Jordan Peele’s “Us” opens with an unusual piece of trivia: Across the U.S., there are thousands of miles of underground tunnels that have been long forgotten. The film says they include abandoned subway tunnels, unused sewers or old mine shafts — and many have no clear purpose at all.
If you haven’t seen “Us,” we won’t spoil why exactly that’s significant. But it’ll immediately make you wonder whether there’s a factual basis to the claim. Are there really a whole network of tunnels that people have just forgotten? Peele has had an answer for just about every other seemingly innocuous reference or image in the film, so where did he get this detail?
One person who knows first-hand that Peele isn’t just making something up is Will Hunt, the author of the just-published book “Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet.” He’s explored many of the caves, tunnels and underground passageways that do exist across the U.S. along with many urban explorers, and he said the scope of these tunnels would surprise you.
“There are way more tunnels underground wherever you are in the United States than you would imagine. 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,” Hunt said. “Wherever you go, there’s something under your feet that people don’t think about.”
However, Peele imagines quite a universe in these underground tunnels — no spoilery details here. While Hunt didn’t consult with Peele and hasn’t seen “Us,” he knows the idea of the underground as a metaphor is ripe for a screenplay.
“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.”
Hunt noted that there’s substantial evidence that hundreds of people live in tunnels, just out view of regular society, in places ranging from Las Vegas to Moscow to Bucharest to New York City.
“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 said. “They’re these marginalized, forgotten people who are living completely out of sight in essentially a separate reality.”
He mentioned a “massive community” that was found underneath the Upper West Side of Manhattan between the ’80s and ’90s where people had “literally built homes out of wares salvaged from the surface.” Hunt said these people had water sources, generators and had siphoned electricity to get by.
“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,” Hunt said. “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.”
Hunt is a journalist who earned the trust of the many urban explorers who document such tunnels and communities, but he said they typically pass along information only through oral tradition, and very few of these tunnels have ever been formally mapped or quantified.
For a real-life account of mole people and the homeless who live in New York City, Hunt recommends the 2000 documentary “Dark Days.” But he said the idea of the underground representing the other and the unconscious of society is something that goes back generations and one that is great for fiction.
“From a fiction writer’s perspective or a screenwriter’s perspective, to have this dark territory inhabited by these forgotten people directly beneath this neon cityscape is insane,” Hunt said. “When you’re not super-conscious of the world and you’re not thinking hard about reality, you’re in your own space. You’re thinking about what’s in front of you, and you’re not thinking deeper. You can’t talk about this without going into these silly underground puns.”
“But you’re not thinking deep. You’re not looking inside of yourself or not probing or inquiring or investigating,” he continued. “You’re just sort of complacent, and you’re moving through the world comfortable in your own reality. But when you start to question things, and are starting to look beneath the surface of reality, you’re starting to think deeper about the hidden aspects of the world.”
Peele’s “Us” is in theaters now. Hunt’s book “Underground” is available now.