Edvard Munch


A spectre is haunting pop culture - the spectre 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-siecle, has been resurrected and pressed into service, through pop-culture pastiche and parody, as the poster child for self-mocking millennial anxiety. Once shorthand for the age of 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 migraine.

One of the earliest appropriations of The Scream has turned out to be one of the most enduring: the ad campaign for Home Alone (1990), 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 over 100,000 of the adult toys. The political cartoonist Rob Rogers put a face on the heartland horror of the Oklahoma bombing by transplanting Scream heads onto the dour farmers in Grant Wood\'s American Gothic. The marathon runner Andrea Bowman pledged allegiance to the no-pain, no-gain ethos by having The Scream tattooed 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." Most famously, of course, the painting inspired the Halloween mask worn by the teen-ocidal 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 whereas Munch\'s existential gloom and doom were a psychological affair, deeply rooted in his mother\'s death and the hellfire Christianity of his stern father, our millennial anxiety is more public than private, the toxic runoff of information overload: mounting concerns over global warming, worries about contaminated food and sexually-transmitted diseases and flesh-eating viruses, fear of domestic terrorism, 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, the everyday uncertainties of the downsized, overdrawn, time-starved, sleep-deprived masses.

The Screamer personifies the introverted, alienated psychology of modernism. In Munch\'s painting, this psychology is literalized in the roughly circular movement of the viewer\'s eye, which makes the world literally revolve around the solipsistic Screamer. Moreover, that world, as Munch 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 Oliver Stone\'s Natural Born Killers, for example, the exteriorized subconscious of The Scream has been turned inside out. In the modernist world-view articulated by Munch\'s proto-Expressionism, the psyche oozes, blob-like, beyond its bounds, engulfing the outside world; in NBK, resonant images from the 20th century - "the filmed century," as Don DeLillo observed - inundate the mass-mediated dream lives of Stone\'s TV generation. Childhood memories are relived as an imaginary sitcom, complete with laughtrack, and Nature has been replaced by Second Nature: the world outside Mickey and Mallory\'s motel windows consists of flickering TV images. Celebrity is the only real