When the Woman Laughs: Genres of Female Laughter in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock
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Women laugh often in the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Female protagonists, antagonists, and minor characters: they laugh in pleasure and play. I aim to define genres of female laughter (unruly, spectral, and liminal) to characterize the revolutionary power of women's laughter beyond the punishments of melodrama and misogyny.
“What a grand joke it will be,” Rebecca says in the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film named after her. Or rather, in her absence, Maxim de Winter—her husband—recounts her words. “He utters a short, bitter laugh,” the screenplay specifies. “How supremely, wonderfully funny,” Maxim says in her place, for Rebecca is dead. He performs her “bitter laugh,” which might have been cause for murder, the consequence of her unruliness. Though dead, it is her presence that haunts her home. It is her laughter that haunts her husband.
In Lifeboat (1944), Constance Porter, played by Tallulah Bankhead, “bursts into a fit of hysterical laughter,” per the screenplay. Rather than bitter, hers is “immoderate laughter.” She continues “[s]creaming with laughter” on a lifeboat with little hope of rescue. And Miriam, whose murder connects the titular Strangers on a Train (1951), laughs almost continuously before her death: “We see the silhouette of a woman emerge, followed by two other men. They are laughing and joking.” She is depicted “with a gay laugh,” so much so her humor becomes contagious: “Bruno on his [merry-go-round] horse, as though he is chasing Miriam...is a little more open now in his laughter.” Laughter turns to disgust as Bruno strangles Miriam until her “coy smile of recognition” is gone.
Discourses about women and laughter have varied, from the absence of mention, to the emphasis on narcissism as the link between humorists, women, and, oddly, cats. And that’s just coming from Sigmund Freud. This was a shift from a historical context that assumed women and humor were unrelated, as theorist Jo Anna Isaak recounts. To philosopher Henri Bergson, laughter, in general, is a corrective. Its main aim is to humiliate, since through laughter, “society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it.” And yet Freud notes that laughter is rebellious against the external world. Here, laughter allows the ego to view traumas as “occasions for it to gain pleasure.” Though his main example is a criminal en route to his execution, let us not forget his inclusion of women.
About female laughter, feminist rhetorician Hélène Cixous offers an oft-quoted proclamation: “You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.” To theorist Jessica Chalmers, Cixous exemplifies a feminist call for laughter that was more political than funny. Her response: “I have tried out several versions of a Medusa-like laugh, none of them very satisfying and none of them resembling anything remotely like orgasm.” But to Cixous, fear of the Medusa serves a function for men: “Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren’t men. But isn’t this fear convenient for them?”
The man witnessing the laugh of the Medusa is faced with a particular horror, one that destabilizes his image of himself. In her essay “When the Woman Looks,” Linda Williams discusses the horror film genre, ranging from The Phantom of the Opera (Julian, 1925) to Dressed to Kill (De Palma, 1980), in which the heroine’s encounter with a monster results in a sadistic viewing experience. She is watched for shock value, or rather, the value of her shock. As Williams states: “Everything conspires here to condemn the desire and curiosity of the woman’s look.” Williams suggests that when the woman looks at the monster in the classic horror film, she offers “a potentially subversive recognition of the power and potency of a non-phallic sexuality. Precisely because this look is so threatening to male power, it is violently punished.” If women’s laughter has a similar power, potency, and rebelliousness, then is its violent punishment inevitable? Does female laughter within the constraints of narrative cinema function differently from rebellious laughter elsewhere?
Dutch historian Johan Huizinga notes that “[l]aughter is in a sense the opposite of seriousness without being bound up in play.” His concept of play includes the following criteria: voluntary participation, freedom to join and leave, a distinct beginning and end, a specific location where the game takes place, rules, and a bit of secrecy to those not involved. With this in mind, cinema will be our game, with special attention to Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and Psycho (1960). Rather than chronology, I will note when the woman laughs, its causes, and its consequences. Perhaps there are subcategories in which the woman laughs last.
