Cinema’s First Epidemic: From Contagious Twitching to Convulsive Laughter
By Maggie HennefeldJune 23, 2020
Should we find it disturbing that these movies were all comedies? What’s so funny about the vulnerability of isolated bodies succumbing to the spastic will of the roiling masses? Just as zombie movies and other grossly corporeal films evoke anxious dread and clammy discomfort, a little haphazard excess can go a long way toward tipping the balance from horror to slapstick. But what is the line between anxiety and enjoyment when it comes to the spectacle of hysterical bodily contagion?
Laughter is often described in suspiciously hysterical terms. The euphemism first took hold in the late 19th century when the notion of laughter as “hysterical” shifted in meaning from nervous breakdown to convulsive enjoyment. Prior to that time, “hysterical laughter” was the last thing you ever wanted to experience with your body. It rang out in anguished peals from psychiatric asylums to incidents of mass psychogenic illness, such as the 1787 Cotton Mill Outbreak and 1962 Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic. Neither entirely real nor purely illusion, hysteria lingers in that gray zone between anxiety and transmission. This is no doubt what also makes it ripe terrain for comedy.
Comic pantomime has a foothold in mimicry, which is likewise essential to the symptomology of hysteria. From the Greek word for uterus (hystera), physicians believed a woman’s womb could start wandering around her body in cases of dormancy or disuse. A pestilence among spinsters and widows, it further made mischief by imitating organic processes of the zones it traversed; for example, if the womb got into the throat, it might create a sensation of choking (i.e., “globus hystericus”). If it got into the foot, it could trigger either paralysis or dancing mania, spreading contagiously like in the 1518 Dancing Plague or 1374 Dancing Mania that shadowed the Black Death. Incidentally, tango and polka dancing were among the foremost hazards of slapstick contagion comedies (see Kristina Köhler’s extensive research on this topic). Whether comic or tragic, the notion of hysteria has long conveyed a severe disorientation between suggestible mimesis and organic affliction. Is the patient truly suffering, or merely a malingerer? Hysteria’s hallmark is imitation, further implicating it as a prime suspect — and inevitable whiplash — amid mass outbreaks of epidemic disease.
Affective Contagion in Early Film Comedy
In the very early 20th century, the mass migration of people and rapid swarming of laboring bodies into fast-paced, capitalist cities provided a groundwork for the visual catharsis of epidemic-themed comedies. There’s something uniquely therapeutic about the absurd spectacle of bodily contagion when enjoyed from a distance. Cayenne Pepper in a Street Cab (1903) lampoons the nervous attractions of sneezing when a lady with armful of groceries accidentally drops her package of cayenne pepper on an overly full street car. The result is an “epidemic of sneezing among the passengers, which is more easily imagined than described,” boasted the Selig Polyscope Company.
But affective suggestion also served as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and xenophobic attitudes. Gustave Le Bon compared the contagion of ideas, sentiments, and emotions to “microbes” in his 1895 study of crowd psychology. Gut feelings gain momentum in the petri dish of modern crowds, where unschooled passions are given free rein over elitist expertise. Early films depict these teeming hazards of mob psychology in purely somatic terms. A Contagious Nervousness (1908) burlesques the explosion of anger that germinates from a husband and wife’s domestic squabble, but quickly spreads to essential workers and eventually barnyard animals. Other epidemic-themed comedies hilariously mistake the contagion for the cause. An All-Wool Garment (1908) pulls a bait-and-switch between affect and underwear, when a gentleman is so tormented by his itchy new garments that his office co-workers, streetcar passengers, and even fellow movie spectators cannot resist that urge to scratch. Confusion between device and transmission comes full circle, the crisis resolved by the man’s purchase of new cotton skivvies. Never mind the unruly masses of prickling bodies who’d never donned itchy garments in the first place. Their compulsion to relieve themselves is collateral damage from the desire to imagine dangerous affective contagion in ludicrously epidemic terms.
