In the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hundreds of women allegedly died from laughing too hard. Any activity in modern life—going to the circus, playing bridge, or salting pork in the kitchen—could become a gateway to the convulsions of hysterical laughter for women. In this article, I look at death from laughter as a limit case that blows open the long-standing separation between laughter and hysteria in scholarship on these topics. I argue that women’s hysterical laughter failed to register as either laughter or hysteria. Whereas laughter allegedly killed regular women, female hysterics could endure multiday laughing, barking fits without so much as a trace on their bodies. Finally, I think about the striking oppositions between the female laughing hysteric and the hysterically laughing woman through the archives of early cinema. Film spectatorship not only offered women a space to laugh safely but also represented a potential visual cure to nervous hysteria.
Death from Laughter, Female Hysteria, and Early Cinema
maggie hennefeld is an assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. Her essays on comedy, gender and early cinema have appeared in Camera Obscura, Discourse, Early Popular Visual Culture, and Film History. She is the author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia University Press, forthcoming) and coeditor of “The Abject Objection: Theories of Graphic and Comedic Violence,” currently under review.
Maggie Hennefeld; Death from Laughter, Female Hysteria, and Early Cinema. differences 1 December 2016; 27 (3): 45–92. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-3696631
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