In Hitchcock’s first talkie Blackmail (1929), the sound of laughter is first used to characterize the protagonist Alice White. She is the one who laughs or causes laughter. After defending herself against rape with murder, laughter is then used to traumatize Alice by making her the object of laughter. Originally planned as a silent film, Blackmail shifted to incorporate sound midway through production. The roots of silent film are ever-present. As the film opens, much of the action takes place in silence. While policemen look for a potential criminal, diegetic sound is sparse, except for a few effects: glass breaking, a car horn, and the mumble of men leaving a police truck. Synchronized dialogue first occurs when Alice White is introduced. “Good evening, Ms. White,” an officer says. “How are you?”
“I'm alright, thanks,” she responds. It is important to note the disembodiment of protagonist Alice White's voice. Her dialogue is dubbed. Once the film went from silent film to talkie, actress Anny Ondra's accent was too difficult to understand. In her place, actress Joan Barry recorded the audio. As a result, White's disembodied voice and laughter are malleable, since they are added in post-production.
Early in the film, Alice meets a detective with whom she has a date. Before they exit the building, a policeman leans in to tell Alice a joke. In this first exchange, she laughs loudly. Despite being annoyed with her boyfriend, Alice is introduced as a woman of good humor. In the following sequence, Alice and Detective Frank Webber head to restaurant for their date. While they walk, the film reverts to silent film mode. There is no sound in the city exterior shots, not even music. Once inside the restaurant, sound resumes. Aside from music and background conversation, frequent laughter is also heard. The sound comes predominantly from the same woman off-screen.
During their meal, the sound of female laughter continues until Frank leaves the table to flag down a server. With him gone, another silent interlude takes place. Alice looks around the restaurant for a second man with whom she has made a date. She smiles at the other man (credited as 'the Artist'), and shakes her head when it looks as if he might join her. The Artist takes heed of her warning before Frank returns to his seat.
“Frank,” Alice says. “I've changed my mind again.”
After a pause, off-screen female laughter continues. Rather than just the background noise of the dining room, it is also a makeshift audience. Alice says, “I've changed my mind again” about watching a movie. He wants to go, but she does not. Seeing her other potential lover gives Alice cause to end her date with Frank. Because of this, the sound of laughter becomes more noticeable. This off-screen laughter is a stand-in for audience laughter, the result of knowing more information than the characters onscreen. Thus, we are in on the joke.
Frustrated, Frank leaves the restaurant, but pauses. Perhaps he has reacted too hastily. Before he can return to her, Alice exits the restaurant with the Artist in hand. In a reaction shot, Frank catches sight of his date with another man. Yet again, the female laughter recurs. Though framed as happenstance—they are in public; in public, people laugh—here too laughter has a double effect. Again, it gives a sense of atmosphere (a restaurant where jovial conversation takes place). It also informs the narrative situation. Frank, a cuckold, is being laughed at. It is the laughter of Alice almost getting away with her tryst.
Later that evening Alice joins the Artist in his apartment. When she sees a painting of a clown mid-laugh, the camera quickly pulls back from the painting and cuts to Alice. The movement indicates that she has seen the image. But rather than a standard shot/reverse shot, the abrupt camera movement (uncharacteristic hitherto in the film) indicates a movement of laughter or joke from source to recipient. The shot begins on the object that causes laughter and cuts to the person who reacts to the laughter. This camera movement indicates a transfer of affect. The disembodied laughter of the jester finds its voice in Alice. Directly following the cut, Alice laughs.
The clown is doing one notable action: pointing. Pointing is enough. From it, a simple structure of action/response occurs. Alice sees a painted clown laughing and pointing at her. Alice in turn accepts the suggestion (You. Laugh.) and takes up the action.
While the clown in the painting appears to be laughing, one notable element is missing: the sound of his laughter. Alice completes the loop by giving voice to the laughter of the clown. “How do I look?” Alice later asks the Artist in a tutu he picked out for her. The Artist takes on a menacing humor before he attempts to rape Alice. He forces her onto his bed. Alice grabs hold of a knife and stabs him to stop his assault.
