"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 20 January 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Shameless Dread



A specter is haunting pop

culture - the specter of The

Scream, Edvard Munch's 1893

painting of a wild-eyed figure

on a bridge, hands clapped to

his head, mouth contorted in a

silent shriek of angst and

anomie. The tormented face of

one man's despair and

alienation, set against the

social fragmentation and moral

vertigo of the last fin de

siècle, has been

resurrected and pressed into

service, through pop-culture

pastiche and parody, as the

poster child for self-mocking

millennial anxiety. Munch's

screamer has been recast for the

age of terminal irony as a cross

between Saturday Night Live's

Mr. Bill and Cesare the

somnambulist from The Cabinet of

Dr. Caligari. Generic-faced and

gender-neutral, he's a

ready-made sign of the times: a

smiley face with an ontological



One of the earliest

appropriations of The Scream has

turned out to be one of the most

enduring: the 1990 ad campaign

for Home Alone, which featured

Macaulay Culkin in a Munch-ian

mood, his tyke-next-door

features stretched out of shape

in an are-we-having-fun-yet?

send-up of the screamer. Since

then, the image has appeared on

T-shirts emblazoned with the

heart-stopping phrase "President

Quayle" and on checks sold by

the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern

Banknote Corp. It shrieks with

delight on a birthday card

("Hope your birthday's a

SCREAM!") and serves as a wacky

conversation piece in homes and

offices across America in the

form of the inflatable dolls

manufactured by On the Wall

Productions, which has sold more than

100,000 of the adult toys. 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."

Most famously, of course, the

painting inspired the Halloween

mask worn by the teenicidal

slasher in Wes Craven's Scream:

a baleful skull whose elongated

gape 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 the yelling about?

Obviously, the image strikes a

sympathetic chord because we,

like Munch, are adrift at the

end of a century, amidst

profound societal change and

philosophical chaos, when all

the old unsinkable certitudes

seem to be going the way of the

Titanic. But postmodern culture

can't take turn-of-the-century

angst seriously: A brooding

consumptive like Munch, haunted

by the death of God, fear of

hereditary madness, and the

advancing shadow of his own

mortality, looks thoroughly out

of place against the smirking

irony and flip nihilism of our



The Scream personifies the

introverted, alienated

psychology of modernism. By

contrast, the postmodern self is

a product of the movement from

what McLuhan called a

Gutenbergian world to a

postliterate one, a transition

marked by the collapse of the

critical distance between the

inner self and the outside

world, and by our immersion,

perhaps even dissolution, in the

ever-accelerating maelstrom of

the media spectacle. In

Postmodernism, Fredric Jameson

writes, "This shift in the

dynamics of cultural pathology

can be characterized as one in

which the alienation of the

subject is displaced by the

latter's fragmentation."


Utterly unlike the Munchian

self, this new psyche is

characterized, says Jameson, by

a "waning of affect" which is

not so much the android autism

Andy Warhol aspired to as it is

the experience of emotions as

"free-floating and impersonal"

sensations "dominated by a

peculiar kind of euphoria."

Jameson thinks this

psychological weightlessness, at

once terrifying and

exhilarating, is what we feel in

the face of our increasing

inability to distinguish between

reality and media simulation.

Call it Angst Lite.


[to write.]

Munch's nameless dread suits our

millennial mood just fine, but

his 19th-century melancholia and

gloomy introspection are out of

tune with the media-circus

atmosphere of the late 20th

century. It's the difference

between the solitary madness of

Van Gogh cutting off his own ear

and Mike Tyson biting off

Evander Holyfield's ear, live

and in your living room. Thus,

while Munch's screamer is the

perfect totem for our pop angst,

we read his overwrought hysteria

as campy, which may be why he

adorns a Scream-patterned dress

worn by the drag comedian Dame

Edna, who insists that the

schmatte-clad androgyne is

really yelling, "Oh no, I've

lost my earrings."


As our tongue-in-cheek take on

The Scream reveals, we can't

even take our own nightmares -

our lurking sense, on the eve of

the future, of social

disintegration and simmering

discontent - seriously. "What

was once terrible seems to have

become fun," observes the

cultural critic Mike Davis. Our

world will end, if it does, not

with a bang or a whimper but

with the violin shrieks from

Psycho, played for laughs.


courtesy of Howard Beale