... quaking with angst—I 
felt the great scream in nature

Edvard Munch on the night he first imagined “The Scream”

In the Cuban missile crisis, it was luck…that prevented the total destruction of our societies.

Robert S. McNamara from “The Fog of War” (2003)


Three years ago, on May 2, 2012, Edvard Munch’s “Scream” was auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York for $119,922,500. According to Sotheby’s, the sale “marked a new world record” for the price of a work of art sold at auction.

It was predictable. This work of art, meant by the artist to convey cosmic angst and horror, had long since passed into the zone of sugar-coated pop culture, cohabiting space with Disney characters, the Muppets, Marvel Comics and “The Simpsons.” One can purchase “Scream” underwear, compression pants, socks, stuffed toys and much more. A quick cruise on the Web yields all manner of fanciful adaptations of people with “Scream”-ish faces—from Barack Obama to Santa Claus.

The scale of this regrettable bastardization of Munch’s intent comes more clearly into view when the origins of the painting are examined. On Jan. 22, 1892, Munch recorded in his journal a horrifying experience. In 1895, he turned his journal entry into a poem, which he hand-lettered onto the frame beneath one of the four basic versions of “The Scream”:

I was walking along the road with two friends
The Sun was setting – the Sky turned blood-red.
And I felt a wave of Sadness – I paused
tired to Death – Above the blue-black
Fjord and City Blood and Flaming tongues hovered
My friends walked on – I stayed 
behind – quaking with Angst – I
felt the great Scream in Nature

When combined with the painting, we find this apocalyptic ode to be the terrifying equal of representations of Armageddon in our own time, such as Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (1963) and his “Farewell Angelina” (1965), the TV film “The Day After” (1983), Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” (2006) and virtually any song deriving from the heavy-metal tradition of the past 30 or so years. Munch’s painting/poem represents his attempt to render visually and verbally the end of everything — Armageddon, as it is called in the biblical book of Revelation 16:16. But “Scream” has been monumentally defanged from an allegory of the apocalypse to a preferred pattern on spandex pants. It has morphed from a virtual Armageddon into cuddly playthings and wearable art.

Armageddon Forgotten: the Cuban Missile Crisis as Nostalgia and Fantasy

The October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, our scholarly specialty over the past 30 years, has suffered a different fate. It has been largely forgotten, even though it was easily the closest brush in recorded history with Armageddon — an all-out nuclear war that would likely have ultimately left behind, in the telling phrase of writer Jonathan Schell, “a republic of insects and grass.”

In our own work, these two unfortunate developments — the bastardization of Munch’s art and amnesia regarding what almost happened in October 1962 — are connected. We long ago established “Scream” as the shrieking “mascot” of the Cuban missile crisis — a breathtaking shorthand for the appropriate emotional subtext of Armageddon. For the Cuban missile crisis came within a hairsbreadth of blowing up the world. It was scary as hell to the leaders who (barely) engineered the great escape of October 1962. It should be scary to us as well. But it’s not, because most of us never think about it, except during anniversaries of the event divisible by five or 10 and in such pop-culture icons as “Mad Men” and “X-Men: First Class.” And there are many video games with “Cuban missile crisis” elements, such as commandos swooping around Cuba, offing bad guys and defusing nukes. Just as Munch’s “Scream” is now gauzy and campy, the missile crisis is now a game.

Reclaiming October 1962: Why We’re Still Screaming at You, After All These Years

In our 2012 book and transmedia website, “The Armageddon Letters,” we provide the text and context for the letters exchanged by President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro during the missile crisis. The world by late October 1962 was on the brink of destroying human civilization, possibly forever. Our book and website represent an attempt to address the vast chasm between what actually happened in October 1962 and what came a hairsbreadth from happening.