Tania Modleski contextualizes feminist criticism surrounding the work of Alfred Hitchcock in her book The Women Who Knew Too Much. Modleski begins with Laura Mulvey's seminal essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and its breakthrough claim that women in classical Hollywood cinema are represented as instruments for both male voyeurism and sadism to fulfill the desires and anxieties of the dominant heterosexual male perspective. As a result, female spectators relate to the viewing experience with masochism. Modleski provides a primer on the discussions that followed: Raymond Bellour's idea that the Oedipal journey is the trajectory of all Hollywood narrative; Teresa de Laurentis's claim that the female spectator begins a double desire to identity with the passive female and the active male subjects; Susan Lurie's theory that the project of narrative is to castrate women because of the dread their wholeness arouses in men.
Modleski concludes this run-though of theory—which includes Robin Wood's attempt to 'save' Hitchcock from feminist destabilization—by providing her own thesis, that Hitchcock is neither “utterly misogynistic” nor “largely sympathetic to women and their plight in patriarchy.” Instead, “his work is characterized by a thoroughgoing ambivalence about femininity—which explains why it is possible for critics to argue with some plausibility on either side of the issue.” Regarding Blackmail, Modleski poses a question. She asks to what extent the film “makes us condemn the woman for her sexual availability.” This question can be broadened to include more than just Alice. To what extent do Hitchcock’s films make us condemn women for their sexual availability?
The New Comedy: A (Melo)dramatization
Hitchcock's films are usually categorized in the suspense genre with elements of espionage, horror, romance, and domestic drama. They are not typically referred to as melodramas. A narrative mode, melodrama has long been rehabilitated as more than a pejorative term denoting a sentimental work. Peter Brooks succinctly (re)defines melodrama as “the principal mode for uncovering, demonstrating, and making operative the essential moral universe in a post-sacred era.” Melodrama in theater came into prominence following the French Revolution, in which religion was not overthrown, but re-articulated. As a result, melodrama became popular for its excess, its overarching moral code that clearly differentiated between good and evil. Brooks notes the following characteristics of the melodramatic mode: “[T]he indulgence of strong emotionalism; polarization and schematization; extreme states of being, situations, actions; overt villainy, persecution of the good, and final reward of virtue; inflated and extravagant expression; dark plottings, suspense, breathtaking peripety.”
In the newly secular society following the French Revolution, melodramas depicted a moral occult in place of divine judgment. Punishment for moral ineptitude still exists in this narrative mode. But in place of God, morality chastises a female protagonist for a fall from a space of innocence, the latter defined as a place of moral virtue. After this fall, virtue is absolved through a trial by fire. Through being punished, order is (at least somewhat) restored.
After Alice’s rape in Blackmail, she henceforth does not laugh, nor does she cause laughter. Almost immediately after the murder, she is sadistically terrorized by humor and laughter. When leaving the scene of the crime(s), Alice passes a sign that reads “A New Comedy.”
The film changes in tone. Rather than one about a woman duping her boyfriend, it is not a comedy anymore. It is not strictly a tragedy either, even though the dramatic style is linked with comedy. (Note the masks in the Artist's bedroom.) Instead, the new comedy is cosmic, or perhaps an ironic melodrama, one that borrows from the moral code of melodrama with no absolution. Will Alice be caught? The pleasure of deception and laughter is replaced with a comedy gone sour. The 'new comedy' ensues.
The moral legibility of melodrama is not easily applicable to Hitchcock’s films in which virtue is challenged by death. For what return to innocence can take place after murder? What level of suffering can atone for death? If melodrama “usually begins by offering a moment of virtue taking pleasure in itself,” what about families that are already broken? In their volume on Hitchcock, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol (melo)dramatize Hitchcock's canon, unintentionally so. In discussing Blackmail, they state that Alice murders “to defend her virtue” against rape. As a result, “Alice will have to suffer a moral punishment . . . .” Morality made secular (the moral occult a la melodrama) is present, so much so Rohmer and Chabrol touch on Hitchcock’s Catholicism in his work: “[T]hough they often deal with questions relating to God, their protagonists are not gripped by an anxiety that is properly speaking religious.” It is an unspoken religious code, or morality translated through the unsaid. But his films bear a “moral universe—a thousand times more perilous, if not more fatal, than that of ancient tragedy....” A moral code (unsaid; muteness too a feature of the melodramatic heroine) lingers.
