‘Cat Folks’: Society’s Tethering of Queer Sexuality & Id

Alfred C. Kinsey’s 1948 book “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” was radical. Laying important groundwork for modern sexology, also demonstrated in 1953’s companion piece “Sexual Behavior in the Human Female” (both together are known as The Kinsey Reports), “Human Male” dismantled taboo topics around sex and sexuality, pushing progress for the LGBTQ+ community in conjunction with the development of the Kinsey Scale. In part, his work was revolutionary. “The homosexual has been a significant part of human sexual activity ever since the dawn of history,” he wrote (p. 666), “primarily because it is an expression of capacities that are basic in the human animal.”

With a background in entomology and zoology, Kinsey firmly believed that “no aspect of human biology in our current civilization stands in more need of scientific knowledge and courageous humility than that of sex. The history of medicine proves that insofar as man seeks to know himself and face his own nature, he has become free from bewildered fear, despondent shame, or arrant hypocrisy. As long as sex is dealt with in the current confusion of ignorance and sophistication, denial and indulgence, suppression and stimulation, punishment and exploitation, secrecy and display, it will be associated with a duplicity and indecency that lead to neither intellectual honesty nor human dignity.”

Biographer James H. Jones had this to say about Kinsey in the 1997 biography titled Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life: ”He was a pioneer, an explorer who blazed the trail for those who followed. It was he who convinced most Americans that human sexual behavior could and should be studied scientifically and, just as important, that scientific data should help inform discussions of social policy.”

Note: For those interested in reading Kinsey’s work, it needs to be addressed how harmful much of his so-called research was and continues to be. Kinsey infamously interviewed known pedophile Rex King in the name of “research” (and failed to report any of King’s crimes to the police) and includes disturbing and graphic details in his book, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male.” In addition to several questionable passages in his books, specifically regarding transgender identity, it was discovered through a series of letters ─ one of which was addressed to famed actor and former World War II veteran Christine Jorgensen ─ that Kinsey strongly urged against any medical procedures, a regressive stance even then. As lecturist Dr. J. Edgar Bauer once observed: “Contradicting his own ground premises, Kinsey’s advice not only leaves unquestioned the male/female and heterosexual/homosexual binaries, but seems to re-invest them with their validity of old.”

Dr. Evelyn Hooker, a psychologist, is another important figure in rewiring the public perception of gay people. During her tenure as a professor at UCLA, she befriended one of her students named Sam From, who came out to her as a gay man, and he encouraged her to conduct a study to determine if homosexuality really was a disorder or part of one’s DNA. “It is your scientific duty to study people like us,” he told her.

Hooker recruited 30 gay men and 30 straight men and had each participant take three project tests: The Rorschach, the Make a Picture Story Test, and the Thematic Apperception Test. In scoring the tests, she assigned what’s called adjustment ratings, and the results were unequivocally in favor that there was no difference between the gay men and the straight men ─ thus busting down the long-held belief that homosexuality was linked to mental illness. Hooker published her research in a 1957 paper titled “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual.” In a 1992 documentary, “Changing Our Minds: The Story of Dr. Evelyn Hooker,” Hooker sat down to reflect on her groundbreaking work and the dangers the gay men faced in participating. “Every man who came to me put his occupation, his job, his reputation at stake,” she said.

In 1935, Sigmund Freud, neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis, famously wrote a letter to a mother who wanted him to cure her son’s homosexuality. He wrote: “I gather from your letter that your son is a homosexual. I am most impressed by the fact that you do not mention this term for yourself in your information about him. May I question you why you avoid it? Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation; it cannot be classified as an illness; we consider it to be a variation of the sexual function, produced by a certain arrest of sexual development. Many highly respectable individuals of ancient and modern times have been homosexuals, several of the greatest men among them.”

Despite all their best endeavors, homosexuality was treated as a mental disorder until 1973 when American Psychiatric Association voted to no longer have it defined as such. Instead, it was then described as “sexual orientation disturbance.”

