This Year in Fear: 1844, when people thought they were possessed by demon cats

Cat-People.-Dir.-Jacques-Tourneur
Just another adorable feline.

First, let’s all reckon with one immutable truth: Cats are scary.

My first cat, Mittens, despite being bitty and having no front claws (please, no emails—she came from the shelter that way), managed to take down several mice, a bird or two and one unfortunate bunny. My third cat, Sappho, despite being named for Classical Greece’s version of Joni Mitchell, was a terrifying vampire who spent most of her time crouching in wait beneath futons and beds, ready to pounce once she saw fresh ankles to dig her teeth into.Once she even pounced on me in the shower, leaping from the sink straight onto my shoulder—her dislike of water apparently nothing compared to the opportunity to give me a Janet Leigh moment.

This is to say, I understand why folks might harbor a fear that felines are the devil’s minions. More surprising to me is that, five centuries ago, some people believed evil cats had actually possessed their souls.imgres-1

True story: According to the Discovery Channel, in 1844, a handful of French nuns started meowing every day for hours at a time (and you thought Christian rock was bad).


“The whole neighbourhood heard, with equal chagrin and astonishment, this daily cat-concert, which did not cease until all the nuns were informed that a company of soldiers were placed by the police before the entrance of the convent, and that they were provided with rods, and would continue whipping them until they promised not to mew any more,” according to The Epidemics of the Middle Ages by J.F.C. Hecker. Afterward, the nuns presumably gave the soldiers that dead-eye stare cats are so good at and curled up on the sofa to lick their paws.

Interestingly, this was not the first time that a bunch of convent dwellers thought they were possessed by Satanic animals. Collective nun freakouts were actually pretty common for several centuries: in 1491, a bunch of French nuns started scampering around pretending to be dogs, and in 1560, a set of Spanish nuns started bleating like sheep. Another time, German nuns started spontaneously biting each other—which has nothing to do with animals per se, but is quite interesting. And I’m not even mentioning the Nun Hysterias of 1550, 1628, 1662, 1681, and many more.

The clear takeaway for me: As scary as cats are, convents are scarier.