GHOSTFACE, SKULLS AND DEATH REVITALISED
Twenty years ago Casey Becker answered the phone and the world was never the same – Casey’s world (quite literally…dying sucks balls – especially at the blade of psychotic serial slasher) but also the world at large. In 1996, as Santa was readying his sleigh and giving Rudolph a pep talk, Scream was spicing up Yuletide with a pinch of terror and a cup of fear. And audiences ate.it.up! Wes Craven’s horror satire expanded the blueprint of the genre, with its oxymoronic critique of convention – venerating preceding horror behemoths with an insolent insight that skillfully fortified horror as a poignant reflection of society and culture in the world of cinematic art. Argh…”but that’s just film” – right? Surely it takes more than one slasher flick to change the world? Surely?
Scream incited the mass marketability of death by taking one of time’s most ancient symbols – the skull – and morphing it into pop-culture pastiche, successfully (if not purposefully) turning it into…something else. Reeking of death and man’s mortality, the skull secreted malevolence for centuries until modern culture came along and messed with its implied malice; infusing said skull with bows, bling, fashion, fuchsia and a myriad of fabulous pop culture accessories – resulting in a slow but succinct change in allegory. This cultural immersion had been going on for some time prior to Craven’s film, with the likes of: McLaren and Westwood’s skull-inspired punk gear in the ‘70s, Christian Dior’s Poison perfume ad in 1985 and the increasing familiarity of the luminous, smiling skulls used to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. Scream, in the mid ‘90s, was in the right place at the right time – with the right imagery for a restless generation feeling stupid, contagious and looking to be entertained; Cobain (as lyrically enigmatic as usual) said it and Ghostface brought it…‘it’ being revolution, entertainment and attitude.
The dire anguish of a soul encapsulated on a once-human face, distorted and contorted to resemble a ghostly skull – a ‘ghost face’ deconstructed to the barest of expression; the most primal of emotion. The mask was fearsome. But also hella cool and entirely unmistakable. Ghostface was conceived in the early ‘90s and was in circulation as a Halloween costume for several years before Scream producer Marianne Maddalena stumbled upon it by accident in 1996 while scouting locations for the first film (so the story goes). The mask was in the Santa Rosa house made famous by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, draped over a chair in one of the vacant rooms. Maddalena immediately took it to Wes Craven and we all know what happened then…Sidney Prescott’s life went to shit. For Craven, the success of the Scream franchise hinged upon the mask – no other mask would have done the trick – according to the Hollywood Reporter. “No way. No way,” Craven insists. “I knew it in my bones that [Ghostface] was a unique find, and I had to convince the studio that they had to go the extra mile to get it”.
Although original mask creator Sleiertin-Linden denies the assumption that Edvard Munch’s painting, The Scream, was the primary inspiration for the design (bearing in mind that Alan Geller, Sleiertin-Linden’s former boss, adamantly disputes that she created the mask, insisting the mask is his creation), the melting mouth and drooping eyes are undeniably reminiscent of the famed artwork. Plus…Scream…The Scream – come on! Craven does indeed cite Munch’s The Scream as one of his favourite works of art, and has said, “It’s a classic reference to just the pure horror of parts of the 20th century, or perhaps just human existence”. Ghostface taps into a relatable psychology, similarly to Munch’s tortured figure – the agony of a haunted soul encapsulated in one moment; a singular mien. Who cannot relate? Studies performed by Harvard neurobiology professor Margaret Livingstone on macaque monkeys show that the brain is more likely to respond to faces that are exaggerated, like The Scream’s distended mouth. Livingstone says, “That’s why I think a caricature of an emotion works so well. It’s what our nerve cells are tuned to”.
So it makes total sense, then, that the ‘Scream Emoji’ was approved as part of Unicode 6.0 in 2010. The icon is a screaming face with two hands holding the jaw and cheeks in fear, with wide eyes and an open mouth. The Samsung version of this emoji shows a ghost escaping from the mouth. If caricature is what our nerve cells are after, one can’t get more caricatured than this – the infinite scream articulated in Munch’s painting, in Craven’s film, represented in less than ten lines/shapes. It might not be art (exactly) but then again, technology wasn’t the first to mass market an image. Munch did it – once The Scream caught on in the European art scene, Munch made a lithograph of the concept so that he could sell black-and-white prints at will. And then in 1984 Andy Warhole got hold of Munch’s ghostface, reprinting The Scream with his trademark tinge; smutting up the original with brilliant colours, to maximum effect.
Warhole’s screen print, commissioned by the New York-based Galleri Bellman, awakened to consciousness (like Westwood, Dior and later Craven) the parody of the skull – reinterpreted with an effrontery representative of an evolving society. Just over a decade after Warhole’s brazen image hit the art circuit, Scream took horror to the masses; forcing it into mainstream, and Ghostface has consequently become one of the world’s most recognisable horror symbols…and ‘the skull’ a pop-culture icon. No longer were skellies (in the ’90s and noughties) the thing of pirate ships and metal musos but the hollow eyes and gaping mouths of the figurative dead had worked their way back into the consciousness of the populace – and it’s been no du jour thing. Two decades after Scream, skulls are as rife as ever; lurking around every corner in fashion, art and the Monster High Dolls populating bedrooms and doll houses.
In 2006, a New York Times article entitled The Heyday of the Dead articulated how the skull has lost virtually all of its fearsome meaning, suggesting a disconnect between the symbol for and the actual meaning of mortality. In western culture, the death ethos has been eroded and replaced by an attitude of defiance; death denying – thanks, in part, to a horror film and two killers named Billy and Stu. The irony. The twenty-first century has seen perceptions of death significantly altered; rather than disdained as an icon of fear, society has turned the skull into an emblem of insurgence. Horror – the kind encapsulated in the classical medieval skull (forcing us to face our fallibility), Munch’s melancholic art work and the exaggerated, mass market appeal of Craven’s Scream mask – has revitalise death as something not to fear but to live in spite of. It’s a beautiful thing.
Sources: Mentalfloss.com – “14 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘The Scream'”; The Hollywood Reporter – “MTV’s Terrifying Mistake? Wes Craven Explains Why the Original ‘Scream’ Mask Is Too “Perfect” to Scrap”; Taylor & Francis Online – “The proliferation of skulls in popular culture: a case study of how the traditional symbol of mortality was rendered meaningless”