When Cats Wander And Witches Dance: The World Of Feline Horror

Unfairly demonised by Hollywood, the cat has carved out a place as a symbol of occult mystery and seductive evil in horror cinema.

Apparently, today is International Cat Day. Those of us who live with cats might be forgiven for thinking that every day is International Cat Day, given how much we are controlled by our furry overlords (as I type this, the office junior is giving me the usual ‘why are you making so much noise while I am trying to sleep’ hard stare), but there it is. I’m sure cats don’t care in the slightest. Nevertheless, it seems a good time to look at the world of cats in the cinema – or, more accurately, in horror films where they seem to have found their niche, perhaps not by choice and certainly unfairly.

Filmmakers – particularly American filmmakers – seem to have it in for cats. Despite the fact that they now being the number one pet of choice across much of the world, cats are routinely portrayed in movies as evil and untrustworthy and cat owners as oddball eccentrics, while dogs are seen as heroic, loyal and loveable. A more prosaic explanation might also be that dogs are a lot easier to train than cats, who as a species are not noted for their obedience or patience. If a cat is bored, it’ll simply walk away and find somewhere comfortable to take a nap, and that might not be what filmmakers are looking for when shooting multiple takes of the same scene. That dogs and actors put up with that is not to their credit, we might think. I don’t want to open up the whole dog vs cat thing here, but frankly, I’ll take wilful independence over blind obedience from anyone, any time… and the conflicting portrayals of dogs and cats in movies tell us an awful lot about the mindset of many mainstream film writers and directors and perhaps explains why movies are so conformist and interchangeable.

The inscrutable independence of cats and their ability to look at you with barely-concealed contempt has seen them both worshipped and (literally) demonised over the centuries and it certainly makes them ideal for horror movies. Dogs are lumbering, slobbering and noisy, and while their biting power and animal ferocity make them ideal for monster movies, it doesn’t generally lend itself to more subtle supernatural chills (The Omen excepted, it should be said). Cats can be seen as cunning, sly, untrustworthy and aloof – not for nothing have the femme fatales of film noir and other genres been described as ‘feline’ – as ludicrous as it seems, women and cats have had the same rough ride from Hollywood over the years, both treated as inherently capricious and impossible to fathom, ready to bring men – loyal, honest and reliable, just like dogs – to their doom. It’s notable that most of the films about cat ‘people’ concentrate entirely on cat women – and that Batman’s foe of that name had to be female – ‘Cat Man’ somehow just doesn’t work. Similarly, creeping killers and maniacal killers have long been known as ‘the cat’ or similar – just look at The Cat and the Canary and its imitators.

So cats have found a certain place in horror cinema, either as symbols of occult mystery or evil, scheming creatures planning to bring us to our knees… as the familiars of witches or the vengeful souls of the dead… as bitter, spiteful creatures that will look with implacable contempt as they bring death and chaos. Which, admittedly, makes them a lot cooler than dogs who just bark and bite with no particular design behind their madness. So horror movie cats are, admittedly, heroic types – Stephen King seems to have a certain sympathy for the species, given how many are either heroes (as in Cat’s Eyes) or righteously vengeful as they bring ruin on villainous characters. Some are effortlessly cool – Pyewacket in Bell, Book and Candle (a film that drips effortless coolness right until its compromised ending) is the source of power and the cat who decides if you are hip or not – and some turn out that way even if the film presents them as being in the service of evil, like Graymalkin in Night of the Demon.

In fact, this is the real point of cats in horror movies – as much as they are demonised, they still seem effortlessly cool. Inherently smarter than everyone else, which is why so many characters take against them to their regret and why swaggeringly macho and misogynistic filmmakers seem to dislike them so.

Here, then, are a selection of cool cats – heroes, villains and casual observers alike – from horror, science fiction and generally occultist movies. I’ve restricted it to those who play more than a passing part in proceedings. Feel free to suggest more.

Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!