Imagine you’re on a date with a beautiful woman. Things are going well; you decide to spend the night. As you kiss, something changes, and the woman begins to frantically shake, her skin ripping apart. And then suddenly its not a woman, it’s a panther. An actual panther. Now imagine you are that beautiful woman on a date, and you suddenly black out, only to wake up in a pool of blood and carnage.
Cat People has an insane premise, but it ushers this nuanced discussion on female monstrosity, sexuality, and fear of the foreign other, issues which have since become staples in horror cinema. Although it is a product of its time in a very literal sense, its dated anxieties remain a timely reminder about assault and othering. There are several strange moments in the film, events which none of the characters really refer to or unpack, although to be fair, they are distracted by a giant hungry panther. But like so much of early 1940’s cinema, it is impossible to distinguish the film from its political context, or even from our political lens. I think that it is because the film focuses on transgression, or a ruptured identity. I define transgression as something which was suppressed and internalized, suddenly externalizing and impacting the outside world. For example, let’s say a character breaks a bone, and we can see the bone protruding out of their skin. Our gut reaction is to recoil because something has gone terribly wrong. What was meant to stay inside has violently come out. We understand that each of us contains a skeleton but being confronted with that fact is a whole other issue. We don’t want to think about or look at what constructs us, whether literal – like a bone – or some repressed thought. Transgression applies to everything from physical objects to thoughts and speech. Simply put, it is the movement of something inside becoming visible outside.
Cat People deals with two kinds of transgressive subjects. Its characters are worried about literal transgression, Irena’s transformation from human to panther. The film itself, however, additionally focuses on transgressive material, essentially plucking repressed anxieties from the audience and then playing them back to that audience. So, while the film deals with transgressive characters, its literal format is another form of transgression.
“The Panther, It Screams Like A Woman. I don’t like that”
Irena is a fashion illustrator from Serbia, who we meet at an American zoo as she sketches a panther. We learn that she has a mysterious ailment where being sexualized causes her to transform into a panther, often killing whoever is around her. She falls in love with a man named Oliver, they get married, but she is afraid that being intimate will lead to his death. Oliver handles this as any good 1940’s husband apparently would, first by shaming and committing her to intense therapy, complaining non-stop about her, and then immediately falling in love with a different woman, his assistant no less. Surprisingly, Irena isn’t happy that her husband wants a divorce, so she accepts her panther self and begins stalking the new woman, her husband, and her therapist. Much mayhem ensues, and ultimately Irena dies, and Oliver marries what the film implies is the more suitable American woman.
The film never uses the term sexual arousal or even sexualization, rather, it uses the term intimacy. This wording suggests that Irena is worried about letting people get close to her, and not just in a sexual way. If they try, she goes into a literal defense mode. What makes her transformation particularly interesting is that she was born with this ability as the result of a longstanding curse. It isn’t her fault, although she later embraces her panther ability so she can enact bloody vengeance. Irena struggles with her abilities because she is not conscious of what her panther-self does, or so she claims. She thus embodies the fear of the corrupted mind, that silent force inside our heads that can unknowingly manipulate us. Having a corrupted mind means that there is something independent inside you, whether you want to read this as your invisible genetic makeup or something more intense, like another person. Either way, its when something repressed influences your behaviour, an act of transgression. Unlike the knife-wielding monster that appears in so many horror films, this force is invisible and thus unremarkable most of the time, but still utterly destructive.
“The Most Terrifying Menace of Them All”
Cat People isn’t the first to examine the politics around split selfhood, these issues appear across horror literature, particularly in works like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Much like Jekyll and Hyde, Cat People is preoccupied with a single question: is Irena is conscious while switching, and if so, is she is guilty of her ‘other’ personality and their behaviour? It’s also concerned that this corrupted mind might spread, that a ‘normal’ American woman could be prone to Irena’s mental disease. Because it is invisible, anyone can contain monstrosity like Irena’s without people noticing. Jekyll and Hyde, asks if a well-to-do gentleman could possess true evil and disguise it, hiding and getting away with literal murder. Cat People asks if a beautiful woman could be corrupted by her sexuality and could go on to corrupt others.
Irena isn’t infected in a traditional sense; the film argues that she has the mental capacity for corruption. It explains that Irena is infected with this panther curse because of her heritage, but also because she is obsessed with the stories about her curse. Her independent research and education are equally terrifying here. The stories themselves aren’t destructive, but her belief in them is. It is unclear during the first part of the film if Irena can transform, or if she is just afraid of transforming. By turning into a panther in the second half, Irena can do as she pleases without being blamed. She gets to be a victim because she isn’t killing people, her panther-self is.
