Possum. 2018. Directed & Written by Matthew Holness.
Starring Sean Harris & Alun Armstrong.
BFI Film Fund / thefyzz
Not Rated. 85 minutes.
Drama / Horror / Thriller
Psychological horror affects us by, often, bridging the body and the mind— where the threat in the mind becomes a threat to the body. The most pure psychological horrors threaten the mind solely. A corporeal, visceral death is horrific to imagine. There’s something worse and more terrifying about a death of the mind, or a loss of the mind’s faculties. Even if the body goes on living the mind can be traumatised into a state like death. Trauma is, at its core, a deadening of the self.
Possum— the debut feature film from Matthew Holness (a.k.a Garth Marenghi)— explores how childhood abuse causes a person to decay mentally, and the way in which we figuratively, as well as literally, work through our traumas as adults. The story’s not an easy one to digest. While there’s nothing explicit whatsoever in terms of imagery, neither in the dialogue which retains a cryptic quality throughout, the way Holness portrays the struggle of his protagonist, Philip (Sean Harris), could certainly trigger unwelcome feelings in those who’ve experienced similar abuse.
Difficulties aside, Holness’s film is an expertly crafted horror. He drew on Sigmund Freud’s concept of the Uncanny while writing the original short story off of which this film was based. He uses the Uncanny to dive into the psychology behind someone unable to speak about their traumas out loud. Philip resorts to creating a puppet which embodies the abuse he experienced. Eventually, he has to figure out how to destroy the puppet and obliterate all it represents, if that’s at all possible.
One of the most immediate visual aspects of the film is the fixation on decay. Philip comes back to his old dilapidated neighbourhood. Decay is everywhere, in and outside the home. The house is boarded up like nobody even lives there, or as if it’s a space shut off from the world, concealed from others. On the inside, decay reigns. Uncle Maurice (Alun Armstrong) is a pillar of decay: his glasses are cracked, he has a hacking cough, his clothes are filthy, he has yellowed teeth, and his fingernails are caked with filth.
The neighbourhood’s urban decay is symbolic of the social decay beneath. Maurice was a school teacher once and used this position, at various points, even after retirement, to gain access to children. At the same time, the children he abused all lived in the same area— an obviously socioeconomically deprived town— and likely because of that were left unprotected. Maurice not only lives in filth, he’s a signifier of decay, embodying the idea of urban and social rot in his physical characteristics.
This societal perspective is just as present in the way the audience sees Philip as a character representing victims of childhood abuse. Often it’s assumed most people who suffer abuse are destined to become abusers when the vast number of victims never abuse anyone— the mistake is that those who DO abuse were usually abused themselves, but that does not imply the majority of victims will go on to perpetrate abuse against others. The film’s told from Philip’s point-of-view. It isn’t until the climactic moments when the audience discovers 100% he hasn’t become an abuser. Whereas Uncle Maurice represents the intertwined concepts of urban and social decay, Philip is indicative of the ways in which abuse alters the reality of victims to a point of dissociation.
Judging by the brief glimpses of Philip’s room before he returns to the house with Maurice, it’s a room in a psychiatric ward. This clue about his life immediately prior to coming back to his childhood home starts us with the idea he’s been psychologically shattered. From social and urban decay, the film moves into the decay of ‘sin’ and trauma. Philip’s homemade children’s book includes the line: “Little possum, black as sin…” The blackness of sin is the psychological decay which Philip experiences throughout the film.
Pouring black rain, curdling black smoke, floating black balloons, the burnt, blackened room in Maurice’s house, and charcoal drawings in Philip’s self-authored children’s book are all images of the taint trauma leaves behind. The spectre of Uncle Maurice’s abuse hangs over Philip’s life, like the clouds lingering overhead which suddenly pour black rain over him without warning— same as how the trauma of abuse rears its head at times when a victim least expects it. The trauma Philip experienced by losing his parents in the fire is likewise ever present, as if it were nuclear fallout with the fire’s black ash settling everywhere around him.
The black balloons are an interesting image unto themselves because they can be viewed in several ways. First, balloons can be an image of childhood, or celebration, and the black subverts happiness usually associated with them into a sinister symbol. Secondly, the black balloon is a recurrent image of heroin use, from the song “Black Balloon” by The Kills to the Goo Goo Dolls’ song of the same name, to Black Balloon Day, started in remembrance of those who’ve died from heroin/opioid overdoses, and many other instances. Not far fetched to imagine Philip as a heroin user with those constant red rings around his eyes, a loose grip on reality, and all that repressed pain coming back as he tries to kick his habit while confronting his childhood trauma.
Finally, the round black balloons mirror those disgusting round sweets— they have their own sickly green colour— directly paralleling Uncle Maurice with the Possum character in Philip’s book. The sweets are an image of a gift used to lure child victims and keep them quiet. Similarly, the image of balloons, even black, are likewise playful symbols that attract children or are given to them as a ‘prize’— think of Pennywise the Clown’s use of a balloon in Stephen King’s It and the subversion of a child getting a balloon at the fair.
Although these images of decay are prominent, the most important image in Possum is the puppet, the physical object embodying all of the old traumas Philip’s unable to deal with directly. The puppet is a key to the events which damaged him as a boy, as well as the source of the Uncanny threatening to drive him mad.
“Dismantling it, are you?”
