I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies lately.
Specifically, women’s bodies. It’s hard not to, two years into President Pussygrabber and days after a Supreme Court confirmation process that confirmed only what every woman already knows to be true: Men in power do not care about our pain. Right now, thinking about threats to my body, to my mother’s and my friends’ and to the bodies of all the little girls in my life who are still too young to know what it is to be threatened — it’s inescapable. It’s terrifying.
Last week I needed sanctuary, and so I turned to Cat People (1942). To think of this film as a comfort movie at a time like this is about as strange as it is to call this odd little B-picture a horror movie, because it’s not, really. It’s so much more. But first, a little background.
In the early 1940s, struggling studio RKO hired Ukrainian-born producer Val Lewton to run its B-level horror unit, hoping it would recoup the huge financial losses Orson Welles inflicted upon them with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. To keep from having another out-of-control auteur on their hands, RKO gave Lewton market-tested titles and strict orders to stay under 75 minutes and under $150,000 budgets. Lewton, who loathed the Universal formula for horror, mined his own fears for his first project and took advantage of his audience’s imagination with deep shadows, clever editing and precise sound design to create a supernaturally tinged film noir disguised as a horror movie. And that movie was Cat People.
It shouldn’t have worked, but somehow it did: Cat People was better than it had any right to be, and it made money. I can’t go back in time and ask 1942 moviegoers what exactly it was about Cat People that drew them in, but for me it’s Irena. A mysterious Serbian immigrant who lives alone by choice, Simone Simon’s Irena finds herself in a crisis when she falls in love with all-American Oliver Reed (Kent Smith) and marries him, knowing that an ancient curse passed down through the matriarchal line of her ancestral home will likely kill him if she succumbs to her passions.
And yes, that curse is turning into a literal man-eating cat.
Sounds ridiculous on paper, right? But the genius of Lewton is that, despite the film’s preposterous title, Irena’s plight never feels ridiculous. Her struggle always feels immediate and real, even as Oliver and Dr. Judd (Tom Conway), the slimy psychiatrist whom Irena visits to “face this thing intelligently” at the insistence of her husband, attempt to minimize and rationalize her fears away.
Indeed, because of the way Irena is treated by the men who doubt her and infantilize her, her curse feels pointedly relevant today, when 76 years ago it probably felt much more subtle. Only recently does it seem like doctors’ dismissal of women’s pain has become something no longer acceptable, something women must fight against in order to save their own lives at the risk of being labeled hysterical or paranoid. Despite the lifting of this societal veil, there are still instances of tragedy, when the realization that a doctor might not be listening to you comes too late, and it costs you and your family everything.
And that, for me, is where the real horror of Cat People lies — in a woman’s fear of her own body, and the silencing she faces from those who dismiss her. Originally, I thought this essay would be about Irena’s atavistic fears, a theme I relate to on a genealogical level thanks to my Macedonian blood and the superstitions that have been passed down with it. But this week? This week, I relate more to Irena’s fear of her own body.
Growing up in a female body, I have only recently come to the conclusion that there is a fine line between hating it and fearing it. I don’t remember the first time I felt self-conscious about my body, but I know that feeling solidified in the pit of my stomach by the time I was a teenager. I hated my frizzy hair and my round tummy because the pretty girls in school were straight and flat in every way I wasn’t. But maybe that was only part of it. Maybe I hated that I couldn’t control my body, what it might become as I grew through puberty, because I was afraid the end result would be worse than what it was now.
Looking back, it’s unbearably sad to think every girl goes through some version of this self-hatred. Mine took the form of denial, leading me to ignore everything about myself that made me feel ugly rather than try to change it. I never tried to mask my acne with makeup or control my weight by limiting my calorie intake because it was easier to pretend like I was invisible, that it didn’t matter what my body looked like because nobody could really see me anyway. Teenagers find all kinds of ways to cope with self-awareness. Mine was to hide.
It came as quite a shock to learn that as an adult, it’s almost impossible to control your own body just when I started to think I could. Take away all the external (and overwhelmingly patriarchal) forces that want to control a woman’s body for them; those forces are absurd in comparison to what a person’s own body can do to them. A chronic illness that impedes your every breath and makes you brittle and breakable despite your inner strength. A lifelong eating disorder that makes you waste away, pound by pound, until it kills you. A wandering cell that tries to grow a liver in your breast tissue. A bursting appendix, a kidney stone, the day-to-day unpredictabilities of pregnancy. These are examples from my own life and from the lives of women I know, yet they barely scratch the surface. There are so many things that can go wrong in a woman’s body. In any body, really.
And the most terrifying thing is knowing that these things won’t just hurt you. If the worst happens, it can hurt your family, too.
