Magical Thinking and Conspiracy in Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’

April 17, 2019

The new horror film Us begins in 1986 as a little girl named Adelaide visits a Santa Cruz boardwalk theme park at night with her parents. She wanders off toward the beach (carrying a curiously un-nibbled candied apple) and eventually finds a spooky house of mirrors. Nobody’s around—a teenager presumably supposed to charge admission is probably in the back getting stoned—so Adelaide goes on in. It’s dark and scary and confusing, especially when she sees her own double in the mirror, a doppelganger that seems to come alive. A few later flashbacks reveal that she’d only been gone for about fifteen minutes, during which time something traumatized her.

Cut to present day, when Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) and her husband (Winston Duke) return to Santa Cruz for a summer vacation along with their two kids. It’s not far from the old theme park, and it’s clear that she’s still haunted and unnerved by whatever happened to her decades ago. Indeed, the nightmare isn’t over, as later that night a double of the family show up (near-identical twins of each), dressed in red jumpsuits and carrying menacing giant scissors for some unspecified but surely unpleasant purpose.

Jordan Peele, who helmed the breakout hit Get Out, returns to the well of paranoia with Us. He references Alex Jones-type conspiracy theories about government mind-control (flouride and chemtrails, anyone?), as well as the so-called “11:11” phenomenon, in which people are said to especially notice (and pay attention to) digital clocks at 11:11 AM and PM (the effect is of course unique to digital clocks; an analog face of that time isn’t particularly notable).

Us and 11:11

In their 2009 book 11:11: The Time Prompt Phenomenon, Marie D. Jones and Larry Flaxman dig a little into this supposedly mysterious phenomenon. The back cover copy gives a sense of the tome: “Is it happening to you? You wake up at night, look at the clock, and notice that it is 11:11 p.m. This happens again the next night, and the next. You think it is a coincidence, but what if you were to discover that it was happening to others—possibly millions of others—all over the world? And that it meant something… something important? The reports of people noticing strange and repeated associations with the number 11 are on the rise, prompting theories connecting this phenomenon with the coming Mayan calendar end date of 12/21/2012. But it’s not just the number 11 that is showing up in people’s lives, it is often accompanied by unusual events or profound insights. Mysterious numbers and strange sequences appear throughout the history of human experience. What do they mean? What secrets do they keep?” Breathless stuff, indeed.

The authors state that “One of the most popular and widely reported time prompts seems to occur predominantly at 11:11 AM or PM. It has been theorized by some [note the passive, vague, anonymous construction] that this time prompt may be associated with a type of transformational portal or doorway that opens during this period, a ‘thinning’ of the veil between worlds, if you will” (p. 22, which is 11 multiplied by 2).

This idea seems clearly borrowed from, or at least influenced by, the folklore behind Halloween night, when the veil between this and the next world is supposedly thinnest. The ancient pagans believed it only happened once a year, but according to Jones and Flaxman it actually happens twice a day (in each time zone; with 24 time zones that’s nearly 50 times every day when seemingly unexplainable things are happening somewhere in the world). Apparently this mystical, transformational (interdimensional?) portal that “some have theorized” is affected by daylight savings time and other such artificial constructs. The “time prompt” is also a theme in some horror films; in The Exorcism of Emily Rose, for example, a main character repeatedly wakes up at exactly 3 AM, said to be the witching hour.

This is the phenomenon Jordan Peele is referencing in Us, and it closely aligns with his theme of parallel worlds coming into contact with each other. The book 11:11 is a scattered, superficial hodgepodge of musings about numerology, the Bible Code, the Masons, angels, Uri Geller, Jung, conspiracy theories, 666, physics, and plenty of coincidences, both real and imagined (but mostly imagined). The authors dutifully rehash laundry lists of historical coincidences such as “spooky” links between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy (e.g., each last name has seven letters!) and so on.

