The Native Imagery of Jordan Peele’s Us, Explained

Photo: Claudette Barius/Universal Studios

A young girl wanders across a beach at night, her eyes drawn away from the crashing waves to a strange building that beckons to her: Shaman Vision Quest Forest, it reads. The 1980s funhouse has a hokey “Indian” theme, with a totem pole standing out front. A smaller sign with an arrow points down through the open entrance. “Find yourself,” it tells her. In she goes, to a hall of mirrors where she will, quite literally, find herself.

Right away, I understood this scene — one of the first in Jordan Peele’s new horror movie, Us — to be a sly nod to the many ways Native culture is misconstrued in mainstream culture. So many non-Native people who seize aspects of our spirituality often do so in an effort to “find themselves.” Hollywood, in particular, has a knack for distilling Native spiritual practices down to the onscreen equivalent of a Sephora smudge kit with white sage. In a movie explicitly based on the writer-director’s fear of American society, the decision to have the young girl descend into this particular funhouse felt extremely intentional.

From that point on, Us — a movie that’s sparked 1,000 theories and interpretations — became a story about Native appropriation for me. I watched as Little Adelaide walked into the funhouse only to be welcomed by a startling voice, that of a noble savage, the broken-English, one-with-nature, prophet trope. A mechanical owl popped out next, causing the girl to jump. Owls, for some tribes like the Diné, Lakota, and Hidatsa, are perceived to be messengers of death. (When a grown-up version of Adelaide encounters the owl years later, she makes sure to bash it in.)

Fans of horror will certainly have taken notice of the funhouse scene for one reason or another. It not-so-coincidentally mirrors the introduction of a familiar horror setting: the Overlook Hotel. Peele has admitted that The Shining served as major inspiration for his Get Out follow-up. In the Stanley Kubrick classic, the Torrance family car winds its way around the mountains until the ominous building comes into view. The image of the hotel, which we will later learn was built on “Indian burial ground,” looms large over Jack, Wendy, and Danny, foreshadowing its role as their central antagonist. Today, fans pore over the symbolism in The Shining, still hoping to find unclaimed Easter eggs. Peele, a student of horror, clearly wishes the Us audience to do the same. And so I did.

I noticed the whistling … at night, which for the HoChunks and other tribes is ill-advised; parents and grandparents say that whistling after dark will call bad spirits. And, yup, sure enough! As soon as Adelaide whistles, she hears a whistle in return, coming from somewhere within this hall of mirrors. Suddenly, she sees the back of her tethered “twin,” a double that looks just like her. Twins are powerful figures in the stories of many Native tribes. The HoChunks have Hero Twins that fight monsters. The concept of duality is even represented in our ribbonwork designs that are mirror-image florals of contrasting colors. They represent a world seeking balance between light and dark, a struggle in Us, as well.

The majority of Us takes place outside of Shaman Vision Quest Forest, but its image never really leaves our protagonist — or, more accurately, lets her go. Fast forward to that grown-up, present-day version of Adelaide (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who has unwillingly returned to the beach of her childhood. She sits in front of the waves next to a friend (Elisabeth Moss), who’s flipping through a magazine. She happens upon a page featuring a model wearing an “Indian” headdress, and that’s when Adelaide once again gets the feeling that something is wrong. Is it the funhouse, calling her back? She realizes her son, Jason, is missing, and she runs in the direction of the mirrors.

But the present-day version of the funhouse is different. The Shaman’s Vision Quest Forest of 1986, based on a mish-mash of real Native tribes and Hollywood tropes, is now Merlin’s Forest, based on a mythical European wizard. On the one hand, Peele’s decision to swap the names could be interpreted as a nod to horror’s history of setting stories like The Shining on a twisted portrayal of sacred “Indian” land. (Stephen King was a serial abuser of the Indian Burial Ground trope.) Although Peele packs his movies with nostalgic references, he has helped change the genre’s relationship to these recurring themes too; Merlin’s Forest puts fake white history in the funhouse instead. On the other hand, the hall of mirror’s transformation could reflect a grander American scheme. Does the erasure of the Shaman’s Vision Quest Forest mirror the ways the U.S. government has attempted, through policy and education initiatives, to deny the very existence of Native people? Either way, there is still a lone totem pole standing outside Merlin’s forest, suggesting that whatever transformation we’re seeing is not complete.

I choose to read the name change, and the movie on the whole, as commentary on settler colonialism. I openly laughed when Adelaide’s tethered double — a woman not subtly named Red, who’d just invaded Adelaide’s home — playfully cautioned her son, Pluto: “Try not to burn our house down.” It played out like a perfect metaphor for settlers laying claim to Native land. If that’s not clear cut enough for you, the tethered come from underneath the funhouse, another allusion to horror’s persistent Indian burial ground trope. The way they lack language, eat raw meat, and move in an animalistic manner plays into the savage anxieties to which Native and Black people alike have been subjected. After having been forgotten and erased by their oppressors, the tethered literally rise up and create a Hands Across America-esque barricade with their bodies, creating a physical barrier not unlike the protests of Standing Rock and Ferguson.

Peele has made it clear that Us is not specifically a movie about race. And really, it isn’t. It’s about much more than that. The true genius of his work is that it allows us to see so many things in the hall of mirrors, including direct reflections of ourselves, our socioeconomic reality, our generational angst. The eeriness of his movie depends on which of his references and symbols grip audience members. In a way, the funhouse never really leaves us either.

In the end, we learn that the woman we’ve come to know as Red was born on the surface, and it was Adelaide, a tethered, who forcibly switched places with her double in that funhouse years ago. We are invited to be shocked, at both the idea of Adelaide’s “betrayal” and the fact that Red is now hellbent on committing mass genocide against the “original people.” But there were clues along the way, as many people have pointed out, tipping us off to Adelaide’s big secret. The biggest for me was when Adelaide asked Red, “Who are you people?” And Red answered in the truest way possible: “We are Americans.”

The Native Imagery of Jordan Peele’s Us, Explained