Who knew scary could make us so merry?
Jordan Peele’s Us, released on March 22nd, marks his second horror film to hit theaters, following the critically acclaimed Get Out released in 2017. Peele’s first film dramatically changed the way moviegoers view and appreciate the horror genre, which led to him receiving honors such as the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Fans and onlookers of the writer and director marveled at the many hidden messages within his first film, which largely focused on the plight of Blacks in the US. Due to this, there were high expectations for Peele’s latest motion picture.
Fortunately, Us received immediate praise from critics, who had early access to the film. Its theatrical release mirrored this, which is evident in the movie’s current 94 percent Rotten Tomatoes score and its estimated $70.3 million box office earnings on opening weekend — far exceeding expectations.
As a brief summary of the film, Us follows Adelaide Wilson, her husband Gabe, and children Zora and Jason, who take a vacation to Santa Cruz, California. While there, Adelaide begins panicking after Gabe suggests the family go to a beach she remembers visiting as a child, where a traumatic experience occurred involving funhouse mirrors. That night, following their beach outing, the family is tormented by violent doppelgängers who break into Adelaide’s childhood home where they are staying. Adelaide’s doppelgänger, Red, leads this charge, telling each of her family members, except for Jason’s double Pluto, to attack their counterpart.
Us later reveals that violent doppelgängers exist for all people occupying Santa Cruz, and seemingly the entire US. Each kills their double to break their tether, a condition in which the doppelgängers, who lived underground, were being forced to follow the movements and actions of their aboveground counterparts through a shared connection. Though the “tethered” look like their doubles, each has a sinister disposition and seems the exact opposite.
Due to Peele’s knack for hidden messages within film, fans and onlookers promptly began theorizing after watching Us, looking to explain his intentions. Recently, the writer and director offered some insight, stating, “The movie’s about maybe the monster in you. It’s about us, looking at ourselves as individuals and as a group.”
Despite Peele’s brief explanation, however, there is still much more that can be explored within the film. This is evidenced by various media and articles circulating that have attempted to highlight potential themes and symbolism. Fortunately, Us is open-ended enough for almost any theory to be deemed acceptable if properly argued.
Of the many responses to this horror film, there has been talk of keeping up with the Joneses, or attaining White affluence, xenophobia (i.e. fear of others), and going down the rabbit hole. Moreover, some have analyzed the movie’s theme song “I Got 5 on It” and its unintentional meaning given the backstory of Michael Marshall who sang its chorus. Nevertheless, there remains an area within Us that has yet to be largely explored. That is an underlying social commentary about today’s youth. While the film providers many examples, perhaps the most blatant could be seen with Zora and her doppelgänger Umbrae, who are both teenagers.
Zora is depicted as often quiet and on her phone listening to music most of the time. When Red and her doppelgänger family force themselves into the Wilson’s residence, Red refers to Umbrae as a “little monster” who is always smiling and causing terror. The one trait that Zora and her doppelgänger share is their running ability — it is explained earlier in the film that Zora does track. When Red instructs her family to attack, Umbrae allows her counterpart to run at a head start before chasing after.
Later, Zora’s family manages to escape their doppelgängers and intercept her in a car. However, Umbrae tracks them down and jumps on top trying to enter the vehicle. She is later thrown into a tree after Zora, who is driving, slams on the breaks. Adelaide goes to check on Umbrae, who is seen mangled in tree branches and reaching out to attack her. Strangely, Umbrae continues to smile and giggle — the tethered cannot talk — until she dies.
At first glance, it may seem that Zora’s doppelgänger is merely living up to her reputation, being a “little monster.” However, a closer look reveals the larger comparison to today’s youth.
As was stated earlier, both Zora and Umbrae are known for their running abilities. This can be taken to represent today’s microwave culture, in which many, especially youth, want instant gratification. Examples include online dating, behaviors with social media, and music consumption — more on this later. With each there has been, though not always the case, a desire to be immediately rewarded with minimal effort. Youth, specifically, have been raised in an age where technology has given them advantages unseen in previous generations. While technology is beneficial, it has also added to microwave culture. For instance, some have argued that smartphones negatively affect social interactions. Instead of meeting with people and developing worthwhile relationships, something that would take time to cultivate, youth now engage with people via smartphones at a fast, disconnected pace. According to Misra et al. (2016), smart technologies can cause brief, to the point, and simply communicated conversational styles. This, in turn, might lead to the development of “sound-bite relationships” where complex ideas or deep feelings are not fully explored.
