Urban legends are all around us, playing a part in our everyday lives and becoming ingrained in our culture. Most people are familiar with the more common legends like The Killer in the Back Seat, Bloody Mary, or Bigfoot, but there are others that you might not be as familiar with. Here at Nightmare on Film Street, each month I’ll be taking a look at a different urban legend and revisiting a famous movie (or, sometimes, one that’s not so famous) that plays off that particular myth. This month I’m taking a look cat-based folklore and applying it to 1992’s Sleepwalkers.
The original screenplay for Sleepwalkers was written by horror legend Stephen King, and the film was directed by frequent King collaborator Mick Garris (TV’s The Stand, Bag of Bones, and others). Brian Krause, Alice Krige, and Mädchen Amick star. The story follows a pair of shape-shifting creatures known as sleepwalkers who jump from town to town and feed off the life force of virginal young women.
The film’s opening credits are full of cat-related folklore and mythology. From ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs to sketches and portraits of cat/human hybrids, viewers know right off the bat (or, cat) that they’re in for a mythology-heavy horror tale. Various examples of feline lore can be applied to different aspects of the film, while the story is in the process of constructing its own mythology around the titular werecat creatures, a mother and son duo named Mary and Charles. Some of this might seem like a stretch, but it makes sense. Read on.
Everybody’s heard the old expression that a cat has nine lives, but where did it come from? Many sources state the idea of cats always landing on their feet as a likely origin. But is that true? Well, sort of. Due to what is called a “righting reflex”, cats do land on their feet most of the time, a fact that makes them appear invincible as they are able to survive various scenarios of certain death. Hence the idea of nine lives.
While taking a look at Sleepwalkers, one can easily apply the “nine lives” legend to a lot of what’s on-screen. For example, each time Mary and Charles vacate a home, they are narrowly escaping being killed as authorities are closing in. In essence, they are starting over with a new life. Plus, with all of the horrible and gruesome things that happen to Charles, surely the dude would’ve died at least once. From the get-go, the film states that the sleepwalkers are a likely source of the vampire legend, and what is one trait that vampires are known for? You guessed it! Immortality.
Cats Steal Breath
Sleepwalkers takes this old urban legend and antes it up to the next level. In the film, the sleepwalkers live off of sucking the life force from their virginal victims. Centuries ago, some people believed cats would climb into the cribs of newborns and put their mouth to the baby’s, stealing the innocent’s breath, ultimately killing the child. Despite a coroner’s report from 1791, there’s no hard evidence of this ever happening, but surely it was an inspiration for the scenes in Sleepwalkers where Charles locks lips with teenage Tanya and sucks her neon-colored life force straight out of her throat.
Cat Scratch Fever
In Sleepwalkers, the scratch of a cat is harmful and even fatal to the creatures. While I don’t completely understand why that is, I’m pretty sure the idea was inspired by the lore surrounding the claws of our feline friends. From slumber party games to dangerous infection, numerous tales and facts surrounding the scratch of a cat.
Similar to the infamous game of Bloody Mary, there’s another one called ‘Cat Scratch’ where one person sits on the floor and another lies down with their head in the other player’s lap. The one sitting recites a spooky story about a cat, which you can read a couple of variations here, and after the story is done, the person who is lying down will have scratches up and down their back. I’ve never played the game myself, but multiple players online have made claims that it works. Of course, the “scratches” are most likely marks left behind from the fold of their shirt as it was pressed against their skin, but why does the game concentrate on the claw marks of cats?
Ever heard the phrase “cat scratch fever”? Well, the truth is it’s a real illness that humans can get from being scratched by a feline. According to my research, at some point in their life nearly half of all cats will carry a bacteria called Bartonella henselae, which they get from fleas. If an infected cat scratches a person, the scratch could become infected and lead to multiple symptoms including headache, swollen lymph nodes, fever, and could even result in death.
The Black Plague
Throughout the ages, cats have been both revered and feared. Long after they were worshiped by Egyptians, cats became a symbol of evil, and many believed felines to be witches’ familiars. During the Middle Ages, countless cats were killed because of those kinds of superstitions. Over time, there has been a lot of speculation on whether or not the killing of so many felines intensified the impact of the black plague, a disease which was carried by fleas that bit infected rats and spread the disease to humans. It makes sense that if cats would have been spared from death, the rat population would have been considerably less. In this scenario, the tables are turned on the idea of cats being evil; instead, they serve a purpose of good as they help eradicate something deadly.
And that’s exactly what happens in Sleepwalkers. Throughout the film’s running time, a clowder of cats continues to build outside of the Brady house, threatening the Sleepwalkers‘ very existence. Eventually, as expected, the felines attack the monstrous creatures and ultimately save the day.
A Lasting Imprint
Much of the final showdown is lead by one cat in particular, Clovis. After his owner meets a not-so-good conclusion against Charles, Clovis is taken under Tanya‘s wing. Tanya quickly becomes attached to the cat, largely due to the fact that he saved her life, and the two of them seem to imprint on one another. At the end of the film, after Clovis leads the other cats to kill Mary, the final shot is of Tanya holding Clovis as if he is her protector, an idea that harkens back to the hieroglyphs of the opening credits, one in which appears to feature Bast, the Egyptian goddess of protection.
While a bit shaky and unclear on some of the mythology that it tries to build, Sleepwalkers is an entertaining movie well worth revisiting. With a reported budget of $15 million, the film was a modest hit at the box office when it was released in April of 1992, taking in $30 million, and has garnered a large number of fans over the years. Unfortunately, even with the success, a sequel was never produced. The fact that the movie never became a franchise is a missed opportunity, as this is one that would benefit from further chapters, giving the overall mythology more room to grow.