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A History of Hysteria in Art, Film, and Literature

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Representation of the Salem witch trials. Lithograph from 1892 by Joseph E. Baker. | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Witches. Wisdom. Wonder. Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on and The multi-episode production was composed by Lisa Bielawa on a libretto by Erik Ehn and directed by Charles Otte. "Vireo" is the winner of the 2015 ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Multimedia Award.

Western history's read on hysteria is long and fraught, fascinating and powerful. Hysteria is almost always associated with the female mind and/or body, and mention of it calls to mind a plethora of images and concepts, such as witchcraft, the relationship between photography and psychiatry in the late 19th century, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novella "The Yellow Wallpaper" about a woman who loses her mind when confined inside. Depictions of hysteria abound in films such as Roman Polanski's 1965 psychological thriller Repulsion, a portrait of Carol's (Catherine Deneuve) devolvement into solitary madness that is portrayed as "the dark side of female innocence" as imagined by men, and the 1922 film Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages which traces notions of witchcraft and sorcery back to the times of primitive man.

Hysteria histories live on today in "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser," an episodic opera created by composer Lisa Bielawa with libretto by Erik Ehn. Inspired by a combination of the Yost Theater, the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) and, yes, the TV sitcom "Arrested Development," Bielawa envisioned an opera that was to be viewed on a screen -- either online or on TV -- and releases it in an episodic, micro-chapter-like format. She focuses on female hysteria through the ages, a project she began researching more than 20 years ago as an undergraduate at Yale.

"Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" is a new opera that considers the nature and uses of female hysteria through time.
Promo: Vireo

What began for Bielawa as a senior thesis turned into a fascination with the fact that groups of men of medicine, religion and art (specifically, the Surrealists) repeatedly authored studies on the visions of teenage girls. Even as a young undergraduate, Bielawa realized that this was more than a research paper -- it had to be something much, much bigger because hysteria and the female body continue to fascinate people of all genders.

"Hysteria was eerie for physicians and philosophers, as it was for patients; it was continually blurring boundaries between medical categories -- mind and body, doctor and patient, pathology and normality," writes Sander L. Gilman in the book "Hysteria After Freud". "Hysteria calls into question basic oppositions between reality and representation."

Hippocrates' 4th and 5th century writings reveal the earliest recordings of the term "wandering womb," which became known as hysteria. Hippocrates believed that womens' health problems were caused by the internal floating of the uterus, which closely resembled "an animal." He thought that this moving uterus caused serious illness in women, including vertigo, headaches, and sleeplessness. The Greeks and Romans referred to practically every female complaint as hysteria, crediting these maladies to a wandering uterus.

Spasms in hysterical patients | Source: Wellcome Images
Spasms in hysterical patients | Source: Wellcome Images

From the Renaissance to the current day, hysteria has been read primarily as a female diagnosis. The Renaissance-era created gendered binary oppositions established as hysteria (female) and melancholy (male), which set the groundwork for ongoing gendered definitions of hysteria. In G.S. Rousseau's essay "A Strange Pathology: Hysteria in the Early Modern World, 1500-1800," he discusses the binary nature of hysteria:

"For men, a cycle was thus set up of erotic infatuation, unrequited love, love sickness, anger, and, finally, melancholy. Hysteria was preempted: nowhere did the sexual organs enter into the sequence, nor was there space for priapic phalluses or morbidly wandering scrotums."

Indeed, throughout the ages there seemed to be no such masculine equivalent of the feminine hysteria.

The Renaissance "wandering uterus" was also closely aligned with witchery. In the 1483 text Malleus Maleficarum or the Hammer of Witches, written by two church "experts" on witchcraft, the two men laid out rules for determining a witch; women were hanged, burned, and murdered in other torturous ways according to the book.

The famous 1692 Salem Witch Trials saw the execution of 19 men and women accused of witchcraft, citing it as the reason that the daughter and niece of Salem Village's Reverend Samuel Parris had fallen ill and not improved. Many Salem residents believed strongly in the devil; witches were originally seen as healers, but when they could not perform healings it was said that they were the ones that caused such illness in the first place.

The witch had great power, including ruining farmers' cattle, spreading diseases, making men impotent, starting storms, selling unbaptized souls to the devil, and causing miscarriages; they were often times promiscuous and super sexual. Such power was accredited to the womb.

Elaine Showalter's essay "Hysteria, Feminism, Gender" traces the coded genders of hysteria through the ages. In the 17th and 18th centuries, we see such distinctions again as hysteria and hypochondria, which were also associated with melancholy; 18th-century theories of melancholy and hysteria characterized it as "conditions of deep sadness and lethargic behaviors" that led to delusion and, at times, suicide.

The late 19th century brought up the gendered variation of hysteria/neurasthenia, characterizing hysteria as an eccentric, bizarre and performative nature reserved for women, while men suffered from the quieter, anxiety-ridden neurasthenia.

Louise Bourgeois, "Arch of Hysteria," 1993. | Courtesy Louise Bourgeois Studio (New York).
Louise Bourgeois, "Arch of Hysteria,"1993. | Courtesy Louise Bourgeois Studio (New York).