“In my own time”
The Uncanny is “in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar and old— established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” (Freud 240). This is why the uncanny valley exists, because what’s often most unsettling to us is something simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, producing a sense of unease. In light of trauma, Freud’s Uncanny, via repression, is a return of what once traumatised a person. Usually this involves unconscious feelings, and the return becomes a confrontation between the traumatised and their trauma. Freud describes the Uncanny as “the idea of being robbed of one‘s eyes” (Freud 229) meaning that the return of the familiar is the regaining of sight. Philip’s psychological journey after coming home— a return of its own— is a figurative return of sight. The puppet represents Philip’s return to the familiar through his figurative struggle with trauma. It also physically symbolises this journey through its becoming more lifelike. The puppet’s mask is initially eyeless. Philip sees his own face in the mirror as the eyeless mask during one scene. Later, it has eyes when Philip wakes up to find it next to him in bed, as if the mask finally has a full face, paralleling Philip’s finally being able to see the puppet as an effigy of his trauma.
Part of the puppet’s Uncanny image comes from the physical object itself. Although Philip never directly calls the puppet Possum, the puppet embodies his trauma, and through the children’s book— an Uncanny object which subverts childhood innocence— the object of that trauma is named Possum. All a roundabout way of saying the puppet’s name is Possum. Given that Philip calls the puppet by Possum, there’s an uneasy feeling of dissonance because it’s clearly a spider-like creature. The trauma has had such an effect on him he’s unable to distinguish between a less threatening possum and a more threatening spider.
Most Uncanny, in terms of the puppet, is its physical construction. The head is less a full head than it is a mask: the mouth is hollow, the eyes are holes at first, and the face is generally featureless. The mask is later revealed to play a part in the trauma(s) Philip experienced. The worst of the puppet’s Uncanny qualities come from the legs, which are a disturbing parallel to Uncle Maurice’s fingers. In the finale, the true extent of Philip’s trauma is realised, and watching Maurice wiggles his fingers, before ‘punishing’ his nephew, is like witnessing the spider-puppet-thing come to life with its spindly legs. Early on, the children’s rhyme Philip writes and recites clues us in on the puppet representing a person with its line “What‘s inside: man or spider?”
Puppeteering in general is suggestive of power and control. A puppet is manipulated, it’s smaller than the puppeteer, and its physical form is reminiscent of a child. More upsetting, to manipulate a puppet a person puts its hand inside it, which calls to mind an invasive act of penetration. In one scene, we see the disgusting uncle has a puppet of his own, whose mere presence frightens Philip as an image from his past. Philip learned how to make and use a puppet from his creepy uncle. That symbolic handing down of a craft here transforms into an allegory of how cycles of abuse are passed down from generation to generation. Philip’s ultimate destruction of the puppet, and the killing of Maurice, is a break in the abusive cycle.
Similar to Freud’s Uncanny is the French idea of double conscience. The double conscience, according to Benjamin Kilborne, is “knowing and not knowing at the same time, literally having two consciences, splitting the sense of ethics into what is known but not lived and what is lived but not known” (6). Kilborne connects the double conscience to an Italian word ‘dimenticatorium’ meaning “a place (or room) where one puts what one does want to know” (7). The Uncanny sensation Philip feels at home is exacerbated by a specific room into which he refuses to go, occasionally being taunted about it by Uncle Maurice. The room becomes the ‘double conscience’ once the audience sees this is the very room where Philip’s parents perished in a fire, in turn being the event that left him under the sole care of Maurice and led to his abuse. Philip knew the truth of what happened, just as Maurice says. His going into the room— his personal dimenticatorium— is simply his return to and acceptance of truth. The burned room symbolises Philip’s repression. By going inside, he unleashes all that was once known from the shadows of his past.
“You can’t kill it—
it’s a puppet.”
The effects of trauma have never been widely understood by the general population. Today, we continually struggle for people to understand how personal instances of abuse and assault, in their various forms, have affected peoples lives, their growth as human beings, and their connections to the world around them. Horror finds interesting ways to look at trauma, even if not all of them are effective, or particularly sensitive to victims. Horror is perhaps best equipped to deal with trauma because it can incorporate many other genres, but especially due to its willingness to terrorise— the audience doesn’t necessarily need to SEE how a victim is traumatised, they simply have to FEEL it.
Possum is one of Father Gore’s all-time favourite horror movies. Holness navigates the terror of psychological damage without ever needing to resort to any graphic details. By doing so, the focus stays wholly on the psychological. The only time the physical comes into play is at the end when Philip must confront his Uncle Maurice in the burned room. The ambivalence of whether Philip is a child abuser is an important plot point because people mistakenly believe most victims of abuse go on to become abusers. In Holness casting Philip’s trauma through an ambiguous lens, he grounds the struggle of his protagonist in a painfully real situation, where even the character begins to question himself and his reality.
One of the most brilliant elements remains Sean Harris. His haunting performance cements him as a hugely underrated character actor. His entire body speaks of trauma’s lasting wounds which stain the very psyche of a human being from the time they’re a child on into their adult life.
Possum is an important work of modern horror that feels like it could have been made during any decade since the 1960s. Holness conjures a disturbing view of what child abuse does to an adult later in life, mixing British kitchen sink realism with surreal dark fantasy. The focus on Philip’s Uncanny struggle, and his own uncertainty about what’s really going on around him, is a crucial perspective needed in stories about the way abuse’s trauma warps the reality of victims.
Horror isn’t a monolith— it can entertain, scare, enlighten, and so much more. Possum‘s simplicity belies its message. If Holness was only trying to creep us all out with a modern Gothic, he did a fantastic job. He also managed to use the horror genre as a vehicle to honestly explore the choppy waters of the damaged mind, and how people attempt to master the traumas that damaged them even if the results are horrifying.
Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.'” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII (1917–1919): An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works; pp. 217-256. (Text available here.)
Kilborne, Benjamin. “Trauma and the Unconscious: Double Conscience, the Uncanny, and Cruelty.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 24; pp. 4-20. (Text available here.)