During the first summer of the pandemic, Japan reopened its amusement parks, roller coasters, once again, climbing to precipices meant to prompt mass shrieking. Aware of how that response encouraged the spread of the virus, the government declared, “Please, scream in your heart.” Immediately, on social media, that phrase trended as if silent screaming was rare.
The Internet bloomed with short films of cars and buses traveling narrow, uneven roads carved into cliff sides thousands of feet above certain death. When I imagined the screams of the passengers if the bus tipped over the edge, the sounds were comic book shrieks meant to be heard only in the minds and hearts of readers, ones always written in a series of vowels of varying lengths depending on the distance of the fall.
Years ago, I screamed in my heart in a friend’s jeep as he inched us along a road better described as a ledge overlooking, without guardrails, a fall of several hundred feet. “You’re not the worst,” he said, referencing my terror. “Someone once curled up on the floor.” My internal shriek was nothing like a comic book wail. In my imagination, I remained mute all the way to the base of that cliff.
For sure, when I examine Edvard Munch’s famous eponymous painting, that wide open mouth always suggests unendurable horror because I believe it makes no sound.
Likewise, it’s not surprising that one of the most recognizable images in silent films is the scream of the nurse watching the baby carriage tumble down tiers of steps while soldiers slaughter Odessa’s population in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. That extended scene concludes with a close-up, the nurse’s pince-nez shattered, her face contorted by unvoiced terror.
Some of the figures in Francis Bacon’s “Screaming Popes” paintings replace the head of Pope Innocent X as painted by Velazquez with the agonized face of Eisenstein’s wounded nurse. Bacon, when asked, remarked that during the silent era, the image in films had tremendous force, “sometimes very powerful, very beautiful.”
Very powerful, in movies with soundtracks, is Janet Leigh’s open-mouthed horror as she is stabbed in the shower during Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitchcock added shrieking violins to heighten Leigh’s scream, but his first intention was to use no soundtrack at all for the scene.
A memorable tag line in movie advertising is “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Yes, but even the closing confrontation between Ripley and the monster is nearly entirely silent. Her repressed screams, the ones in her heart as she tries to outwit the Alien, are ones the audience “hears.”
Home from my freshman year in college, I rode with a high school classmate, seat belts ignored, radio cranked. The road we lived on was so familiar either one of us could have been speeding, but he was at the wheel when a car backed across both lanes from a garage. He braked hard, the car four-wheel-drifting toward a row of junipers as I gripped the door handle and braced until his father’s car spun and stopped so close to the other that I could see the shape of that driver’s inaudible scream.
Within months, a girl I knew was catapulted through a car’s windshield when it crashed. Decades later, I used that girl’s death to fuel a short story’s conclusion. “What happened to your friend is not your story’s truth,” an editor cautioned, asking for a revision that avoided that literal recreation. So, I saved her, though ambiguously, the choices she made perhaps maiming or killing her on another reckless evening. I left her being sped through expectancy, that thrilling car still unscathed, her body nervous, but excited. Still unharmed. Screaming only in her heart.
The most terrifying minute of my life happened in the library of the college where I was teaching. My son was three. The librarian, because she thought he was both adorable and well-behaved, gave him a lemon sourball that, a short while later, became stuck in his throat. He turned absolutely silent. No gasps. No coughs. I didn’t say a word. Pre-Heimlich and panicked, I pounded on his back. When nothing changed, I turned him upside down and pounded until, somehow, the candy dropped to the carpet.
My son was so young that he has had only my storytelling to let him know what happened. How I screamed in my heart. Though, in his case, there’s no way of knowing, how he must have, too.