Victorian asylums in London often performed hysterectomies, or removal of the "afflicted organ," or the wandering womb. The mid-19th century also saw the creation of establishments such as hydros, spas, sanatoria, and nursing homes for the treatment of hysteria. One could say that the 1800s characterized a major focus on the study of hysteria. It wasn't until centuries later that feminist histories would begin to look at the social oppression of women, acknowledging its implications for the hysteria diagnosis.

During World War I, this shifted into hysteria/shell shock, the later of which accounted for the neurosis men faced upon returning home from war, following the formula that women stayed home in the domestic realm while men fought the good fight. Yet a 2014 article in The Atlantic discusses a British woman named Elizabeth Huntley who had a nervous breakdown during an air raid in London, after which she decapitated and murdered her child. This incident was referred to as "air raid shock" -- a variation on shell-shock, not hysteria. Normally this psychoanalytic term was reserved for soldiers returning home from the war, leaving women's reactions to the age-old "hysteria" diagnosis.

Historians today argue that the shell shock diagnosis offered a way for doctors to separate the mental traumas of soldiers from the feminine-gendered hysteria even though many women exhibited shell-shock symptoms, and many women worked alongside male soldiers. Psychologists and doctors of the time period invented the term "civilian war neuroses" to account for some of the shell-shock-like symptoms that non-soldiers experienced. But clearly the gendered associations of hysteria weren't holding up.

repulsion TRAILER

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, discusses hysteria as part of the feminine. Freud used talk therapy to treat his patient Bertha Pappenheim (popularly known as Anna O.) who suffered from hysteria. Her symptoms included amnesia and hallucinations, among others; in their work together, Pappenheim described her feelings and experiences, which it was said helped alleviate her "hysteria" symptoms. Freud's beliefs on hysteria differed from Hippocrates; rather than rooting them in the female body, Freud saw hysteria as centering in the mind. He initially believed hysteria was a result of childhood sexual abuse, yet later ditched that theory for one that focused on sexual fantasies in relation to neuroses.

Throughout history, massaging "hysterical" female patients to orgasm was the most commonly known "treatment," a topic discussed at length in Rachel P. Maines' book The Technology of Orgasm. If hysteria was seen as the result of sexual deprivation, doctors relieved these "symptoms" through various modes of inducing orgasms, either through vibrators or hiring a midwife. The diagnosis of "hysteria" similarly saw female sexuality as a disease -- hence the ongoing contemporary fascination with hysteria from feminist intellectuals, literary critics and artists.

In the women's liberation movement of the late 1960s, feminist intellectuals, writers and critics in Europe took theories of hysteria and began looking to Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis for a theory of femininity, sexuality, and sexual difference.

Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages Full Movie

By removing hysteria from a purely essentialist gendered approach of "the female," it's possible to consider hysteria through gender. In this approach, hysteria in men is similarly regarded as shameful and "effeminate," a disease of "weak, overly emotional" people regardless of gender. People of the medical fields and culture workers alike continue to investigate the vast history of hysteria.

Artist Terri Kapsalis' course "Wandering Uterus: Journeys through Gender and Medicine," a class that's received a cult-like status at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, seeks to first understand the hysteria of hysteria, from there moving on to examine the history of gynecological experimentation on slave women, history and politics of birth control, and health care for LGBTQI people. Kapsalis' course also delves into the darker history of hysteria, including a look at clitoridectomy, which was once seen as a 19th century "treatment" for mental illness, as well as ideas about sexual dysfunction.

Cover from Terri Kapsalis' collaborative project, "The Hysteria Alphabet"

In her art practice, Kapsalis has produced works such as The Hysteria Alphabet (WhiteWalls), a Victorian-style children's book made in collaboration with Gina Litherland, and the "Jane Addams' Travel Medicine Kit," in which the artist creates a new label for noted women's suffragist Addams' three-inch leather pouch that contained two vials of medicine, both unknown. Kapsalis chose Addams because the famous women's suffragist movement leader was once treated for hysteria by S. Weir Mitchell, the same physician that worked with "The Yellow Wallpaper" author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. If Kapsalis' ongoing research is any indication, hysteria's history remains a deeply ingrained aspect of the Western psyche.

Contemporary artists like Louise Bourgeois, who was in analysis for more than 30 years and self-identified as hysteric, considered her work "Arch of Hysteria" (1993) as one born out of hysteria. Her artwork was a channel to the unconscious, and she viewed it as her own form of psychoanalysis, psychological release, and mental healing, according to an article in The Guardian.

The history of hysteria in Western medicine, and its subsequent representations in film and visual art suggests an ongoing fascination with this subject. Like Bielawa's vision for "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" -- in which she allows the story to reveal itself in shorter segments onscreen beginning in the 1590s and ending in present-day Stockholm, and broadcast to the world -- it's not possible to view the history of hysteria in a single chunk of time; rather, its episodic-like nature.

This article was originally published on March 17, 2015.

Read all of our "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" installations:

Episodic Opera: Composer Lisa Bielawa on Vireo
"Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser," is a new opera that considers the nature and uses of female hysteria through time. Composer Lisa Bielawa discusses the inspiration behind the innovative work.

Librettist Erik Ehn on Writing 'Vireo'
"Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser" is based on research done by composer Lisa Bielawa did on the history of female hysteria for her college thesis.

Kronos Quartet on the Sound of 'Vireo'
The Kronos Quartet created the music that accompanies the performers on "Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch's Accuser."

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