11 Hair-Raising Facts About Cat People

Simone Simon stars in Cat People (1942).
Simone Simon stars in Cat People (1942).
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For all its artistic merits, Citizen Kane wasn't a box office success for RKO Pictures. The studio had taken a huge gamble on Orson Welles, a first-time producer and director, by giving him a degree of creative control that a more experienced auteur might’ve killed for. Unfortunately, from a business standpoint, RKO’s gambit failed to pay off, and when Citizen Kane was released in 1941, the daring, innovative movie flopped.

The following year, the studio shifted gears to put a greater focus on low-budget horror movies, beginning with Cat People, a suspenseful masterpiece that made millions for the studio and subversively revolutionized the genre. Here are 11 facts about this hair-raising classic.

1. Cat People began as a title without a premise.

Thanks to Citizen Kane and other expensive bombs, RKO was teetering on the brink of financial ruin in the early 1940s. To help turn things around, the studio decided to emulate Universal Studios, which had found sustained success with lucrative monster films such as Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and their sequels. In 1942, RKO turned to Val Lewton, who had been hired by film producer David O. Selznick as an editorial assistant in 1933, to run the new production unit.

At the time, RKO was headed by Charles Koerner, and, according to Cat People screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen, the executive believed “that vampires, were-wolves, and man-made monsters had been over-exploited.” On the other hand, Koerner also felt that “nobody has done much with cats.” So, he asked Lewton to shoot a movie called Cat People.

But while Koerner had supplied the title, the bigwig didn’t come up with a premise to go with it. That was Lewton’s job.

After some thought, Lewton conceived an original story about a cursed woman named Irena who transforms into a murderous panther whenever she feels a twinge of lust. It was a twisted tale that fit the bill perfectly. Bodeen was brought on board to write the final script that he developed alongside Lewton, editor Mark Robson, and the movie's director, Jacques Tourneur.

2. Ironically, Val Lewton was afraid of cats.

According to his wife, Ruth Lewton, “Val hated cats! Oh gosh, I remember once, I was in bed and he was writing—he used to like to write late in the night. There was a catfight outside, and the next thing I knew, he was up at the foot of my bed, nervous and frightened. He was very unhappy about cats. I think it stemmed from an old folk tale he remembered in Russia—that cats were peculiar creatures that you couldn’t trust.” This wasn’t her husband’s only phobia: He also had some very strong misgivings about being touched and even a simple handshake could make him extremely uncomfortable. Many film historians believe that these twin fears inspired Cat People’s plot, at least to a certain extent.

3. Numerous set pieces in Cat People were recycled from other films.

Hampered by a shoestring budget of just over $141,000, Lewton made sure to cut corners when he could. The stone wall from Cat People’s famous bus scene had previously appeared in 1939's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the vast staircase in Irena’s home was originally built for 1942's The Magnificent Ambersons, Orson Welles’s second movie. And the entire Central Park set was a remnant of a Fred Astaire dance flick.

4. Cat People was one of the first horror movies to use the "jump scare."

The bus sequence is easily the most iconic moment in Cat People, and for good reason. The scene finds Alice Moore (Jane Randolph) being pursued down an empty New York street by a jealous Irena Dubrovna Reed (Simone Simon). In the piercing darkness, Alice can’t see exactly who or what is following her, but she hears the clicks and clacks of oncoming footsteps. And then the noise stops. Terrified, Alice quickens her pace. Pausing at a light post to gather her senses, she looks back with widened eyes. Suddenly, the silence is broken by the hiss of a city bus that plows into view, scaring the audience half to death.

Lewton’s subsequent films were loaded with equally jarring false alarms. In his honor, some horror historians have taken to calling this technique the “Lewton bus.” Today, it’s more commonly known as a “jump scare,” of which the stalking scene in Cat People is among the earliest known examples.

5. Cat People director Jacques Tourneur was nearly fired.

Although Lewton produced Cat People and it was universally seen as his baby, he didn’t direct it. To sit in the director’s chair, Lewton recruited his good friend Jacques Tourneur, who had become a legendary figure in the annals of both horror and film noir cinema. However, four days after Cat People started shooting, Tourneur was almost fired when production chief Lew Ostrow watched some raw footage from the movie. Thoroughly unimpressed, he resolved to hire a replacement director. Koerner didn’t share these misgivings and overruled Ostrow, thus saving Tourneur’s bacon.

