Jordan Peele’s second feature film, “Us” (2019) begins as a story about a family of four taking a vacation in Santa Cruz, but the son’s “Jaws” tee shirt and his penchant for wearing a werewolf mask tilted up on top of his head provide early hints that this trip might end up as more than a day at the beach. Quickly, we learn that the mother in this small family unit, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) had a terrifying childhood experience at the beach when she entered the house of mirrors and encountered a little girl who looked just like her. Her kind, reasonable husband tries to reassure her that she must have been spooked by her own reflection, but the incident traumatized Adelaide. The fears it awakened in her now manifest as a terror of losing track of her own children.
The set-up is fairly simple, but writer-director Peele packs this film with knowing winks at a whole host of horror movie tropes while also revealing that he keeps more than a few horrifying new surprises up his sleeves as he drags viewers into this funhouse filled with mirrors and shadows. But it’s not all just for play. Like his debut film “Get Out,” Peele’s sophomore effort weaves plenty of subtle social commentary into its characters and its twisted narrative. Long before the revelations at the end of the film, we know we’ve gone through the looking glass and into a world where everything is not as it seems.
After we watch this film, I’ll have plenty to say about the role of uncanny doubles in this film, but for now I just want to make sure you’re familiar with the term “uncanny double” or doppelganger. It’s basically the idea of the evil twin, but the concept has special significance in psychoanalytic theory because encountering one’s other self signals a serious psychological break and meeting its gaze ultimately spells one’s doom.
For Carl Jung, the double is merely a representation of the shadow shelf, the darker side that each of us attempts to keep hidden from our own consciousness and out of sight from rest of the world. This idea of the double as a “shadow self” appears in a lot of fiction where we see characters wrestling with their fears and desires. For example, in “The Empire Strikes Back” when Luke Skywalker fights with a dream version of Darth Vader in the evil cave on Dagobah, Luke slays his opponent only to have its mask come off to reveal his own face. That’s the standard mythopoeic version of the double as shadow self. This version is what we find in Jung and Joseph Campbell.
However, for Sigmund Freud and later for Jacques Lacan, the uncanny double carries an even deeper significance because confronting the doppelganger irreparably damages our sense of self. That double, that other self, reverses the power of the gaze by seeing us (and thus making us imaginatively see ourselves) as merely an object. As mature and stable adults, we’re used the notion that other people are only objects to us. Yes, the familiar expression holds that “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” but as a practical reality, we know that the inner lives and the secret consciousness of others remains forever inaccessible to us. Gazing into the eyes of another ultimately reveals nothing to us.
Not only does encountering the uncanny double make us uncomfortably aware ourselves as merely objects, but gazing into the eyes of this evil twin also presents us with the terrifying realization that this other self possesses that ineffable perfect something that we ourselves lack. The uncanny double is that intolerable version of myself that contains more of me than I do myself.
Not only does he get to be me, but he is not plagued by the uncertainties and insecurities that trap me in my own consciousness. My double is not only me but he gets to enjoy being me, which I never get to do. Not only that, but I’ll never know what he’s thinking. And he can run around doing all sorts of wonderful and horrible things that I would never allow myself to do. I can’t stand him. He needs to die.
So, that’s the uncanny double or the doppelganger. What happens when a whole family meets a whole family of doubles? Watch “Us” to find out.