“We’re Americans”: The Gothic in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

The Gothic genre has always been concerned with the ‘Other’, a figure who predominantly represents the transgressive, who stands out for being different to hegemonic social and political ideals. At the end of the Victorian period, the fin de siècle Gothic attached this label to the ‘foreign’ figure, most canonically evident in the vampiric Count in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) who challenges the normative conventions of ‘human as white, male, middle class and heterosexual’ (Hogle, p. 205). In particular, the Gothic at the end of the nineteenth century became notable for its racism in its representation of those from outside Britain, representing the racial figure as a monstrous and marginalised Other. An anxiety of the colonial Other invading the empire came to be prominent in narratives such as Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897).

The film poster for Us; Image Credit: IMDB

Recently, Gothic horror films have started to subvert this image of the marginalised racial figure by situating the African American character at the centre of the narrative. Where previously people of colour in the horror genre were mostly kept off screen, the new ‘African American horror surge’ has offered the Gothic genre new dimensions and a new profound power as a form of social commentary. This is particularly evident with the likes of The Twilight Zone (2019), Lovecraft Country (2020) and Candyman (2021). One particularly successful hit was Jordan Peele’s 2017 directorial debut Get Out where he imagined an America that found a new way of exploiting black people, where racist violence lurked behind every idyllic image. Get Out explores themes of conformity and cultural assimilation, echoing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) in its exploration of an inherent desperation to culturally fit in. Gothic fiction and horror films mirror one another in their evocation of contemporary fears, providing readers the opportunity to immerse themselves in transgressive fantasies from a safe distance.

However, I want to take a deeper look at the Gothic in Jordan Peele’s second hit, Us. The film came out in 2019 and despite being snubbed for the Oscars, it was yet another brilliant and successful horror film from Peele. The plot follows Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and their middle-class black family who take off on a relaxing family vacation before *spoiler alert* they are stalked by evil, vengeful doppelgangers who are out for blood. Directed with an abundance of horror-movie tropes, such as jump scares that pay off in making you actually jump, an isolated location filled with lurking shadows and a score full of intensity to elevate the action and the terror, the film provokes and probes at social issues. And much to many audiences’ delight, it is full of Gothic tropes. I wish to take a closer look at the Gothic in Us as a form of celebrating the oft under-appreciated excellence of African American horror.

Us as a metaphor for reverse-colonisation

The Gothic novel at the end of the nineteenth century regularly intersects with narratives of the British Empire’s decline and fall. Coined by Patrick Brantlinger as ‘Imperial Gothic’, a sub-genre emerged that explored ‘anxieties about the ease with which civilisation can revert back to barbarism or savagery and about the weakening of Britain’s imperial hegemony’ (p. 229). This theme of reverse-colonisation is particularly evident in theories of degeneration that expressed anxieties of primitive forces that defied the norm, usually from outside of Britain, having the power to rise and conquer the British Empire. This is evident in H. Rider Haggard’s She where Holly expresses the fear of Ayesha’s ‘absolute rule over the British dominions’ (p. 226). Fear came from the potential of the colonial Eastern subject retaliating and threatening British independence. This is also evident in The Beetle where the Egyptian figure’s sexual exploits of Paul Lessingham and Robert Holt symbolise an overt sexualised reverse-colonisation.

Madison Curry in Us; Image Credit: IMDB

And this is also mirrored in Peele’s Us. The doppelgangers become a metaphor for the rising up of the underclasses and their threat toward those with wealth and status. Peele creates a replacement rhetoric where the bestial, Otherised figure gets power, primarily through their violence, to take back control and become the new Americans. This was also seen in Get Out where the white-nationalists evoked a message of American complicity in imperialism, questioning the morality of Britain’s colonial mission. Us, at its centre, talks of the misplaced fear of outsiders but this time, the Others that are coming for America are the country’s own creation, evident in when asked who they are, the doppelgangers reply ‘We’re Americans’.

In some ways this also calls to Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) as the bestial Hyde, Jekyll’s own creation, takes control of his host, a symbol of the wealthy middle-class gentleman. Horror film and literature alike reflect an anxious discourse of colonialism, highlighting the growing uneasiness over Britain’s weaknesses.

The uncanny double

In addition to colonial politics, the Gothic has also always been obsessed with the idea of our shadow selves and the proposition of meeting our Other. This is usually embodied by the uncanny double, or the figure of the doppelganger, defined as ‘the alter ego, an unleashed monster that acts as a physical manifestation of a dissociated part of the self’ (Heath). Andrew Smith asserts that Gothic fiction’s use of doubling is a clear manifestation of humankind’s tendency toward the internalisation of evil (p. 94). Often, the double’s appearance is usually terrifying because it is the manifestation of that which is feared most, evident for example in Victor Frankenstein’s creature who, in one reading, acts as an embodiment of Victor’s subconscious homosexuality. The authentic self is revealed and there seems to be, in some ways, a trauma in that.

