Cats have always been an intriguing presence in films around the world. They often accompany elements of mystery, morbid curiosity, and death. Cats can be great mediums for darkness as we as a species have spent little time in their presence, and aren’t fully domesticated, unlike dogs. Films like Cat People, Leopard Man, The Voices, and Life of Pi are some examples of films that explore man’s fear of the unknown, and how our rejection to understand the things that scare us is our biggest downfall.
Expecting Trust in Darkness
Humans have a track record of investing faith and trust into something that is not going to reciprocate that trust. The human brain’s biggest craving is to feel secure. When we expect love from darkness, it is because we are trying to obtain that security by being in control. However, we have control over very little in our lives.
In Life of Pi, this message is represented with Pi’s lack of understanding of himself and the world and therefore expects love and affection to come from everything he comes across. When he reunites with Richard Parker after his ship sinks, he is painfully reminded of what his father was trying to teach him.
Tigers are powerful and dangerous animals, but they are also prideful and confident. In John Vaillant’s novel “The Tiger”, he recalls an event where a single Amur tiger had over 500 human kills to its name. When a man named Vladimir Markov stole a tiger’s kill and shot it when it retaliated, the tiger became too slow from his injury to pursue his natural prey.
Humans don’t have the proper body type to navigate through the snow at any speed faster than a snail’s pace. In the snowy mountains of Russia, when this tiger was too slow to hunt its usual prey, it had no choice but to start hunting men. Tigers are resourceful, and they take great pride in what they do. To expect the same amount of love from a dog to come out of a tiger would be naive and will do nothing but anger the tiger as it would be disrespectful to his ego.
Now, Richard Parker was a Bengal tiger, but John Vaillant’s representation of tigers does nothing but add to the mythology and legend tigers have to their name.
There was one scene in the book of Life of Pi that was in the movie but touched upon very briefly, and it perfectly represents man’s relationship with tigers.
When Pi climbs aboard his lifeboat, he sees Richard Parker struggling to make his way to the boat. Pi doesn’t see a soulless tiger, he sees an animal fighting for his life. He fires off his whistle and throws his lifebuoy ring into the water while egging him on to keep his head above water. Just before he pulls him aboard, he hears himself say “We will be together!”
After hearing himself speak, he realizes the horror of what he has just brought onto himself. He has just brought a man-sized carnivore onto the boat, who has no purpose aside from consuming living things. He recalls something his brother Ravi said to him long ago “You’ll be the next goat”, and jumps overboard.
Humans often invest their trust in things that normally should be huge red flags. In my personal experiences, I have found myself investing trust in people who obviously had ulterior motives, and by the time I realized, it was too late. I had invited a 600-pound tiger onto my boat, without realizing what I was getting myself into. Before I could realize what I had done, I had already been manipulated, taken advantage of, and pushed around.
We often are too afraid to think that there may be darkness in our future because we want to believe that everything is going to be okay. Unfortunately, this is how we run into obstacles that may become too complicated out of the lack of ability to realize our stubbornness.
The Danger of Naivety
Humans, especially in the time period of these films, have had a consistent lack of attention and understanding of mental illness, irrational fears, and the tumors they can grow into if they are allowed to grow. No-one wants to believe that these internal evils can grow into a problem. So, we unknowingly let them into our home and let them settle in.
The leopard in many films is used as a symbol of mysteriousness and often follows a hidden well of evil.
In Leopard man, Jerry Manning decides to help out his friend Kiki, who is a nightclub singer. Her act is being dwarfed by another woman, Clo-Clo who is an obnoxious, flamboyant dancer. Jerry comes up with a brilliant idea to bring a black leopard to Kiki’s show.
Unfortunately, Clo-Clo antagonizes the leopard before Kiki can use him to spice up her show, and the cat escapes and murders a young woman in the process.
What we don’t know, is that the next series of murders following the leopard attack were not caused by the leopard, but by a man disguising his killings to make it seem as though they were caused by a big cat. No one suspects that the killings could be caused by an actual person because no one wants to believe that evil could be lurking right in front of our noses.
People excuse the leopard for the killings because he is scared, and doesn’t know any better. Nobody takes Jerry seriously when he starts to consider that a man could be the murderer, and because the people in this world the movie has built are so naive, no one is looking for a suspect.
But what about the killer? In the end, Jerry’s prediction had been confirmed to be true. Why does the killer not get the same treatment? Couldn’t we say the same for him, that he doesn’t know any better? At the end of the film, he is shot and killed by a police officer in an impulse of disgust and rage.
