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  • Val Lewton’s Naturalism and Historical TraumaNo Bed of Her Own, Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and I Walked with a Zombie
  • Donna M. Campbell (bio)

In December 1942, American movie audiences saw a startling title card introducing what they thought would be a low budget “B” picture from RKO studios: “‘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” (Cat People). Off-brand for a studio known for its glossy Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, the epigraph, set against a backdrop of a knight holding aloft a cat pierced by his sword, references respectively a fictitious quotation, book, and author (see figure 1). With its naturalistic echoes of “ancient sin” and “atavism,” it might have been borrowed from Frank Norris’s McTeague, whose title character possesses “the foul stream of hereditary evil, like a sewer. . . . The evil of an entire race flowed in his veins” (285). The quotation introduces producer Val Lewton’s classic horror film Cat People, however, and it reveals Lewton’s deeper preoccupation with the naturalistic subject matter of atavism and historical trauma in print and film, including his Depression-era novel No Bed of Her Own (1932) as well as three movies he produced during World War II: Cat People (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Following the example of Donald Pizer’s “Naturalism and the Visual Arts” and Jeff Jaeckle’s “American Literary Naturalism and Film Noir” by placing naturalistic novels in the context of visual media, I suggest that reading Lewton’s 1940s films as well as No Bed of Her Own enables a deeper understanding of the intersection of naturalism, the Gothic, and historical trauma.

Born in Yalta, Ukraine, on May 7, 1904, the son of a Russian mother and an English father who abandoned the family, Lewton moved to [End Page 103] Berlin with his mother and siblings as a child and immigrated to the U.S in 1909 under the sponsorship of his mother’s sister, the famous screen actress Alla Nazimova. Lewton grew up in Port Chester, NY, and was educated at the New York Military Academy and the Columbia School of Journalism. While employed at the story department of MGM’s New York offi ce, he published eight novels, including No Bed of Her Own, by the time he was thirty. Beginning in 1934, he spent eight years in Hollywood working for David O. Selznick on literary adaptations such as Rebecca, Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind, and Jane Eyre, leaving in 1942 to head up his own production unit for RKO. Working from titles and subject matter sometimes chosen by others to compete with Universal Pictures’ robust line of horror pictures such as Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931), Lewton produced films now considered classics, among themCat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Isle of the Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Despite their origins as “B” pictures, made with lower budgets and less -acclaimed actors than prestigious “A” feature films, Lewton’s movies even in their own time were noted for their “refined, literate approach” and “strong female roles” (Bansak 68–69).

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Fig. 1.

The naturalistic epigraph to Cat People.

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Although it was published before Lewton produced the films that would make him famous, No Bed of Her Own, like Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893), and David Graham Phillips’s Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1917), chronicles the violence, poverty, sexual exploitation, and desperate struggle of its heroine to survive with a sense of her authentic self intact. Like Maggie Johnson, Susan Lenox, and Carrie Meeber, who defines money as “something everybody else has and I must get” (Dreiser 48), Lewton’s Rose Mahoney recognizes that in a capitalist society she must have a commodity to sell and that, if her labor...