When we were growing up, we watched a lot of films. The usually dimwitted and unobservant Mr. Wapojif, our esteemed editor, kept noticing some weird sound effect going on. Always in a death scene, there would be a scream that went out. He heard it over and over again, even asking himself, “What’s going on with that?!” during yet another hearing of it. Well, it was the pre-internet years. There was no way to find out!
The Wilhelm Scream
The internet was the turning point. The secrets of this thing have emerged from the murky depths: The Wilhelm Scream. It turns out it’s a sound effect that some industry sorts like to include as an in-joke or knowing nod to each other. The scream first appeared in the now forgotten 1951 romp Distant Drums (behold this thing above), but since the ’50s it’s become commonplace. Does it sound familiar for you?!
After its first outing, clearly editors began to take a shining to it. For whatever reason, 1953 western romp the Charge at Feather River (1953 – the soundbite got its name from the character Private Wilhem in this) used it three times. This is the weird thing about the scream for us – as if cinemagoers weren’t going to notice the same death scream being used. It had left us so confounded over the years! Sweet knowledge is welcome. We are enlightened.
It’s now appeared in almost 400 films and TV shows (as of 2018), with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas being fond of the soundbite. Yes, this thing has been in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Disney flicks, Pixar movies – it’s been exposed to the masses and if that doesn’t leave you feeling violated then scream in terror.
The actual scream is likely the work of Sheb Wooley (1921-2003 – his widow said in 2005: “He always used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films”), an actor and singer. It’s not 100% for sure him, though, which simply adds to the whole Wilhelm Scream enigma. Picture sound designer Ben Burtt help to popularise it after her found the scream stored on a reel called “Man being eaten by alligator”.
He used this in the first Star Wars film for when a stormtropper plunges off a ledge. Burtt then kept using it in other Lucas/Spielberg films, forcing it onto a unwitting and enormous audience of hundreds of millions. As there are no royalties to pay with the sound effect, that means it’s made its way into a metric tonne of other stuff. But stuff like this all adds to the magic of cinema – a goofy sound effect that’s turned into something of a cult phenomenon over half a century. Long may it continue!