This theme is reflected through Clo-Clo’s interactions with a fortune teller. In the fortune teller’s deck, the ace of spades is the symbol of death. This card frequently comes up, no matter how many attempts are made. Instead of taking this prediction seriously, she keeps trying, insisting that she had made a mistake because she was too naive to think that something like this could happen to an innocent person. Realistically this is nothing more than a fortune teller’s game, but it works with the grand scheme of the film, as Clo-Clo meets her untimely demise shortly after the ace of spades is revealed.
A similar outline is used in a film called Cat People, where a beautiful woman Irena fears that she may have ties to her ancestors, who were evil witches. The film suggests that long ago in Serbia, King John had driven out an evil cult of people who could turn into vicious and ravenous cats. Most of them were dispatched, but according to this legend, a few of them survived and repopulated.
Irena’s to-be husband assures her that these stories have no real threat to reality. Deep down Irena knows who she really is, and she’s afraid that if she allows someone she loves to get too close, she could become a threat to this person.
Irena’s dilemma is frequently referred to as a mental illness. People who are grotesque and diseased scare us because they deviate from social norms. When we see behavior that contradicts what we are used to seeing, it scares us because we’ve never seen it before. For the brain, it is safer to assume something is dangerous if we don’t understand it. If we assume it to be a threat, that ensures our survival, should the subject turn out to be a hazard.
Take somebody with a phobia. Sure, a fear of doors, or spiders, or even dogs may seem irrational to us, but to them the fear is real. Imagine if you had a fear of spiders. Imagine that you’re in a car and the sight of a spider is so traumatic for you that your immediate reaction is to jump out into oncoming traffic, and your friend’s only reaction is to laugh at you. How would you feel? To Irena, these fears are real, but no one takes them seriously, so they start causing problems.
Irena frequently visits a leopard caged in a zoo throughout the course of the film. The zookeeper says that the monkeys get all the happy customers, but no one comes to see the panther. His only justification for this is that these cats are monstrous man-eaters who are only capable of evil. Has this cat done anything wrong? Is it the cat’s fault that he is a predator? What has this particular cat done to deserve such a treatment? Cats are carnivores, and it would be naive to believe that they’d be capable of anything less. What are you to expect when you approach a predator in the wild? You don’t have to love the animal, but you can at least respect it.
When Irena seeks out a therapist, she believes that she can’t be helped. People aren’t the problem, she is. She thinks that fate is out to get her by placing her in the bloodline of the cat people. The only person that can help her, is herself. The leopard has already accepted what God meant for him to be, and Irena didn’t think she was qualified to be no more complex than this leopard at the zoo.
The problem with this thought process is that cats aren’t sentient, and can’t reason. Their brains aren’t complicated enough to reach the same self-actualization process that humans are capable of. Irena is a human and is capable of so much more. By the time she embraces her humanity it was too late. Her husband Oliver had already fallen for someone else.
To Irena, this had just confirmed her theory that fate was out to get her. So, she devolved into a cat, and went on a killing spree.
Irena realistically could have saved herself, but it was a combination of people not taking her illness seriously and her self pity that lead to her downfall. Perhaps if Oliver had set aside his fears for the sake of her health and believed her, assuring her that her fears were valid, then maybe she could have overcome these fears. After all, belief is half of all healing.
I’m sure we’ve all been in situations where we are living through a living hell of our own irrational fears and anxieties. No matter how much we show our distress, no one takes our pain seriously, and backs away, treating us no better than a cat who only lives to kill and eat. Sure, our pain may be unrealistic and irrational, but they feel real to us.
In the sequel: Curse of the Cat People Oliver’s daughter becomes friends with Irena’s ghost. Oliver resents Irena and claims that his daughter’s interactions with his past wife can mean nothing but evil for his family. After he has a chat with her teacher, he decides to put aside his pride and believe what his daughter is seeing at least for the time being.
Oliver sets aside his reservations and comforts her by saying “Do you see that woman in the garden? I see her too”. What this film is trying to say in this scene, is that sometimes if you want to help someone you have to treat their fears as you would anything else. Oliver’s daughter wasn’t afraid of Irena, but because Oliver couldn’t set aside his reservations, he was only pushing his daughter away from him.
If Oliver had believed in Irena, and just simply said “it’s okay that you’re afraid”, he could have been the rock that Irena needed.