Parts of the melodramatic mode are noticeable, namely the articulation and test of virtue, trial and suffering, and muteness. Though moral virtue isn't clearly articulated, it is still adhered to with some skepticism. Still, Alice suffers. And though the film features rape and murder, the titular crime is the tertiary action: the blackmail that takes place after the rape and murder. According to Williams, “Melodrama begins, and wants to end, in a space of innocence.” Typically it is a place of youth and virtue, or an image of the home. In our Hitchcockian “new comedies,” the space of innocence is absent, and the moral occult—rather than rewarding virtue—punishes unruliness with aggression and often death. There is no tidy return to grace.
Blackmail ends with the death of the blackmailer, on whom Alice’s crimes are pinned. After this transfer of guilt, Alice still is not capable of laughter. Using the terms of melodrama, she is muted. In the final scene, the doorman that first told Alice a joke (her first instance of laughter) cracks another as a bookend. “Did she tell you who did it?” the policeman asks Frank. “You oughta look out. You'll be losing your job, my boy.” At this final joke, Frank and the other policeman laugh. Alice laughs as well, but with no sound. She mimics the action, but there is no audio for her laughter. At the end of the film, she is on the other side of laughter, melodramatically.
Unruliness and the Desire to Desire More
“The cities are full of women,” Uncle Charlie says in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). “Middle-aged widows, husbands dead. . . And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the hotels, the best hotels everyday by the thousands drinking their money, eating their money, losing their money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else. Horrible. Faded, fat greedy women.”
“They're alive,” his niece, also named Charlie, interjects. “They're human beings.”
“Are they humans or are they fat, wheezing animals? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?”
Too fat, too old, and too much in need of companionship, possibly sex. In Shadow of a Doubt, the consequence of this excess is murder. Uncle Charlie, the Merry Widow Murderer played by Joseph Cotten, kills and steals from these lonely women, most of whom are never seen. The unruliness of these women is only theoretical. Their excess and their murders take place off-screen. We hear about their behavior after the fact. Just a few years later, Hitchcock would depict female laughter and the spectacle of her death onscreen.
“Got a nice tan playing tennis with all your rich friends,” Miriam Haines says to her estranged husband in Strangers on a Train (1951). Guy Haines arrives in Metcalf, his former hometown, to finally divorce his wife in order to marry another woman. “Sort of hoped you'd be a little jealous,” Miriam says to him. Already, Miriam is a woman with multiple desires. She wants Guy to know she's noticed his tan. She wants him to be jealous. “Let's talk in here,” she says—wanting privacy—on her way to a soundproof listening booth. “Did you bring money?” she asks. Cash in hand, she quickly moves on to what she wants next. After a run-through of desires (attention, privacy, money, to have the baby conceived with another man), Miriam's final demand is different. She mentions what she doesn't want: a divorce.
Theorist Kathleen Rowe states “the figure of the unruly woman—too fat, too funny, too noisy, too old, too rebellious—unsettles social hierarchies.” Rowe goes on to introduce examples of unruly women in literature and popular culture from François Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, to Mae West and Roseanne. Some discernible features of the unruly woman include her domineering presence over men, excessive body, looseness (possibly depicted in pregnancy), and her laugh. Much like Miriam.
Aside from her glasses—the accessory in which her death is framed; the object that proves she has been killed—Miriam's other notable feature is her laugh, which is both visible (we see her laugh) and audible (we hear her laugh too). She smirks upon first seeing Guy. Later, she spends most of her final sequence alive laughing. Miriam rushes out of her house with two men, one on either arm. They laugh while boarding a bus, and laugh while entering a fairground. The threesome continues laughing while getting ice cream, playing carnival games, riding a carousel, even while singing. Laughter leads them through the Tunnel of Love, punctuated by a scream that too erupts into a guffaw.
