Possum from writer and director Matthew Holness is a stunning piece of art from grief. As a metaphor for guilt, trauma, and abuse, it is as uncomfortable as possible intentionally. As a horror film, there aren’t any traditional scares. This film is content to live in the shadowy spaces between what we see and what we feel, where the actual monsters lurk. The highly symbolic film has more layers than characters and more possible meanings than Vanilla Sky.
After returning to his childhood home, Phillip, a disgraced children’s puppeteer, becomes haunted by a spindly-legged puppet. He visits many of his childhood memories, trying desperately to bury the spider puppet that haunts him. Unfortunately, some scandal caused him to lose his job, and that was probably Phillip displaying this same puppet to children. For Phillip, it was a way to heal and admit what happened to him while simultaneously hoping he could reach a child in need. Because he is so damaged, however, he failed to recognize that this was inappropriate. After repeated attempts at disposing of the puppet failed, Phillip confronts the real source of his trauma, his uncle, and that’s when things really get weird.
Possum is a hard movie to watch and an even harder one to define. Its murky resolution(if you can call it that) and hypnotic dream-like quality are not for everyone. The bleak subject matter and disturbing relentless puppet are pure nightmare fuel for a fevered mind and blackened soul. Despite all of this, for those who prefer a slow-burning psychological leaning horror film, Holness’ film from a short story of the same name can’t be bested. Here is everything you need to know about that heartbreaking and confusing movie.
The ending of Possum
Phillip is a damaged man, but after being hounded by the spider puppet throughout the movie, it is finally revealed that he is mentally unstable but may not be responsible for any crimes. He begins to believe he has kidnapped the missing teenager. However, his uncle framed him for everything. Phillip confronts his uncle, and the two men fight. Finally, Phillip breaks his uncle’s neck and releases the missing boy who had been locked in a chest.
There is some speculation that none of this is real. Some of what happened in the burned parents’ room are undoubtedly real. This was the room his parents had been killed in, and a boy was locked in a chest. Whether any of the rest of it is real depends on your view of Maurice. Is he a ghost haunting Phillip, a hallucination, or a living person? Maurice never interacts with anyone outside of the house except for a conversation he supposedly has with the policeman who comes looking for Phillip. This happens off-camera, however, and could be another hallucinated conversation. Phillip is an unreliable narrator, and as a result, none of what he sees can be trusted.
His childhood home has fire and water damage and is filthy. It is highly doubtful the house would be habitable all these years later. As a result, it is more plausible that Maurice has died at some point in the past, and Phillip sees a hallucination. Additionally, the older man would hardly have the strength to manhandle a fourteen-year-old boy. That would mean the teenager locked in the chest was Phillip’s victim, not Maurice’s.
A third possibility exists that neither Maurice nor the boy exists. In this scenario, the child locked in the chest is Phillip as a victim, and Maurice is his abuser. When Phillip killed Maurice and freed the child, he was freeing himself of a lifetime of fear. In this telling of the story, Phillip never hurt anyone but was so gaslit by Maurice he was afraid he would someday become just like his uncle. When Maurice laughs when Phillip smokes, this hints that Phillip is worried about becoming a pedophile himself.
Phillip’s poem is another example of this. We hear Phillip’s ghastly little nursery rhyme about a half man-half spider named Possum from the very beginning. This is a twisted fairy tale full of creepy imagery and self-loathing. Phillip created the poem and the monster to describe his worst fear. He thought of himself as dirty and wrong because, as a child, his uncle repeatedly abused him and told him to remain silent and lie still as if he was playing dead.
The only proof we have of a supposed missing child are news reports on the television that spontaneously cut in and out of static. These could be further hallucinations of Phillip’s troubled mind. He is so scared of becoming his uncle he manifests a story where he is the abuser.
What does the spider puppet represent?
Of all the symbols in Possum, this is the easiest to decipher. The puppet named Possum is all Phillip’s repressed grief and guilt. It is a black hairy, enormous, terrifying spider with a vomit green human face. After his parents died in the fire, Phillip was raised by his uncle, a horrible person. He abused Phillip and was both a killer and a pedophile. It appears Phillip knew this, and likely he has intense feelings of guilt for not helping despite the fact that as an abused child himself, he would not have much agency.