6. Several details about Irena's backstory were omitted from Cat People.

As film historian Greg Mank notes on the DVD commentary, early drafts of the script called for the womanizing psychologist Dr. Judd (Tom Conway) to learn that Irena’s father had died when she was very young and that when her mother passed away, the dying woman transformed into a panther. Furthermore, Lewton and scriptwriter DeWitt Bodeen thought about opening their film in the Balkan village of Irena’s birth. During an unrealized prologue scene, a Nazi Panzer division was going to be shown invading her community. At first, the Germans would meet no resistance, but come nightfall, they’d be massacred when the villagers morphed into giant felines. Eventually, Bodeen and Lewton scrapped that idea, opting to set the whole of Cat People in New York City.

7. Elizabeth Russell's only line in Cat People was dubbed over by Simone Simon.

For the café wedding reception scene, Tourneur and Lewton wanted to hire an actress with a vaguely feline appearance. This eventually led them to B-movie veteran Elizabeth Russell, who found out about the job opening while she was on a double date. One of the participating men on the date was Peter Viertel, a prominent screenwriter, who told Russell, “You know, I have a friend at RKO who needs a woman for his new movie who looks like a cat. Why don’t you go see him?”

Needless to say, Russell was taken aback. “You mean you think I look like a cat?” she replied. Regardless, that awkward exchange ended up boosting her career in a big way. Viertel’s friend turned out to be Val Lewton himself, who took a liking to Russell and gladly handed her the part. She’d go on to make appearances in many of his other films, including Cat People’s 1944 sequel, The Curse of the Cat People.

The original movie gives Russell a single line of dialogue. Looking Irena directly in the eye, her mysterious character asks “Moya sestra? Moya sestra?” Translated from Serbian, this means “My sister? My sister?” Yet, the voice that we hear isn’t Russell’s—Simon was asked to dub the line.

8. That mysterious shadow in Cat People's pool scene was cast by Jacques Tourneur’s fist.

Alice Moore has a second brush with death when Irena—now in cat form—nearly traps her in a hotel swimming pool. Panic sets in once she notices a shapeless shadow descending the locker room staircase. Tourneur claimed that this was produced by his clenched fist, which he diffused via spotlight.

9. Alan Napier, who played Alfred in the Adam West Batman series, had a minor role in Cat People.

Long before he was cast as the Caped Crusader’s butler, Napier took on a bit part in Cat People as a good-humored co-worker of both Alice and Oliver (Irena’s husband). Napier soon befriended Lewton, and when the producer died young in 1951, Napier gave his eulogy at the funeral.

10. The preview screening of Cat People was preceded by a Disney cartoon.

Cat People was the first motion picture that Val Lewton had ever been put in charge of. So just as you’d expect, he was a little nervous at the first public preview screening. Held inside RKO’s Hillstreet Theatre in Los Angeles on October 6, 1942, the event started off on the wrong foot. Somebody at the studio had decided to amuse the crowd with a tabby-themed Disney cartoon right before the main feature. Lewton was mortified.

“Val’s spirits sank lower and lower as the audience began to catcall and make loud mewing sounds,” Bodeen later recalled. Things didn’t get any better when the words Cat People popped onto the screen. “The picture’s title was greeted with whoops of derision and louder meows,” said the screenwriter. But the laughter wouldn’t last long. According to Bodeen, “when the credits were over and the film began to unreel, the audience quieted and, as the story progressed, reacted as we hoped an audience might. There were gasps and some screaming as the shock sequences grew. The audience accepted and believed our story, and was enchanted.”

Word of the evocative horror picture spread like wildfire, turning Cat People into a hit. Whereas Citizen Kane had earned a paltry $1.5 million at the box office, Cat People raked in $4 million—enough to make it the highest-grossing RKO film of the year. Few people were more delighted by the movie’s success than Lewton’s old mentor David O. Selznick, who wrote in a congratulatory letter, “I know no man in recent years who has made so much out of so little as a first picture.”

11. Cat People inspired some surprising fan mail.

Numerous viewers thought the exchange between Irena and Russell’s exotic cat lady was laced with sexual tension. According to Bodeen, “Some audience members read a lesbian meaning into the action. I was aware that could happen with the café scene, and Val got several letters after Cat People was released, praising him for introducing [lesbianism] to films in Hollywood.”

While Lewton was surprised by this reading of the film, Bodeen privately embraced it: “I rather liked the insinuation and thought it added a neat bit of interpretation to the scene. Irena’s fears about destroying a lover if she kissed him could be because she was really a lesbian who loathed being kissed by a man.”