Neurasthenia and hysteria were often viewed as wastebaskets for any unexplainable ailment, meaning that if you couldn’t accurately diagnose, then hystericize it. Potential symptoms ranged from somnambulism, paralysis, and hallucinations to political excitement, novel reading, and “masturbation & tobacco.” Mysterious in origin, overdetermined in meaning (from displaced desire to overt defiance), and unpredictable in transmission, the amorphous morphology of hysteria rendered the disease dually fascinating and horrifying. Endemic ambivalence about epidemic hysteria was not lost on early filmmakers of slapstick comedy, who harnessed film’s spreading popularity despite the rampant anxieties about its toxic immorality.
How to prove that nervous contagion is innocuous? Make it fun! Theater exhibitors even advised turning up the houselights so viewers could espy their neighbor’s writhing, spasmodic body and then “no longer keep laughs exclusively to themselves.” Similarly, a man’s neurotic disorder afflicts “all within sight” in Contagious Nervous Twitching (1908), according to The Film Index. His involuntary tic has roughly the same effect as a woman’s fetching physique in A Very Fine Lady (1908), where her public presence provokes men’s libidinous ogling and causes a disastrous disruption of work. In contrast, the nervous twitcher wreaks havoc through mimetic bodily contagion. A janitor catches his knee twirl and topples down the stairs; a hod-carrier mounted atop a ladder contracts his spastic convulsions and then plasters a surveying architect in mortar; a wedding party turns into an epileptic orgy; and so forth. Affective suggestion animates even the inorganic, as in The Yawner, convulsing a concrete statue into a neurasthenic tableau-vivant. Do germs reside in our living bodies or in the spaces we inhabit? Whether corporeal or environmental, the man’s nervous twitching lands the whole public sphere in his neurologist’s office by the end of the film.
Archiving “Epidemics”: Fatal Germ or Financial Gimmick?
There was no greater selling point for a slapstick film comedy than comparing its laughing effects to those of an epidemic. Viewers flocked to watch ludicrous contagion gags that promised to incite uncontrollable audience laughter. For example, A Flirty Affliction (1910) — which is basically a gender-reverse remake of Contagious Nervous Twitching, in which a young woman’s facial spasms are mistaken for sexual flirting — was guaranteed to “send a convulsive epidemic around the audience,” according to The Nickelodeon. The Vitagraph comedy Grin and Win (1909), about a “sour-faced family” who buys a Billiken that enthuses them to radiate happiness, will “cause a hearty laugh,” promised The Moving Picture World. “The spirit of the thing is contagious and before the audience knows it everyone is laughing.” Likewise, in Matrimonial Epidemic (1911) — a slapstick comedy about epidemic matrimony — “the love germ finds lodgment and develops to laughable proportions.” Last but not least, Seven Days (1910) was described by The San Francisco Dramatic Review as a “raging epidemic of fun, laughter, merriment, and all other jolly complications.” Affective contagion offered a lucrative gimmick for voracious film advertisers, and pandemic-themed sight gags were their ace in the hole.
Though clearly the ploy of an expanding capitalist industry, hyperbolic metaphors collided headlong with tangible outbreaks of deadly disease. Even before the 1918 influenza plague, recurring waves of illness repeatedly threatened the livelihood of filmmakers and exhibitors. Polio bedeviled the industry from 1912 until long after the 1918 flu outbreak. Children under 16 were even banned from going to the movies. “The infantile epidemic has done a great injury to show business,” reported Variety in 1912, “result[ing] in the police issuing an order preventing children under 15 from attending local theatres.” Partial closures, age-based prohibitions, and other safety precautions were implemented on temporary and regional bases across the United States. The Moving Picture Weekly described polio in 1917 as “one of the most serious menaces which has ever faced the moving picture exhibitors,” lamenting the steep decline in “daily receipts” caused by the loss of juvenile attendance. In summer 1918, it was again infantile paralysis — not influenza — that mandated theaters to close for over a month across the country, from New York to Iowa to California.