Not only does Miriam desire, but—horror of horrors—she craves. “I'm hungry,” she declares after arriving at the fairground. While eating an ice cream cone with her two companions, she confesses, “I think I should've had a hot dog before I had this.”
“A hot dog?” one of the men asks.
Miriam: “Mm-hmm. It'd satisfy my craving a little better.”
Man #1: “Craving for what?”
Man #2: “Why I never seen a girl eat so much in all my life. I don't know where you put it all.”
“That the unruly woman eats too much and speaks too much is no coincidence,” Rowe continues. “Both involve failure to control the mouth. . ., a more generalized version of that other, more ambivalently conceived female orifice, the vagina.” It is an unruly hunger. Without control, Miriam’s sexuality is consolidated with excess: endless and anarchic. In the source material, the 1950 novel Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, Miriam is also made grotesque because of her desires. In the fairground prior to killing her, Bruno notices “Miriam and her friends were eating again, Miriam diving into a popcorn bag Dick held for her. The pigs!” In the film, this insatiable hunger culminates in her death.
“Is your name Miriam?” Bruno asks her in a secluded area within the fairground.
“Why, yes,” she replies. Before Bruno strangles her, Miriam tries to ask one last question: “How did you—?” She is cut short by her murder. Miriam presumably wanted to ask: “How did you know my name?” But here, rather than rape, her laughter has brought about her death. It is her laughter that characterizes her unruliness. When another woman laughs later in the film, she too is punished. Bruno—who has murdered Miriam, our unruly woman—joins two aging socialites at a dinner party to discuss death. “You seem very interested in the subject of murder,” Mrs. Cunningham, one of the women, says. Bruno assures her that most people are interested in murder. In response, she laughs. Bruno asks how she would murder someone.
“Mrs. Cunningham, how are you going to do it?” As the screenplay makes clear, she enables him by “entering into the play.” Bruno insists strangulation is the ideal murder. He demonstrates by choking her, not to the point of death, but long enough for her laughter to become tears. “Ha-ha” transitions to a “who-who” sob. She is made into a fat, wheezing animal, a la Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt.
Genres of Laughter
In discussing the unruly woman, Kathleen Rowe notes that she “crosses the boundaries of a variety of social practices and aesthetic forms, appearing most vividly in genres of laughter...” She laughs in liminality: the space between freedom and oppression, life and death. Through this laughter, desires are expressed beyond punishment. My framework for genres of laughter comes from Linda Williams’s analysis of the physiological intents of pornography, horror, and melodrama. In the article “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Williams discusses “body genres” whose effectiveness is often based on the bodily response they elicit: pornography (orgasm), horror (shuddering), and melodrama (tears). Our Hitchcockian “new comedies” do not elicit the physical reaction of laughter, but body genres offer a framework to identify genres of laughter: unruly laughter (pornography); spectral laughter (horror); and liminal laughter (melodrama). The first two characterize the ambivalence read into Hitchcock’s treatment of women.
Unruly laughter: grotesque laughter that denotes excess (material and sexual) and is punished, melodramatically so. Sometimes the consequence of this laughter is rape, sometimes murder.
Spectral laughter: laughter which haunts and signifies a lack (typically a ridiculed male). Though silenced, spectral laughter often surpasses punishment and continues to haunt. Even after death, it does not stop.
These two genres of laughter are certainly but a few of many. At times, the laughter that signifies unruliness becomes spectral. That is, the laughter that signified excess continues to haunt the object of laugher to the point of becoming transcendent and ever-present. This transformation of laughter is exemplified in Strangers on a Train. It is Miriam’s unruliness that continues to haunt Bruno. Long after her death, the same carnivalesque suite accompanies her phantasmal return. Bruno sees another woman wearing glasses and as a result almost chokes Mrs. Cunningham, our aging socialite.
