Unraveling Some Of The Pop Culture References In ‘Us’

The story of the real Hands Across America, homages to “The Shining” and “Jaws,” and the dark duality of Michael Jackson shape Jordan Peele’s twisted tale.

After dominating this weekend’s box office, Jordan Peele’s “Us” left audiences with a lot to process and discuss. Starring Lupita Nyong’o as Adelaide Wilson, who meets and battles her and her family’s doppelgängers while on a beach vacation, the horror movie contains a trove of pop culture references that shape the twisted tale.

According to Peele, whose 2017 hit “Get Out” also drew on a wealth of cultural influences, the references in “Us” work “on two different levels and hopefully more,” he told The Associated Press — before adding that “there are many of these things that only I will ever know.”

Here’s an attempt at unpacking at least some of them. (Minor spoilers ahead, but we’ve done our best to be as vague about the plot developments as possible.)

Hands Across America

The film opens in 1986 with young Adelaide (Madison Curry) watching TV. She sees a commercial for a charity event called Hands Across America, in which participants were instructed to form a human chain and hold hands from coast to coast.

Referenced again in the film’s subsequent present-day scenes, the event really existed and featured some famous participants, including then-President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan. Organized by Ken Kragan, who was also behind “We Are the World,” just under five million people lined up on May 25, 1986, at 3 p.m. ET. 

President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan participating in the 1986 charity event Hands Across America.
President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan participating in the 1986 charity event Hands Across America.

The chain stretched from Battery Park in New York City to Long Beach, California, with participants filling in some of the gaps in more sparsely populated areas of the country by using banners, ropes, ribbons, and paper dolls — another motif in “Us.”

The event fell short of its $50-100 million fundraising goal, raising only about $15 million, according to news reports from the time.

Peele has described Hands Across America as a representation of the political and cultural “duality” of the era, a theme that binds together the movie.

“There was a very sort of specific duality of the ’80s where television that I was watching had this sincere-but-hollow sense of optimism and goodness,” the director told Polygon last week. “It was the Reagan era, which was kind of like this return to those ’50s ideals. And now we’re back to that. But that sort of the sitcom, ‘aw shucks’ thing, when juxtaposed with the fears of the Cold War, the wealth disparity, and the Challenger disaster, and these kinds of things, was just, as a kid, I knew something was fucked up.”

Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’

Peele is an unabashed fan of the 1980 horror classic, citing the film as an inspiration for his work and even dressing as Jack Nicholson’s character Jack Torrance during some recent interviews promoting “Us,” delighting fans. (The director’s sartorial tributes to famous horror characters also recall the doppelgängers and the theme of duality in “Us.”)

“Us” pays homage to “The Shining” in multiple ways. The film’s opening and closing sequences resemble that of Kubrick’s movie, both featuring aerial shots of forests and mountainous roads. 

In “Us,” the Wilsons’ friends and vacation companions, Kitty and Josh, have twin daughters, Lindsey and Becca, who resemble the Grady twins in “The Shining.” 

Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’

In some of the film’s present-day scenes, Adelaide’s son Jason (Evan Alex) wears a shirt emblazoned with the iconic logo of Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” which like “Us,” is a horror movie set on a seemingly idyllic oceanfront. 

“It builds up this generational myth and also cements [the setting] in California, Hollywood, movies and horror,” costume designer Kym Barrett said in an interview with Fashionista.

Jason's "Jaws" shirt in "Us."
Jason's "Jaws" shirt in "Us."

The movie captures a similar terror as that of “Jaws” when Jason wanders off from the rest of the family while at the beach, and when dad Gabe (Winston Duke) gets into a heart-pounding fight in a lake with his doppelgänger.

After the fight, Gabe, who had initially looked forward to resurrecting his family’s old boat during the vacation (to the annoyance of Adelaide and their kids), declares: “Boats are done! I’m done with boats!” — a callback to the famous “Jaws” line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Other ’80s Horror Movies

Next to the TV in young Adelaide’s living room, the camera pans to the family’s VHS tapes, which include 1980s classics such as “The Right Stuff,” “The Goonies” and “C.H.U.D.” The latter film bears more than a passing resemblance to “Us.” The film’s title stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers — who, like the doppelgängers in “Us,” come out from underground tunnels to attack their human counterparts.

Gabe’s fight with his doppelgänger also contains an allusion to “Friday the 13th,” when his doppelgänger emerges from underwater and pulls him back under. A similar scene occurs at the climax of the 1980 film.

‘The Twilight Zone’

Peele has said that the movie was loosely inspired by a 1960 episode of “The Twilight Zone” entitled “Mirror Image,” in which a woman becomes convinced that she has a doppelgänger.

“There’s something about this idea that the doppelgänger that has this creepy smile ... they know more than you know,” he said in an interview with Polygon. “I was sort of connecting that to, first and foremost, our fear — our societal fear — of terrorism, of an attack, of an invader coming in who has been plotting something mysterious. Besides the fact that this is an awful event is the idea that there is a well-oiled plan. And the only other thing that’s more terrifying than that is the suppressed feelings of what our part in these tragedies is, even if we are the victim.”

Fittingly, Peele just finished a reboot of “The Twilight Zone,” premiering in April on CBS All Access.

N.W.A’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’

Among a lot of iconic songs featured in the movie — from The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” to Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It,” to Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs” — N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” plays in an unforgettable moment of dark comedy. When Kitty (Elisabeth Moss) is being attacked by her doppelgänger, her Amazon Alexa-esque device Ophelia mishears her directive to call the police, blasting the song instead.

Black Flag

Early in the movie, a young Adelaide and her parents attend a boardwalk carnival, where another man at the carnival wears a shirt featuring the logo of the ’80s band, who broke up in 1986,  the same year as the events depicted in the scene.

In the present-day scene at the beach, one of the twins also wears a Black Flag shirt, but the reverse color scheme of the 1986 shirt: a white design on a black shirt.

Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’

Young Adelaide wears a “Thriller” T-shirt, won by her father in the film’s opening carnival scene, where she first encounters her doppelgänger in a house of mirrors. Throughout the movie, the doppelgängers’ (also known as the Tethered) red jumpsuits and single glove are also clear homages to Jackson and the 1984 hit, as Peele confirmed in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s no mistake, it’s no coincidence, that the Tethered are wearing red and have one glove,” he said.

“Us” is all about duality, a darkly fitting connection to Jackson, as Peele noted, calling Jackson “a person with a great duality attached.”

Young Adelaide wears a shirt of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in Jordan Peele's "Us."
Young Adelaide wears a shirt of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" in Jordan Peele's "Us."

Jackson’s cultural legacy contains dual images as both a singular cultural icon and as an accused sexual abuser, with allegations of molesting at least five young boys whom he befriended and mentored. Further contributing to the competing images, culture and media at the height of his career often dismissed his behavior as “eccentric” and “bizarre.”

Jackson’s duality is back in the public eye due to this month’s searing HBO documentary “Leaving Neverland,” featuring the stories of two of those accusers, Wade Robson and James Safechuck, who describe Jackson as simultaneously an icon and a monster.

“The irony and relevance is not lost on me now that the discussion has evolved to one of true horror,” Peele said of Jackson, in an interview with Mashable.

In an interview with BET, Duke aptly summarized the parallels between Jackson and the film’s themes.

“That topic right now after the documentary is so… complicated right now, on how to consume legacy,” Duke said. “But I think that follows us into the movie. Because the movie is about what legacy do we leave? And if your legacy could visit you at your door, with your face, are you prepared to see it and deal with the repercussions?”