To hear Vice’s Ryan Bradford tell it, “Terrifying Family Trauma Is the New Thing in Horror.”
I would dispute that family trauma is a “new thing” in horror, something Bradford himself admits, but his main thesis holds up – namely, that 2018 was marked, in films like the excellent Hereditary and shows like Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block, Sharp Objects, and Haunting of Hill House, by stories of family trauma manifested in horrific and terrifying ways.
Bradford writes that:
“In these films and series—especially Haunting of Hill House—families destroy themselves by unearthing the grief, abuse, mental illness, shitty parenting, and unaddressed tension buried in their lineages. Inherited family trauma is the new form of body horror—except instead of physical, it’s emotional. And unavoidable.”
…I very much like this approach to family trauma; as emotional body horror and an inherited curse. And I can’t argue with his appraisal of 2018 – especially not in light of the atmospheric dread, bleak physical and emotional landscapes, and hideous mental scars reflected in 2018’s British psychological horror film Possum.
Possum digs in to trauma in ways that are at once more concrete and more atmospheric than the dread in Hill House. The physical manifestation of the emotional damage dealt to failed children’s entertainer Phillip (Sean Harris) is represented not in apparitions but a much more (distressingly more) tactile companion. And the dread is, in Possum, not the stuff of a derelict manor house, rotting away like a Gothic cliché in a secluded location. It saturates the rain-soaked landscape of a British town that is so specific – the footbridge, the old barracks – that it could only be the locus of writer-director Matthew Holness’ origin story.
Phillip is an outsider in every sense of the word, cut off from his parents, his peer group, his town, and (it would seem) the world beyond the town as well. In the elegant perfection of his loneliness, Phillip is unable even to string together three words with his Uncle Maurice, a smirking, malevolent presence, portrayed in shabby sadism by Alun Armstrong. More than this, he seems simultaneously unable to either avoid or rid himself of a persistent symbol of his trauma and failure.
I won’t lie and tell you this is a fun or easy film to watch. For one thing, it is – in many ways – an expressionist film, and Holness has also cited public information films from the 1970s as an inspiration for the dreary, saturated visual style he deploys. While I won’t spoil anything, I will tell you that by the end of its 85-minute run time, Possum does make many things clear, but for much of the film the audience is left to glean the plot and connect the dots for themselves. This would also be an opportune moment to offer a content advisory that the film deals with child abuse – indirectly, for the most part, but there are a few moments that people dealing with those issues may find triggering.
While it’s a more recent film (2019 rather than 2018), Mercy Black plays on many of the same themes and examines some of the same questions that haunt Possum. Writer-director Owen Egerton takes us into the life of Marina (Daniella Pineda, who was excellent), a woman dealing with family trauma from her childhood that she was on the giving – as well as receiving – end of. Again, I won’t spoil anything, but devotees of urban legends gone bad might recognize certain similarities between Mercy Black’s plot and a 2014 crime in Waukesha, Wisconsin.
Possum and Mercy Black share thematic overlaps beyond family trauma – in particular, their unsettling use of objects that are not as inanimate as the viewer might wish – but it is in their treatment of the transmission of trauma from generation to generation that these films shine. Mercy Black is a more welcoming and less dour visual environment than Possum (perhaps due to geography – Mercy takes place in Billings rather than the bleak grey rainscapes of Northern England), but make no mistake. Both of these films are neat, sharp-toothed explorations of some very dark places.
Perhaps 2018 saw an uptick in media that portrays family trauma. Whether that’s true or not, I’d guess that as #MeToo and #TimesUp continue, and as we – as a horror community – strive to add more voices to the conversation, in particular voices that have thus far been kept out in the echoing dark, I suspect that more and diverse examinations of this aspect of the human condition will enrich us all. Horror, by its very nature, offers us unique insights into trauma.
Insights that we would be foolish to ignore.