Throughout the early 20th century, particularly throughout the 1940s, it was a dangerous time to be gay, transgender, or any part of the LGBTQ+ community. New York City police, for example, had a long history of criminalizing gay men and mounting entrapment operations, leading to arrests, being outwardly named in the local newspapers, and punishment from employers ─ despite a 17-year tenure, a New York Times copy editor lost his job after being arrested. The era was also littered with cruel treatments, such as forced hormone injections and shock therapy to deter homosexual thoughts.

As George Chauncey, professor of history at Columbia University, points out in The Atlantic, state legislature even banned queer characters in stage plays, films were subject to a censorship code regarding queer depictions, and queer people could be discharged from the military during World War II if they were discovered. “The point was not just to condemn, humiliate, and discourage people who were queer, but also to render homosexuality invisible and therefore, the authorities hoped, unthinkable,” writes Chauncey.

Director Jacques Tourneur‘s Cat People (1942) arrived smack dab in the middle of what can best be described as an early gay panic. Starring Simone Simon, as the eloquent, yet personally-tortured, Irena Dubrovan, an immigrant from Serbia, and Oliver Reed, her love interest Kent Smith, the queer-coded film follows one young woman’s struggle to understand herself and her identity. New to America, Irena constantly wars against what she knows to be the truth and society’s strange, warped fixation on heteronormativity. She feels wholly invisible in the world, so the local zoo becomes a haven, where she sketches a panther in all its majesty.

That’s where she meets Kent, a dashing young gentleman who takes a swift and severe infatuation with her. There’s immediate electricity between them, and Irena invites him over for tea. In her posh, upscale apartment, Irena regales the history of her home village and how a band of Mameluks enslaved her people. Many of them “bowed down to Satan” and “became witches and were evil,” she says. After driving them out of his country, King John of Serbia slaughtered much of the village, with the most wicked ones fleeing into the surrounding countryside. Those would be the cat people. Irena speaks the tale with a reverent fear, and in great disbelief, Kent brushes it off as a silly children’s story.

A fear of isolation haunts her. A fear born out of years, perhaps decades, of conditioning that who she is, a cat person herself, is unsuitable for society ─ born out of the Christian way of thinking that’s poisoned much of Western culture. After buying her a kitten, and learning it’s absolutely terrified of Irena, Kent takes her to the pet shop to exchange for a little canary. The bird doesn’t last long, soon dying from fright when Irena tries to catch it in its cage. Further distressed, Irena wanders off to the park. “I envy every woman on the street,” she tells Kent. “They’re happy. They lead normal, happy lives. They’re free.”

No one chooses to be queer. Irena’s struggle has been and continues to be my struggle. As a non-binary person, often feeling alienated from society’s binary constructs (feeling too male to be female and too female to be male), I find myself greatly identifying with Irena’s plight. Like many LGBTQ+ people, particularly in the south and other backwards portions of the country, her story doesn’t have a happy ending. Think Matthew Shepard. Sure, no one beats her and leaves her for dead tied to a fence, but her tragedy is all too common.

Kent and Irena quickly marry, and everything seems to go off without a hitch. Except, a chance encounter with another of her kind ─ during the rehearsal dinner, a stranger, with cat-like features, approaches and calls her “moya sestra” (or “my sister”) ─ sends her careening down the path of self-discovery, as agonizing as it becomes. Kent witnesses her misery and instead of supporting her through the journey, he advises she go to see a therapist named Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway). In their initial meeting, it’s crystal clear what Judd’s stance on the matter is. He spouts off some nonsense that not knowing her father growing up is the root cause for her pain and claims her delusions about cat people “corrode the soul and leave a canker of the mind.” He later betrays her trust and goes straight to Oliver to reveal his findings.

