In 2019 Jordan Peele released the horror movie Us (Peele, 2019). In it, a woman and her family are confronted by a group of people who look almost exactly like them. It quickly becomes clear that they aren’t just there to make polite conversation. What can Us teach us about authenticity and why do Doppelgängers make us feel so uncomfortable? Spoilers ahead, of course.
In this paper, I will use Charles Taylor’s theory on authenticity and the uncanny valley to reflect on the movie Us. Before I dive into these two important theories, I shall set the scene. In the movie Us, we follow a family: Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), her son Jason (Evan Alex) and her daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph). Before we meet the family, we see a shot of young Adelaide walking along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with her parents. At one point, she is left in her father’s care but she manages to wander off without him noticing and finds a house of mirrors.
This is where young Adelaide first encounters her Doppelgänger, but it is not yet clear what exactly happened to the young girl, as it appears she returns to her family. Seeing this other version of Adelaide is already unsettling. Who is she and where did she come from?
The Doppelgänger as motif originates in German Romanticism and became a canonical theme in Gothic literature. Writer Jean Paul coined the term in his novel Siebenkäs, published in 1796 (Vardoulakis, 2006, p. 100). Doppelgängers are often associated with evil and the demonic. They represent both the subject and the subjectivity being somehow split or defective. It is seen as an indication of a sense of failure or loss in the self. In other words, a loss of one's authenticity. To many people, this can feel very unsettling.
Alone but not alone
The Doppelgänger Adelaide meets in the house of mirrors is her "Tether", Red. “As Adelaide’s double Red laments, the Tethered are living shadows who are forced to mimic their double’s actions and go through the motions but with none of the proper context or joy" (Kurland, 2019). The originals are blissfully unaware that there are copies of themselves underground, mimicking everything they do. It is almost like a stranger not only reading your diary entries but experiencing your life second-hand. Except not quite. Although the Tethered mimic everything the original does, they do not have the same experiences. Fast-forwarding a couple of years, we see Adelaide with her family, on their way to their holiday home near the very same beach where Adelaide first met Red.
All seems well, until the night a group of strangers watch the family from outside their house. When Gabe goes out to confront them, it becomes clear something sinister is going on. The figures don’t speak; they just stand there. That is, until they break into the house and trap everyone inside. To their horror, the family is now face-to-face with what will soon turn out to be their biggest nightmare: themselves. All that distinguishes them from the others is that their doubles wear red jumpsuits and hold shiny gold scissors. They communicate through grunts, rather than words. A game of cat and mouse ensues as everyone fights off their double. The trouble is their double can predict their every move.
The originals are blissfully unaware that there are copies of themselves underground, mimicking everything they do.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson, a similar conflict exists between the main character and his double, and he is determined to break free. “My namesake alone, of those who in school phraseology constituted "our set," presumed to compete with me in the studies of the class --in the sports and broils of the play-ground --to refuse implicit belief in my assertions, and submission to my will --indeed, to interfere with my arbitrary dictation in any respect whatsoever” (Poe, 1839).
This instant dislike that William Wilson feels towards his double could be attributed to the uncanny valley, but also the awareness that perhaps without his double he can finally be his authentic self and gain his self-determining freedom. He describes his double as being similar to him but not quite. Wilson’s double certainly causes him a great deal of emotional distress. By the end of the story, this is enough reason for William Wilson to kill his double, once and for all. Adelaide also manages to kill Red, yet it is clear that part of her is always connected to her double.
Red will later tell the family that when Adelaide met a man, Red was forced to be with his double. When Adelaide had a son but had to have a C-section, Red had to cut her son from her own body. When Adelaide got soft toys for Christmas, Red received cold, sharp toys instead. Everything is mirrored, yet, eerily, not quite the same. Knowing that Adelaide and Red shared all these moments makes one wonder if either of them ever knew true intimacy. Or privacy, for that matter. They are simultaneously alone without actually being alone.
As if it weren’t enough that a family is terrorised by Doppelgängers, there is another reason we find these doubles so creepy. The uncanny valley can be described as the point between something being “barely human” and “fully human”. Freud defines the uncanny as something that is strangely familiar, almost eerily so (Freud, 2003). Once something fits in this dip on the scale between human and entirely not human, it causes us to feel uncomfortable or even repulsed. It is unclear exactly why this is.
Funnily enough, when an object appears less human, so goes slightly beyond this point, we feel positive and empathetic towards it. “Masahito Mori predicted already in the 1970s that although people would, in general, have favourable reactions toward increasingly humanlike robots, almost but not fully human robots would be unsettling (Mori, 1970). Mori used a hypothetical curve to characterize this relationship, and coined the sudden dip in this curve at almost humanlike levels as the uncanny valley” (Kätsyri, Förger, Mäkäräinen, & Takala, 2015, p. 1). Mori used industrial robots as an example of something that has the least humanlike characters because, although we’re aware that these robots are entirely manmade, they still have some human-like characteristics, such as having arms that can grip objects.
"Being true to myself means being true to my originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover."
In Us, the uncanny valley is taken to the extreme as it's hard to say whether or not the Tethered are human. If we then take into account the uncanny valley, where would we place the Tethered? They look exactly like their double, minus the odd outfits, they have bodily needs and they have feelings. Or well, sort of. The only difference is that they can't speak and potentially can't make decisions for themselves. Does that make them less human? This is further questioned when it becomes clear that actually, Red was the real Adelaide all along. Once you realise that, you start to notice all the hints that suggest she was the real imposter. One key hint is that she feels sorrow when her Tethered children are murdered by her “real” family. None of her other family members feels such a strong relationship to their family member's Tether.