Jones and Flaxman dig into 9/11 numerology looking for elevens, with profound insights such as that doomed “Flight 11 had 92 people on board. 9 + 2 = 11.” Take that, skeptics!

Of course 9 minus 2 is not 11; 9 times 2 isn’t 11 either; and 9 divided by 2 also doesn’t yield 11. The 2 could be used as an exponent, in which case the result is… not 11 either. If you chose to count only the victims (and not include the hijackers) then there were 87 people who died, but of course 8 + 7 is 15 instead of 11, so we wouldn’t want to use that criterion. By cherry picking which numbers to use, and which mathematical operations that “count” or are the “right” ones, Jones and Flaxman can generate “coincidences” whenever they like.

Skeptic are generally ignored, unnamed, and mocked, with a handful of references such as “Not all believe Geller’s magic. Such pessimists [sic] as those at note that so many more elements surrounding the events of 9/11 do not add up to that mysterious number [e.g., 11]” (p. 33). Anyway, it’s hard to know if Jones and Flaxman are sincere or just trolling their readers (though Jones is the author of the 2008 book 2013: The End of Days or a New Beginning? which explored the potentially apocalyptic global events that, um, did not occur in 2012). 11:11 is only one of many with a similar theme, and (as with the many references to 2012), the book seems designed to cash in on a New Age fad or interest. The book is desperately padded out with irrelevant mathematical trivia such as that “6 is the smallest perfect number” and “A sneeze can travel as fast as 100 miles per hour” (p. 228). Whoah.

Adelaide’s Not Crazy

The 11:11 bit in Us is numerology mixed with magical thinking psychology, and seems to be setting up a question of whether a string of coincidences Adelaide is noticing are real or in her imagination. Unfortunately that intriguing enigma is soon dispensed with, however, and without giving too much away we (and they) soon realize that this is not some hellish hallucination or even a phenomenon specific to her (or her family); similar red-clad murderous doubles also appear elsewhere, with horrific results.

What are they, and what do they want? Murky motives are a common theme in horror films, exploited especially in films such as The Strangers (2008), in which a family is terrorized by masked intruders apparently without motivation; the idea is that the very randomness of the attack makes it all the more terrifying. The motives in Us are a bit clearer, but not much.

Us suffers from muddled metaphors and ambiguous allegories. The film begins by stating that there are thousands of miles of unseen tunnels under the United States, ranging from rarely-used subway lines to abandoned mines and underground bunkers. Fair enough, but soon there’s also Bible passages. Caged white rabbits. 11:11. God answering prayers. Gubmint experiments. Haves. Uncaged white rabbits. Have-Nots. Exact duplicates of ourselves in parallel universes. American jingoism. The metaphorical good and bad (or light and shadow) sides of everyone. (Were shoulder-sitting computer-generated devils and angels a bit too ham-handed?)

Writer/director Peele has some interesting ideas but seems unable or unwilling to pare them down or harmonize them into a single compelling narrative. Peele’s “kitchen sink” approach to horror tropes and symbolism ultimately undermines the film. When we see a few well-chosen and apt themes, it comes off as clever and well-crafted; when we see a dozen or more, it comes off as desperate and muddled, as if he’s hoping we will only notice the relevant ones and ignore the dross. Peele clearly has a lot he wants to include, though whether they are profound Big Ideas or disposable red herrings isn’t clear (to him or us).

Despite these problems, the film is largely redeemed by strong performances by the two leads. The doppelgangers (played by the same actors) are genuinely creepy and frightening, and Peele’s direction is sure and effective. As a horror film it mostly works; as a coherent narrative it’s a mess. Peele’s reach exceeds his grasp, and the ending leaves more questions than answers. Like the image in a funhouse mirror, Us works best if you don’t look too closely at it. Us is half-baked, but even a half-baked pie can be tasty and worth a taste. Like last year’s Suspiria remake, you may not always know what the hell is going on or why in Us, but you won’t be bored.