, the vacation is interrupted when the Wilsons meet their doppelgänger at night. The doppelgänger reveal themselves to be the "Tethers," clones of the world's population who live underground in miles of empty tunnels.
The Tethers were created by the government in an effort to control people on the surface (that's about all the explanation we get). When the experiment failed, the Tethers were abandoned, left to mimic their surface counterparts and survive on rabbit meat. In a twist we won't spoil here but have spoiled elsewhere, there is a reason why Adelaide feels so alienated and different from everyone else.
While Peele's 2017 freshman hit Get Out was an exceptional piece that exposed the myth of a "post-racial America" through a genre lens — crusty B-movie tropes like mad scientists and brain-switching feel new when centered on America's haunted history of Black enslavement — Us is radical in how agnostic it is towards race. While Us stars Black actors playing a Black family, Peele said Us' thematic grounding has nothing to do with Blackness. The director said as much in the months leading up to Us' 2019 premiere at South by Southwest.
"[It was] very important me ... to have a Black family at the center of a horror film. It's also important to note that this movie, unlike Get Out, is not about race," Peele said to The Hollywood Reporter. Rather, it is about "the simple fact that we are our own worst enemies."
(That still doesn't stop Peele from having some fun with a Black family in a typically white nightmare. When the Tethers come knocking and the camera lingers on the Wilsons standing helplessly, Winston Duke's Gabe remarks "What kind of white shit..." before blocking the door.)
But while Us isn't about race, it condemns a conservative culture the Reagans ruled. Us doesn't explore class warfare in any explicit sense (the Wilsons seem well off as a middle-class family in which the father can buy a boat and the only frustration from the spouse are rolled eyes), but the movie is an allegory for all marginalized groups the Reagan administration left to rot — from poor people to the queer communities at the mercy of the AIDS crisis.
It's no mistake the beginning of Us takes place in 1986 with a nostalgic commercial for Hands Across America. Organized by Ken Kragen, the feel-good charity event to fight poverty involved millions of people in the United States holding hands in a chain that stretched from Boston to Disneyland. (The approaching one-year anniversary of a pandemic makes this even more impossible to believe ever happened.)
Other touchstones of the era include T-shirts for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and the hardcore punk band Black Flag. While Black Flag's logo of four straight lines is part of a motif (the clock strikes "11:11" when the Tethers show up), it's the Jackson reference that says more about monsters who lurk beneath a pleasant surface. It's also a summary of President Reagan, whose righteous indignation espoused family values but left huge gaps between the rich and poor, an increase in poverty, a crusade against labor unions, virtually no civil rights legislation, and deregulation of the financial industry that led to crises decades after he left office.
Basically, Reagan destroyed all things that would have strengthened the American family. And Peele's Us shows the hideous legacy of that time and how they resurface now, under the most recent presidency of Donald Trump.
As Amanda Marcotte wrote for Slate in 2019:
"The present moment in Us is haunted by the '80s, which is a pretty direct representation of the current horrors of American life. After all, we're now ruled by Donald Trump, who spent the '80s as an icon of that era's excessive materialism and economic inequality that has only accelerated since then. And Trump ran on a campaign that could be safely described as nostalgic for the '80s, right down to his "Make America Great Again" slogan, stolen directly from Reagan and racist fantasies about urban crime straight out of lurid 80s tabloids."
The Tethered come in uniformed red jumpsuits that costume designer Kym Barrett (previously of The Matrix) intended to illustrate Adelaide's clone's anguish. “She completely enshrouds her being with this red,” Barrett told The Atlantic in a 2019 interview. “It’s a symbol of aggression, a screaming mission. You cannot miss it.” Barrett said she and her team chose a shade of red that was "half the color of wet blood" and "half the color of dried blood."
“It’s like an old wound," Barrett noted. Indeed, the Tethered are America's wounded. When Adelaide's clone declares to the Wilsons, "We are Americans," you know it's the truth.
Us is streaming now on HBO Max until February 22.