On Oct. 26 and 27, 1962, Fidel sends Khrushchev the mother of all Armageddon letters, urging the Soviet leader, in the event of an American attack and invasion of Cuba, to nuke the United States of America—to destroy it, as Fidel says, “once and forever.” In this way, Cuba will be martyred for the socialist cause. This letter reaches Khrushchev just as he is also told that the Cubans, contrary to his orders (but consistent with Fidel’s), have begun shooting at the U.S.’ low-flying reconnaissance planes. When the letter reaches Khrushchev, he shouts, “This is insane, this is insane.” He also says, “Fidel wants to drag us into the grave with him.”

At that moment, all three leaders, Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro, believe for varying reasons that the odds have just gone sky-high that they will not be able to manage their way out of this crisis, that the doomsday machine has been primed and that all-out nuclear war has just moved from an abstract possibility to a likely outcome of the surging events unless something drastic happens to provide an escape.

This was the only time in recorded history when leaders went to bed for the night wondering not just whether they would personally survive, or whether their countries would survive, but whether 24 hours hence human civilization would survive. It was the most dangerous moment in history.

That danger still exists at this very moment, a fact that is insufficiently understood and appreciated around the world.

Back to Munch: the Power of Combining Munch’s Painting and Poetry

Several recent short films suggest ways in which Munch’s “Scream” image actually can still profoundly disturb us, disorient us, leading us perhaps to experience some of the terror Munch says he felt that night in 1892 when he was first visited by the terror he would render as “The Scream,” along with its accompanying poem. A roughly one-minute film produced in 2012 has a voice-over from Munch’s account of the night when “The Scream” first appeared to him. (It was used as an ad by Sotheby’s before its sale of the painting.) It is slick and highly commercial, but it works its dark magic in spite of the fact that it is an invitation to bid on the painting, or (for those lacking $100 million or so in spare change) at least watch the May 2 Sotheby’s auction live online.

The Romanian animator and filmmaker Sebastian Cosor has recently led a kind of “Back to Munch” movement with a spooky, disturbing two-minute film based on “The Scream.” Instead of using Munch’s original poem as the voice-over, he has written a script for two animated figures walking, talking about fear of death as they cross a bridge over a frozen fjord. They pass, without noticing (or barely noticing), a disturbing, writhing “Scream”-like creature. There is also a shortened version of Cosor’s original animated feature, without the dialogue but with additional music. We think of this as the silent movie version of Cosor’s “talkie.” Both are effective.

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream …

Let’s combine the missile crisis and Munch’s “Scream.” In metaphorical terms: Were Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro’s mouths wide open in unutterable terror, like Munch’s screamer? Were their eyes bulging out at the very real prospect of Armageddon? Did they feel themselves to be on a bridge to (literally) nowhere? Did they feel the “great scream” felt by Munch? The answer, respecting the different circumstances and eras, isabsolutely yes! Munch felt his world exploding and ending on Jan. 22, 1892. Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro felt that the world as they knew it might be about to disappear in a convulsion of nuclear war by the last weekend of October 1962.

Having just read this, do you feel a deep, metaphorical Munchian scream coming on? No, probably not. Ask yourself: Why not? What is missing? What would it take to shock you into a more vivid awareness of the fragility of a world with thousands of nuclear weapons and toward an effort to do what you can to help eliminate them? How about the escalation of nuclear threats from Russia over the Ukraine crisis? How about an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites? How about a North Korean attack on South Korea? How about the next India-Pakistan conflict over the disputed area of Kashmir at the moment when the conflict goes nuclear?

In order to come to grips with these grisly possibilities, arm yourself with the imagery of Munch and the reality of the Cuban missile crisis. They should lead you to this: “I wish, oh, how I wish, we had gotten rid of nuclear weapons before this happened.” Why not start now? “I scream, you scream, we all scream about the Cuban missile crisis and all it implies for the world of the 21st century.”

Thanks. This time, can you make it a little louder, please?

James G. Blight and janet M. Lang are on the faculties of the department of history and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Follow them on Twitter @armageddontweet.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.