This contains major Us spoilers.
Jordan Peele’s latest film, Us, is another brilliant example of a horror film that applies a very real social message to its grisly subject matter, especially when it comes to the film’s monsters, “the Tethered.” Us’ marketing hasn’t tried to hide the fact that the movie’s major threats are doppelgängers of Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) and her family, but the film proves that these monsters are even more complex than they appear.
As Adelaide’s double Red laments, the Tethered are basically living shadows who are forced to mimic their double’s actions and go through the motions, but with none of the proper context or joy. It’s a grim existence for these maladjusted creatures. Red eventually explains to Adelaide that the Tethered are the results of a failed cloning project that was run by the government to infiltrate and control the American people.
The major defect in this experiment is that the government figured out how to clone the American people but they couldn’t crack how to replicate the human soul. Accordingly, these clones are largely empty shells that just echo their counterparts. When the project couldn’t be perfected, it was abandoned, and the confused, helpless Tethered were forced to shuffle about and fend off of rabbit meat.
These experiments took place in the thousands of miles of underground tunnels that are beneath the continental United States, seemingly for no purpose. Us only highlights a specific hallway of these massive tunnels, but the film effectively conveys that this scenario is happening all over the country with other Tethered and their surface equivalents. What’s so interesting about this experiment is the specifics as to who was running these cloning operations and for what precise purpose is never made clear. It’s all the better to let your mind rattle through bleak scenarios and what the horror film would look like where this initial experiment is a success.
These broken clones would likely have just fallen apart in their subterranean prison, but one important Tethered inspires the rest to work together and rise above over 30 years after her arrival. The most significant thing here is that this individual is the one person underground who isn’t Tethered. Or at least she didn’t begin as one. In Us’ final moments, the pieces click together and it turns out that Adelaide and Red actually switched places back when she was a child and that her parents raised a child born of the tunnels into normalcy, and the original Adelaide was left to degrade and build resentment in the tunnels. This is the reason that Red is the only Tethered that has some rudimentary form of speech and the rest of the clones can only perform guttural, animalistic noises. It also speaks to why the Tethered’s major plan reframes “Hands Across America,” as this would have been one of Adelaide/Red’s final surface memories and examples of hope before the switch takes place.
That being said, the fact that “Adelaide” begins as a Tethered but eventually learns how to talk and gains a perfectly normal life is proof that really conditioning is the only true difference here. Any of the “Tethered” could have a normal life if they’re just properly shown love. This also speaks to the film’s larger themes of duality and how we’re literally our worst enemies, not only with the presence of these volatile Tethered but also the fact that fellow humans created them, abandoned them, and essentially doomed themselves in the process. These are man-made monsters, both literally and socially, that didn’t need to happen.
The Tethered are such fascinating monsters because they represent the worst in ourselves, and it’s very easy to empathize with the Biblically poor lot they’ve been dealt. On that note, the Bible verse Jeremiah 11:11 comes up several times in reference to “The Tethered,” and beyond its obvious mirror-like symmetry, it also serves a deeper connection. The verse corresponds to:
Therefore thus saith the Lord, “Behold, I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto me, I will not hearken unto them.”
This passage seems to reflect that Adelaide resents the normal life that was taken from her. Adelaide’s been ignored and literally forgotten, so when she realizes that no one is going to save her, she acts for herself and inspires this underground rebellion. The real Adelaide may die, just like how the original goal of Hands Across America has been forgotten, but her message lives on. This demonstration certainly brings attention to the Tethered and their plight in the same way “Hands Across America” increased awareness over homelessness and starvation in the ‘80s. In a much more metaphorical sense though, Red/Adelaide’s demonstration shines a light to the societal and class problems in America that get swept under the carpet and exacerbated, with her double moving upward but choosing to forget the community from which she came. The Tethered are an amazing new creature in the horror canon that can help highlight such issues in a truly creative way.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.