The underground

The underground city of Derinkuyu, Turkey.
The underground city of Derinkuyu, Turkey. Credit: BLDGBLOG

After much consideration, I finally decided to drag myself out of the house to watch Jordan Peele’s Us over the weekend. I am not much (OK, not at all) of a horror movie fan, but I really enjoyed Peele’s Get Out last year and was really looking forward to the new Twilight Zone. As a scaredy cat and bit of a haemophobic, I have been reluctant to watch Us but I thought I like Peele’s work— so why not give it a chance?

Folks, I am happy to announce that I enjoyed it a lot, and did not flinch even the slightest bit. Sticking to the routine I did after watching Get Out last time, I had been making mental notes of all the symbolisms in Us so I could go back and do online search on all the conspiracy theories till the wee hours of the morning. There’s definitely a lot to unpack — sociologist & author Eve Ewing (she’s my favourite) did a whole Twitter thread on her theories here (obviously spoilers! And be sure to also check some of the replies for their own theories) — but I would like to specifically touch on my subject of intrigue in the movie: tunnels.

Us starts with this ominous narration:

“There are thousands of miles of tunnels beneath the United States. Abandoned subway systems, unused service routes, and deserted mine shafts. Many have no known purpose at all.”

The idea of having whole built worlds and landscapes in the darkness beneath our feet, and what roams within them have been the subject of conspiracy theories for quite some time. The underground passages were often used for the purposes of smuggling, human trafficking, and many more. While they might not house some tortured half-souls of Americans as part of a failed government experimentation, some other inhabitants might have made a home between these abandoned shafts.

According to Will Hunt, who wrote the book Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet in Oxygen:

In the deeper strata of New York City, you find mole people, you find people who have made homes for themselves in deep hidden nooks and alcoves under the city,” he continued. “They’re these marginalised, forgotten people who are living completely out of sight in essentially a separate reality.

Although the actual mole people are not inventions of a government brainwashing experiment like in “Us,” Hunt emphasizes that this population can be understood as a metonym for national identity.

The underground has always been the unconscious,” Hunt said. “When we’re talking about the unconscious of a culture, of the United States, a good place to explore those forces is beneath the surface … Basically, any city of any size that has like a stratified society where there are people who are struggling, you’re going to find these communities who have gathered in hidden places. And they say something about the society on the surface. They’re a reflection of our darknesses, the injustices of our society on the surface.

What could also happen to our built and natural environments — over and under — if people humans were to suddenly disappear (which is also the whole premise of The World Without Us)? It reminded me of this BLDGBLOG book which I just recently finished, which has a whole chapter specifically for the underground. My favourite is the part about Derinkuyu, the underground cities of Cappadocia in Turkey, which — according to the book — could outlive nearly everything else humans have constructed here on Earth. So in the time of Armageddon, when the whole world is blown to dust — beneath the porous surface of Turkey, there will still be some lives — saved lives, these marginalised lives — emerging out within these underground cities.

Also related: My favourite book on the duality of a city — London Above and London Below — has to come from one of my favourite authors, Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere.

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