Your Guide to the Visual Symbols of Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

Don't miss a single moment of the film's iconography.

by Tom Philip
Mar 26 2019, 1:54pm

Jordan Peele's Us just had the biggest opening for an original horror film ever — and the biggest opening for an original movie, period, since James Cameron's Avatar. That the Get Out writer/director's new film would do pretty well for itself comes as no surprise, but the absolute balls-to-the-wall style of mythology storytelling Peele has built with Us is next level.

The film is rich with parallels, symbolism, harbingers, almost sickeningly so.

Is Jordan Peele already a master of horror movie iconography, or obsessed with it to a fault? It feels like we're going to have to wait years until someone delivers anything close to a satisfying, fully-realized analysis of Us, which functions as a political allegory, a parable on race and class, and/or just a straight-up home invasion horror movie with a bunch of freaks in red jumpsuits. Let's look at some of Us's more striking images, and what they might mean.

(Spoilers abound, natch.)

The rabbits

Photo via YouTube.

Rabbits are everywhere in Us. The shadow-selves known as the Tethered inhabit a vast network of subterranean tunnels that also seem to be shared by the creatures, presumably once part of (or a predecessor to) the hinted-at experiments that created the underground clones.

Rabbits serve as the food for the Tethered; "Raw and bloody," protagonist Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o)'s doppelganger, Red, croaks in dismay. More importantly, they evoke images of Cold War-era experimentation, along with the fact they're known for breeding and multiplying like crazy. What better roommate for the Tethered than a self-sustaining food source and a reminder of their own caged, split existence?

Michael Jackson

Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

However unfortunate the timing, the spirit of Michael looms large over Us. Young Adelaide first meets her Tethered in a "Thriller" t-shirt. After being choked out, shackled to a bunk bed, and replaced by Red v.1, the newly-subjugated Adelaide's underground revolution involves the ubiquitous costume of a red suit — easy — and a single glove on each of the Tethered's right hands — easier. Peele leant on the imagery from "Thriller" specifically because of its ties to the 80's and the Jackson's exploration of "duality" in the video.


Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Just before the countrywide attack orchestrated by the Tethered, Adelaide experiences all kinds of uncanny parallels. A spider emerges from the shadow of a spider figurine; a frisbee lands perfectly over a polka dot on the beach towel next to her; the baseball game Gabe is watching is tied at 11-11 at 11:11 p.m. A lot is also made of the man on the boardwalk with "Jeremiah 11:11" scrawled on a piece of poster board. For those without Google, that particular passage reads "Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them."

"They learned how to make a copy of the body, but not the soul," Red rasps, explaining that the lives of those above have influenced their Tethered's lives down below. When Adelaide needed a C-section to give birth to her son, Jason, Red had to cut him out herself. The coincidences stacking up one after the other heralds the arrival of Adelaide's other, of two worlds that were never meant to intersect slowly being pushed together against the laws of nature.

The scissors

Photo via IMDb.

How did the Tethered get access to an endless supply of extra-sharp, oversized golden scissors? I dunno, but besides the fact they look cool, the scissors quite obviously keep with Red's theme of the "Untethering", the severing of ties with their overground counterparts. (Scissors, by their very design, make up two parts of a whole.)

Hands Across America

Claudette Barius/Universal Pictures

Us begins and ends with very different takes on the 1986 campaign "Hands Across America," which aimed to create an unbroken chain of people holding hands across the continental United States to raise money for famine and homelessness. There were a lot of gaps in the chain. $34 million was raised, and $15 million went to charity, with the other $19 million going towards "Hands Across America's" promotional campaign, a fitting symbol of the upper-class hubris and self-congratulation of the Reagan-era.

Trapped in the world of the Tethered, the original Adelaide fixates on her "Hands Across America" t-shirt, showing red figures joining hands in a row across the country. In the film's final shot, hundreds of thousands of Tethered are shown to have successfully achieved her vision. They've escaped their confinement against the best efforts of those above them. "It's our time up above," Red matter-of-factly tells her human captor, her original shadow.

Jordan Peele
Horror Films