In the wide world of movies, television, and radio, some sounds are instantly identifiable. When you see a spooky castle, the subsequent crackle of thunder is to be expected. If a bird comes flying at you, chances are it will let out a loud shriek. And when someone dies or gets maimed horrifically, it’s only a matter of time before they emit the Wilhelm Scream.
The Wilhelm Scream, more than any other sound effect in the history of media, is everywhere. Whether it’s a prestige drama, a sitcom, a fantasy sword-and-sandal television program, or, most often, highlighting a humorous death in the film, the Wilhelm Scream is a sonic cliche just ready to be used. But how did it get there? Why do we all know its name? Who was the man behind the scream? Here’s your primer into the origins, usage, and over-usage of the most famous scream of all time.
As the mediums of film, television, and radio continued to evolve and grow throughout the twentieth century, it became necessary for studios and productions to tap into common sounds that were difficult to replicate or tedious to record. This is where stock sound effects come in. Much like stock footage, stock sound effects were cheap and easy to implement alternatives that were consistent, reliable, and added the necessary qualities to whatever was being produced.
In 1951, a Garry Cooper-led Warner Bros. film entitled Distant Drum required many sound effects, including one of a man being bitten by an alligator. Although exact records for personnel on sound effects weren’t kept, it is generally agreed that actor/singer Sheb Wooley was the voice behind the scream (Wooley’s other claim to fame: the number one novelty hit ‘The Purple People Eater’).
For several years after its initial recording, the scream was labelled “Man being eaten by alligator” and was kept among hundreds of other stock sound effects. Sound designer Ben Burtt had recognised the distinct wail as being featured in a different ’50s western, The Charge at Feather River, where the character Private Wilhelm is shot by an arrow and emits the famous scream. He renamed the reel after Wilhelm and decided to use it in the film he was working on: a sci-fi feature called Star Wars.
During Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia’s climactic escape from the Death Star, Luke shoots a stormtrooper off of a ledge, and the falling trooper lets out the signature high pitched cry that would become synonymous with the Star Wars series. From the first film in the series up to 2015’s The Force Awakens, the Wilhelm Scream was incorporated into every Star Wars film before being discontinued in 2017’s The Last Jedi.
Burtt became the sound designer of choice for both George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg, and between them, the three would attempt to incorporate the Wilhelm Scream into a film whenever they could. It became an inside joke between the filmmakers, and the notable use of the effect in franchises like Star Wars and Indiana Jones led the scream to become highly identifiable.
Due to its ear-catching quality and near-ubiquity within stock effect collections, the Wilhelm Scream soon became shorthand for a comical, often over-the-top death or injury in film. In films like Spaceballs, the scream was used as a direct parody, but in other movies like Howard the Duck, Gremlins, the scream also became a favourite among Disney/Pixar filmmakers, with classic animated movies like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and Toy Story all featuring the unmistakable yell.
As the use of the Wilhelm Scream became too widespread to include innocuously in any context, its use evolved into direct reference and intentional implementation. The Wilhelm Scream is now so identifiable by name, sound, and intent, that it invokes a very specific feeling when heard. Mainly used for comedy and nostalgia in the present day, the scream can still be heard in a variety of media.
Movies like Wet Hot American Summer, Team America: World Police, and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle make the wail loud and clear for comedic effect. At the same time, prestigious productions like Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones have used it in reverence for their influence on fantasy and sci-fi. Kill Bill used it in the Crazy 88 fight scene, as did Juno directly referencing old school gore and bloodshed. More than anything else, the proper (or purposefully improper) use of the Wilhelm Scream has become something of a right of passage for filmmakers.
The Wilhelm Scream is as tied to media as any other sound effect through its unique sonic qualities and distinct memorability.