We’ve all seen them time and time again, displayed in some of the worst (and even some of the best) horror films: the cliche and the ropiest of tropes. A female victim, Suzy, is lost in the woods. She hears a rustling in the darkness around her. “Who’s there? Bobby, is that you?” We know it isn’t Bobby. She should know it isn’t Bobby, but she presses on, “You guys, this isn’t funny!” Naturally, by the time she realizes this is, in fact, not a game – it’s too late. Despite the incessant usage of this well-trod scenario, writers continue to return to the well of psycho-killer mistaken as prankster friend. Why? Is it merely lazy filmmaking, or does it somehow go much deeper than that? With “Anatomy of a Trope” we intend to find out. Today’s cliche?
The Cat in the Cabinet
Whether you’re following a strange noise in the darkness of a secluded cabin or sneaking into the kitchen for a late night snack, if you happen to exist within a horror film, you’re potential prey for a four-legged freak-out. For beyond any cabinet, closet, window, or shadowy corner lies a kitty (preferably black) just waiting to let loose a tormented screech while launching an all-out attack on your delicate puss. Roger Ebert, in his book “The Bigger Little Book of Hollywood Cliches,” pointed out the overuse of the cat scare and coined the term “Spring Loaded Cat,” because often these hissing felines seem to be unnaturally thrown on screen by some unseen crew member.
Personally, my first experience with petrifying pussies came at a fairly young age (Get your mind outta the gutter. Sheesh!). I chose the “Spring Loaded Cat” to lead “Anatomy of a Trope,” because it happens to be closely linked with my love for horror in general. I was staying up late one night to watch Friday the 13th with my brother. I was terrified, but he helped me through it by pointing out the “fake” effects work (which looked pretty legit to me) and the predictability of the plot. Of course, this being my first foray into adult horror, none of it struck me as run-of-the-mill. Nonetheless, I made it through the viewing unscathed. Friday the 12th Part 2 aired right after. I was ready for it!
Our surviving heroine, Alice, is home alone. A strange noise draws her to investigate. Cautiously, she enters her kitchen to find the window is wide open. Alice draws closer towards the billowing curtains and then WHAM! A cat is hurled (cause it certainly didn’t jump by itself) through her window and lands on the kitchen floor, only to hop up onto her dining table. I jumped just as high as the cat, out of my seat. I probably yelped a little bit, too. However, this fake scare served to release the tension director Steve Miner expertly built up to in that moment. For a few more brief seconds, I relaxed. “It was just a cat.” Nothing to worry about here. Moving on. Then it happened. Moments later, Alice gets an icepick to the head. I was not having it. I screamed and refused to watch the rest of the movie.
Sure, the idea of our final girl from the previous film biting the dust in the first five minutes was startling. And, not to knock Sean S. Cunningham’s directorial efforts from the first film, but Miner knows his way around setting up a scare. I probably would have been mortified whether the “Spring Loaded Cat” was there or not, but it was that relief from the winding tension brought on by the calm after the little tabby’s cameo that made Alice’s death scene all the more frightening for eight-year-old me. But, what is it about cats?
I mean, my ex was a cat person, and from the years of us living together and his multitude of feline friends – one never randomly hid in wait to jump out at me. Now that I’ve said that, though there was the time Klaus got trapped in the cabinets under the sink, but he just sort of tapped on the door with his paw until we rescued him. The cat scare just isn’t a thing that seems to happen in real life. Why, then, are they the go-to for jump scares in genre film?
Jump scares are often built around a sharp, sudden movement and a loud noise. Cats do fit the bill given those parameters. They can move with a fierce quickness once they’re ready to pounce and are capable of pulling out some of the most ungodly, guttural noises from deep inside their tiny bodies. But are cats inherently scary in and of themselves? Some would say so. Historically, black cats have been deeply rooted in superstition. Despite being worshiped in the times of Ancient Egypt, leave it to the Puritans to twist that into something wicked. Black cats were thought to be shapeshifters and familiars to witches and Satanists.
From there the stigma attached to the shadowy felines morphed them into harbingers of bad luck if one were to cross your path. Naturally, such superstitions are also closely tied to the most “bad luck” day on the calendar, Friday the 13th. Perhaps this explains why the cat scare is utilized in so many of the Friday sequels? That, or, you know, they’re the epitome of by-the-numbers slasher fare. The popularity of cats in horror films really originated with the Val Lewton classic Cat People. While there are no actual “cat people” in the film, its suggestive terrors relied heavily upon the built-in fears audiences already associated with the animals.
Since Cat People, genre films have been littered with titles focused on the killer critters. From numerous incarnations of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat, the hilarious Uninvited, and the iconic mirror eyed kitty in Pet Sematary, that old world stigma has lingered to this day. Filmmakers know this and know that when they need a pinch hitter to set up the big fright, they can always trust on ol’ reliable Garfield to ease the audience’s mind just long enough to catch them by surprise. That’s when the real terror begins.