When Irena doesn’t uphold Kent’s old-fashioned standards for what a wife should be, he reveals he’s madly in love with his marine engineer co-worker Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) and files for divorce from Irena. He marries Alice soon after. Kent’s abandonment strikes quite an emotional blow; in fact, he begins to villainize Irena. “Things have always gone swell for me,” he confides in Alice. “I’ve just never been unhappy.”

Later, Dr. Judd meets with Irena in the zoo and a turning point seems to happen. “It is not my mind that’s troubled,” she says, finally standing up for herself. It’s a subtle, intimate story moment, but it soon pays off when Irena firmly accepts who she is. Irena comes to relish in her new-found power. Even when the film situates her as the “villain,” particularly in the iconic swimming pool sequence, she’s just not the villain at all. She’s the heroine, a queer person totally lost in the world with no one to guide her or even show her the least bit of compassion.

In the end, Irena pays dearly with her life. It’s the story of many LGBTQ+ people. We war with ourselves, and often the turmoil is excruciating, especially when mental health resources have long been denied us. When we do come out, we’re faced with ostracism, bigotry, assault, rape, and quite often death. In their 2019 Hate Crime Statistic report, the FBI reported 19.4 percent of the 15,588 submitted offenses were related to bias motivations around sexual orientation and gender identity. The Human Rights Campaign tracked fatal violence against the transgender and gender non-comforming community in 2020, revealing 44 deaths (the most violent year to-date since they began tracking in 2013).

Released two years later, The Curse of the Cat People (1944) from directors Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise is a fascinating creature. One could argue it’s far less a horror film than it is a family drama ─ yet it remains very much indebted to the original. It’s years following the first film, and Kent and Alice now have a six-year-old daughter named Amy (Ann Carter). Residing in Tarrytown, New York, they have a then-idyllic American life: the quaint but posh homestead, a butler named Edward (Sir Lancelot), and an income that allows only the finest things.

But Kent is worried about Amy. Like Irena before her, Amy doesn’t fit in with society’s strict notions about what a young girl should be. She doesn’t find herself latching onto her friends in school, and instead, she makes companions with animals. Amy’s wild imagination reminds Kent intensely of Irena, leading him to fiercely reprimand her and demand she make nice with the neighborhood kids. “I wish I could be a good girl,” she cries into his shoulder.

When she does reach out, the neighborhood kids spurn her. Amy wanders down the street and finds herself at the doorstep of a giant, rustic mansion, which many claim is the abode of a witch. A disembodied voice, that of the old, eccentric woman Julia Farren (Julia Dean), beckons her closer and tosses down a handkerchief wrapped around a luxurious ring. Edward later tells her it’s a “wishing ring,” possessing great power. Amy then wishes for a friend ─ and Irena’s ghost enters the picture.

Curse continues demonizing queerness (the use of “curse” in the title alone suggests as much, even though Irena appears very little in the actual story) but reads far more as a morality tale for the straight characters, honing in on Kent’s journey to accept his daughter as she is. Yet its themes of personal turmoil, archaic beliefs, and eventual liberation feel much the same. The appearance of Irena, an indelible reminder of her tragic death, impresses upon the viewer that queer icons can be just as important to children as their straight counterparts. Irena’s kindness allows Amy to live as her true self ─ and see the world through a lens of wonder and beauty. “Out of your loneliness, you called me,” Irena says.

In the end, the finale is far more It’s a Wonderful Life than the original Cat People but carries a powerful message, nonetheless. Sometimes, unimaginable tragedy can serve to break toxic cycles and signal a new beginning for the next generation.

With social movements ebbing and flowing, often suffering setbacks and resets, the 1982 Cat People remake, directed by Paul Schrader, came 10 months after the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) published an article in “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” (June 5, 1981) detailing a rare lung infection in five young gay men. Dr. Michael Gottlieb and Dr. Wayne Shandera reported that the young men also suffered from an unknown disease. Nine days later, a 35-year-old gay man became the first person with AIDS admitted into Clinical Center at the National Institutes of Health.