In Rebecca (1940), both genres of laughter are present, each associated with a different character. Edythe Van Hopper laughs unknowingly. She is a woman made comic through her oblivious overexertion. Played by Florence Bates, Mrs. Van Hopper is a portly woman bedecked in jewels with enough money to stay at a luxurious hotel. She pays for a companion (Joan Fontaine), but quickly takes interest in the company of Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). Though Edythe is not murdered, she is made laughable. “Perhaps you don't remember an old woman like me,” she says. She laughs at her own undesirability, here an excess of age.
The titular Rebecca never appears in a film named after her, but excess marks her presence. Most people, her former maid Mrs. Danvers included, feel an excess of emotionalism when she is mentioned. Often there are declarations of love, of her perfection and agreeability. In her opulent estate—Manderlay—Rebecca de Winter still inhabits in spirit the excessively cavernous space with many rooms, wings, and expensive furnishings. Even her death is marked with excess. Much like Miriam, she was pregnant from an extra-marital affair. Maxim eventually expresses his extreme hate for her, a contrast to the affection the staff still feels for Rebecca.
While recounting the night of her death, Maxim remembers that “[s]he was lying on the divan, a large tray of cigarette stubs beside her.” Excessive smoking. “When I have a child,” Maxim recalls Rebecca saying, “neither you nor anyone else could prove it wasn't yours.” If pregnant, she wanted to have her child. If not, she wanted to make Maxim angry. “Then, she started to laugh.” As a result, Maxim possibly kills her. He recalls striking her. “She was smiling. 'Well, Max? What are you going to do about it? Aren't you going to kill me?'” After being hit, “She looked almost triumphant. Then, she started toward me again, smiling.” It is a triumphant laughter. Even though she dies soon afterward, this victorious laughter can give us an entry into Hitchcockian ambivalence—as Tania Modleski suggests—rather than solely epitomizing melodramatic misogyny.
In Psycho (1960), there’s plenty of talk about laughter. When Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is distraught about her hopeless affair with married man Sam, he responds in the screenplay: “My old Dad used to say, 'when you can't change a situation, laugh at it.' Nothing ridicules a thing like laughing at it.” (Henri Bergson might agree.) “I've lost my girlish laughter,” Marion says, in a line not in the finished film. In comparison, the screenplay refers to “mother's derisive laughter” when mentioning Norma Bates. All of Norma’s laughter takes place off-screen. And as we later discover, she speaks from beyond the grave. Her voice has in fact been taken up by her murderous son Norman (Anthony Perkins) who oversees the Bates Motel. Now ruled by the “mother-half” of his mind, the laughter we hear is the external expression of internal laughter. We hear what Norman hears. And since characters in the film also hear Norma’s voice, the Norma we hear is the Norma he performs. It is the unruly woman he has killed and internalized.
Norman’s final murder attempt is aimed at Lila Crane, in town to investigate her sister’s disappearance. Lila (Vera Miles) approaches Norma Crane only to discover she is a corpse. Behind her, Norman dressed as Norma enters with a demented, wide-mouth grin. The sound of Norma’s laughter would not be out of place. Instead, aside from Lila’s scream and the screeching score, a Tarzan-like yell contorts the confession: “I am Norma Bates.” (“Ayeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee Am Norma Bates!” in the screenplay.) Meant to be Norman, it is clearly dubbed, since the sound and visuals are not synced. Alas, another disembodied voice.
At the denouement, psychiatrist Dr. Simon details Norma and Norman’s relationship. She was a “clinging, demanding woman.” The two of them “lived as if there was no one else in the world.” That is, until she took a lover. Her sexual appetite made Norman jealous enough to murder. To keep the illusion of her still alive, “he’d dress up, even to a cheap wig he bought, and he’d walk about the house, sit in her chair, speak in her voice.” He even laughs for her. The screenplay specifies “a shrill laugh” as Norman mentions hiding Norma from suspecting eyes. Later, “she starts to laugh, a terrible sound like an obscene melody.” Her unruliness is given a sound, and it compels him to kill. Norman internalizes the laughter aimed at him and keeps it alive. The final words of the film belong to Norma, or Norman performing Norma. It is presented as Norma’s voice inside of her son. As Norman sits in confinement, he smiles, but it is Norma who laughs, not seen but heard. She laughs last. Her laugh lasts.