Throughout most of the film, Phillip tries to rid himself of the puppet he keeps in a leather bag. No matter what he does, the spider keeps returning to him. This is because he can not outrun his past no matter how hard he tries. His emotions and possibly his current behavior has to be acknowledged. The truth may not set him free per se, but it will release him from the burden of the trauma. His uncle also reminds him that the dead children were transported in bags. For Phillip, this is reliving his horrible memories.
The spider is how he saw his uncle abusing him as a child. He tells his uncle he will kill it, but he means he will kill him, which he does at the end of the film. His uncle used his fingers to violate the young boy, and it could be speculated he wore a mask when kidnapping and killing boys years ago. Spiders are often thought of insidious scary things and this is why Phillip imagined his uncle and later himself as a spider.
Phillip lost his job because he pulled the spider puppet out for the children, which was inappropriate. Phillip was simply trying to express his pain and hopefully find a way to help other kids find their voice, but because he is so damaged, he did not understand how scary the creature would be for the kids. Each place Phillip tried to dispose of the spider puppet is probably where another of his uncle’s victims are buried.
In a more physical sense, the puppet is his uncle Maurice. No matter what he does or how hard he tries to shake him, he returns to torment Phillip. Maurice says as much when he tells Phillip that he was at the barracks, and Phillip says nothing. Maurice is a monster who abused Phillip mentally and physically. In addition, he psychologically tortured the boy by embarrassing and isolating him from peers and making him a potential victim of bullies. Thus, Phillip created the beastly puppet from even more unimaginable torture.
The yellow and black balloons and smoke in Possum
These represent his innocence and his parents before the fire. Before the fire, he was happy with loving parents who did everyday family things. After he was corrupted by his uncle’s perversions, and this is why he saw himself being coated in black rain. He was drowning in the poison of his past. It seems his uncle may have lived with them at the time, which is why Phillip asks him why he didn’t burn when they did. This may have been just a philosophical statement, but it might also have been a clue that Phillip may have started the fire to stop his uncle’s abuse but accidentally killed his parents.
The fox in Possum
The fox and the puppet are intertwined with Phillip’s own point of view. He sees himself as both alive and dead, which is why the puppet never leaves or is destroyed, and random foxes continuously return to life. In one particularly unpleasant story, Phillip talks about a group of friends kicking a sick fox for sport, and when Phillip thinks they have killed him, the fox gets up and runs away. It’s possible the fox did not survive, and this was just what Phillip hoped had happened. It would mean that all the dead kids his uncle killed could return to life. It was a coping mechanism that helped him process everything that happened to him and everything he knew happened to all the other kids over the years. If you believe Phillip kidnapped the boy, it could be a precursor to a psychotic mind.
Foxes are often attributed with cleverness, and Phillip hopes he will be more like a fox. If he were, he would be smart and resilient and less like a puppet or, worse, a puppeteer like his uncle. His uncle made him dinner early on and was a roast fox. He was trying to break him of his spirit. Although this could have been a hallucination or a memory, the psychological torment is on par with the classic Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. Foxes are also symbolic of protection, and Phillip certainly needed plenty of that as a child. He probably felt no one would believe or help him since his uncle had so many friends at the school.
The candy jar
The candy jar that Maurice takes candies to give to Phillip from is often depicted as moldy and rotten because the candies that Phillip is forced to take are poison to him. They cause him to be compliant and hallucinate, so they are rotten and dangerous to eat in a real sense. It is never confirmed the candies were laced with drugs, so they could also be a sick reward for helping his uncle dispose of the bodies or after abusing him. Repeated negative memories associated especially with a smell or taste would have a lasting effect. This would explain why he was sickened by the candy and why the jar looked so repulsive.
Possum is a painful look into the void created by a childhood so bleak no light or goodness could escape. Phillip is a broken spirit caught between what he wants to believe and what his demons tell him. After a childhood spent with an abuser and possibly serial killer, he is terrified he will become like Maurice. Your perspective is what matters in Possum. The symbol-heavy story paints a vivid picture of both victim and abuser, depending on your beliefs. Phillip’s half-mud-covered self early in the film could be either the aftermath of him kidnapping a child or the visual representation of his guilt and innocence. It is up to the viewer. The beauty is in the ambiguity, and your outlook on life influences your interpretation.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.