Cats have always seemed to belong more to, y’know, the spirit world than us. After all, cats and ghosts may be said to have many things in common. First, there is the habit of caterwauling, which cats, like ghosts, like to practice at odd hours of the night. Then there is the way cats are always looking at you with murder in their eyes, even as they purport to love you — not unlike the way ghosts want to claim you for the underworld. Finally, cats enjoy sneaking up behind you and rubbing against your leg unexpectedly, not unlike the way ghosts like to freak you out with the cold spots and such.
In short: it’s not clear whether or not cats are actually ghosts. As the following case studies show, the cat-and-supernatural association is pretty strong to begin with. Everybody knows the black-cat thing, so I won’t rehash the mythology of it here. Instead, here are many — mostly American, mostly-“true”-in-the-sense-that-they’ve-been-printed-as-potentially-true — stories about cats and the paranormal. Or, if you will: cat-ghosts.
The Phantom Cat of Fort McAllister
During the Civil War, a young black cat by the uninventive name of “Tom Cat” was the darling of the soldiers at this Georgia earthworks fortification. According to legend, and as befits the general stupidity of a cat, he liked to run back and forth along the fortifications in the middle of battles. The soldiers marveled at the way he dodged cannon balls. Of course, eventually the cat’s luck ran out, and he was hit by a stray round. The loss was so deeply felt that the soldiers even reported the cat’s death to a general in writing. And now, apparently, visitors to Fort McAllister National Park — which I’d link you to, but government shutdown and all — frequently see another black cat running along the ruins. Cats: you can’t get rid of them even when they are in mortal danger.
The Japanese like cats a lot, I hear — there’s Maru, and then the fact that their national anthem is the Hello Kitty song, yes? But they also recognize cats’ dark powers in many ways. One is the figure of the Bakeneko. These human-cat hybrids are shapeshifters, or else just cats who, you know, know how to talk like humans. Usually, a cat becomes a bakeneko by living too long. There were legends of bakeneko torturing bloodthirsty lords, and of course, bakeneko brothels. (It was all I could do not to say “bakeneko cathouses,” folks.) In this rubric, all that cute Japanese cat stuff is just appeasement, isn’t it? It’s all about convincing yourself that your cat will not grow up one day to be a mind-reading cat demon.
Ghost Cat, starring Ellen Page circa 2003
It’s OK, Ellen Page. We all have our career highs and lows.
The Black Cat of Killakee
The Hell Fire Club was a sort of Dublin’s gentlemen’s club where young people gambled away their fortunes and generally engaged in rabble-rousing. Their clubhouse has since fallen into ruin, but on the slopes below — the clubhouse was perched on a mountain — people have often spotted a ferocious black cat said to be a demon the club left behind there. Per John Dunne’s (not that John Dunne) A Ghost Watcher’s Guide to Ireland, the legend of the cat may be traced to carvings of cats that decorated the clubhouse.
Technically a big cat rather than a domestic-sized one, the Wampus cat is a story from the folklore of Tennesee and South Carolina. It is rumored to be a big black cat with a “red behind,” like a baboon I suppose. Apparently it’s a modification of a Cherokee legend about a young wife who scared off a big cat that was menacing a tribe, though the sourcing of such things is always subject to conjecture.
According to at least one music ethnographer, the traditional fiddle tune “Devil’s Dream” is meant to represent “the musical ghost of a cat chasing the spectral ghost of a rat.” You can sort of hear the meows in the playing, it’s true.
Ruskin’s Phantom Cat
In a letter to a friend, W.B. Yeats once described an occasion when the painter John Ruskin “ran suddenly to the other end of the room, picked up, or seemed to pick up, some object which he threw out of the window. He then explained that it was a tempting demon in the form of a cat.” Yeats was sure, at least, that Ruskin didn’t simply mistake the house cat for a phantom cat.
Fairport Harbor Lighthouse Ghost Cat
Who knew there were lighthouses in Ohio? This one, on the shores of Lake Erie, began to have sightings of a ghostly gray cat in the late 1980s. To be fair, all gray cats look kind of ghostly. (I mean that in the best way possible!) A legend built up around it, about the wife of one of the lighthouse’s very first keepers having lost a kid to illness and then taking solace in many cats — one of them gray. Which all seemed par for the course until the plot thickened when, about a decade ago, people found the remains of a mummified gray cat at the site.