Another clue is that Red is the only Tether that can speak, albeit in a somewhat raspy voice. It is later explained that when the real Adelaide came in contact with her double she was dragged down into the world of the Tethered, underneath the ground. Her Tether possibly damaged her vocal cords when she grabbed her by the neck.
Us quite literally poses the question of who is the real person. We discover that Red is the real Adelaide, but does that make her more authentically Adelaide or rather, is the Tethered Adelaide, who spent time above ground, now more herself than the original Adelaide ever was? “Being true to myself means being true to my originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover. In articulating it, I am also defining myself. I am realizing a potentiality that is properly my own” (Taylor, 2003, p. 15). According to Taylor, this concept is key to understanding the modern ideal of authenticity and the goals of self-fulfilment or self-realisation. It is also what gives moral force to the culture of authenticity, “including its most degraded, absurd or trivialized forms.” It is what we need to feel that we are “doing our own thing."
The German philosopher Herder put forward the idea that each of us has our unique way of being human. Although this idea is very present in our modern ideals of authenticity, it is still fairly new (Taylor, 2003, p. 28). Before the late eighteenth century, it was thought that there was no real moral significance in the differences between human beings. Now it is very clear to us that there is a certain way of being human that is our way. In theory, although not the case for poor Red, we are called upon to live our lives in the sense that we can live it however we want, not in imitation of anyone else’s. Without this ability to be true to ourselves, Taylor believes we are missing the point to life and we are missing what being human is to us.
What is interesting about the relationship between Adelaide and Red is how aware they are of each other’s existence, as opposed to the other Tethered. From the moment Red was banished underground by Adelaide, she was set on getting revenge. She resented Adelaide for growing up in the fresh air and being able to make her own decisions. Of course, this could well be related to Red’s lack of self-determining freedom. Self-determining freedom is the idea that I am free to decide what concerns me, rather than being entirely shaped by outside influences. “Self-determining freedom demands that I break the hold of all such external impositions, and decide for myself alone” (Taylor, 2003, p. 27). This is not a form of authenticity, but self-determining freedom and authenticity are certainly bound together.
As Red later reveals, the Tethered were an experiment. “They created the Tethered, so they could use them to control the ones above. Like puppets” (Peele, 2019). The experiment failed but the Tethered remained underground. Red believes that although humans, possibly the U.S. government, figured out how to make a copy of the body, they couldn’t copy the soul. “The soul remains one, shared by two” (Peele, 2019).
Red believes that if the Tethered can get rid of the originals, they can live as unique people. They are tired of living a life of imitation and lurking in the shadows. Interestingly, the Tethered all wear the same red jumpsuit and carry an identical pair of gold scissors. These are of course used to “untether” themselves from their original. One could wonder if perhaps the Tethered are so used to being connected to someone that they still need something that makes them feel united with others, i.e. wearing the same clothes or holding hands (across America).
A moment that emphasises this is when Adelaide’s family friends, the Tylers, are brutally murdered by their own Tethered. Yet it isn’t the murder that is most disturbing, but rather the way these particular Tethered interact with their originals. It raises even more questions about authenticity. Earlier in the movie, Kitty Tyler (Elisabeth Moss), confides in Adelaide that she had a bit of plastic surgery done on her face. When the Tethered enter the Tyler’s holiday home and dispose of the family, Kitty’s double takes it one step further. We see her using her scissors to create cuts in the places where Kitty most likely had her face surgically altered. Red’s theory that disposing of the original would remove the need to be and act exactly like them seems only partially true. After all, none of the other Tethered gain the ability to speak and Kitty’s double can’t help but still try and look as identical as possible to her original. They don’t gain the self-determining freedom that they so desperately crave.
The real horror
The movie ends with Adelaide and her family driving off to safety. Or so they thought. As they drive away, the camera pans out and we see miles and miles of the Tethered, holding hands. What makes Us so terrifying is that it’s like actually coming face-to-face with your inner demons. Us makes a perfect case study for the uncanny valley, because it’s quite difficult to distinguish the real person from the Doppelgänger. Adelaide, who turns out to be a Tether, grows up above the ground and is thus able to learn how to speak, how to dance, and eventually even raises her own family. Red, who is actually “the real” Adelaide, seems to slowly revert into her role as a Tether once she is underground long enough. So much so that by the end of the movie you wonder whether even more people you’ve seen on screen are secretly doubles. This also makes us question what it means to be authentic. It is an unsettling idea to think that somewhere, out there, there may be a carbon copy of ourselves, lurking in the shadows, mimicking our every move.
Freud, S., Haughton, H., & McLintock, D. (2003). The Uncanny.
Kätsyri, J., Förger, K., Mäkäräinen, M., & Takala, T. (2015). A review of empirical evidence on different uncanny valley hypotheses: Support for perceptual mismatch as one road to the valley of eeriness. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(MAR), 1–16.
Kurland, D. (2019). Us: Who Are The Tethered? Den of Geeks.
Peele, J. (2019). Us. Universal Pictures.
Poe, E. A. (1839). William Wilson.
Vardoulakis, D. (2006). The return of negation: The Doppelgänger in Freud’s “The ‘Uncanny.’” SubStance, 35(2), 100–116.