The remake emerged on the heels of the sexual revolution but rode those first waves of the AIDS crisis, its skin-deep eroticism flipping the original on its head. It runs through many of the same beats as the 1942 film, including the bus jump scare and the swimming pool scene, but frequently swaps out characters or switches up personality traits or other descriptors. For example, Irena’s (Nastassja Kinski) lover Oliver (John Heard) and his co-worker Alice (Annette O’Toole) are both zoo caretakers instead of engineers. Even more, Irena has a brother named Paul (Malcolm McDowell), and the incestual lust he feels for Irena is both transfixing and disturbing, especially when you consider the long history of the perception that queer people are innately perverts.

In his 1997 book, “Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film,” author Henry Benshoff opens the introduction by pointing to a 1984 study, published in “Journal of Homosexuality,” a peer-reviewed academic journal, in which anti-homosexuality attitudes were filtered into one of three categories ─ each claiming homosexuality was “a threat” to others and the community.

Later, Benshoff sums up the experience of queer people in the 1980s: “The AIDS crisis, which has spurred Christian compassion from some quarters, has also significantly fueled this ‘homosexual as monster’ rhetoric: now, more than ever, gay men are contagions – vampires – who, with a simple mingling of blood, can infect a pure and innocent victim, transforming him or her into the living dead. Some people have always considered anything that opposes or lies outside the ideological status quo intrinsically monstrous and unnatural.” (p. 2)

In the remake, Irena finds herself on the cusp of sexual awakening. She’s a virgin, much to the chagrin of Alice, to whom she confides such anxiety, and it’s her fear that keeps her trapped. “I guess I’m a romantic,” she sighs, taking another sip of her drink. She knows very little of her upbringing and how she was separated from Paul, and her new-found life in New Orleans promises a fresh start. Of course, it’s never that easy, and Paul soon reveals their shared heritage together as werecats (they only transform into panthers when having sex with a human), as well as the fact that their parents were actually siblings.

Paul teases her with sexually-charged language. “Your whole body burns. It burns all along your nerves, your mouth, your breasts. You go wet between your legs,” he says, pursing his lips. He backs Irena into a corner, and the truth hits her like a ton of bricks. She can’t accept the truth because she’s not ready to accept the truth. A queer person’s coming out story is much the same; you have to make peace with who you are on the inside before you can even verbalize it to those closest to you.

The mere idea of a werecat brings forth this duality in identity and self. For me, nonbinary is very much that give and take, constantly floating between masculinity and femininity, and especially early on in my journey, never knowing how “to control it” ─ in the sense I didn’t even know how to define who I was then. The fervent and intense and raw sexuality of the Cat People remake is vital to its charms, coupled with beautifully grotesque body horror (when we see Irena morph into a panther in the third act), and some gnarly blood, guts, and gore. The film’s imagery is far more arresting, painted with a both reverent and irreverent beauty.

The duality here also lies in gender and sexuality. They’re not mutually exclusive, but they don’t necessarily rely solely on one another. When a person is unapologetically themselves, the combination can be intoxicating and thrilling. Irena’s evolution feels even brighter, more outlined, and ravishingly hypnotizing. Her arc doesn’t particularly end in tragedy (spoiler alert: she doesn’t die), but she still pays a heavy price. In one of the film’s last scenes, she has sex with Oliver, and when she transforms into a panther, she flees instead, thus saving his life. She’s mastered the art of her identity, and she continues a distanced relationship with Oliver ─ from behind the bars of her cage in the zoo. There’s brilliance in allowing her to live, rather than watching her become yet another victim.

Cat People (1942), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and Cat People (1982) are transcendent pieces of queer horror that chronicle the history of queerness in society. Queer text and subtext are always subjective, but we live in an age when we can reassess landmark films through a more informed and personal lens. By all accounts, Irena is one of the greatest torchbearers for sexual and gender identity, at least for me, as I continue understanding myself on a deeper level. Such films can be eye-opening, and they’ve certainly given me an even richer perspective on what I’ve been through in my life.