In the 1940s, the movie studio RKO hired a man named Val Lewton, then assistant to the producer David O. Selznick. He had a simple job: churn out a line of horror movies that would outperform Universal’s horror flicks for a fraction of the budget. As long as he called the movies what RKO wanted and stuck to his allotted budget and runtime, Lewton was free to do as he pleased. His first title for his first movie was: Cat People. Lewton and his team created a small masterpiece of psychological horror about a woman, Irena, who believes that if she’s ever aroused to an extreme emotion, she will turn into a giant cat and kill anyone around her. (She’s right.) Cat People was beautiful, haunting, and, once the giant cat starts stalking her prey, genuinely scary — and made money hand over fist.
More than most genres, horror means something different to everyone who goes looking for it. For some, the point is really to be subjected to an extreme experience: of fear, of disgust, of suspense. Some people want to be shaken up, but gently; spooked, not scared. And for still others, horror is about certain elements (ghosts, vampires, werewolves, curses) but not about any particular emotional state; you might seek out stories that have ghosts but without any interest in being frightened. This range is part of what allowed for Lewton’s remarkable success: almost anything can be a horror movie. Cat People’s scares take place entirely in the realm of suggestion, a choice determined by its budget but also part of why it remains scary now. It’s a monster movie in which your sympathies are uncomplicatedly with the monster, the woman at its core who needs, more than anything, someone who will just believe her about herself.
Lewton would make several movies for RKO, but while some of his collaborators would go on to work in more “respectable” genres, he never really got to graduate from low budget horror into making the kinds of movies he would have rather been making. (Whether those would have been better movies is hard to say.) But he did get to make one dream project during his time at RKO: The Seventh Victim (1943), a surreal piece of dream logic that asks if life is worth living and is willing to admit the answer might be no.
The Seventh Victim follows Mary Gibson, a girl who is pulled out of the boarding school she attends and told that her mysterious older sister Jacqueline has stopped sending money for tuition. Mary goes to New York to find Jacqueline, but only encounters people who seem to know all kinds of things about her sister that Jacqueline never told her, including a handsome lawyer who turns out to be her sister’s husband. Eventually, with the help of the lawyer, a poet, and a psychiatrist, she discovers that her sister joined, then betrayed, a Satanist cult that seemingly follows only two precepts: first, absolute non-violence; second, anybody who betrays the cult must die. These rules being in obvious tension, the cult has opted to try to get Jacqueline to kill herself, first by holding her captive in a small room, then by hunting her.
But we already know, long before this revelation, that Jacqueline has a longstanding romance with suicide; she rents a room that has in it only a chair and a noose, just in case she’ll ever need it. “Your sister had a feeling about life,” the lawyer-husband tells Mary, “that it wasn’t worth living unless one could end it.… That room made her happy in some strange way I couldn’t understand. She lived in a world of her own fancy. She didn’t always tell the truth. In fact — I’m afraid she didn't know what the truth was.” It’s a strange statement, since Jacqueline never lies in the movie, as opposed to almost everyone else (her husband included).
Still, we sense what he means the first time she shows up in the movie, around halfway in: with her dramatic face, glamorous haircut, and fur coat, Jacqueline steps into The Seventh Victim like she’s from another movie, or maybe just the only person who properly belongs to this one. She couldn’t be more different from her sensible sister or clean-cut husband, who end up falling in love with each other during her absence, or even the other Satanists, who seem like fairly dull people, all considered. There is something about her that the people around her, grounded as they are in a shared reality, a world of health, can’t comprehend. And if they can’t comprehend it, well, it must not be true. Her sister opens a door and sees Jacqueline standing there; opens it again, and finds her vanished. Something about this woman’s reality is simply unstable.
The cult also doesn’t understand why, since Jacqueline thinks so often of killing herself, she can’t just kill herself to accommodate them. “You were always talking suicide — of ending your life when you wanted to,” one says to her. To Jacqueline’s dry response (“when I wanted to”), another responds: “It doesn't matter. You want to now. You should want to. It's your obligation, your duty.” But Jacqueline bristles against the should of suicide as much as she does against the should of life. It’s her determination not to be forced into living or dying that shapes her response, right up to the end of the movie, when, after successfully facing down the cult, she goes to her little room with her noose, and kills herself anyway, the thud of the chair landing as someone else, a dying woman determined to enjoy a night on the town, unaware of what that noise means, walks past her door and down the stairs.