Perhaps it was polio’s slow-burn incitement to partial quarantine that provoked exhibitors to remain somewhat cavalier in the face of influenza. In December 1918, The Springfield News-Record published a scandalous editorial, “Common Sense and the ‘Flu’,” declaring that “[p]atience has ceased to be a virtue” and describing mandatory closures as “ridiculous.” Portentous symptoms were debated not for their contagion but for their unpredictable timing. “How is a theatre manager to know whether a patron has a cough by looking him in the eye?” lamented one nervous employee, and “How can he tell whether or not the ticket holder will sneeze while he is in the place?” As we remember from Cayenne Pepper in a Street Cab, the impetus for a sneeze can run the gamut from nervous suggestion to digestible condiments.
In the early 20th century, typhus, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, polio, measles, and rubella all loomed large as mortal threats to public health that individuals might contract in any communal space — from the streetcar, to the marketplace, to the cinema. The rise of seedy, store-front “nickelodeon” theaters in 1905, where spectators crowded like sardines into unventilated rooms, raised further public health concerns about insanitation. Scarlet fever closed a swath of movie theaters in Chicago in 1906, in New York City in 1907, in Ohio in 1910, and Omaha in 1917, where an alliance of exhibitors won an appeal against regional commissioners to keep the theaters open. Then as now, economic incentives butted heads with public health precautions.
The unresolvable tensions between selling tickets and infecting viewers made its mark on film press discourse, spawning a flamboyant precedent to trivialize lethal outbreaks in order to preempt the financial threats they posed to the future of moviegoing. The industry thus actively weaponized the language of epidemiology, flaunting contagion as above all an incitement to fun, laughter, happiness, and merriment. For example, amid the 1911 typhoid fever that drove patrons away from the theaters, a prominent distribution company widely published this advertisement: “AROUSES AN EPIDEMIC OF ENTHUSIASM WHEREVER SHOWN.”
“Happiness is the most contagious thing in the world, thousands of times more contagious than the influenza,” reported Variety in 1918 — amid mass quarantines and nation-wide shutdowns. Variety was by no means the outlier. Contagious happiness repeatedly contended with dangerous disease in a zero-sum game of affective capitalism versus killjoy health regulation. Photoplay gave pride of place to the following fan letter: “Hope the Health Commissioners, in their zeal for safeguarding the public health in theatres, won’t prohibit us from laughing at Charlie Chaplin on the ground that fun is contagious.” As Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno aptly remind us, “Fun is a medicinal bath. The pleasure industry never fails to prescribe it.” But it doesn’t take a Frankfurt School Marxist to raise an eyebrow at the bad faith comparison of contagious influenza to profitable laughter.
Beyond the screen, the 1910 stage comedy Seven Days was praised as “properly a quarantine comedy. Quarantines go with epidemics, and Seven Days is a raging epidemic of fun, laughter, merriment, and all other jolly complications.” In a similar vein, Harold Lloyd’s Lonesome Luke character created “an epidemic of laughter” in 1917, and The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin (1918) provoked a “contagious spirit,” according to Motion Picture News. “‘The whole German army wouldn’t have had a chance with that mob,’ remarked one observer.” To invoke Le Bon (in the context of patriotism and xenophobia), the microbes of suggestible affect were the entertainment industry’s zippy response to any threatened disruption, from global war to public health catastrophe.
Women’s laughs and smiles were particularly marketable in these terms, exemplified by Helen Duval’s “hearty, contagious, and irresistible” laugh that bolstered an otherwise lame vaudeville routine which Variety further compared to “chop suey.” From the female throat to the convulsive body — Vivian Martin’s smiles in Mirandy Smiles (1918) were “as contagious as the influenza,” taunted Motion Picture News. Her “emotion-affecting elements,” which intermingled pathos and comedy, made good on the film’s promise to provide a joyful break from all “the gloomy war stuff.”
Film industry discourse described the following phenomena as “epidemics” (in this collage of citations I’ve compiled from 1903–1919):
Censorship, white slave films, frisky stage productions, labor syndication, reformist boycotts, midnight revues, rowdyism, freak legislation, Charlie Chaplin comedies, depictions of gun violence, ThedaBara-ism, revolutionary technology patents, movie stars who buy expensive automobiles, films dramatizing fatal heart disease, proliferation of “her-own-companies,” bad photoplays, increased admission prices, the rise of motion picture features, off-color state rights films, unsanitary pictures, and of course, film itself (i.e., movie fever).
