Possession: a horror cult classic and an allegory for divorce  

11 mins read

Going through a divorce can be emotionally taxing, financially burdensome, and raise existential questions. But what if the act of divorce was deadlier than a piece of paper? 

Possession, directed by Andrzej Zulawski in 1981, is a psychological horror film that serves as an allegory for the stress of divorce. It’s body horror at its finest but put the gruesome aspects of the film to one side, and it is a chilling reflection on the human experience and the messy ins and outs of divorce. Although extremely divisive at the time of its release and slated by moviegoers and critics alike, it has managed to hold onto its cult status in recent years. 

So, what is Possession about? 

Set against the desolate backdrop of the post-Cold War era of 1980s West Berlin, the story follows a married couple – Anna, played by French actress Isabelle Adjani, and Mark, played by Jurassic Park star Sam Neill. Mark, a spy, returns home to his wife Anna and their son Bob after a mission to find out that Anna is asking for a divorce.  

Anna and Mark’s fight. Image credit: Yari Film Group

Symbolism in the film  

The film is littered with symbolism, and it is up to the audience to interpret the symbols. For example, a detail that I love is that the title is synonymous with various things in the movie that are possessions, albeit in different forms.  

Mark’s treatment of Anna turns her into his possession in their marriage – this is possibly why they have a communication breakdown within their relationship – leading her to feel despondent towards Mark and creating her downward spiral of increasingly deranged behaviour as the film progresses.  


Mark’s possessive nature gets worse when he suspects that Anna is having an affair (which she is). 

Later in the film, it is revealed that Anna is sleeping with a monster-like entity, which may also be symbolic, as it could be the case that it represents her relationship with Mark, which from an outsider’s perspective is difficult to witness due to its turbulent nature. However, to Anna, the creature holds a different meaning, perhaps indicating what’s missing from her relationship with Mark – in an intimate sense. 

Doppelgangers also play a key role in the plot development of the film. Mark, after discovering that Anna is cheating on him with a man named Heinrich, drops their son Bob off at school. There, he meets Bob’s teacher, Helen, who bears a striking resemblance to Anna but with a different hairstyle and emerald green eyes. It’s also worth noting that the role of Helen is also played by Isabelle Adjani. It’s possible that the two women look alike because Zulawski wants to show that Mark is still thinking about Anna despite receiving attention from other women, which is typical after a recent breakup. Mark could also be projecting his idyllic version of Anna onto Helen.

Helen, the school teacher. Image credit: Yari Film Group

And at the end of the film, the monster transforms into a copy of Mark, perhaps symbolizing Anna’s search for an ideal husband. 

Location of West Berlin

The film’s location is also a significant symbol, as it represents a country that was once united but is now divided, with the wall being the divider. The Berlin Wall could also be considered a metaphor for divorce, as it separates West and East Berlin.  

The opening scene, where Mark returns to West Berlin. Image credit: Yari Film Group

Finite details and nuances such as this elevate the story, making it stand out within the horror genre as it isn’t relying on the tiresome formula of a masked villain, cheap jump scares, and predictable deaths; instead, the film conjures up a much more terrifying image: the breakdown of a relationship, which is a stress-inducing thing that we all have or will experience throughout our lives. The film uses the supernatural trope of possession to depict the breakdown of a marriage in a realistic manner. 

Did you know? 

When researching more into the film and how it came to fruition, I learned that filmaker Andrzej Zulawski became inspired to make the film after going through a divorce with his ex-wife, actress Malgorzata Braunek, in 1976. 

The subway scene is arguably the most infamous scene from the film, and even if you haven’t watched the film, you may have still seen the unsettling scene in a 10-second-out-of-context TikTok video.  

In this scene, Isabelle Adjani’s character, Anna, becomes possessed while walking through an abandoned subway station while carrying her food shopping. Adjani’s performance is powerful, and her eyes widen like an owl’s as she laughs hysterically, convulsing and throwing herself up against the subway walls. She grunts, twisting her wrists, and swishes her hair in a violent manner; watching her unruly performance is like watching an exorcism. The scene climaxes with Adjani screaming this excruciatingly loud scream as she falls to her knees.

It’s an intense scene. It’s no surprise that the film was banned, as there’s a lot of gore. It felt exhausting to watch; I can’t begin to imagine how Isabelle Adjani felt having to act it out. I was transfixed the first time I watched the scene. It felt eerie and unnerving, and I even laughed at Adjani’s overacting, which perhaps served as a copying mechanism for the unrelenting, sheer discomfort of the scene. 

Criticisms of the film and why it became labelled as a video nasty 

The film was ridiculed for the overacting, primarily of Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill’s characters. In defence of that criticism, there’s the argument that this was a deliberate choice made by director Andrzej Zulawski because it’s meant to portray the heightened emotions that many couples feel while going through the painful process of a divorce.  

Director Andrzej Zulawski’s style of horror is also arthouse, so of course there’s going to be stylistic choices and dramatics added for entertainment value. If you also have a twisted sense of humour, like me, you’ll like Zulawski’s black humour. 

Possession was also the Polish director’s first English-language film to be released to a universal audience; however, it was not well received at first. It was also banned in both the UK and the US and was added to the ‘video nasties’ list, as stated on Collider, which is a list of movies that are deemed too controversial for an audience to watch. It was eventually released in the US, but with a significant amount of its runtime cut out. 

According to Far Out Magazine, Sam Neill said:

If that doesn’t tempt you to watch it (at your own risk), I don’t know what will. 

Possession is both a horror cult classic and the ultimate breakup film. It has inspired other horror directors, including Ari Aster, who regards it as highly influential to 2019’s Midsommar

To summarise…

What I took away from Possession is this: maybe we fall in love with someone based on our preconceived ideas about them and become disinterested when they turn out to be flawed people. Or do we go insane because we love someone in spite of their flaws? Or perhaps director Andrzej Zulawski feels both scenarios are accurate in romantic relationships?

By the end of the film, amongst all the chaos that surrounds them, Anna and Mark still love each other despite their individual flaws, which, to me, is the most terrifying yet hopeful part of the film. 

Possesion is available to watch on Mubi, which is part of Amazon Prime Video, and you can also watch the horror phenomenon on the streaming platform Shudder, which celebrates all things horror. It’s one to watch on October 31 with a group of friends because it will spark endless discussions. However, it’s not for the faint of heart, so be warned if you’re easily squeamish.

Featured Image Credit: Yari Film Group / Canva

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BA (Hons) English Studies and Journalism Studies student with an interest in music, news, and film and TV.

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