Jordan Peele has introduced one of the most frightening ideas of Carl Jungs analytical psychology in the movie Us: the shadow.
I remember, when I first read something written by Jung. It was absolutely terrifying. Maybe that’s one convincing reason, why he is only occasionally taught in university. He is too scary, too controversial. But what university did never bring to people, Hollywood did eventually.
In Peeles blockbuster an ordinary black American family is on their way to enjoy vacation. But soon the family is haunted. Haunted by their own doppelgängers, which appear suddenly at their house in creepy red clothes. These doppelgängers come from a tunnel underworld and want to kill their earthly originals. But somehow the family manages to escape by each facing their own copies.
In this article I will point at some symbols used in the movie and try to interpret them in a Jungian way. Enjoy.
P.S. Spoilers alert.
The apple and the origin of human consciousness
In the first scenes, Adelaide, the main character, is shown as a small kid with her parents in an adventure park. Adelaide is just wandering around, while licking a glass lized apple. Shortly after this scene she enters the “Mirror room” (the shamans world), which invites mysteriously to “find yourself”. Adelaide enters only to encounter her copy version, doppelgänger, shadow and soon suffers from PTSD.
The apple is a symbol represented most famously in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the old testament, where the snake leads Eve into temptation to eat from the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge. After sharing with Adam God appears and punishes both to work, to suffer and to be able to differentiate between good and evil, like god himself. He exils Adam and Eve.
Many scholars have commented on the original sin commited by Adam and Eve. Surely many interpretations are valid and can coexist, especially in different historical epochs. Yet one common interpretation describes the happening in Eden as the awakening of the human mind. In a manner that no species can cope with, Homo sapiens (the knowing ape) are aware of the duality of existence, of good and evil, of future and past, of life and death. To become aware of the dual state of reality fundamentally introduces moral behavior as a consequence of this knowledge.
Being a child is like living in Eden, essentially paradise. One is completely adsorbed by reality as it manifests in the here and now. Future and past are only vague concepts. We are free from the tyranny of knowledge. When Adelaide is eating from the apple, this is an indication that she will loose paradise. She is going to encounter the dual nature of reality. She is going to encounter evil itself in herself.
The golden scissor — Who are you really?
Another constantly occurring element is carried by Adelaide shadow/doppelgänger as a weapon: the golden scissor.
A scissor is used to cut something, to separate the useful from the waste, to make two out of one. And so it represents the separation of our (socially) desired and accepted acts (persona in Jungs words) from the traits we suppress and never allow to come to surface (shadow).
In between these forces is the (real) self and only through integrating both extremes, a human being can become an individual. This transformation process was already conceptualized by the alchemist in the middle age — a mixture of science, philosophy and mysticism. The alchemist believed that by finding or creating the philosophers stone, the transmutation of common substance into gold would be possible and could grant immortality. Of course, this is not possible, if taken literally. But what the alchemist were up to, was to figure out the relationship between man an the cosmos. In that sense, understanding your own dualistic nature could be regarded as the transmutation to gold, thus the colour of the scissor.
This can be fundamentally understood as a religious process. Religion means to re-connect to re-bind. Reconnecting our own darkness in our souls will lead us to a true connection to god — a relationship to cosmos (choose your words of choice) — a deep feeling of being connected to life and all its happenings.
In the self good and evil are indeed closer than identical twins! — C. G. Jung
Human chain and the collective unconscious
While the movie deals most of the time with the shadow on the individual level, the final scenes introduce another Jungian psychoanalytical element, the collective unconscious.
Peele shows, how all shadows form a human chain across America. They all had suffered in the tunnel system (read hell) and now they come together to form a strong force across the whole country. It seems that as they have all been repressed by their earthly doppelgänger, they now want to take revenge. And how do suppressed people ( or personality traits) take revenge? They unite!
Personally I regard the collective unconscious as the most relevant driving force in our current society. Since I am non American I don’t feel competent enough to judge or comment on American society. But as technology has produced a global culture, European (german) society experiences similar patterns. I will try to make this clear by talking about my observations of German past and modern history.