In both of these films, the leopard was used as a representation of man’s nativity, and lack of understanding that some fears, be it internal or external, are completely valid in reality.
In Leopard Man, a sickly man was able to use society’s disgust towards the leopard, and lack of attention to reality to disguise his killings to fulfill his evil desires.
In Cat People, the leopard was used as a representation of Irena’s inner fears of what she thinks she really is, and because she believed in these fears, she devolved into nothing more than a carnivore.
The Allure of Evil
Sometimes, we may feel that we are having thoughts and feelings that are inherently evil in nature. Sometimes you may feel yourself wishing revenge on somebody that has wronged you, or you have feelings of self-doubt and self-hatred. However, these are just thoughts, and it’s completely normal for somebody to have such emotions, but what makes them harmful, is if you choose to act on them or not.
In The Voices, our main character is a schizophrenic young man named Jerry that has two pets, a house-cat named Mr. Whiskers, and an English Mastiff named Bosco. These animals speak to Jerry as if their voices were real.
The difference between Mr. Whiskers and Bosco is that Mr. Whiskers encourages Jerry to give into his murderous urges, and Bosco disagrees, saying that Jerry is better off living a life of normalcy.
Early in the film, we see Jerry murders a woman he has a crush on by accident. Bosco encourages Jerry’s initial inclination to turn himself in, and when Jerry confesses that he morbidly enjoyed the murder, Mr. Whiskers suggests that he should continue giving into his murderous urges and hide the body.
As Rosco and Mr. Whiskers fight with each other as to what Jerry should do, we can see a direct representation of Jerry’s thought processes. These animals aren’t actually talking, they are two separate “voices” in Jerry’s brain.
Of course, Jerry’s relationship with his pets is not “normal” in nature, as it’s a symptom of an incredibly degrading mental illness. However, this exaggerated relationship works in the blueprint the film has laid out for us because it perfectly reflects the relationship we have with our own thoughts, as all of us have had degrading and unpleasant thoughts floating through our heads every day.
These two voices are named the id, and the super-ego. The super-ego is the part of us that punishes us when we make decisions that could harm others emotionally or physically. The id is the part of us that looks after our own needs and desires. Due to the independent nature of the id, it often clashes with the collectivistic nature of the super-ego.
One example of the relationship between the id and the superego is a 100 dollar bill left behind at a grocery store. The id would likely encourage us to take it, as it could be incredibly useful to us. We have bills to pay, we have things in life that we want, and with that 100 dollar bill, we could be one step closer to getting what we want.
The superego would likely say to us that we could be in the same position. We know we would be very upset if we lost that much money, so we are able to relate to the person who dropped it, so it encourages us to turn it in to the cashier in case the owner comes back.
This is exactly why this film is so terrifying yet also so relatable because we have all been in a situation where we have done something we shouldn’t have, leaving us constantly battling ourselves resulting in an empty well of our mental energy.
By the time Jerry finds out that he never had to act on any of these thoughts in the first place, it was too late. By then, he had murdered three people and kidnapped his therapist in a mad panic.
The contrast between Jerry’s dog and his cat is perfect. Cats are mischievous and are very independent animals. A cat would be much less likely to develop separation anxiety than a dog because they haven’t spend nearly enough time with humans as dogs have. Cats do tend to love their owners and are capable of showing affection, but they generally look out for themselves. Not to mention, cats are also notorious for living with frightening individuals in pop-culture.
Dogs are much more loyal and will often do specific things for their owner to please them. Dogs are also much more akin to feel guilty when they do something against their owner’s will or break something valuable that meant something important to their owner. Dogs have evolved over thousands and thousands of years to be man’s best friend.
Jerry’s relationship with his pets is a perfect representation of his id and super-ego at work. In one point in the film, we see Bosco confess to Jerry that he will no longer support him, and even leaves his house to go into the wild. This scene is a great representation of Jerry’s superego, as the pain from his guilt becomes too much to bear. Right after Bosco leaves, Jerry commits suicide.
There are plenty more films involving a cat in the blueprint of the film’s story and themes. These are just examples that I personally found to be very intriguing. In any case, cats can be a great representation for dismay, as cats are very independent. When independence has become too important for an individual, it can lead to selfishness and possibly even psychotic behavior. I can’t think of any other animal that has a close relationship with humans that can be used in this manner. There are just way too many films of this nature to include in a single blog post, so expect some more cat action in future content.
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