Hysteria and slapping

While scanning the bookshelf in my house looking for a particular volume, I happened to come across a copy of one of the most well-known Agatha Christie novels Ten Little Indians that is a detective story without a detective, consisting of a somewhat contrived plot in which ten people are invited to an isolated island by a mysterious host and then get killed off one by one in a manner that reflects the children’s poem from which the book’s title is taken.

I had read the book a long time ago at an age when I was an avid fan of detective stories and read almost all Christie’s books, and decided to read it again. In one passage, as the idea that they have all been brought to the island to be killed and that there is no escape sinks is, one woman starts getting hysterical.

She began laughing wildly again. Dr. Armstrong strode forward. He raised his hand and struck her a flat blow across the cheek. She gasped, hiccupped – and swallowed. She stood motionless a minute, then she said, “Thank you … I’m all right now.” Her voice was once more calm and controlled-the voice of the efficient games mistress.

This is a familiar scene that one finds in books of a certain bygone era but rarely these days. In reading that passage now, it seems absurd on several levels. One is the idea that women get hysterical quite easily. I am not talking about the uncontrollable sobbing that accompanies a great loss and is quite natural. I am talking about women who lose control and act and speak wildly when confronted with a situation that is strange or unexpected or fearful. I have never seen anyone, man or woman, behave that way. Does it actually happen?

The other problem is the supposed remedy, a hard slap across the face. In fiction, it works like magic. The woman is cured of her hysterics immediately and often even thanks the slapper, with variations on “Thanks! I needed that.”

This slapping of hysterical women often occurs in films produced even in the late 20th century and was parodied in the film Airplane!.

Some people still believe in the efficacy of slapping to cure what they see as hysterics. Recently, Mel Gibson admitted that he had slapped the mother of his child while she was holding the baby because he felt that she was behaving hysterically.

In the unlikely event that one is in the presence of someone who is hysterical, is it a good idea to slap the person? Brian Palmer gives his answer.

Absolutely not. Most psychiatrists avoid the word hysteria, because it’s loaded with sexist baggage from the 19th century. (More on that below.) It’s also poorly defined, since what a layperson might describe as hysterical behavior can have any number of causes. Otherwise healthy persons may behave erratically in stressful situations, but a panic attack may also signal the beginning of a conversion disorder—when psychological stress causes physical symptoms such as loss of coordination, hallucinations, or imperviousness to pain. (These symptoms usually dissipate in a few weeks.) In rare cases, hysteria can indicate a serious underlying disorder like psychosis. No matter what the cause of a given episode, however, a slap won’t improve matters. On the contrary, it will likely only amplify the sufferer’s chaotic mental state, confirm his or her feelings of fear or paranoia, and possibly provoke counter-aggression.

This hysteria-followed-by-slapping may well be one of those ideas that have taken root in the imagination of people and as a result is assumed to be quite common when it is not. It likely originated and was accepted at a time when it was assumed that women were emotionally fragile people who could fall to pieces under the slightest pressure and required some sort of shock treatment to bring them back to normalcy.

Another symptom of that supposed fragility are the women in Victorian-era novels who faint quite easily out of shock or surprise or alarm or fear, requiring the easy availability of smelling salts to help them come around to consciousness. I have never seen anyone faint for such a reason and that idea seems to have thankfully disappeared. One rarely sees vials of smelling salts anywhere these days.


  1. flex says

    My understanding of the slapping technique is that it’s supposed to startle the person enough to stop the panic. I’ve seen this occasionally work on children who are not having a panic attack but are behaving in an inappropriate fashion. Not a slap to hurt, but to startle enough to get their attention. I’ve never done this myself, and do not suggest it’s a good idea, but I have seen it used and work. I can’t imagine it would work on a person having a panic attack.

    My wife occasionally gets panic attacks.

    Strangely enough they started after she was put on an anti-depressant drug. She was on it for about 3 months and in that time had a number of panic attacks. We decided that any benefits of that anti-depressant were out-weighed by the problems, although we don’t have direct evidence that the drug caused the problem. Since stopping the drug five years ago the attacks have been less frequent and with less severity. But, when in a stressful situation she can experience an accelerated heart rate, trouble breathing, and a desire to flee.

    I’ve never had any inclination to slap her when this happens. I doubt that would help in any way. Holding her to let her feel safe seems to work the best.

    Although I am reminded of one of the great scenes from the original The Producers movie where Gene Wilder has a panic attack and Zero Mostel throws a pitcher of water on him. Gene hesitates for a moment, and then his attack continues with the additional complaint of, “I’m in pain and I’m wet and I’m still hysterical!”

    As far as Victorian fainting goes, I’ve been told that the extensive corsetry worn by middle and upper class women at the time restricted their breathing to the point where when the body wanted more oxygen (i.e. a deep breath), that it wasn’t possible for them to take one because of the restrictive clothing. Which led to fainting. Fashion makes fools of us all.

    Of course, I have no direct experience about whether this is true or not.

  2. Crimson Clupeidae says

    Part of the (actual) fainting issue in Victorian times may have been caused by the ridiculously tight girdles/corsets the women wore. I’ve had to help more than one actress backstage at the Ren fair and help loosen her corset because she couldn’t breath and was getting faint.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    robertbaden @ # 2 -- That scene came from real life: Patton did slap a shell-shocked* soldier while touring a field hospital -- unfortunately for Patton, in the presence of a photographer with fast reflexes, resulting in a picture on the cover of Life magazine and a BIG scandal.

    *Pardon my anachronism: “shell shock” came from WWI; by WWII “combat fatigue” came into mode; now we say “PTSD” and even allow selected civilians to have it.

  4. dmcclean says

    There is a Mythbusters episode that tried to cover this, but the experimental conditions are obviously difficult to set up: how do you ethically induce that sort of panic?

  5. busterggi says

    If I recall from the movie ‘Hysteria’ it wasn’t a slp in the face that cured the condition.

  6. says

    I have seen a shock prevent someone from giving in to full scale panic. It basically distracted them from the part of the situation aggravating their very severe phobia just long enough to get them out of the triggering environment. Though it wasn’t a slap, it was a loud shout that made them turn to look at the person shouting.
    IMHO, this particular scenario has more to do with some people believing that striking a child can stop a full blown tantrum, and undoubtedly stems from the belief that women themselves are like children.

  7. lanir says

    Slapping someone to control them when they can’t control themselves pretty much reeks of authoritarian nonsense. I can’t imagine that actually working. Authoritarian nonsense is popular because life would be so much easier if whenever someone else appears to be the cause of some trouble in your life, you could just do something and change the situation so they can’t anymore. Not coincidentally the idea of taking responsibility afterward is nowhere near as popular.

    It’s basically the conservative version of pretending to be a superhero.

  8. Numenaster says

    @dmmclean, the Mythbusters episode “Slap Some Sense” was about using a slap to restore alertness. They used cold, hunger and sleep deprivation to reduce alertness, but did not attempt to induce panic. Interestingly, they DID deliberately induce fear for the “Cold Feet” episode, and that episode was uncomfortable to watch. They talk about “Slap Some Sense” in the aftershow at http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/videos/slap-some-sense-aftershow/

    The team concluded that “Slap Some Sense” did work to improve alertness. They attributed it to the adrenaline spike caused by the sudden pain.

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