The Terror of Vaping: What Really Scares Me About Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor

I’ve tried to think of ways to make this funny — or at the very least entertaining. I went through a whole draft where I wrote this from the perspective of Charles Bukowski. Then David Foster Wallace (I gotta stop doing that shit) and finally, and impossibly, Che Guevara. All these attempts felt false and I asked myself — why am I doing this?

There’s a part of me that feels shitty or pretentious when I talk about movies honestly. Meaning without irony or deprecating jokes. Maybe it’s a deep-level insecurity. Maybe it’s imposter syndrome — that even after all these year of watching, studying, and loving films, I am still too dumb to talk about them sincerly (and maybe smartly).

Which is bullshit.

So that’s what this series is going to do: I’m going to write about movies. Horror movies mostly — though that label will be spread widely and thinly. And these pieces will be done from a place of sincerity. This isn’t just going to be about a “movie of the week”. My hope is that it’ll also be a journey of me finding that security, to write about movies with the soul-deep passion I have and share that passion in a way that makes you, reader, want to read more.

So, here we go:

Brandon Croneberg’s Possessor is a film that pushes the genre classifications of horror, sci-fi, and espionage thriller into a new direction. It’s about an assassin who penetrates the mind of targeted victims and then uses those victims to carry out assassinations without implicating the real self. It’s a horrible meditation on identity that never waxes too philosophically about “Who am I?” or “What does it mean to be human?” It instead focuses its attention on the instabilities of possibility — what will we be like in the future and how will we continue to fail just as badly as we are now?

Operating on a confident level Christopher Nolan never could, Possessor doesn’t offer comfort in the way of explanation. We’re never given any details on the processes of possession and its technology. This lack of information creates a believability that helps solidify the concepts that drive the film’s narrative. Who cares how it all works? It works. The movie would’ve failed had there been Nolan-like exposition, ala Inception, about the mechanics of brain penetration and flesh manipulation.

While not a direct horror film, that doesn’t stop it from being scary as fuck. And not in the The Thing way that involves an unstoppable force or like Synchronic where the mind, time, and reality are all terrible masters. The horror in Possessor is close. It lays in bed with you, watching you sleep. It fucks you in your own bed. Sometimes it calls you mother or father. Because what’s terrifying about the movie is that anyone can become possessed. Anyone can be called out and put on a dangerous, high-violence mission that ends in certain death. And this, if anything, is a commentary on those that enact mass violence on society and the reports that follow with quotes like: I never knew she could do something like this. She was always so quiet.

The horror is also within — yes, the identity is questioned and reality is questioned. But the questioning has a nihilistic, who-gives-a-shit-if-you’re-not-you attitude. Because we root for the villain in Possessor. The true innocent victim is the man the assassin possesses. He should be the hero. But instead, we want the assassin’s mission to succeed while she is inside the innocent. So we’re essentially saying fuck you to this guy and his existence/identity in order for our “heroine” to carry out her assassination. Am I not me? Doesn’t matter. Never did. Nihilistic.

But what I took away most from this film — and this might sound dumb as shit — was the uncomfortable and entirely plausible transition of the social and cinematic use of cigarettes to the use of complex vaping machines. People are always smoking cigarettes in film — less so now that the image of smoking has been widely cancelled. The hero lights one up when they are confused or contemplative or frustrated. It’s a symbol of thought. We cannot see the interiority of a character (unless it’s a Michel Gondry film or some shit) and so we’ve always relied on the use of cigarette smoking to tell us this thing.

Possessor takes this cigarette cancelation and replaces it with the vape, making it both absurdly recognizable and discomfitingly alien. Instead of the organic paper and leaves, characters suck on machinery. This action is heightened by the sound design. Each pull is punctuated with a grotesquely-detailed crackling, airy suction, the vape juices inside boiling into vapor. And where cigarettes used to imply the interiority of the character, these vape hits become empty — more about the action and the machine than the thought behind the action.

Vapes are ubiquitous in the film. I was honestly shocked that the main character’s 8 year old son didn’t pull out a vape and take a crackling suck off it. But Cronenberg’s use of these ubiquitous vapes implies a society-wide emptiness. That, as a whole, we are so empty we need to be fed a vaporous comfort by machine, that are thoughts are no longer the focus, and our interiority doesn’t matter anymore. Who cares what we think — take another hit off this Ultroner Alien filled with banana nut bread vape juice.

Imagine if Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca said “In all the vape bars you had to walk into this one” and then hit his fully-kitted vape. It’s a subtle detail in Possessor, but it’s one that pulled my attention and added an extra sense of discomfort and dread to the universe of the near-future. I don’t like seeing movies about the near-future because it’s never what I expect it to be. But with Possessor, it’s exactly as I know it’ll be — and that’s kinda scary.

P.S. I ain’t talking shit about people who smoke or vape.

Tex Gresham’s experimental hybrid collection Heck, Texas was published by Atlatl Press. Tex has work in F(r)ictionBack Patio PressHobartThe Normal School, and BOOTH. Tex is on Twitter as @thatsqueakypig and online at

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