11 of Our Favorite Horror Books

Penguin/Image Comics/Amazon
Penguin/Image Comics/Amazon

We’re firmly in that time of year when the air is colder, the nights are longer, and the books in our to-read pile are getting scarier. Cracking open a horror book in your comfiest chair is one of the best ways to embrace the Halloween season, and at Mental Floss, we’ve got plenty of suggestions for your next title. From genre classics that should be on everyone’s list to a few offbeat entries—including a must-read comic starring a spectacularly creepy ice cream man—here are our favorite horror books you should pick up.

1. The Penguin Book of Exorcisms // Joseph P. Laycock; $16-17

Penguin/Amazon

What better way to embrace spooky season than with this collection, which features real-life accounts of exorcisms from around the globe? When you're done, crack open The Penguin Book of Witches and The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories, which will also send shivers up your spine. —Erin McCarthy, Editor-in-Chief

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

2. The Witches // Stacy Schiff; $15-$17

Back Bay Books/Amazon

Few things are scarier than actual history, as Stacy Schiff's painstakingly researched and beautifully written account of the Salem Witch Trials—which began in 1692 and ended less than a year later, with 25 people dead—shows. —E.M.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

3. The Haunting of Hill House // Shirley Jackson; $9-$15

Penguin/Amazon

Often described as one of the scariest books ever, Shirley Jackson's tale of four paranormal investigators who set up shop in a haunted house will fill you with creeping dread, making it the most perfect of reads for this time of year. At around 200 pages, it's a quick read—and when you're done, you can fire up one of the novel's TV and film adaptations to keep the creepiness going. —E.M.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

4. Horrorstör // Grady Hendrix; $13-$14

Quirk Books/Amazon

If you’ve ever panicked while traversing the mazelike layout of your local IKEA, Horrorstör will be all too relatable. In this book, Orsk, a Swedish furniture store in Cleveland, Ohio, is the scene of some very paranormal activity, which spurs a handful of employees to brave an overnight shift to find out the origins of these malevolent spirits. It’s the perfect read for anyone who’s ever thought their 9-to-5 was quite literally out to get them. —Jay Serafino, Special Projects Editor

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

5. Blood Meridian // Cormac McCarthy; $10-$16

Vintage/Amazon

Awash in gruesome imagery and some of the most disturbing acts of violence ever put on the page, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian isn’t a horror tale of the jump-scare variety. Instead, it achieves pure terror by examining man’s hateful, vengeful nature under the guise of a Western. —J.S.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

6. Ice Cream Man // W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo, Chris O'Halloran; $15-$17

Image Comics

The spirit of EC Comics and its lurid horror anthology titles lives on in Image’s Ice Cream Man. With his sharp white uniform and truck full of sweets, the titular ice cream peddler meddles in the lives of others, often with terrifying results. —Jake Rossen, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

7. The Ruins // Scott Smith; $14-$16

Vintage

Tourism takes a horrific turn in this unsettling potboiler about a group of American tourists who find that an ancient Mayan site isn’t too welcoming to visitors—and neither are the acidic vines that singe both skin and soul. —J.R.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

8. Cujo // Stephen King; $15-$17

Gallery Books/Amazon

Published in 1981, this New York Times bestseller is not for the animal lovers out there. It starts in the town of Castle Rock, Maine, which becomes terrorized by a once-friendly Saint Bernard. While this is all happening, the Trenton family moves into the seemingly idyllic town only to realize it isn't as lovely as it appears. Parents Vic and Donna are having marriage issues, and their son Tad can't sleep due to the terrors coming from his closet. Little do they know that the real monster is waiting for them outside. —Elaine Selna, Commerce Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

9. Ring // Koji Suzuki; Prices vary

Vertical/Amazon

Before the Japanese horror movie and the American remake, Ring was a bestselling novel. Published in Japan in 1991, the book turned the VCR into an instrument of terror at the height of its popularity. There are major differences between the original story and its screen adaptations, but the basic plot should be familiar to any horror fan: After watching a cursed video tape, the main character has seven days to solve the tape's mystery and escape death. —Michele Debczak, Senior Staff Writer

Buy it: Amazon

10. Let the Right One In // John Ajvide Lindqvist; $14-$18

St. Martin's Griffin/Amazon

John Ajvide Lindqvist’s 2004 Swedish novel chronicles the friendship of a young boy named Oskar and his enigmatic new friend, Eli, who happens to be a very old vampire. Let the Right One In has all the trappings of a grade-A horror story—bloodlust, mystery, plot twists, etc.—set against a backdrop of real-world issues, from bullying to alcoholism. The protagonists may be children, but the adult themes of this novel gear it towards older readers. —Ellen Gutoskey, Staff Writer

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

11. Carrie // Stephen King; $7-$14

Anchor/Amazon

King's debut novel from 1974 still ranks among his best. It revolves around a teenage outcast named Carrie White who gets bullied at school and has to deal with an abusive mother at home. Any hope she has of fitting in is soon dashed as she begins developing strange telekinetic abilities. —E.S.

