Edited By Christopher Brown and Pam Hirsch
3 ‘The Anatomy of Atavism’: American Urban Modernity, Gothic Trauma and Haunted Spaces in Cat People (1942)
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942) opens with an epigraph, an extract from a fictional psychoanalytic text credited to the film’s oily, patient-seducing psychoanalyst Dr Judd:
Even as fog continues to lie in the valleys, so does ancient sin cling to the low places, the depressions in the world consciousness. ‘The Anatomy of Atavism – Dr Louis Judd’
This suggestion that specific cultures are atavistic, ‘depressions in the world consciousness’, fades out to the film’s main character, the Serbian émigré and fashion illustrator Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), in modern New York. Atavism is Irena’s problem, and the film configures it as a form of traumatic memory. Haunted by the Gothic history of her home village, she is obsessively fearful that she has inherited a strain of monstrosity which causes village women to transform into panthers when sexually aroused. Throughout the film, other characters, particularly Irena’s oblivious American husband Oliver (Kent Smith), counsel her to forget. ‘I’ve fled from the past’, she confides to him, from ‘evil things’ he ‘could never know or understand’. He advises her that this history is ‘nothing to do with you, really. You’re Irena […] you’re here in America […] you’re so normal you’re even in love with me […] Oliver Reed […] a good, plain Americano.’ But Irena will fail to become either ‘normal’ or American.
Appropriately, this is a film made by European...