The film ends when Irena finally reconciles this duality and combines her identity with her panther self. Prior to this, the film examines dual selves and identities through mirrors and panther imagery. For instance, whenever Irena starts thinking about her curse, we get a panther image somewhere in the mid-ground. It is often the statue in her apartment, or the literal panther at the zoo. The film uses these images to visualize what is happening in Irena’s head, specifically the way she is negotiating with these two identities. She is trying to repress this panther image, to move it away from the mid-ground where it seems to be inching towards the audience and foreground, ready to burst through the screen. It is almost as if the panther image invades the shot, suggesting that her panther-self is a constant threat and is ready to burst out of her body.
The final credits include a John Donne quote, noting, “My world’s both parts, and oh both parts must die”. This summarizes the events of the film, particularly Irena’s sudden death. She is killed after being knocked down by the panther at a zoo, an event which seemingly comes out of nowhere. Her death is confusing because it is unclear if the panther recognized that Irena was also a panther, and if not, whether Irena wanted the panther to kill her. She transforms back into a panther once she is dead, so who was the real Irena? Can we really distinguish her panther self from human?
“You Can Fool Everybody, but…you can’t fool a cat”
Animals distrust Irena throughout the film, as though they can detect her predator nature. This includes a house cat, whom Irena and Oliver have to return to a pet shop. It is one of the reasons that Oliver begins to suspect that something might be off about Irena, as animals, nature itself it seems, descend into chaos whenever she is near. People also immediately distrust Irena, a although s she is beautiful and charming, no one other than Oliver particularly likes her. Perhaps, like these animals, there is a small voice telling them not to trust Irena, telling them that Irena is a threat. That voice, however, isn’t telling them that Irena is a panther, it’s telling them that she is foreign. In some ways the voice resembles what Irena hears in her head, the voice telling her to become a panther. It suggests that Irena is not so different than the other humans in the film, as everyone deals with voices, albeit in different ways. It’s crucial to note that Irena fights against this voice to prevent herself from hurting people, at least for most of the film until she realizes that these people are not worth saving. Compare that to everyone else, as they just accepts this voice and choose to be unkind and racist towards Irena.
But, returning to this quote, Irena sacrifices herself, and in doing so, destroys her panther self. By sacrificing her body, Irena kills her violent persona, but also what it stood for. All those fears around female sexuality are erased by the end of the film, as Oliver returns to a normative American world, one without a dangerous foreigner. By killing herself in such an elaborate fashion, neither Oliver nor Alice is guilty or implicated in anything that she has done. This means that they can move on with their lives, but only because Irena accepted both parts of herself so she could also destroy both parts.
“How Can You Discuss Such Things? Such Intimate Things About Me”
Irena is the protagonist in the film, but she is also the antagonist. Cat People fuses these roles, to the extent where the main conflict occurs in one body. Irena is also the only character who embodies broader social anxieties, as the other characters are normative. She represents a variety of contemporary taboos, particularly female empowerment and sexual liberation. Although Jacques Tourneur’s film is done in black and white, his keen use of shadows obscures things and ignites a fear of the unknown. The fear that something might be lurking just out of sight, which can be read in a literal fashion- like a stalking panther- or a symbolic and political kind -like an outspoken woman in the workforce.
It is important to remember that this film was released in 1942, at the height of WWII. America had just entered the war, and Hollywood was a big component behind that movement. Even before the war started, Hollywood began creating films to prepare Americans for battle, hyping them against Germanic foreigners, or vaguely European antagonists, and encouraging stereotypical American ideology. Cat People is no exception, as Irena is foreign and so the film treats her as a threat to American society. Because she is slightly sympathetic, though, she kills herself rather than having to be murdered by an American character. She has to die for the film to end in this normative fashion.
Fear of the foreign invader is just one of the anxieties in the film, another being the growing female workforce in the 40’s. There was a great sense of fear and hesitation around women in power, particularly working women. Women arrived at factories and businesses to help the war effort, but also used this as an opportunity for female empowerment and liberty. This scared a lot of men, and so the femme fatal was born. She is a dangerous woman who tricks men and uses them for her own gain, which is just a crude caricature of the female workforce. Showing this figure in a film, and then either destroying or ‘fixing’ her, gives audiences the opportunity to deal with their broader social anxieties around women. In other words, cinema shows us our problems and then deals with them for us, in a sort of therapeutic way. You can learn a lot about a decade based on what horror films were being released, and Cat People is a clear example of this.
“The exciting story of a woman who kills the thing she loves!”
