There’s a hell of a lot to unpack in Jordan Peele’s latest cinematic offering, Us, which landed in theaters on March 22. The film follows a family being hunted by their own doppelgängers and is absolutely stacked with symbolism and cultural references, making watching and analyzing it a mind-bending experience.
To save you a few hours of head-scratching, we’ve rounded up some of the film’s trickier references and Easter eggs, dissecting the meaning behind each one. Revisit the Us trailer above and then scroll on to discover some of the major things you might have missed.
Hands Across America
In the film’s first scene, young Adelaide is shown watching a commercial for Hands Across America, a 1986 campaign that saw more than six million Americans (including President Ronald Reagan and Brooke Shields) joining hands from coast to coast to try to raise up to $100 million to combat hunger and homelessness.
In the end, the campaign raised $34 million, with just $15 million distributed after operating costs were factored in. As Peele told the Los Angeles Times, Hands Across America offered an “almost Stepford-creepy sense of American hope that we can do anything as long as we just hold our hands together.”
Poking holes in this glossy idea of united Americana — “us,” if you will — is becoming Peele’s directorial trademark. Hands Across America is referenced in a number of scenes, including one in which Red pulls out paper doll chains (see top image), which were actually used to replace humans in more remote parts of the US during the event. As Red says to explain who her doppelgänger family are, “We’re Americans.”
The campaign is referenced again at the end of the film, as the Tethered form a human chain across the country — a protest or movement spearheaded by Red, who appears to have been inspired by the last thing she watched as a child before the switch at Santa Cruz Beach took place.
Following a cryptic description about the miles of unused tunnels that exist in the US but serve no purpose, we’re led to the Hands Across America scene mentioned above. As the camera focuses on the TV set, a VHS copy of ’80s B horror movie C.H.U.D. is sitting on the adjacent shelf. For anyone who has seen that film, it’s an immediate hint at what’s to come.
C.H.U.D. stands for “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers,” murderous monsters who were once New York’s homeless population. Having mutated into cannibals underground, they emerge to eat the rich above. While the film packs nowhere near the level of social critique as Peele’s Us, the underlying theme of class tension certainly resonates.
In Us, it’s the Tethered who live underground and it’s the Tethered who emerge and fight hardest because of what they’ve been through to survive. The family at the top of society — the white family played by Elizabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, and twins Noelle and Cali Sheldon — are killed instantly. They take their lives for granted, are complacent and comfortable, and die without a fight because they’d never fought for anything.
Fun fact: the father of Jordan Peele’s first girlfriend was C.H.U.D. director Douglas Cheek.
The Twilight Zone
Peele will soon be filling the shoes of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock as host of the rebooted The Twilight Zone, and spoke to Rolling Stone about how the classic sci-fi show’s 1960 episode “Mirror Image” inspired the terrifying doppelgängers in Us. In the episode, a woman sees her doppelgänger at a bus station and becomes convinced it’s her sinister twin from another dimension seeking to replace her.
The theme of duality is omnipresent in Us — it’s about doppelgängers, after all, and mirrors and reflections feature throughout — but the use of the numbers 11:11 is perhaps the subtlest.
It starts when Adelaide arrives in Santa Cruz with her family. A man can be seen carrying a cardboard sign reading “Jeremiah 11:11.” The biblical verse foreshadows the plot: “Therefore thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
Of course, the numbers 11:11 mirror each other, a thematic nod in itself. This numbering format features elsewhere in the film: it’s the time shown on the clock when Adelaide puts Jason to bed; it’s shown on the driveway via shadow when Red’s family first appear at the house, holding hands Hands Across America-style; and it resembles Black Flag’s four-bar logo, which is shown on T-shirts worn by characters in the film.
Elsewhere, you’ll find smaller references. There’s Jaws, depicted on Jason’s T-shirt and via the beach setting; Alice in Wonderland, with Adelaide falling through what she initially perceives to be a looking glass in the funhouse and via the white rabbits; and, like The Shining, there are twins.
For more Us symbolism, read our interview with the movie’s costume designer, Kym Barrett.