Tag Archives: Alun Armstrong

‘Possum’ and the Destruction of Trauma

Most of us are familiar with The Babadook rhyme, right? Or “The Crooked Man” nursery rhyme from The Conjuring 2? But what about this one: “Mother, Father, what’s afoot? Only Possum, black as soot…?” These are the opening lines of Matthew HolnessPossum, a small, strikingly underrated nugget of British independent horror. The poem extends throughout the body of the movie, pulling apart its surreal narrative and spotlighting one of its most prominent themes: childhood trauma.

Set against this murky British landscape that breeds a natural feeling of unease and uncanniness, we follow Philip (Sean Harris), a puppeteer shunned from the performance circuit due to the creation and premiere of his horrific puppet, Possum. Now intent on destroying Possum, Philip returns to his childhood home where he becomes the prime suspect in a missing child case.

Possum is a vessel for Philip’s trauma. The abuse he suffered in his younger years and the impact of a house fire that killed his parents and left him at the mercy of his uncle (Alun Armstrong). Philip’s trauma weighs heavy; he wears it on his face, he holds it in his physicality, and he literally carries it with him in the form of Possum stashed away in his brown holdall bag. It is especially telling that he refuses to clutch the bag anywhere near his body. He extends it out at arm’s length, afraid of what’s inside (the bag and his mind). 

Philip’s main mission is to destroy Possum by any means necessary. Philip drowns him, beats him, abandons him, sets fire to him, but Possum has a funny way of coming back. There are even times where we actively see Philip change his mind. The act of destroying one’s own trauma is a significant undertaking, after all. It’s important to remember that Philip’s pursuit of Possum’s destruction is a solo act; his only surviving family member has been the catalyst of his trauma. Essentially, he has nobody but himself.  

If Possum himself is part of it, then the true breadth of Philip’s trauma can also be seen in other smaller traumatic signifiers littered through Holness’ surrealist montages. Balloons consumed by black smoke depict the brutal loss of innocence. Philip gags and chokes on the green sweets from Maurice’s jar, at first outright refusing to let the past repeat itself, but then becoming vulnerable after he attempts to burn Possum.

Holness also makes it impossible to ignore the repeated lingering shots of the darkwood door in the entranceway of Philip’s home. “Going in?” asks Maurice, each time he catches Philip frozen before the doorframe. Going in to do what? We can almost answer the question ourselves: going in to confront his past, to overcome his triggers, or in uncle Maurice’s sick mind, to revisit his darkest memories.

The secrets that lie behind that door are saved until the graphic final moments of the film. In the wake of Holness’ surrealism comes the understanding that the events of Possum are leading up to a final jarring reveal. This conclusion actually breaks the less conventional narrative structure of the latter parts of the film and gives Philip the most satisfyingly visceral destruction of his trauma. If destroying Possum is the metaphorical destruction of a lifetime of suffering, then what occurs in that forbidden room is most definitely its physical counterpart.

There are times when we even begin to believe that Possum might represent a more malicious aspect of Philip’s character. Maurice brings out an old puppet of his own and comments that it “runs in the family.” At face value he’s talking about puppetry, however we can also infer that this familial link could be predatory behavior. This statement becomes even more chilling when we consider that Philip’s few interactions, outside of those with his uncle, always revolve around children. He is the last to see the missing child. He is confronted by two young teens who regard him as a “pervert.” He even makes two rather suspicious visits to his old school, the first finds him lingering at the gates, confronted by a perturbed teacher who tells him to “move on.”

The second visit sees him reduced to a childlike state begging to see an old teacher of his, a teacher Philip claims knew all about “it,” and would go to the police with him. At this point it would be easy to call these happenings a misdirection when you compare it to the more concise ending of the mystery of the missing child. However, it could also be argued that Philip is so keen to destroy Possum because he represents a malicious hereditary trait.  

Holness cites Sigmund Freud’s theories of the uncanny as one of the main inspirations for Possum. That uncanny familiarity is what really brings Possum to life. Possum’s almost humanoid façade harks back to Philip’s own face. In the dark, Possum appears to be an open-mouthed arachnid predator, however when Philip holds Possum in the stark whiteness of day, we can see the resemblance. 

Possum is nothing but a sad face, mouth open with the same fear that pulls the corners of Philip’s mouth down in permanent grief. Philip has surely created Possum in the image of himself and yet Possum is the thing he seems to fear the most. Despite the absolute horror he has experienced at the hands of his uncle Maurice, he is able to coexist with him in a way that he struggles to do with Possum. His own likeness, coupled with the monstrous legs and Frankenstein-style haphazardness of Possum’s body, seem to be more fearsome to Philip than the real monster living in his house. He needs to destroy Possum before he destroys the human perpetrator of his trauma.

“Even the head?” Maurice asks as he questions Philip’s desire to destroy Possum. This is what makes the final shot so poignant. Possum’s body has been decimated but his head still remains, grasped firmly in the hands of his creator. Possum was never meant to be malicious, he kept finding his way back to Philip for a reason. His presence proves that the burden of Philip’s childhood cannot truly be destroyed, not fully. Maurice’s fate at Philip’s hands is the final act of catharsis, meaning that Possum’s head is simply leftover dust from Philip’s past. The complete destruction of his trauma would be to deny an integral part of himself, the part that holds darkness and anger, but also the part that remembers his parents. Possum speaks to the fact that we cannot simply destroy and discard ghosts from the past, they exist within us and we must acknowledge them.