The doppelganger family in Us; Image Credit: IMDB

Peele’s Us is particularly interesting in its depiction of the double in that these doppelgangers look exactly like our protagonists. The shot of the doubles standing silently at the foot of the driveway, mirroring the panicked family inside the house evokes Freud’s theory of the uncanny. The unheimlich invades the home, upsetting our sense of self by becoming an object of terror. As rabbits run across the screen and shadows creep around in the night, as the digital clock recalls an apocalyptic destiny with its 11:11, there is something unsettling to what is meant to be ordinary in this film. What is also interesting is how these doppelgangers, despite looking exactly the same as their hosts, seem to be defined by their bestial movements and animal noises, suggesting a perverse and as Julia Kristeva terms in Powers of Horror, an abject versions of themselves. Peele draws on the racist stereotype of the African American as primitive to put forth this idea of people of colour seeing themselves as a racist society see them:  a degenerate beast striving for control and authority.

Frederick Frank claims that one element the double particularly brings to the forefront is the ‘horror of the fragmented self’ (p. xii). This is particularly evident in Us as the doubles rupture the threshold between the self and the Other, forcing Adelaide to face her unnameable grief, embodied by her double. They push the protagonists into crises of identity where they have no choice to confront that which they have tried desperately to repress.

Who is the monster?

Another key motif of Gothic literature is the monstrous as many texts make us question who the monster really is – is it Victor or is it the creature, is it technological advancements or is it society? Us is no different in that it makes us ponder where we place the figure of the monster as the doppelgangers can be neither classified completely as villains nor the victims. Peele makes the point that where the double may look and act like monsters, especially to their victims, they still have an essence of humanity that evokes pathos in the audience. This parallels the likes of Dracula where a reading of sympathy at the end is put forth in the Count’s despair. Do we also not feel sorry for Dorian Gray at the end of Wilde’s novel when he’s about to destroy the painting? We sympathise with these figures that the narrative desperately tries to tell us are evil and Peele’s aim is to get people thinking about their own capabilities for violence.

Evan Alex in Us; Image Credit: IMDB

A quintessential Gothic setting

It only feels right to end this blog with an exploration of the Gothic setting in Us. Gothic literature is infamous for its subliminal descriptions of nature, of the focus on the dangerous and threatening setting of the continent. What is so clever about Jordan Peele’s film is that the low camera angles render the environment bigger than it may seem and consequently, daunting, working to create that same anxiety you get from reading about the sublime alps in the likes of Frankenstein. Mixing light with darkness while also switching between a comic atmosphere to one of terror, Peele brings the Gothic off the page, situating it onto the big screen while bringing to life his setting as a character within itself.

And in typical Gothic fashion, he allows his audience to interpret their own ending, to decide for themselves what is so scary about this film, about the figure of the double, leaving it all up to interpretation. Us prompts us to think about the relationship between African Americans and horror films and the role of the racialised Other in Gothic literature, opening up a space to celebrate African American Gothic horror and its brilliance.

References

Jerrold E. Hogle, “The Gothic Crosses the Channel: Abjection and Revelation in Le Fantome de l’Opera”, in European Gothic: A Spirited Exchange, 1760-1960, ed. Avril Horner (Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 204-229

Patrick Brantlinger, Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914, (Cornell University Press, 1990)

Haggard, H. Rider, She, (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Alex Heath, ‘The Double in Gothic Fiction’, https://editions.covecollective.org/edition/were-wolf/double-gothic-fiction

Andrew Smith, Gothic Literature, (Edinburgh University Press, 2013)

Frederick Frank, ‘Introduction’ in P. B. Shelley, Zastrozzi: A Romance and St. Irvyne: Or, The Rosicrucian, ed. G. M. Matthews and K. Everest, (Arno Press, 1977), pp. ix-xxv


Post by Lucy Lillystone. Lucy Lillystone is an MA student at the University of Sheffield, focusing on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries within her degree, specifically on the Gothic. Her Undergraduate Dissertation explored the female monster within Richard Marsh’s The Beetle and Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla. She has a particular interest in the fin de siècle Gothic and is looking at exploring male hysteria and homosexuality within Bram Stoker’s Dracula for her MA Dissertation. She is a graduate of Newcastle University and loves horror films.