In the Hitchcock films discussed here, those punished for their desires are either the women who knew too much or—in vulgar terms—the women who screw too much. The moral code of melodrama reinstates an overarching patriarchal order that offers little absolution. The women who laugh are often the women who die, metaphorically (broken spirits; hysteria; rape) or physically (murder). The women who desire are repeatedly presented as perverse and unruly, necessitating their deaths.
In the essay “The Laughter of Being,” Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen states: “We do not laugh, in other words, because we are not dead. We laugh, very much to the contrary, because we are dead, because we are, laughing, ourselves the dead man.” But perhaps there is laughter in between. Terracotta figures of pregnant old woman are an oft-returned to image in Mikhail Bakhtin's survey of the carnivalesque in French writer François Rabelais's world. To Bakhtin, these figures of senile, pregnant hags show the cyclical in the grotesque, the old woman pregnant with life, pregnant with death. But theorist Mary Russo posits a question that Bakhtin did not ask: “Why are these old hags laughing?” Perhaps these Hitchcockian heroines and unruly women (sometimes pregnant; sometimes old “wheezing” hags) transgress order and life itself; after all, there is laughter after death. Perhaps these women are both unruly and not, both punished melodramatically and outside the order of death.
Unruly laughter (in pleasure, in excess) meets its end with murder, rape, and mutilation, not unlike in the classic horror film. In a twist on the melodramatic mode, in which there can be no return to innocence, one form of laughter that appears is spectral. Her laugh haunts, be it the merry widows, Rebecca, or Norma Bates. To claim this laughter is progressive might be a stretch, because the true progressiveness would be if laughter (and its pleasures) didn’t warrant death. One cannot ignore that this laughter is internalized by the men and spurs a hysteria that eventually traps them in institutions of the state (Psycho), lackluster marriage (Rebecca), or their own deaths (Stranger on a Train; Shadow of a Doubt). This laughter continues after the women’s deaths.
Another genre of laughter should be noted, one that might warrant its own category. While Shadow of a Doubt includes unruly laughter (widows marked with excess), another laugh causes a profound emotional response. Emma Newton is surprised when she hears her brother Charlie has decided to leave town again. The screenplay specifies that Emma (played by Patricia Collinge) “is completely overcome.” As a result, “[s]he sinks down to a chair. There are tears in her eyes.” Her daughter “watches the display of pathetic devotion from her mother—deeply moved—she closes her eyes a second to keep control over her feelings.”
This moment would not be out of place in the pejoratively-titled “women’s films” or “weepies”. In the prototypical maternal melodrama, Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937), the title character’s self-sacrifice in the name of motherly love enables her daughter to integrate into a higher social stratum than she can herself offer. Barbara Stanwyck’s Stella Dallas watches her daughter wed, a union she perceives required her to sever connections with her daughter. Dallas cries and smiles. The narrative is far more complicated than a simple, sacrificial view of motherhood. But suffice it to say that despite the loss/gain discrepancies, mother and child are separated by metaphorical, not physical, death.
For Emma Newton in Shadow of a Doubt, she has lost her brother and herself as she was. After she is a man’s wife, and after her brother becomes a murderer, the “space of innocence” cannot exist again. A new union is not emphasized. Rather it is an abrupt, nihilistic end, somewhere between maternal melodrama and murder, romantic irony and suspense. In the screenplay, Emma says of her distress: “You see we were so close growing up and then I got married and Charles went away. And I haven’t seen him for so long. And when he came back, he was so exactly as I prayed he might be...”
As the result of being married, she is forced into her own maternal melodrama. Seeing Charlie reminds her of how it was, and she recalls him as she “prayed he might be.” But in this ironic melodrama, Charlie is not as she remembers, for he has become a murderer. Surely, she didn’t pray for him to be one.
