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The true story behind the biggest horror film of the year, Us.

Warning: This article contains mild spoilers for Us, so proceed at your own risk. 

In a twisted turn of events, Jordan Peele’s record-breaking new horror movie Us did not draw inspiration from a brutal true crime case or even a mysterious urban legend, but rather from an 80s charity event.

In Us, Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o), her husband Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two children Jason (Evan Alex) and Zora (Shahadi Wright-Joseph) head to their beach house near the Santa Cruz boardwalk for a relaxed family holiday.

Their holiday plans quickly go to hell, however, when sadistic duplicates of the family invade their home and proceed to terrorize them for the remainder of the film. The doppelgängers are called “The Tethered” a species of human who remained hidden in underground tunnels until the day they decided to rise up and react a dystopian and bloody version of the decade’s old charity event Hands Across America.

Take a look at the terrifying trailer for Us.

The catch is, there was never anything brutal or dangerous about the original Hands Across America, a charity event that took place on May 25, 1986 and was instigated by Ken Kragen, a talent manager who also orchestrated the We Are the World charity single and album.

The idea behind the stunt was to raise between $50 million and $100 million to combat hunger and homelessness in America by convincing millions of people to stand side-by-side and hold hands, effectively creating a human chain across the nation beginning at 3pm and lasting for 15 minutes.

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People who participated in the charity event were asked to contribute between $10 and $35 each to be part of the cause and were gifted with a commemorative T-shirt in return.

Despite ringing celebrity endorsements for the event from the likes of people such as Oprah Winfrey, Hands Across America failed to raise its targeted amount of charity funds. The initiative cost between $14 million and $16 million to orchestrate, but ultimately only ended up raising around $15 million for charity.

Despite the good intentions and charitable edge to the event, Us director and writer Jordan Peele saw a dark side to Hands Across America.

“Hands Across America was this idea of American optimism and hope, and Ronald Reagan-style-we-can-get-things-done-if-we-just-hold-hands,” he told Vanity Fair at the South by Southwest Film Festival, where Us was first screened.

“It’s a great gesture—but you can’t actually cure hunger and all that.”

The Hands Across America event also coincided with a prominent cultural moment that had a profound effect on the award-winning director and writer of Get Out.

“That was when I was afraid of horror movies. That’s when the Challenger disaster happened,” he said. “There are several 80s images that conjure up a feeling of both bliss and innocence, and also the darkest of the dark.”

Us opened to a record-breaking $70m+ at the American Domestic Box office, making it the number one launch for an original horror title in history. It was also the third biggest horror opening for a movie ever behind It, and the sequel to Halloween and the best cinema start for a live-action original since Avatar.

A pretty decent payout for turning a well-intentioned charity event into a nightmare-inducing film.

Us is now playing in cinemas Australia-wide. It is rated MA15+.

For more stories like this, you can follow Mamamia Entertainment Editor Laura Brodnik on Facebook.  You can also visit our newsletter page and sign up to “TV and Movies”  for a backstage pass to the best movies, TV shows and celebrity interviews (see one of her newsletters here). 

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