Fans of Jordan Peele's latest box office smash, Us, may have spent hours digging up Easter eggs and analyzing eerie imagery only to discover that one of the film's most prominent metaphors is the use of the color red. This motif begins as the film opens on a seaside amusement park one Summer evening in 1986. An 8-year-old girl named Adelaide strolls along the boardwalk with her inattentive parents. Moments later, Adelaide wanders off alone, drawn to a mysterious energy emanating from a funhouse on the beach. The second she begins her solo journey, the color red becomes a dominant symbolic force attempting to warn our doomed protagonist of the dangers to come.
Warning: major spoiler follow.
If you recall, the last thing Adelaide grips in her hand before she enters the house of horrors is a bright red candied apple. The camera lingers on the fruit's glossy surface before she enters the maze. Soon she finds herself the victim of a vicious kidnapping, at which point, the last thing she sees is a bright red exit sign that she can never quite reach. Ferried deep underground by her doppelgänger, Adelaide eventually winds up handcuffed to a bed. Her "Thriller" t-shirt replaced with a "Hands Across America" sweatshirt, and the line of figures emblazoned across the garment are red in color — eventually becoming the emblematic inspiration that draws her lost soul back to the surface world.
Red Equals Warning
When the Us trailer first arrived back in December 2018, Peele revealed to Entertainment Weekly that he gave Lupita Nyong'o 10 horror classics to study so she'd have a better understanding of the monster mythology behind the Tethered. This list included The Sixth Sense, which famously uses the color red to indicate anything in the real world tainted by the supernatural world. Sound familiar? The opening sequence of Us uses red to symbolize a similar overlapping of realms and to underscore the emotional trauma Adelaide endures during each of those colorful encounters. However, the young girl's final interactions with the color through the Hands Across America logo also provide an anchor — motivational memories if you will — that she's able to retain from her old life and build upon to obtain her freedom, as demonstrated by the bright red jumpsuits worn during her rebellion with the Tethered.
Red Equals Blood
The film's costumer designer, Kym Barrett, told Fashionista that once Peele made it clear he wanted to make the garments red, she realized the Tethered should appear like bloodstains within each camera frame. "I wanted them to really bleed out from the background," Barrett explained.
This desire for the Tethered to stand out visually from the Wilsons heightens the dichotomy between the apparent foes. Thus, the first phrase uttered by the doppelgängers feels especially creepy for the audience. "We are Americans," the Tethered croak. Red-blooded Americans. What should be a unifying element has become a divider. Young Adelaide has come home to roost, but now all bets are off and bloodshed will be the red that decides her freedom.
Red Equals Fire
In ancient Greek mythology, fire was considered a living entity passed down by the gods. Prometheus, feeling sorry for man's weakened plight, raided the workshop of Hephaestus and Athena on Mt. Olympus. He stole fire, gave the valuable gift to man, and taught us the science behind its use. This domestication of fire became the symbolic birth of civilization and, like the sun, fire became a source of life by providing light and heat. But like almost every element of this film, there lies a duality in the meaning. On one hand, fire sustains life, in fact, in Judeo-Christian circles, God uses fire to communicate with Moses through a burning bush; however, fire also symbolizes the internal torment of hell. This perhaps explains, at least metaphorically, why the Tethered dwell underground.
At their most extreme, flames can act as horrific mass graves. This, of course, becomes how Pluto dies when Jason backs his doppelgänger into a horrendous wall of fire.
Red Equals Communism
When the young Adelaide from 1986 returns to the surface world, she is reborn as Red. The name is significant because it speaks to her mission — to usurp the surface dwellers and redistribute the spoils so they are available to all her people as needed. In this instance, the color may act as sly nod to communism. Although Us is marketed as a horror tale, the allegoric connections to our current political landscape and the need to redistribute wealth to our marginalized masses raises the metaphor to new levels.
Red Equals Rebellion
In 1777, red became the color of the American Revolution and a symbol of a successful uprising. What does this historical fact have to do with Us? Everything. In a post-Trump era, Us is essentially about how America's misplaced fear of outsiders may lead to its own self-destruction; the choice of red over other colors in the spectrum plays into our country's current political divide.
Peele commented on this idea to The Verge during a question and answer session at the film's South by Southwest premiere: "We're in a time where we fear the other, whether it's the mysterious invader that we think is going to come and kill us and take our jobs, or the faction we don't live near, who voted a different way than us. We're all about pointing the finger. And I wanted to suggest that maybe the monster we really need to look at has our face. Maybe the evil, it's us."