The film connects active female sexuality with violence, suggesting that women who are in charge of their own sex and life are inherently dangerous. That there is this dark voice in their heads that needs to be managed. These empowered women challenge traditionally normative structures, particularly the idea that women should be passive and quiet. Irena is certainly not passive; she is rather outspoken and has an important job. We are introduced to her while she is working, which establishes that she is already independent from Oliver, both financially and emotionally. When Oliver and her therapist argue that Irena’s job is too much for her, and that its weighing on her fragile mind, they imply that working is inherently masculine, and that she needs to give it up in order to return to a feminine position and set herself right. This would also mean that working women are dangerous because they are too masculine, or independent, and not passive enough to be normative.
Irena’s foreignness is crucial to the narrative, as it suggests that only a foreign woman would behave in such a way. It is also how characters distinguish themselves from Irena, as she is always a social oddity, distanced from figures like Alice, a proper American woman. Alice might also be a working woman, but she is Oliver’s assistant, and thus under his control. There is also the suggestion that she will stop working once she and Oliver marry, which Irena has no intention of doing.
It’s also noteworthy that Irena’s creativity is linked to her sexuality, as she meets Oliver while working on a panther illustration at the zoo. The film thus connects her fixation with panthers, and her later transformation, as the direct result of working and knowing too much. Irena’s knowledge prevents her from properly assimilating to American culture, as the myth from her homeland essentially lead her astray. By destroying these characteristics, the film reassures its audience that people like Irena have been corrected, and thus Cat People annihilates its threat in a tidy fashion.
“You’re So Normal You’re Gonna Marry Me, and Those Fairly-Tales, You Can Tell ‘Em to Our Children”
I would argue, as many modern viewers have, that the film is additionally queer-coded when it comes to Irena’s sexuality. While Irena spends much of the film hunting Alice, there is this strange tension between the two. Alice is everything that Irena is supposed to be, the proper American housewife. Perhaps it is just that so many of the horror films of the time pitted sexually obsessive yet repressed figures, like the Phantom and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, against idealized women. I can’t help but see the overlap between these male antagonists and Irena. There is a literal cat and mouse game between Alice and Irena, although neither can admit it in the context of the film. For instance, there is a moment where Irena stalks Alice into the swimming pool, and Alice later discovers that her bathrobe has been ripped up. There is something about this taunting image and the fact that Alice is the only non-male figure stalked by Irena, which implies that there is more to their relationship than Oliver. Irena hunts people who arouse or sexualize her, that way she can transform into a panther, so take of that what you will. Although Irena tries to distance herself from this panther-self, she remembers enough as a panther to track down the people who hurt her and apparently leave these taunting messages.
Irena certainly deals with some sexual repression, as she cannot be near her husband in some scenes, let alone intimate. There is also the suggestion that Irena only married Oliver to avoid the stigma of being a single, foreign, and slightly odd woman. The term ‘odd’ gets thrown around a lot in the film, and at one point, its used to describe a different beautiful and foreign woman who approaches Irena at a restaurant. She calls Irena “sister”, which deeply troubles Irena. It’s not just the association between her and this odd woman, its that her and this woman have an odd connection. They come from a similar place, but they are also heavily queer-coded. Perhaps unknowingly, the film suggests that these women are a unit and that some sexual proclivity and panther image connects them.
“There are Some Things A Woman Doesn’t Want Other Women to Understand”
From my biased modern perspective, I can’t help but wonder how Irena would speak for herself were she not in a film governed by the overwhelming and damaging ideologies of the era. It feels like there are many scenes where she wants to say something but manages her words to fit this specific narrative. The fear in her eyes when she’s called “sister”, her bizarre decision to marry Oliver although she knows she can never be with him. She knows that being intimate will kill her partner, she knows this as her therapist moves towards her. The sad look on her face as he leans suggests that this is non-consensual, a sexual assault. There are also a few moments like this between her and Oliver, as Oliver grows increasingly angry at his wife’s virginity. The male characters are determined to ‘fix’ Irena, to make her love a man as she is supposed to. I can’t help but read Irena as a queer figure, and these encounters as sexual assault, I honestly can’t understand not viewing her in that light given this conversation. Its arguably two of the many things which Irena embodies, and that could be intentional given that the film is trying to address and destroy these anxieties around women. Male characters routinely ignore Irena’s fear around sexuality, which is problematic considering that Irena blacks out anytime she becomes intimate. It begs the question, does Irena turn into a panther because of this curse or because she feel threatened? Is the panther her way of dealing with this assault and defending herself?
The legacy of this film proves that Irena is a resilient figure, one who appears in a later sequel and then a remake from the 80’s. While Cat People might have been uncertain on how to characterize its protagonist, it certainly provides a unique look at social anxiety around female sexuality. Like any other horror film, it shows us anxieties which we are already aware of, but in doing so, draws our attention, and sometimes our sympathy, to the monsters our society and cinema make.