When the first European settlers came to the New World the opossums primarily inhabited the southeastern area of what later became the United States. These small creatures were found in large numbers in the Virginia Colony. Because of this they became known as Virginia opossums. They are more often just called “possum.”
INSTEAD OF playing dead, a possum when under stress will go into shock. It might remain in that state for a few minutes or up to more than two hours. As a teenager, I enjoyed squirrel hunting in the area of my grandmother Pearl Maxie Wilson’s farm about a mile and a half northeast of the Wheelock Academy (which is in McCurtain County, Okla.). On one such occasion, I shot up into a large nest attached to a tree limb.
TO MY surprise a big possum fell down to the ground. I thought that he was dead and picked him up by his tail. Now I wouldn’t think about eating a possum. My wife refuses to cook any wild game except fish. I know that some folks like to cook possums with sweet potatoes. Anyway, I picked that rascal up and within a minute he came out of shock and grabbed hold of my leg. Believe me I jerked him loose. After doing so I laid the barrel of my .22 across his neck and pulled up on his tail. That broke his neck.
Several other animals, fowls, reptiles, fish and even some insects can become temporally shocked into paralyses. These include some sharks, beetles, certain kinds of snakes and lizards, as well as various other creatures. Many of them enter into what scientists call tonic immobility brought on by shock or by instinct.
Some trout fisherman can rub the underbelly of a trout with their fingers. The trout will enter into a trance state. After doing so the trout can be thrown onto a bank well above the water’s edge. It will remain in that state for a good period of time.
IT IS commonly known that a chicken can be hypnotized or put into a trance. This is done by holding its head down to the ground while drawing a line in the ground with a stick or finger from its beak and extending it in a straight line outward. It will remain immobilized for a few seconds or up to several minutes.
“Playing possum” is derived from the misconception that a possum plays dead. That term has figuratively come to mean such things as: pretending to be ignorant about a particular thing, playing dead, or otherwise to deceive.
Dub Mowery is a Gospel preacher in the Church of Christ. Presently he serves as full-time evangelist for the Pritchett Church of Christ. A native of Southeast Oklahoma, he is the author of Colloquial Sayings & Expressions (Morris Publishing, 2008)