Group identity is a big topic nowadays. And one of the most horrifying historical example of what group identity and its dynamic can produce was Nazi-Germany. Nationalsozialismus (germ.) was the belief system of a superior race. It is not different from any club, who believes it is the best and all other can be destroyed, since they have encapsulated the only real truth. Only its theoretical background and thus its way of argumentation varies dependent on time and philosophical perspective. The name can be changed, yet the game stays the same. Replace Nazi-Germany with the communist dogma and you have another (incredible destructive) mass-minded idea.
The germans belived, that there is an Aryan race and it is above all others (see in the anthem: Deutschland, Deutschland über Alles, engl. Germany Germany above all). The deep down motivation or yearning to gather together is to finally create Utopia, an in itself consistent system and when everyone finally believes (will be a member of) the ideology, we will have heaven on earth.
It is obvious why suppressed parts or people, who literally forever (since hell feels like forever) have experienced terror, oppression and tyranny of the light (read positive aspects of human being) will only feel confident enough to start a revolution when they are protected by a mass.
Interestingly Adelaide herself seems to be the messiah of the group. And as every group needs a leader, Adelaide acts as the mouthpiece of the mass. (This is supported by the fact, that only Adelaide shadow can speak.) Jung himself said, that Adolf Hitler, the Führer of Nazis, acted as the megaphone of the german collective unconscious. This is well put by Jordan B. Peterson in this video.
History repeats itself (ironical to quote Karl Marx here), if not learned from. Now I see Germany again in a deep crisis. Since the migration of refugees (refugees produce by our mostly short-sighted wars for oil and democracy, but that’s another story) from the near east, Germany experiences more and more national tensions between various groups.
As german education does a lot of preventive work by teaching children about the horrors of Nazi-Germany, most germans are aware that such racist ideology was a national tragedy. Yet this prevention tends to be a very tight jacket, so even slightly critical and scared voices are placed into a far right category. This generalization, black and white thinking essentially, leads to a barrier to communication. Not being allowed to say something and to repress it (because the economic, social, career consequences) only make the urge to say what you think worse. So where to go?
In a world, where the internet is the tool of access it seems to be very simple to figure out where your ideas may lead you. You will start to find like-minded people and if you are unlucky these people are quite radical. So by compelling free speech and over-generalizing due to social expectancies, urges are being suppressed and the shadow is starved more and more until one day, it will explode extremely. Because now it will not be only the individual shadow, it will be a shadow union!
In short, the shadow represents repressed parts of a human individual (tunnel in movie), which occasionally come to surface and take over. Mostly these traits are destructive forces, because never integrated (another Jungian-word), means never embodied in a healthy (read holy — whole) way. Jung believed, that every human being is driven by plenty different motivations. A whole person, a healthy individual is one who has integrated all these different, often conflicting impulses and thus found divinity in himself. Jung has put it this way:
“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.”
Biology, Evolution and the Dark Side
All our drives have a deep biological background. Imagine you are a lion predator and your kids are starving. How do you get food? Do you ask the zebra, if it will voluntarily sacrifice itself for the sake of your own genetics? I am not a lion, but it seems not overestimated to answer it by no. To live means to die (at least for another species). As a lion you will use violence and aggression as a mean to survival. You have not freely chosen these behaviors, but evolution has deeply burned them into your brain and thus into patterns of behavior.
And since the differences between our human brain and our animal ancestors are not so different as we like to believe, these aspects still are rooted in our biology and thus reflected our personality. (In fact, the “hardware” of the brain is still in charge, except of the extraordinary human prefrontal cortex).
Of course one could argue that in a world, where material resources are obedient and no sudden survival threats occur, such behaviors are primitive and non-useful. Yet they are still a part of our biology and so we have to deal with this. There will never be enough “Utopia” to get away from our shadows.
Dostoyevski, a famous Russian 19th century writer states in Notes from Underground puts it as follows:
Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element.
This fatal fantastic element is exactly the suppressed part of us, we have to confront. Since separation from our shadows is not possible out, focus should be on implementing these satanic aspects of our soul, rather than let them control us. And so I want to thank Jordan Peele (also BTS and their new album) for bringing Carl Jung into art and cinema and thus inviting us to confront the dragon in ourselves and not project them on others.
I want to finish with Aleksandr Solshenytzin, a russian writer and survivor of the russian gulag has summarized our inner split:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”