Buy it: Bookshop, Amazon

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15 Extremely Valuable Funko Pop! Figures That Might Be Hiding In Your Collection

In the 1990s, collectors salivated over Beanie Babies. In the 2000s, it was Pokemon. Today, the collectibles market is dominated by Funko Pops!, the ubiquitous vinyl figures that turn pop culture characters into block-headed, saucer-eyed cute bombs.

While Funko has a deep bench of licenses, many figures are exclusive to retailers, available for a limited time, or are otherwise hard to find. After perusing recent auction sales and Funko online price guides, we’ve excavated a few figures that are being bought and sold for stacks of cash larger than the toys themselves—and could be hiding in your very own collection. Take a look at 15 of the most sought after and valuable Funko Pop! figures that could net you a small fortune on the secondary market.

1. Ghost Rider Metallic Freddy Funko // $4210

The spirit of vengeance was unleashed as an ultra-exclusive variant edition that's a mash-up of the Marvel hero with Funko mascot Freddy Funko. Released in 2013, it was limited to just 12 figures. As a result, it’s a high-ticket item. The Pop Price Guide, which tracks Funko Pop! values and sales, estimates it at $4210.

2. She-Ra // $690

Funko

The warrior princess of the 1980s Masters of the Universe spin-off cartoon made a splash in 2013. The figure wasn’t a limited edition, but so many fans snapped her up that she’s hard to find.

3. Mike Wazowski Glow-in-the-Dark // $1960

The jolly green creature from 2001’s Monsters, Inc. was available in a limited glow-in-the-dark edition beginning in 2011, but collectors had to go on a scavenger hunt—only 480 were produced.

4. Reggae Rasta // $1200

Walmart

This Bob Marley-inspired figure has been sought after by collectors for sporting a limited-edition green outfit instead of the multi-colored one in the image seen above. That regular version sells for around $400.

5. Holographic Darth Maul // $5070

The horned villain from The Phantom Menace, 1999’s Star Wars prequel, got the glow-in-the-dark treatment from Funko in 2012. San Diego Comic-Con attendees had first crack at the variant, which was limited to 480 figures.

6. Master Chief // $650

Funko

The hero of the Halo 4 video game was a Blockbuster Video exclusive and commands $650 on the open market.

7. Ken Griffey Jr. Bronze // $3150

One of Major League Baseball’s most celebrated players got the Pop! treatment in 2018, with just 24 gold-finish variants made for fans at Seattle's Safeco Field (which was renamed T-Mobile Park in late 2018). The current market value is $3150.

8. Headless Ned Stark // $980

Funko

One of the most tragic and unexpected deaths on Game of Thrones was immortalized in this 2013 San Diego Comic-Con exclusive, which features the head of the Stark family and his detachable melon. The Pop Price Guide has valued Stark at $980.

9. Black Ranger Freddy Funko // $1850

This hybrid of Funko mascot Freddy Funko and the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was limited to fans attending the Funko Fundays event at 2017's San Diego Comic-Con. Only 24 were produced, which is why they’re extremely difficult to find, even on auction sites.

10. The Notorious B.I.G. Metallic // $1930

Funko

The late rap headliner got the deluxe treatment in 2011, with a metallic coat and hat version that was limited to 240 pieces. (The regular version is pictured.) Its listed value is $1930.

11. Batman Blue Metallic // $1400

The Dark Knight is looking a little more ostentatious in this 2010 San Diego Comic-Con offering, with a shiny blue cowl and accessories.

12. 1970s Elvis Presley Glow-in-the-Dark // $2170

Funko

A 1970s-era Elvis (above) comes in a special glow-in-the-dark version that has an estimated value of $2170. Another limited chase figure that depicts him at the height of his powers in the 1950s will run you as much as $1700.

13. Clown Dumbo // $5900

The ear-shaming of Disney’s 1941 animated classic Dumbo continues to strike a chord with people. The 2013 edition of Dumbo in clown make-up was limited to 48 pieces for San Diego Comic-Con attendees.

14. Planet Arlia Vegeta // $3500

Funko

The flame-haired Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z was exclusive to fans at the 2014 New York Comic Con and the Toy Tokyo store in New York City.

15. Bob’s Big Boy // $850

This iconic advertising character was a San Diego Comic Con exclusive in 2016. Only 1000 were made.

This story was updated in 2020.