Adding to the microwave culture theme represented in both Zora and Umbrae’s running abilities, the two characters also embody multiple aspects of today’s youth. First, Zora seemingly showcases youth obsession with technology. From her introduction in Us until the tethered invasion, Zora is glued to her smartphone. Right before the Wilson doppelgängers attack, Adelaide asks her to get off the phone before going to bed. Zora initially listens but reneges after Adelaide leaves her room. Anderson and Jiang’s (2018) study on American teenagers aged 13 to 17 found that around 95 percent have access to a smartphone and about 45 percent use the internet “almost constantly.” Moreover, some academics believe addiction to video games and Internet use in youth does seem to exist.
Concerning Umbrae, her demeanor and actions could represent the destructive nature of today’s youth. Currently, there has been a rise in the number of deaths among young Americans due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide. This has contributed to a decreased life expectancy in the US, which has been declining for the past two years. Looking deeper into Umbrae’s character, her constant smiling while terrorizing Zora, and later Zora’s family, could represent how youth inadvertently cause destruction while under the impression that they are having fun. An area where this is visible is youth music consumption. According to Enström and Schmaltz (2017), intense music like rap, heavy metal, and punk has been associated with risky behavior such as promiscuous sex and drug use. Though it is not a direct cause of risky behaviors, both music lyrics and music videos can influence youth, who are often very impressionable. Chandler et al. (2015) stated that youth may require more appropriate direction to understand the difference between artistry and reality. It is not farfetched to believe that harmful or inappropriate music lyrics and imagery can lead to risky or detrimental behaviors. For example, Frison et al. (2015) stated that exposure to sexual content in music videos has been associated with earlier initiation of sexual behavior among US adolescents.
In many cases, the negative behaviors exhibited by youth have led to their demise. One can argue that Umbrae’s death represents this. Furthermore, her constant smiling and giggling before dying mirrors a reality that youth are literally killing themselves while having fun. Once again, this can be seen in youth music consumption, specifically regarding drug use. There have always been references to drugs in music. Examples include “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg and “Mary Jane” by Rick James. Today, drug use continues to surface in popular songs. For example, in Kodak Black’s “ZEZE,” currently ranked 17 on Billboard’s top R&B/Hip-Hop chart, featured artist Offset raps, “When I got a mil’, got me the chills, don’t know what happened (Hoo, chills)/Pop pills, do what you feel, I’m on that zombie (Hey, hoo).”
Listen to Offset’s verse beginning at time 0:48 for more context:
Here, “pop pills” is a reference to taking drugs while “zombie” refers to one’s sluggish state of being once they are high. As was mentioned earlier, drugs and alcohol have added to the decreased life expectancy of youth today. With the frequency of drug references in popular music, it is not farfetched to believe that many youths might feel compelled to indulge in illicit substances.
As can be seen in this breakdown of potential messages about youth, Us allows for various interpretations and creative theorizing. There is no definite answer on what the film should mean to audiences, which was most likely Peele’s intent. Unlike Get Out, Peele’s latest horror movie is less straightforward and provides the necessary ingredients for discussions that will last well beyond its theatrical release.
Anderson, M., & Jiang, J. (2018). Teens, social media & technology 2018. Pew Research Center, 31.
Chandler, R., Ross, H., Kolar, S., Kip, K., & Simmons, D. (2015). Considering music lyrics and imagery in the sexual health of black college students: A pilot study. Journal of Black Studies, 46(6), 564–586.
Enström, R., & Schmaltz, R. (2017). A walk on the wild side: The impact of music on risk-taking likelihood. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 759.
Frison, E., Vandenbosch, L., Trekels, J., & Eggermont, S. (2015). Reciprocal relationships between music television exposure and adolescents’ sexual behaviors: The role of perceived peer norms. Sex Roles, 72(5–6), 183–197.
Misra, S., Cheng, L., Genevie, J., & Yuan, M. (2016). The iphone effect: The quality of in-person social interactions in the presence of mobile devices. Environment and Behavior, 48(2), 275–298.