How 'Us' Gave Doppelgangers a New Twist

Jordan Peele introduced something new to an age-old type of story.
Courtesy of Universal Studios

[This story contains spoilers for Us.]

Part of the appeal of Jordan Peele’s horror is not that he does things that are completely new and different, but that he is a master of taking established concepts deeply rooted in horror history and making them fresh and relevant. In doing so, he creates films that are both familiar enough to have mass-market appeal and different enough to be both engaging and genuinely frightening. While the plot of Get Out has strong ties to The Stepford Wives, only with an emphasis on race relations in America as opposed to feminism of the white suburban variety, Us does not recall one particular narrative already embedded in American popular culture so much as present a new take on one of the most enduring figures in horror: the doppelganger.

While there are numerous examples of doppelgangers in various religions and mythologies, the term itself was first used by the 18-century German writer Jean Paul, who defined the term “Doppeltgänger” as “people who see themselves.” The doppelganger became a figure of identity in crisis, as it poses problems for any sense of a fixed individuality by creating a situation in which the line between “self” and “other” is blurred, or at the very least, complicated. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” and even Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, horror literature embraced the idea of a double that was fundamentally connected to the self but also in conflict with the self.

As popular as the doppelganger was in literature, the invention of cinema only made it more popular. After all, what does the camera do but create a double of its subject? 

Beginning with Jekyll and Hyde, the idea of a splitting of the self and creation of a doppelganger as a consequence of life in modern industrial society — particularly, as a by-product of scientific progress— came into play. This angle remains popular in doppelganger stories from The Prestige to Us, with the abandoned underground laboratory that serves as the realm of the “Tethered.”

Looking at Us reveals how Peele blends influences and allusions in a way that appeals to both the fine art and mass media histories of cinema. The overall trajectory of the film echoes Invasion of the Body Snatchers in how the Wilsons gradually come to realize the all-encompassing scope of the doppelganger threat, facing their individual doubles and then going to warn friends and neighbors of the danger but finding themselves too late.

Meanwhile, specific elements of Us recall a wide range of doppelganger films. Jason’s (Evan Alex) discovery that his Tethered mirrors his movements ultimately makes it possible for him to destroy his “shadow” bears a striking resemblance to the climactic scene in Annihilation, in which Lena (Natalie Portman) similarly faces off against a double of herself created by the extraterrestrial anomaly known as the Shimmer and uses its mirroring of her movements to defeat it. The eerie, jolting way in which the Tethered move most strongly resembles Maya Deren’s influential experimental short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a dialogue-free, largely inexplicable but deeply unsettling short in which a woman (played by Deren) encounters, among other things, several doppelgangers, including one that appears to stab her as she sleeps in a chair.

Us reveals a masterful blend of horror and comedic influences. For instance, the film’s greatest innovation for a doppelganger horror film — the reveal that Adelaide (Nyong'o) and her Tethered, Red, switched places after she wandered into the hall of mirrors as a child, fundamentally blurring the line between who counts as the self and who counts as the double — can easily be read as a horrific take on a common comedy trope. From Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator to Disney’s two versions of The Parent Trap, identical people trading lives has long been a staple of comedy films. The ending twist of Peele’s new release isn’t so much unexplored territory as it is a look at a popular premise through a much darker lens.

It’s worth noting that the commentary at the heart of Us — the idea that achieving the material prosperity of the “American dream” comes at the cost of the suffering and exploitation of others fundamentally tethered to us, or U.S., as in the United States, as the case may be — echoes Paul’s original definition of doppelganger as “people who see themselves” to a particularly high degree. After all, Red’s master plan for the Tethered is all about visibility and making the unseen seen. From overarching themes to individual scenes, Us presents a fresh take the age-old doppelganger archetype not by avoiding where it’s gone before, but by expertly echoing its long history.