To an RKO executive who told him not to put “messages” in his pictures, Lewton once said: “We do have a message, and our message is that death is good.” The Seventh Victim could only be a product of this belief, but its fundamental tension is that it can’t really say that death is good, either, at least in the sense of endorsing suicide. You don’t want Jacqueline to die; her suicide is not a happy ending. In her desperate battle to keep a life that she, in some other sense, can take or leave, she strikes me as one of the truest depictions of a suicidal person I know. What would victory even look like for Jacqueline? Like her doomed counterpart in Cat People, she looks for help where she’s supposed to find it — romantic love, psychiatry — but finds only people who are unwilling or unable to understand her. The draw of the evil-worshipping cultists for her is apparent, but so is her quick disillusionment. They don’t have any big secret or truth. They’re just a bunch of well-off people in a drawing room, something Jacqueline is already too familiar with.
You can choose to die, but you can’t really choose to live, even if you’ve got a noose in your closet: you’re just choosing not to die for the moment. Life is something we have without asking for it and, if we let things take their natural course, it goes without our asking for that either. You don’t even really need to make a lot of effort to stay alive, most of the time. Of the many things we never get to choose, our lives are the ultimate unchosen condition underlying everything else. The only way to make the time you spent seem like time you chose is to end it preemptively. For many people, this is not a problem. For a few, it is the only problem.
A different movie would try to paint a world in which Jacqueline had a lot to live for, but The Seventh Victim takes everything away from her: there’s nothing left in life for her to try and she will improve her sister’s life if she dies (by freeing her sister to marry her husband). A different movie might have made Jacqueline seem crazy, but we understand that she is perfectly sane. Wherever it can, The Seventh Victim tries to stack the decks of life and death equally; it wants suicide to be a choice Jacqueline gets to make, even if it’s a mistake.
What makes her suicide so sad is perhaps that Jacqueline can’t see what we, the viewers see, which is that she is alive at a level no one in the movie can match, such that her absence leaves a hole in everybody’s life shaped like Jacqueline long before she dies. Nobody loves life like Jacqueline because nobody loves death like Jacqueline. When she’s on the screen, you can’t look at anyone else. But she can’t understand what we only need to see her for a second to know. That’s the other thing about somebody’s life: they are the least positioned to understand it. They get to know something and other people get to know something, but even that won’t add up to a final answer. If you believe in God, he might know it. But he’s not telling.
The Seventh Victim is not a scary movie. Its interests are what’s uncanny and unfixable about life, a sense of the rottenness under the surface of everything, human capacities for love and betrayal. Its successors are movies like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, where pulling on one thread in what seems like an orderly world reveals a mass of corruption and evil underneath. Much like Lynch, Lewton counterposes this truth about the world against moments of deliberately corny but triumphant sentimentality.
If movies like Cat People and The Seventh Victim have villains, it’s not the doomed women at their core but the people who believe that they can dispel the darkness from them just by wishing it so. Lewton introduces a truly loathsome psychiatrist in Cat People who sexually assaults its heroine to prove her problems are all in her head; he gets his comeuppance, in the form of a large and very angry cat. Even if he weren’t a predator in his own way, he would be incompetent to help Irena. All he even promises to do is mold her into somebody who is more sexually available to her husband, more amenable to others, without any of the weight of history or personality getting in her way. Lewton brings this exact psychiatrist back for The Seventh Victim, where he once again proves incompetent at doing anything but making the situation worse.
Unlike Lewton, I don’t have a homicidal grudge against the idea of anything that makes life a little easier (or simply tries to). But what I go to horror for is rarely to be scared — a sensation I don’t much enjoy — but to spend some time with art that acknowledges the great parts of us that are mysterious and unknown, the capabilities we have for heroism and evil. I want to read or watch something that treats people as bottomless and doesn’t try to tack a fix-it solution on at the end. We can’t see all the way through ourselves. We’ll never really know who we are. For me, that’s horror.
October is the time of year we allot to the spooky and the eerie, mostly in a cozy, goofy way: posed skeletons, fun decorations, costume parties. There’s nothing wrong with that. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s also when we start battening down for the colder months — switching out our summer clothes for winter sweaters, cooking braises and stews, pulling out our flannel sheets and thick blankets, watching the days get short and the nights get long. One of horror’s many possibilities is to let us feel like we have a little more sway over the dark than we do; we can contain it in a movie that we can switch off. But I like Val Lewton’s understanding better. The darkness is always there. We are always in darkness. But darkness is a good thing. And it can be a treasured friend, if not a safe one, if we can allow it its dwelling places.
B.D. McClay is an essayist and critic.