Movie Blog History Class: The Wilhelm Scream

Something I face daily is the realization that having worked for The Movie Blog, I am spoiled with a wealth of “insider movie news” and I am exposed to a LOT of movie geekery. I get to know stuff people don’t know about, and sometimes I have heard of things in movie history that I just assume everyone has heard of.

Today I came across an article and thought I would share it in case some of you are not aware of the “Wilhelm Scream”

ABC News has a story that tells the tale of the most repeated sound effect in movie history:

You’ve probably never heard of it by name, but if you saw “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” or even “Toy Story,” you’ve heard the Wilhelm scream.Hollywood’s best known sound effect has been heard by millions of people who probably don’t know that they’re listening to a little piece of film history.

So as the story goes, the movie Distant Drums a soldier screams while being eaten by an alligator. Later in Charge at Feather River the character Pvt. Wilhelm gets shot in the leg by an arrow and they needed a scream to dub in. They used the same sound bite from Distant Drums.

The Wilhelm Scream was born.

The sound clip was used repeatedly in various movies and became a signature for sound technician Ben Burtt after he noticed the sound was repeated and tracked down its origins. He named it the Wilhelm Scream after the character in its first use as an effect and started to use it much more frequently in movies he was involved in including Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Since then the clip has been added to movies mostly as an insider gag to pay tribute to its origins.

A complete list of movies and tv shows to use this effect can be found at Hollywood Lost and Found

Also, click here for a Youtube Video that has a compilation of some of the more notable Wilhelm Screams that you probably didn’t notice:

So next time you are at the theatre and you hear that distinct screaming sound, you will know that you have heard the Wilhelm Scream.

  • Ben

    I keep hearing this clip of children laughing all the time, at least I think this is the one. First time I heard it was when I installed Windows 95 for the first time – I think it was included on my CD as one of the sample audio effects.

    The BBC seem to use it a lot in their dramatic output and I can’t help it but my ear always picks up on it and it sounds so false. I’ve also heard it in plenty of American shows and quite a few movies.

    Whenever I hear it in a drama, it really kills my suspension of disbelief and I become aware of the manufactured product, especially because the kids onscreen at the time rarely look quite as exuberant as the clip suggests.

    I think sound engineers have very important but often overlooked roles, essentially because their work is ambient.

  • Nick

    I’m a sound editor and resent Brendan’s comment. However, he is right in many different ways. The creative part of cutting in a wilhelm is deciding where to place it. One of the few I can stand is in Superman when the detective gets knocked into the train. One of the worse I think is in the new Indy movie. It just stands out too much. There’s also lots of variations of the wilhelm being pitched or time stretched and snuck in a little more stealthily. I think they get lazy a lot of the time in where they place it.

    I do agree that it’s an abused sound along with many other ones, the same bird twitter or cricket or door creak. But most of these come off of the same cheap and over used CD collection. Either way, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of fun when it doesn’t become too noticeable. I get distracted by Homer Simpsons ear all the time.

    There’s also 6 different original recorded wilhelm screams all recorded at the same time. Listening to the original clip is pretty fun. The fourth one is the most commonly used, if my memory is working.