I learn Possum Kingdom is a real place. It’s a manmade lake in Texas named by a turn-of-the-century fur trader. I learn there are spots there called Hell’s Gate and Devil’s Island.
I learn Vaden Todd Lewis, the lead singer of the Toadies, says in a 1995 interview that the song of the same name is about “a really cool, eerie lake, and some stuff I heard and some stuff I just [made]up.”
I know every state has places like this, unsettling places you sneak into with friends. Places you dare each other to go for the sharp, breathless thrill. Connecticut, where I live, has the abandoned settlement of Dudleytown. It has the Little People’s Village, with its tiny cursed throne: if you sit in it, you die in seven years. My hometown has Holy Land, a deserted religious theme park practically in my backyard. We’d climb up through the woods so the nuns who own the property wouldn’t catch us. We’d walk through miniature catacombs, avoiding headless lambs.
I don’t know which is the stuff that’s made up.
I think about possums, how they pretend to be dead. I look them up and learn that when they’re playing dead, when they look dead, they also make themselves smell dead. I learn it’s a reflex, a fear response. They can’t help it.
I think about how since my late teens, I play all of Rubberneck, skip around, get hung up on certain songs, get obsessed, repeat repeat repeat, but never get sick of. I think about how I play “Possum Kingdom” over and over, despite the hundreds of times I’ve heard it on the alt rock radio station, and despite the fact that it scares me a bit every time.
I learn, in guitarist Clark Vogeler’s documentary Dark Secrets: The Stories of Rubberneck, Vaden Todd Lewis says the song is not about vampires, not about a murder, that it’s meant to exist after “I Burn,” a song about a cult’s self-immolation. I learn that “Possum Kingdom” is about a guy “that’s kind of stuck in another world […] lonely and freaked out and just wanting to lure somebody else into his little realm. This guy wants to convince somebody else to do what he did, which is to burn themselves alive in order to be this other thing.”
I wonder what this other thing could be.
I hear ambiguity; the lyrics work under all theories. They allow personal projection. They allow me to dress them up in my own memories, my own childhood horrors. I can understand the vampire thing, but I hear murder. I hear summer camp serial killer. I can’t shake the idea of a preserved dead girl. I hear “make up your mind/Decide to walk with me/Around the lake tonight,” and I picture Camp Crystal Lake. I picture the waterlogged, disfigured boy jump-scare. I see the campers disappearing one by one.
I picture a murder, but first something more. When I hear “I’m not gonna lie/I’ll not be a gentleman/Behind the boathouse/I’ll show you my dark secret,” I picture a dilapidated shack on a muddy bank, purple spiked bulbs of skunk cabbage erupting through dead leaves. I see someone waiting behind the shack.
I think about the places we want to go, things we want to see, to hear, because they are frightening.
I watch Return of the Living Dead at five years old. My dad owns a video store, my dad acts in indie horror movies, my dad pushes the VHS in, presses play, and when something violent or gory happens, when the super-tall zombie drags its wet, leaking body around yelling for brains, my dad tells me it’s pretend.
I lean into anything frightening after this, growing toward it like a seedling to sunlight. I devour kiddie-horror: Goosebumps, Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, every Are You Afraid of the Dark? episode, a worn VHS copy of Secrets in the Attic, a movie about murder and a haunted dollhouse.
I flirt with darker stuff. I run around the video store freely, reading the backs of Faces of Death tapes, memorizing images of slashed-up bodies in the cult and horror sections. I lock our bathroom door and scale the wardrobe, reaching to pull down a hidden book about Ed Gein.
I don’t know what I’m doing to myself, or why, since at this point fear from other sources immobilizes me constantly: my mom plays an endless background loop of COPS, Rescue 911, and Unsolved Mysteries; several people close to me are dying or have recently died of incurable diseases; in 1997, one of my dad’s employees, a nineteen-year-old who’d babysat me, murders a child my age, a kid who was always hanging out at the video store. For a time, I think about how that could’ve been me. Now, I think about how at any time, by anyone else, it still could be me.
I don’t know which is the stuff that’s made up.
I think about possums, frozen in fear, collapsing, stiff. I try to sort out if there’s power in it. To pretend to be dead, the very thing you’re afraid of.
I watch the music video for “Possum Kingdom,” and it syncs up with my imagined story. Only they’ve tricked us; a man drags a tarp-rolled body from a creek, the band plays in a dimly lit space, the man unfurls the tarp and hacks away, only to reveal not a decomposing body, not a silvery Laura Palmer, but an ice sculpture of a woman. Lewis says it’s about “taking something that is beautiful and whole and destroying it in order to create something else.”
I wonder what that exact moment looks like, the moment you’re fully convinced that yes, you’ll set yourself on fire. The point you get to when you decide you’re either too scared, or you’re ready to burn.
I understand why people think of vampires. The lyrics present the promise of some kind of eternal, undead life. And there’s sex in it, too, the way Lewis sings the temptation, the movement from the screams that come from stomach muscle, the grit and cry, to a softening as he says, “I can promise you/You’ll stay as beautiful/With dark hair/And soft skin, forever/Forever.” It’s alluring. Every time I hear it, it’s alluring, it’s sexual, this pleading intertwined with the swampy bass line.
I read about strippers dancing to “Possum Kingdom,” which feels perfect.
I understand the vampire theory, but the death Lewis sings about has to be a hard death, a gruesome one; no neat pinpricks on a neck. There’s still a salvation, however, and that’s where I start to lose the murder thread I’d been holding since the first time I heard the song. This is not just a lure, not just a speaker promising and pleading in order to get someone behind a boathouse to kill them (my theory of dead girl fizzles out, too, when, despite the music video, Lewis seems to refrain from gendered pronouns in interviews). That’s where I start to believe him when he says it’s a speaker trying to convince someone to commit suicide, to join him in “his little realm.”
I think the key must be in the line that’s always frightened me most, because it is both horrifying to sing along to, and oddly powerful: Do you wanna die? He asks, he pleads, set to the hypnotic rhythm, that bass line again, with guitar coming in like a thrashing snake’s tongue. Lewis is screaming, begging, “do you wanna die?” and you imagine the listener under a spell, the only answer yes, yes, yes. But when you sing along, when you scream the words, you yell the very thing you’re afraid of. For a few seconds, you become the powerful one.
I stand outside alone as the days get shorter, as summer cools into fall. I stand quiet, as long as I can bear it, until the dark settles enough to make my skin prickle, until I get to that moment of decision. I listen for stick-cracks in the woods, the crunch of leaves. I wait and see what I hear. I wait to see what’s made up. I make up my mind.