The Scream, EdvardMunch’s 1893 painting of a wild-eyed figure on a bridge, hands clapped tohis head, mouth contorted in a silent shriek of angst and anomie. Thetormented face of one man’s despair and alienation, set against the socialfragmentation and moral vertigo of the last fin-de-siecle, has beenresurrected and pressed into service, through pop-culture pastiche andparody, as the poster child for self-mocking millennial anxiety. Onceshorthand for the age of anxiety, Munch’s Screamer has been recast for theage of terminal irony as a cross between Saturday Night Live’s Mr. Bill andCesare the somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Generic-faced andgender-neutral, he’s a ready-made sign of the times: a Smiley face with anontological migraine.Order now
One of the earliest appropriations of The Scream has turned out to be oneof the most enduring: the ad campaign for Home Alone (1990), which featuredMacaulay Culkin in a Munch-ian mood, his tyke-next-door features stretchedout of shape in an are-we-having-fun-yet? send-up of the Screamer. Sincethen, the image has appeared on T-shirts emblazoned with the heart-stoppingphrase “President Quayle” and on checks sold by the Rosencrantz Banknote Corp. It shrieks with delight on a birthday card(“Hope your birthday’s a SCREAM!”) and serves as a wacky conversation piecein homes and offices across America in the form of the inflatable dollsmanufactured by On the Wall Productions, which has sold over 100,000 of theadult toys. The political cartoonist Rob Rogers put a face on the heartlandhorror of the Oklahoma bombing by transplanting Scream heads onto the dourfarmers in Grant Wood’s American Gothic. The marathon runner Andrea Bowmanpledged allegiance to the no-pain, no-gain ethos by having The Screamtattooed on her leg. And, in the loftiest tribute a consumer society knows,Munch’s angst-racked Everyman has even been transformed into a TV pitchman- a Ray-Banned swinger in a computer-animated spot for the Pontiac Sunfire,a car that “looks like a work of art” and “drives like a real scream.
” Mostfamously, of course, the painting inspired the Halloween mask worn by theteen-ocidal slasher in Wes Craven’s Scream: a baleful skull whose elongatedgape makes it look like a Munch head modeled in Silly Putty. So, I scream, you scream, we all scream for Munch’s Scream: What’s all theyelling about? Obviously, the image strikes a sympathetic chord because we,like Munch, are adrift at the end of a century, amidst profound societalchange and philosophical chaos, when all the old unsinkable certitudes seemto be going the way of the Titanic. But whereas Munch’s existential gloomand doom were a psychological affair, deeply rooted in his mother’s deathand the hellfire Christianity of his stern father, our millennial anxietyis more public than private, the toxic runoff of information overload:mounting concerns over global warming, worries about contaminated food andsexually-transmitted diseases and flesh-eating viruses, fear of domesticterrorism, paranoia about night- stalking pedophiles and teenage “super-predators,” traumatic memories of satanic ritual abuse and alien abduction,premonitions of black helicopters over America, and, more prosaically, theeveryday uncertainties of the downsized, overdrawn, time-starved, sleep-deprived masses. The Screamer personifies the introverted, alienated psychology ofmodernism. In Munch’s painting, this psychology is literalized in theroughly circular movement of the viewer’s eye, which makes the worldliterally revolve around the solipsistic Screamer.
Moreover, that world, asMunch gives it to us, has been swallowed up by the Screamer’s extruded ego,dyed strange colors and twisted into alien shapes by his emotions. By contrast, the postmodern self is mediated, not mediating. In OliverStone’s Natural Born Killers, for example, the exteriorized subconscious ofThe Scream has been turned inside out. In the modernist world-viewarticulated by Munch’s proto-Expressionism, the psyche oozes, blob-like,beyond its bounds, engulfing the outside world; in NBK, resonant imagesfrom the 20th century – “the filmed century,” as Don DeLillo observed -inundate the mass-mediated dream lives of Stone’s TV generation. Childhoodmemories are relived as an imaginary sitcom, complete with laughtrack, andNature has been replaced by Second Nature: the world outside Mickey andMallory’s motel windows consists of flickering TV images.
Celebrity is theonly real life, reflection in the camera eye the only confirmation that theself truly exists.Postmodern psychology is a product of the movement from McLuhan’s GutenbergGalaxy into a postliterate world, a transition marked by the collapse ofthe critical distance between the inner self and the outside world, and byour immersion, perhaps even dissolution, in the .