The Shining is a unique horror film; it is so widely understood as having subtext not usually associated with the Horror genre that a documentary titled Room 237 explores both acknowledged and ridiculed theories of subtextual content. The most well-known and acknowledged subtext is that The Shining is a commentary on the Native American genocide. While for over a decade that context was ridiculed as well, it is now considered obvious.
Also some people do not view The Shining as scary, even if they admit to its superbly cinematic construction, and interesting and oblique subtext(s). If one is not in the mood to receive The Shining as a horror film, it can be laughable; that does not diminish its greatness nor ability to horrify when in the “right mood,” nor its success of communicating ideas beyond the surface narrative. The relevance of The Shining will become clear as I discuss Jordan Peele's Us, but Us is best understood with an underpinning of Get Out, his previous film.
In the first few seconds of Get Out, in the first few lines of dialog, a character says, “It's like a fucking hedge maze out here.” I assert that no well-read filmmaker (and Peele is certainly cinematically well-read) would reference a hedge maze without the deliberate intention of invoking The Shining; the hedge maze is uniquely iconic to that film.
Us is a vastly different movie from Get Out, but maintains a lineage with the first movie, and continues the lineage from The Shining. The most obvious linkage with Get Out, because it is entirely separate from either the text or any subtexts of Us, is when a Frisbee lands on a spotted towel on the beach. It is given visual importance but is entirely unexplained, until one remembers the significance of Bingo cards in Get Out.
And while one might dismiss a line of dialog in Us which says, “Get out!” because it is a valid line of plot-necessary dialog, one would be less justified dismissing “Get Out” painted on the trees to either side of the mirror funhouse. Of further interest is that the mirror funhouse is renamed “Merlin's Forest” in subsequent scenes, but in the first scene it is “The Shaman's Vision Quest”, which due to lineage we can appropriately infer refers to The Shining. As other articles have posited, it can refer to many other and equally compelling ideas.
In the Shaman's realm, we hear something vague about spiders over the speaker. "Itsy-bitsy spider" is whistled. Spiders appear later (a toy tarantula with a live spider beneath it), as does a web-like crack in glass, and one might be reminded of Chief Seattle's quote: “This we know the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” It would be well to come back to this paragraph after reading the end of this blog.
Peele's mise en scene is meticulous. Every painting, child's toy, book, or drawing (and literally every other prop) has a utility beyond set dressing. The baseball bat used as a weapon is the RX 9000, indeed a curative prescription. The ambulance toy used to block a door open mirrors the ambulance the in which the family ultimately escapes. The videotapes flanking the TV in an early shot include C.H.U.D. (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers), The Man With Two Brains, and Nightmare on Elm Street. The direct analogy with CHUD needs no explanation. In a movie all about mirroring and doppelgangers, TMWTB is equally obvious. And when a character describes her cold metal toys cutting her fingers, Freddy Krueger's glove of revenge is a useful image. Absolutely every element of every frame has import, to a degree rarely found in even the most erudite art house film.
These multitudinous references are not merely gimmicks or games; they illuminate and then support powerful subtexts. But first: Subtexts are completely different from text. To use The Shining to illustrate: The text is that a man goes crazy and attempts to murder his family, and this holds together narratively. The subtext of Native American genocide is something like, “Colonial America (specifically white people) murdered almost everyone in North America (specifically Native Americans).” This does not hold together narratively; no white person murders a Native American. It is suggested by signs and symbols and must be inferred. A river of blood pouring from an elevator did not happen during the Trail of Tears, but that does not mean it is erroneous to suggest perhaps that is one valid interpretation of that elevator scene. In subtexts, direct linear correlation is not necessary or even desired. So when it appears that one subtext of Us is a discussion of American slavery, it does not hinder the subtext that nobody in the film is actually a slave as described in US history.
But before investigating the slavery subtext, let's look at another subtext, more illustrative of the actual text. Doppelgangers are out to murder their “originals.” In horror movies, death is very often deserved, a retribution or punishment or karma. In the simplest incarnation, kids who participate in drugs or premarital sex or who otherwise “sin” are killed. But what have the originals in Us done wrong? One subtextual possibility revolves around materialism. Our protagonist family is well-off; we are shown immediately that they drive a Mercedes-Benz, they have a summer home, and they've just purchased a boat, the quintessential American icon of economic prosperity. However, they are unsatisfied, “spoiled” in a direct quote from the father, even as he is invested in keeping up with his neighbor's prosperity.
Further, they have failed to help others; Hands Across America did not solve any problems, and as explicitly stated at the end, one character escaped from the underground and “into the light” at the expense of another. Some characters had “sunlight and freedom” while pursuing their materialism, at the expense of an entire group of “others.” This is one view of why they're being punished. There is text that explains this, and subtext that supports it. The set design of the Underground and the behavior of the “shadows” is also reminiscent of Romero's Dawn Of The Dead, which itself contains a subtextual condemnation of American consumer culture. Peele knows his cinema.
There is no textual reference to slavery, but it is illustrated in subtext. There are four legible books on the shelves: two travelogues (one on Mexico, the other maybe on the Philippines) and two on slavery: Roots and The History of Slavery (or something close to that, many clues are fleeting and the bookshelves are not in focus). The chains used to bind characters are icons of slavery. When one character describes the connection between those underground and those above, it can clearly be read as a description of slave/owner dynamics. Does this mean the Shadows are literal slaves? No, and that does not damage the subtextual discussion. Neither does the fact that our main family is Black, and clearly are not implicated in slave ownership; the critique of America and the discussion of slavery is still valid, and can even be seen to dovetail with the materialism subtext. The movie ceases to be a horror movie and becomes a thought experiment on the human condition. Is it possible, that so many years after slavery, that we all are still culpable? If we failed with Hands Across America, is it success that the Shadows have come into the light and performed (one character calls it “performance art”) their own Hands Across America? Who are the monsters? Is it... Us?
There are volumes of additional material to discuss, but one final symbol that may require a unique perspective to decode: In the first ten minutes of the movie there are three Black Flag t-shirts, an obvious symbol due to the repetition, but of what? There is nothing in the movie to suggest a reference to the actual band, or punk music. So what else is invoked by “black flag”? Pirates? Perhaps, because there are sail ships anchored off the Santa Cruz shore, but those may be more appropriately seen as slave ships. What other black flags are there? Perhaps this one, described to me by a Black classmate in 4th grade: “Do you know about the Black flag? Black, red, and green? Black for the color of our skin, red for the color of our blood, and green for the color of the land we will one day take back from our oppressors.” Subtext indeed.