Horror is comedy’s evil doppelganger. Punchlines and jump scares use similar cinematic tactics to coax laughs and screams out of audiences. Whether comedic or chilling, scenarios slowly but surely escalate to an effective climax that produces an emotional reaction.
Director Jordan Peele understands this genre parallel better than most. His background in both sketch comedy (Key & Peele) and comedic horror (Get Out) allows him to walk a needle thin high wire while balancing two opposing genres with equivalent weight. Most creatives who try to toe this line either make an unintentionally hilarious horror film or an unwittingly disturbing comedy, but Peele’s ability to amuse echoes his more perturbed tendencies like a dream subtly switching to and from a nightmare.
Peele’s newest film Us depicts this surreal night terror to stunning effect. The film follows the Wilsons: a charming middle-class African American family of four comprised of Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke), and their two children Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). They are enjoying a fun family vacation in Santa Cruz until they meet the Tethered: horrifying Slipknot-esque versions of themselves that embody their flaws, vices, and demons. The Tethered want to murder the real Wilsons, a manifestation of the sins and psychological demons buried beneath our public personas that seek to drag us down and become the new versions of us.
Us’s unnerving themes resonate with me on a personal level. After all, my own life is a mixture of horror and comedy. When I’m in the foulest of foul moods my somber and wistful mother asks, “Whatever happened to my smiling young son?”. It’s a rude question that always leaves me reeling, but one I ponder often. I was, on the surface, a happy boy renowned for being a class clown, cracking with wit and taking no shit. As an adult, my laughs are less frequent.So, whatever happened to the original joyful version of myself that was replaced by the modern day brooding Riley?
Us reveals a troubling answer to my question. The dual yet opposing versions of myself have always existed side by side, constantly at war. In Us, this conflict is personified by how the lovable Wilson family is forced to claw and scratch for their very survival against their evil incarnations. During the first act, the Wilsons are developed as a delightful family. Their eccentricities like Gabe’s obsession with his new motor boat that veers to the left or Jason’s interest in magic tricks he can’t master are played for laughs. When the Tethered twist those character quirks in a horrifying new manner, our laughter dissipates into dread pretty damn fast.
My split nature imitates this conflict. As noted in other articles about how I cope with my gender identity and OCD, my pleasure and pain are intertwined. Even as a youngin, the happy version of myself waged war against the unseen demons lurking within the depths of my mind. I played video games and watched movies to get away from my troubles, but eventually even those turned against me. My anxieties ranged from a phobia of Gushers fruit snacks to fearing being condemned to hell for illegally downloading music. The smiling boy my mother remembers was only half the story. OCD tormented my soul until I hit a breaking point: a point where the pain I was attempting to repress became unbearable.
Like the Wilsons, I was being terrorized by my own inner demons. Unwanted violent thoughts consumed me like a personal shadow. My OCD was in control, and I couldn’t stop dwelling on gruesomely detailed depictions of my family and friends being murdered in horrific The Revenant-esque fashion throughout the vast majority of my ‘20s. Visions of severed heads and slashings were the norm. I was traumatized, strangling my own life as effectively as one of the Tethered. My inner darkness was killing me.
Us doesn’t provide a clear answer to how to survive other than fight or die. My lone option to combat my vile thoughts was to turn them into something joyous. If I saw the haunting image of a group of decapitated heads, I would imagine them in a barbershop quartet singing “Scatman.” Maybe there would be a head punting competition being called by John Madden and Joe Buck. Thinking of something truly ridiculous would make me crack a smile again, reminding myself and those around me that despite these horrific experiences, I’m still me. After all if Jordan Peele’s Us is anything to go by, a laugh is but an echo of a scream.