Warning: Spoilers throughout
"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."
And with this ominous foreword, Jordan Peele's record-breaking horror film "Us" begins.
Peele's latest masterpiece tells the story of a family engaged in a battle for their lives after their doppelgängers emerge. As the apocalyptic narrative unfolds, we're told that the evil doubles emerged from the sewers, having lived their wretched lives in a vast underground network of clandestine tunnels existing just below our society. And although the situation is clearly a metaphor for class and identity, Peele's initial claims about the existence of an American subterranean world is a terrifying one. Could it be true?
As it turns out, Peele's assertions about America's underground tunnels are far less far-fetched than it might seem at first glance.
The idea of massive underground tunnel networks has been the basis for plenty of conspiracies, with theorists engaging in endless debates about the existence of such tunnels, as well as the extent to which these passages were or are used for drug and human trafficking or by the government for nefarious military reasons.
Many seem obsessed with the notion that many of the entrances exist beneath abandoned Walmart facilities. Snopes, a site that debunks urban legends, explored the myths around a series of Walmart closures due to pipe problems in 2015, which had some conspiracists postulating about the existence of “deep underground military bases” (DUMBS) being built beneath the big box stores. Snopes ultimately couldn't prove or disprove anything on the matter, but concluded that "the most plausible theory from this bunch is that the closed Walmart stores all had really bad plumbing problems."
Theories about smuggle tunnels have a bit more validity. In fact, earlier this year, a series of small passages were found to exist along the U.S.-Mexico border, with experts claiming they were used to import and export illegal materials, according to The Washington Post.
Long before that, bootleggers were known to have used an 11-mile long series of tunnels in downtown Los Angeles to transport liquor to (literally) underground speakeasies, according to Atlas Obscura.
Confusingly, tunnels sometimes mistaken as smuggle tunnels actually served other purposes. A brick-lined system of passageways in Ybor City, Florida that historians had assumed was used for illicit trading was recently discovered to have actually been part of a larger 19th-century sewage system, according to local outlet TampaBay.com.
But the reality of these tunnels beyond drugs, Walmart, and cesspools is even more surreal.
Will Hunt, the author of the just-published book “Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet," recently explored the subject with The Wrap.
“There are way more tunnels underground wherever you are in the United States than you would imagine," said Hunt. "There are just crazy layers of infrastructure, whether they be active or abandoned transportation tunnels, sewer lines, aqueducts or even military or government infrastructure hidden underground. Wherever you go, there’s something under your feet that people don’t think about.”
Much of New York's underground world came into being as the result of abandoned subway extension projects.
"After World War II, prices had gone up substantially and it became obvious that it was not going to be possible to build all of the lines they would've like to have built," Subway historian Joe Cunningham told local radio station WNYC.
But do people actually inhabit these abandoned shafts? Hunt says the answer is yes.
“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 marginalized, 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.”
Anthony Taille of The Week explored New York's "mole people" population in a 2016 investigation. A homeless man identified only as Jon explained what existence in this society is actually like — and it's pretty far from the shadow world of the Tethered.
"I'm good here," he told Taille. "No taxes, no rent, no nothing. There's no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I'm saying? Here I don't get bugged by kids. It's a safe place. I can do what I wanna and I don't have to take nothing from nobody."
"People don't want to speak to me when they come here," Jon continued. "I don't know, man. They're scared or something. I can get why, it's a spooky place when you don't know it. But people, they like it when it's scary. They like it when it's dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That's why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers."
Ultimately, although the conceit of "Us" is richly fantastical, it's actually not as surreal as the film would have audiences believes. Those underground tunnels probably aren't populated by your scissor-brandishing double — but if they're as vast as they seem to be, we can't make any promises.
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