Dancing with Shadows: An Archetypal Reading of Jordan Peele’s Us

Jordan Peele's Us

Reader be warned, before you cross this threshold to read this movie review: there are spoilers aplenty. For my fellow horror-loving readers, I heartily recommend that you see the film before reading on. For those of you who adore great stories and yet leave horror well enough alone,  maybe reading this review will soften you to a space where you can give viewing the movie a try.

The latest feature film installment from writer, director, and producer Jordan Peele is Us. This film has left movie-goers horrified, scratching their heads in confusion, and, dare I say for at least one movie-goer (me!), inspired. Us has been examined by reviewers biblically, culturally, and cinematically, but fundamental questions about the film remain.

Perhaps our lingering questions about Us can be answered generously and gracefully from an archetypal point of view, by drawing on the patterns that we see in ancient stories.

Peele has boldly and clearly stated that the theme of the film is “duality.” In terms of an ancient Mesopotamian story familiar to all of us in Birthing From Within, the Descent of Inanna, we might see Us as a story of the ultimate duality, Ereshkigal and Inanna. Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld, and her sister Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth, are two sides of the same coin: Inanna the Light, Ereshkigal the Shadow. If Us is a demented retelling of their story, Ereshkigal is the character Red, who lives in the underworld; Inanna is the character Adelaide Wilson, who lives in the upperworld. (Both characters are portrayed in a riveting performance by Lupita Nyong’o.) Red and her fellow inhabitants of the underworld are referred to as The Tethered, because each is forever attached to their counterpart in the upperworld, just as Inanna and Erishkigal are forever linked.


The Shadow Will Be Heard

The Descent of Innana begins with Inanna hearing a call to travel to the underworld, where her dark sister resides. In response to the call, Inanna closes her temples, gathers her symbols of power, and embarks upon her ordeal.

Similarly, Us begins with Adelaide embarking upon a journey: she is going on a beach vacation with her husband and two children – but this particular beach happens to be the site of Adelaide’s traumatic childhood encounter with the underworld. The viewer wonders why Adelaide would choose to return to that place, and she does protest at the last moment – but, just as with Inanna, the journey appears to be inevitable. And, just as Inanna does, Adelaide equips herself for the journey, grabbing a baseball bat.

Adelaide and her family are quickly confronted with their shadows – all four doppelgängers show up for vacation too. In an interesting turn, the shadows too appear to have equipped themselves for the ordeal – each is wearing a red jumpsuit and a single brown leather glove, and each is toting a pair of gigantic gold shears. In another interesting turn, it is the shadows who ascend and cross the threshold into the upperworld rather than the other way around, and they also cross a threshold when they force their way into the Wilsons’ home. (Which accomplished via a hide-a-key – thank you for the comic relief, Mr. Peele.)

For the first time since childhood, Adelaide and Red are face to face. In an unnervingly parched, scratchy voice, Red explains that while Adelaide has been enjoying tasty meals and freedom of choice in the upperworld, Red has been trapped in the underworld, eating nothing but rabbit, “raw and bloody.” (This recalls how the souls trapped in the Mesopotamian underworld eat nothing but dust.)

Most strikingly, Red makes an emphatic statement about birth. According to Red, when Adelaide had her second child, Jason, “They had to cut her open and take him from her belly. The shadow had to do it all herself!” So Red, the shadow, had to carry the load in the cesarean birth. Her unresolved anger and resentment about the birth, and about not being seen or heard for a lifetime, have brought her to this moment.

In Birthing From Within, we understand that an unacknowledged shadow can be the source of immense suffering. What is to be done with a shadow that needs to be seen and heard?

The answer, of course, is that the shadow needs to be acknowledged and validated. Adelaide seems to instinctually understand this – her husband attempts to negotiate with the shadow family, but Adelaide quickly shuts that down in favor of just listening to them. Jason follows her lead, and discovers that he can communicate with his shadow, Pluto, by mimicking his movements; eventually, Pluto starts to mimic Jason’s movements. This recalls the scene in the Descent of Inanna where the creatures sent to rescue Innana from the underworld establish rapport with Ereshkigal by mimicking her suffering. Ereshkigal experiences this mimicry as empathy, and as a consequence releases Inanna to the upper world. Similarly, the mimicry that Jason establishes with Pluto allows Jason to prevent Pluto from taking deadly action later in the film. Thus, the light’s validation of the shadow creates opportunity for positive movement.

While Us has its share of classic horror movie gore, this sense of compassion for the shadow self creates moments of real divergence from those tropes. For example, in one scene, when Adelaide’s daughter mows down her doppelgänger, Umbrae, with an SUV, Adelaide dashes out of the car to gently shush the dying Umbrae in a maternal way. This might make the casual viewer scratch their head in bewilderment: why is she comforting the thing that just tried to kill her family? But from the archetypal point of view, it makes perfect sense to see the shadow as part of the self, to attempt to build a relationship with it, and to comfort it in its suffering.


Dancing with your Shadow Self

In Us, we see two scenes of shadow and light joined in dance. In the first, young Adelaide dances above, fluid and magical, while young Red dances below, clumsy and stomping. Shadow and light are moving together but oblivious of their togetherness.

The second dancing scene is an underworld fight to the death in true horror film fashion. Adelaide is beaten and worn down, missing strike after strike, while Red, in her domain, moves with fluid rigidity and has the upper hand. Here we see Adelaide at the point of death – like Inanna, she has made it to the underworld, stripped of all symbols of power, with nothing left but to exist at the will of her shadow. Adelaide does kill Red – but as she does so, we see her take on Red’s mannerisms. Thus, the shadow is integrated into the light, allowing for survival.

The reality is that light cannot kill shadows or vice versa; they are part of each other, and must dance together to sort out their integration.

We have all faced our shadow selves and done such a dance – when has this happened to you? At moments the shadow may have taken stage and performed a pirouette that demanded recognition, for better or for worse. And then, the light responds. How has your light responded to your shadow?  How has your shadow led you to face the unfaceable, to find a path towards healing and return? These are undoubtedly the questions Peele is asking the audience, if they dare to listen from within.

And so here we have a horror film that asks the same questions that we, as Birthing From Within mentors, ask of our clients as they prepare for their birth ordeal. These are the exact questions that allow an individual or family to embark upon transformative ordeals with awareness and self-compassion, and to navigate their way home, safe if not unscarred. Put another way, this oh-so-relatable (if you can get past that gurgling-blood scene) retelling of an ancient story arc serves to remind us that if we can find a way to dance with our shadows from time to time, we may be able to prevent them from coming after us with giant gold shears, red jumpsuits, and brown leather gloves to end us.

Happy journeying and movie-going to you, my fellow heroes!

About Nicole Green

Nicole Green is passionate about her work with those on their path toward parenthood. She has been a childbirth educator and birth doula for over 10 years and hopes to continue her work for many more. Nicole is a Birth Story Listener and trained Birthing From Within Mentor and enjoys the adventures she shares with her husband and 4 children.

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