The cat ghosts of Yahoo! Answers
The Big Cat of Cat Holler, Kentucky
In More Kentucky Ghost Stories, Michael Paul Hensen records a legend from an area known as “Cat Holler” of a giant cat killing a man in his cabin, around 1910. Since then, local residents have heard a cat, who sounds larger than your average cat per their reports, howling in the night. Mountain lions or cougars are not known to live in the area.
Apparently, at some point in the 18th century, a Japanese illustrator was, you know, doodling, and he decided to meld the traditional Japanese demon known as a “kasha” with a cat. He drew the above cat demon in flames. Thus this kasha cat became a demon that swoops down on funeral processions and eats corpses. Maybe this is where the old cat-lady fear of getting your face eaten off comes from.
The Demon Cat at the Capitol
As early as the late 19th century, reports began to surface of a cat haunting the US Capitol. The sighters themselves termed it a “demon cat.” Its peculiarity was that, once sighted, it would begin to grow to a ridiculous and completely un-catlike proportion before disappearing again. One article from 1898 says it reached the size of an “elephant.” Apparently, its origins trace to a cat the Capitol had in the 1860s. One day, a guard shot at it for undisclosed reasons; it ran away, but reappeared, people believed, as this specter. It is now rumored to make its appearances before stock market crashes and other such catastrophes. It is hard to tell when the last confirmed sighting was, as reports vary, but paranormal websites the Internet over continue to debate its existence.
Morris of the Crescent Hotel, Arkansas
The Crescent is said by the knowers of such things to be one of the most haunted sites in America. For three years in the late 1930s, the hotel was repurposed as a hospital for cancer patients. The head of this hospital was a quack named Norman Baker who thought he could cure people with some kind of watermelon seed concoction. Not hard to see why the souls of people stuck around in resentment. Among the Crescent’s many spirit guests is the remaining soul of an orange tabby named Morris. As those who have encountered orange tabbies know, they tend to be particularly sweet and loyal. Morris, apparently, arrived in the late 1970s, stayed at the hotel even when it was boarded up for a time, and died in 1994. And apparently, still hasn’t left.
The White Cat of the Carriage House Apartments
According to Greg Jenkins’ Florida’s Ghostly Legends and Haunted Folklore: North Florida and St. Augustine, the Carriage House apartments in Jacksonville, Florida, are known to be haunted by a white cat who vanishes if you approach it. The precise origins of this cat are unknown; like a cat sometimes does, it just appeared one day. Frickin’ cats.
Church, the cat from Pet Sematary
More of a zombie than a ghost, per se. Still, this cat was the best actor in the entire movie — or was it really acting?
Library Cat of Cumberland University in Lebanon, Tennessee
A former head of the library told the Encyclopedia Britannica he saw a cat glide across the floor in front of him and disappear into his book boxes, though, “I did not see any legs or paws and no motion like a normal cat walking on a floor. The apparition was near the floor, about the right height for a cat, but it appeared to be gliding smoothly through the air instead of touching the floor.” Admittedly, my cat appears to do this whenever she’s chasing one of her pink soccer balls.
The “ghost cats” of Eastern State Penitentiary
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, closed in 1971. Cats, who are always interested in free shelter, colonized it thereafter. Most were eventually euthanized, but a few years ago local artist Linda Brenner decided to commemorate them by placing 39 cat sculptures around the ruins of the jail. They are, in the end, pretty eerie-looking, no?
Old Mathis Plantation, Louisiana
Per Haunted Places: The National Directory, this plantation once had an abusive owner. A former slave allegedly sent a black cat to haunt his master. (This makes it kind of a benevolent cat ghost, but we’ll take it.) Eventually, the plantation owner died, and the black cat came out to circle his coffin. It went on to harass the plantation owner’s son, too, and still today allegedly haunts the ruins.
Black Cat of Virginia City
A recurring theme in “cat ghost” reports in the press in the late nineteenth century is the ghost which turned out to be an actual cat. One case, reported in an 1871 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, and syndicated from a Virginia City newspaper, is representative of the trend. The story told of a man suffering the apparition of a large black cat late at night in his parlor. But when he looked a second time, the cat would always disappear. Finally the man calls over some friends. They search the house and can find no trace of the cat. Until: “Presently there was a most unearthly M-I-A-A-W.” And it turned out that cat was there between the bedsprings, where cats always seem to manage to wedge themselves.
Cats in walls, where they do not belong
Analogous stories include cats who were found bricked-up in walls in California and Palatine, Illinois, mostly in the 1960s. I guess there was some kind of “closing off open flooring” trend or something, because that’s where the cats were generally speculated to have entered the houses. What did I tell you? Cats are always causing otherworldly trouble.