For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.

Andy Carr’s love of film stems from his broader passion for all forms of visual communication, having a background in graphic design and photography. He’s spent several years as a writer, designer, and/or photographer for different publications, including Indianapolis Business Journal and UIndy’s The Reflector newspaper, serving as Entertainment Editor for the latter. Andy primarily writes for The Film Yap and co-hosts the Odd Trilogies podcast.

WARNING: Discussion of trauma

Trauma is a helluva thing.

I don’t mean to be flippant about it; it really is hell. Trauma, in countless forms, affects millions of people (I’d argue most people) every day of their lives. It can be crushing and debilitating like a weight or illness, or even haunting, like a doppelganger following you around, lurking in the shadows, awaiting the opportunity to take control.

I’m undoubtedly not the best person to provide an in-depth explanation of trauma to you, if you’re unfamiliar with it — and if you are already well-acquainted, then you likely need none. But as someone who’s heard countless stories and explanations from people very dear to me, Matthew Holness’s Possum strikes me as an effectively chilling portrait of the horrible rot that trauma can have on a person’s soul and psyche.

Philip (Sean Harris) has returned to his childhood home — something he’d hoped would never happen. He hates this place. It’s disgusting, falling to moldy ruin and crawling with bugs. His parents are dead. The only living vestige of his past here — a cruel reminder, presumably, of why he left — is his callous and repulsive stepfather, Maurice (Alun Armstrong).

Unfortunately, Philip’s career as a children’s puppeteer has been cut short. If the puppet he carries around in his leather bag is the one he uses for work, it quickly becomes apparent why. “Possum,” as Philip calls it, is an abomination, seen only in part for the film’s opening minutes as a set of three to eight knobby, hairy, spiderlike legs protruding from his bag. Throughout the film, Philip narrates pieces of an eerie, sing-songy children’s story about Possum and its appetite for children. 

Philip tries to rid himself of Possum, but whether he burns it, buries it in mud, or drowns it, it finds its way back to him. Possum is stalking him, sneaking up on him wherever he goes, and waiting for the chance to consume him. There is seemingly no escape.

By now, I imagine it’s becoming clear how Possum works as a depiction of trauma.

Holness has said that he based the film (or, rather, the short story he wrote, upon which the film is based) largely on the idea of Sigmund Freud’s theory of the uncanny: the idea that sometimes the most terrifying things are those that skirt natural reality, but miss the mark; things that appear real, and seem to exist within the confines of rationality at first, but defy the logic by which we’ve come to understand the world around us. Things like lookalikes, wax dolls or androids. Things like puppets.

For most of the film, we only see parts of Possum, and when we do see its full form, it’s typically inert — a dummy in Philip’s hands as he makes another attempt to destroy it. But slowly, as Philip’s mental state deteriorates, Possum begins to come alive with janky, unnatural movements that lend themselves to the terror of his otherness. Its legs are that of a spider, but its face is like a pained, porcelain perversion of Philip’s. An uncanny reflection of his own visage.

When Philip stares into Possum’s eyes (or the empty black holes with which Holness occasionally replaces them), he sees the things he hates most about himself. The things that happened to him here in this horror-house and molded his identity. The things about which Maurice now mocks him.

Holness and cinematographer Kit Fraser often frame these scenes, in which Philip is confronted by Possum face-to-face, in a shot-reverse-shot style so that we don’t see their faces on screen together. We’re either looking Philip in the face as he squirms and squeals in agony, or we’re locking eyes with the dead, unfeeling Possum. Either way, we’re trapped in this hellish staring contest along with both of them. It’s a sick game Holness plays with the audience, forcing us into this godawful introspective nightmare Philip is having, but it’s one that leaves a lasting impression.

But the darkest wrinkle of all is that Holness doesn’t allow us the pure, empathetic attachment to Philip that would make this whole endeavor easier. Philip, it seems, may not merely be a victim of trauma, but sadly, a reflector of his trauma onto others. There’s a thread running throughout the film that suggests Philip may himself be a predator upon children. Things are certainly left vague enough to be up for interpretation, but at the very least, the way the film dances with the idea adds to our unease at the prospect of being left alone with this guy and his worst fears.

And we do feel alone with him. Everywhere Philip goes is desolate, without a soul in sight, crumbling and overgrown with vines. Dead, decomposing leaves pile in every corner, as if to suggest every tree on Earth has simply given up. Occasionally, Philip encounters someone in passing, but for the most part, it’s as though he wanders through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, doomed to deal with Possum and his self-loathing by himself for all eternity.

Possum is a cold, purgatorial experience. Its 80 minutes of morbid melancholy feel almost unending until an intense, cathartic climax allows us, if not true comfort, the relief of coming up for air. But still, I can’t claim it a happy ending.

Frankly, I couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend this film to those who still grapple with childhood trauma related to physical or sexual abuse. I don’t know all that much about Holness, but Possum feels like it comes from a very vulnerable place. Even without any personal experience like Philip’s myself, I felt extremely unnerved by Maurice and the way he wickedly toys with Philip’s fragile state. I think that speaks to the strength of Harris’s and Armstrong’s performances, and the way Holness and Fraser capture them.

I don’t present this disclaimer remotely as a criticism against the film; the picture Holness paints is affecting in the way I imagine he intended and also strangely beautiful in how it’s able to articulate such an intangible human experience through atmospheric horror.

Perhaps, if you’ve found healthy ways to deal with your trauma, you’d find Possum to be a moving fable that sufficiently communicates the experience of living with it. I certainly felt moved by it and comforted for having seen it, even as uncomfortable as it made me. It’s the kind of horror film that lingers in your mind, not only for the terrifying images it burns there but for the viscerally, insightfully human experience it shared with you.