The dialogue in the film further elaborates the space of innocence, long over. Emma cries with the realization that her brother is leaving again:
The screenplay states that Mrs. Newton gives her tearful speech and “pauses...laughing a little.”  Here we have ambivalent or a liminal laughter, laughter in between states. In this laughter, two emotions are present, or the transition between them. But it isn’t laughing to the point of tears. Laughter punctuates tears. Crying is punctuated by a subtle laugh. I have touched on another genre of laughter to which I will return: laughter in the company of itself, or liminal laughter, one that is directed inward to signal a change, a loss, or mark a transition of emotions. Emma Newton reflects on going from sister/daughter to wife. The monologue offers a moment akin to a maternal melodrama. There is a profound response within the film, one that doesn’t warrant murder but points to an inward, irremediable change. Here the presence of laughter within tears points to a more complex laugh/response. Female laughter is not present for punishment. Rather, liminal laughter exists somewhere between: between mother and daughter, between women, between passive/active viewing, and/or between emotions.
That these women in the films of Hitchcock laugh is worthy of note. Though they are often punished for this laughter, perhaps these unruly women express the “calculated optimism explicit in the feminist project with pleasure—particularly a sensual or erotic pleasure associated with the body.” In her essay “The Revolutionary Power of Women's Laughter,” Jo Anna Isaak explores images of laughter in feminist artwork. Perhaps in the spirit of Modleski, some moments of ambivalence can be reclaimed in these films. A similar argument is made by Linda Williams, who suggests regarding classical Hollywood cinema that “[i]nstead of destroying the cinematic codes that have placed women as objects of spectacle at the centre, what is needed, and has already begun to occur, is a theoretical and practical recognition of the ways in which women [or feminists] actually do speak to one another within patriarchy.” Laughter has this potential.
Laughter was commonplace in the medieval carnivals of France amongst men and women, the rich and the poor. So much a feature of yearly life, carnivals brought about a third, common language (“carnival familiarity”) between the social strata. A contrast to contemporary humor, the carnivalesque laughter that Mikhail Bakhtin explores in the writing of François Rabelais was an excessive, constant and cathartic laughter. It occurred not merely in response to a stimulus, but as an event itself. “The popular tradition is in no way hostile to woman and does not approach her negatively,” Bakhtin claims. However, there were often occasions of violence: “Jews were stoned and there is evidence that women were raped, during the carnival festival.” As Isaak notes, these violent transgressions were not caused by the anarchic power of laughter:
[A]cts of violence that occur when the Law that regulates a community and maintains social hierarchy is suspended need only be understood as an extension and reinstatement of that same Law. In fact, they are the most blatant statement of what is understood, but goes “unspoken” in the public law.
If we return to the films by Hitchcock, laughter itself is a revolutionary act. The violence (of mocking, strangulation, or death) is the often the result of “unspoken” moral law. This law that exists but is not spoken smacks of melodrama, which imposes order and punishment in the post-sacred world. But despite female laughter’s revolutionary power outside of patriarchy, it is impossible to ignore the consequences in these films. Even if spectral laughter occurs beyond death, what makes it seem unruly to begin with? What makes it worthy of punishment in this moral order? When the woman laughs, she is made into a monster. But to be made monstrous, there is one requisite: she must be feared. The women in Hitchcock film’s laugh. Why? Sometimes to disrupt, sometimes with pleasure. At the very least, we know they laugh before, after, and in between deaths.
Navid Sinaki is a video artist whose films have exhibited in venues including Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Lincoln Center, and British Film Institute. His work was profiled in the book Queer Cinema in the World (Duke University Press, 2016). He is also a professor of Entertainment Studies at UCLA Extension.
. Linda Williams, “The American Melodramatic Mode,” Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O.J. Simpson, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001), 10-44.
. Mary Russo, “Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory,” Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 333.
. Linda Williams, “Something Else Besides a Mother': Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama,” Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film, ed. Christine Gledhill, (London: BFI, 1987), 304.