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Rutgers psychology professor explains mental disorder undertones of 'Us'

Actress Lupita Nyong'o plays the character Adelaide Wilson in the movie "Us." In the film, she returns to her childhood home in Santa Cruz but is later attacked by four people who look exactly like her and her family.  – Photo by Flickr

Horror thriller film "Us" presents a psychologically accurate portrayal of trauma and personality disorder to viewers. A Rutgers professor explained the psychological undertones, including borderline personality disorder (BPD) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of the new blockbuster. 

“I think the overriding theme (of the film) was trauma,” said Anthony Tobia, director of the Division of Consultation Psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) and professor in the Department of Psychiatry. “Certainly, traumatic childhood experiences and how they can shape future adult behavior was a central theme in the movie.”

"Us," directed by Jordan Peele, focuses on the character Adelaide Wilson, who returns to her childhood home in Santa Cruz, California with her husband and two children. The movie takes a turn when Adelaide, played by Lupita Nyong’o, and her family members are attacked in their house by four people who look exactly like them.

The film showed that in 1986, young Adelaide was walking on Santa Cruz’s boardwalk with her mother and father before wandering off into an isolated funhouse and encountering her doppelgänger. In the scene, Adelaide’s parents are depicted to have a volatile relationship which allows her to wander off unnoticed and explore the mirrored funhouse with an escalator leading downward.

Tobia said that he saw this part of the scene as Adelaide dissociating, or going into another reality. The audience sees this other world, but from a psychiatric perspective it was Adelaide withdrawing into her subconscious.

“It’s a hall of mirrors, certainly a rabbit reference. This little girl goes down the rabbit hole in the movie in this very sinister-looking escalator,” Tobia said, referencing the similarities in "Alice in Wonderland" to the film.  

This withdrawing into subconscious and dissociating shows that there could have been even earlier trauma than the audience is not shown, Tobia said. 

The "Alice in Wonderland" movie is an explanation of an LSD trip or substance abuse, with the example of Alice smelling flowers, Tobia said. Yet, in this film, there were no signs of substance abuse, and the more likely explanation of this dissociation is a mental disorder.

A sign of Adelaide exhibiting a mental disorder was the inability to maintain relationships as an adult and express herself. Tobia said this communication difficulty was shown between Adelaide and her husband when Adelaide did not want to go to the beach with them. Originally perceived as a failure in the husband’s part for not understanding, it shows that Adelaide is unable to communicate and maintain a healthy relationship. This is very telling, because adult relationships show how effective our childhood relationships were.

BPD is a personality disorder in which a person has affective instability such as a weakened strength in the ego, and emotional mobility such as impulsiveness. Due to these symptoms, individuals have a difficult time maintaining meaningful relationships, Tobia said.

“I think the use of the scissors is a very interesting choice,”  Tobia said. “Because some individuals inflicted with borderline (personality disorder) do cut themselves.”

Individuals with BPD cut to relieve themselves of the numbing and dissociation of their condition, Tobia said. The use of the scissors in the film showed that with early childhood trauma, the subconscious psychological development of the ego is weakened. With a weak ego, the psychological identity manifests and an individual acts more impulsively than logically.

The doppelgängers reflected these conditions in the film by breaking into consciousness. Tobia said that according to the teachings of Sigmund Freud, this would show that childhood trauma is the cause. In the film, the doppelgängers who lived underground broke free and went above ground. This is another example of how the doppelgängers look to be the identity, living under the surface subconsciously and rising to the conscious level.

With the information shown in the film, Tobia said he would diagnose Adelaide with BPD and PTSD. This additional mental disorder is not surprising, as individuals with BPD additionally having PTSD is approximately 25 to 60 percent likely.

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