Despite the ubiquity of fatal epidemics that afflicted moviegoers during these years — from typhoid and scarlet fever to polio and influenza — the germ of happiness could always outflank the contagion of a virus. Or, as this pseudonymous writer for Shadowland remarked in 1919, “Since everything is contagious — even laughter, good nature and joy as well as disease — permit me to remain, dear reader, your most obedient servant, O.B. Joyful.”
Epidemic Affect and Bodily Contagion in the Age of COVID-19
“Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone” — except during quarantine. What do we want from our images now that so much of our sociality is mediated through screens? The hegemony of Zoom meetings, virtual cinema, and online happy hours will lurch on for the foreseeable future, depending on recurring outbreaks and regional mandates. Perhaps it would put us out of our Zoompocalyptic misery if COVID-19 could transmit through a screen, as in a Medusan horror film like The Ring or Bird Box or Videodrome — where the copy itself becomes the hotbed of virality. On the other hand, there’s nothing lonelier right now than watching live-to-tape comedy, where an absent studio audience’s audible void of pro forma enjoyment addends scripted joke-basket monologues in programs ranging from Last Week Tonight to Saturday Night Live (temporarily rebranded as SNL at Home). To invoke the famous Marxist critique of canned laughter, even the laugh track will no longer laugh in our place when we’re too alienated or exhausted to laugh for ourselves.
This crisis of canned laughter in the age of COVID-19 is a drop in the bucket, as laughter itself gains traumatic emotional urgency to help blow off a zeitgeist of morbid anxiety. “Viewers are affected — and infected — by the laughter of others,” argues Julian Hanich in The Audience Effect. But laughter’s core asset of collective contagion — to spread pleasurably through physical proximity — is clearly off the table for the duration of social distancing. Now perhaps it’s the horror or thriller genre, instead of comedy, that has acquired a truly remedial value for home quarantined viewers. For example, Steven Soderbergh’s portentous Contagion (2011) surged from 270th to the second most popular film in Warner Bros.’ catalog by March 2020. In fierce company with the Ebola-themed Outbreak (1995), South Korean sci-fi drama Flu (2013), and TV serialization of the bird flu in Pandemic (2007), Contagion offered anxious viewers both the catharsis of dramatic suspense and the speculative reassurance that if we can imagine it, perhaps it will not come to be — at least not on such a catastrophic scale. (Approximately 70 million people die by the end of Contagion.)
But it is film’s spectacle of bodily contagion that potentially soothes viewers’ alternately agitated and isolated nerves. As Sarah Keller notes in Anxious Cinephilia, “The volatile nature of cinema leads naturally to volatile relationships with cinema.” Movies are most therapeutic when their ambivalent conflicts align instinctively with our own. Call it contagion, or perhaps fraught identification; it’s definitely not an epidemic. “Social feeling is […] shared feeling” and thus contagious, writes Sara Ahmed. This is precisely what makes affect so vividly dangerous. There is no lack of “shared feeling” among the “LIBERATE” protesters who defied quarantine and gathered with rifles and Confederate flags to demand that states reopen for business. In contrast, laughter spreads like the plague on a German subway in this uproarious video, Lachen in der U-Bahn (2011), where one woman’s isolated amusement courses joyfully among passengers on an overcrowded train car.
So what is the line between anxiety and enjoyment when it comes to the spectacle of hysterical bodily contagion? I myself crave the sight gag of roiling bodies cavorting together in excessive proximity, à la the spastic yawners, sneezers, twitchers, tango-ers, and laughers of yore. Whether those unruly masses register as anxious horror or cathartic comedy is a problem that goes beyond the analytics of social affect to the theater of collective politics. Revolutionary feeling should not be contagious like a microbe, but creative and incendiary like a carnivalesque general strike.
This piece was written in March–April 2020, before the global political uprisings against white supremacy, police brutality, and structural racism erupted in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. I very much see the recent protests — which have radiated poetic anger and resilient spontaneity — in the vein of a "carnivalesque general strike" that parlays affective contagion into collective solidarity.
Maggie Hennefeld is McKnight Presidential Fellow and associate professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
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