“On Mass Hysteria aims to visualise
the language of the pain of female repression
Mass Hysteria comes as a reaction to the circumstances where women are under extreme stress, feel repressed or forced into situations where they
are not able to communicate or express their thoughts and emotions. Robert Woolsey, a medical historian, considers hysteria to be a “protolanguage” whose symptoms are “a code used by a patient to communicate a message which, for various reasons, cannot be verbalised. On Mass Hysteria, a chapter part of A History of Misogyny, tries to visualize this language of the pain of female repression across history.
In the Spring of 2007, in the State of Chalco, Mexico, 600 teenage girls suddenly lost the ability to walk upright. They all belonged to a Catholic boarding school of Korean origin, La Villa de Niñas, which housed almost 4000 students.
Nobody could think of a reason, beyond what happened with one of the girls, Maria: The mother superior had just expelled her for using the ouija: “rotten apples [like] that have to be removed; if not they infect the rest,” said the mother superior. Any magical practice was forbidden as it broke the strict rules of the religious boarding school, which included: wearing the same Asian haircut, an identical self-made uniform, having on your forearm a number belonging to your new “family” – in rooms of 40, getting rid of any personal items, spending long periods in silence, Bible study and work, spartan and redundant food – often Korean, celebrating all the birthdays on the same day—the anniversary of the school’s foundation.
Girls could see their families only a maximum of three times a year and weren’t allowed to have any contacts with the outside beyond the letters they received, which they could not reply to. The school allowed no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines, and of course no having physical contact (improper or otherwise) with anyone. Punishments were strong: “But here [at the school] we form character.
A girl here is no longer an Indian girl from the mountains. She knows how to express herself, she knows how to smile. They have confidence,” said the mother superior. María grieved for having lost the opportunity to study at school and feeling that she had been betrayed by the friends who gave her away, so launched a curse on them. It appeared to work. The initial symptoms appeared: loss of speech, vomiting, dizziness and continued fainting, inability to stay upright. One of the first sick girls wanted to jump from the roof, but she did not thanks to the companions who stopped her. However, no evidence showed any biological cause to the phenomenon and doctors started to talk about the possibility of a mass psychogenic disorder, a collective hysteria case: “I bend because I cannot bear the pain of knowing that I am dead alive, abandoned by everyone and possessed by emotions that I cannot understand, like curses in which I feel I am falling down to hell or into the void, and I am able to feel and communicate only through my persecuted body.”