That’s what Irena is afraid of in Cat People. Before Oliver, she chose a life of loneliness, of friendly darkness, to save others from her own body. Though all of the rational Americans in her life doubt her, she knows her curse is real — it killed her father, after all — and that her transformation is inevitable, an ugliness she can only prevent through isolation. Once married, Irena desperately wants to be “Mrs. Reed, really,” to love Oliver not just with her heart but with her body. But her internalized, ancestral fear keeps her marriage chaste and her bed empty, save for the sounds of caged, yowling panthers in the distance.
It’s not hard to see why most people read Cat People as a parable of repressed sexuality; Irena is certainly repressed, but it’s not because she’s afraid of what a man might do to her, as you might expect from a more gothic tale than this one. On the contrary, Irena represses herself because she’s afraid of what she might do to a man.
This is such a simple, brilliant reversal of horror tropes that it bears repeating: Irena is no damsel in distress, no virginal maiden helpless in the face of wholly male monsters like Dracula and the Wolf Man who eagerly succumb to their baser needs, their desire to ravage female flesh. Irena is the monster, and she locks Oliver out of her room every night not to protect herself, but to protect him.
Unsurprisingly, Oliver has no idea what to make of this. On their wedding night, he promises to give her time, but it’s a promise he can’t keep as his frustrations build and his faith in Irena wavers. “You know, it’s a funny thing,” he says to a coworker later, “I’ve never been unhappy before …. That’s why I don’t know what to do about all this.” Oliver sounds like Captain America in the worst way when he says this line, so perplexed and laughably privileged as he twists Irena’s pain and makes it all about him. It’s such a typically male thing to do that I can’t help but roll my eyes every time I watch this scene and shout a Christian Bale-esque “OH, GOOOOOD FOR YOU!” at the screen, even as my heart drops a little.
Because the thing is Oliver doesn’t understand Irena and he never really tries to understand her. Instead, he pulls a “father knows best” routine and tries to solve her problems for her, in ways convenient for him, first through therapy and ultimately through that age-old solution for difficult wives: commitment. He never understands that, though made out of fear, Irena’s repression is a testament to her self-control, virtually unshakeable until another woman — a normal woman — enters the picture.
Alice (Jane Randolph), Oliver’s coworker, dubs herself “the new kind of other woman” because she’s not a sexpot so much as whitebread personified, a safe and stable alternative to Irena’s foreign mystery. It’s not a need to become physically intimate that finally transforms Irena but rather a jealous urge to eliminate her antithesis. That, too, feels familiar. It’s so easy for a woman to turn envy of another woman into hatred, to want what they have — whether it’s a perfect body, perfect family, or simple normalcy — and hate them for having it.
But something else about Alice: She is the first person to truly believe Irena is not delusional. Irena stalks Alice in cat form twice and does not try to hide her lethal intentions. Oliver, in turn, believes rational, plain-speaking Alice, and they try to warn Dr. Judd, whose obsession with Irena has become sinister in his need to force her to submit to him, but it’s too late. By the time Judd entraps Irena, she has stopped being afraid of herself. She silently allows Judd to kiss her, and we are gifted with the single greatest shot of the movie.
Look at Irena’s eye. Her lips are obscured, but you can see her smile nonetheless — the freedom she feels, the acceptance. She welcomes the consequence of this kiss from a man who thinks he has finally dominated her, who has never believed her, because the death her body will give him is what he deserves.
There are a lot of rape revenge movies out there, but I’m not sure any of them are as satisfying as this single shot of Irena’s face. Men in power want to control women’s bodies because they’re afraid of them, and this shot shows them that, yes, they should be. They should be afraid of that moment when women say “Enough,” let themselves go and transform that societally ingrained fear of their own bodies into something else. Irena’s face in this shot tells me that even a body out of one’s control is not a useless body, or a wrong one. It can be destructive but also powerful. There’s some consolation in that.
Is it any wonder I looked to Irena for comfort in October 2018? Because horror can be a comfort to us as much as it’s a genre we experience to explicitly discomfort ourselves. Horror can be a refuge from the real world — a place where, yes, Irena chooses death in the end but also a place where Oliver and Alice learn a crucial lesson. As they look upon Irena’s body, now permanently feline, Oliver says the movie’s final line with a combination of regret and recognition, both of which come too late.
“She never lied to us,” Oliver says, just before he and his next wife walk away from Irena’s corpse.
That line chilled me when I watched Cat People last week. It continues to haunt me now.
“She never lied to us.”
What a world this could be if men could bring themselves to say those words before the damage to our bodies is done and we are, like Irena, believed in death as we never were in life.
For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. This year, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is everyone’s No Sleep October.
NO SLEEP OCTOBER 2018
Blue Sunshine — James Ledesma
Spoorloos (The Vanishing) — Andrew Kimmel
The Devil’s Candy — Joshua Hull
FYFF Horror Marathon 2018 — Evan Dossey