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.

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12 thoughts on “Movie Blog History Class: The Wilhelm Scream

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. Yes, this scream I first noticed when I was just a young’n. It’s in all of the Star Wars films (or most of them) and then I noticed it in the Iny Jones movies. It’s something I ALWAYS notice when it’s played in a movie. I mentioned it to friends and they all thought I was crazy or it was a sound effect that just sounds similar.

    Now I think it is completling annoying and distracting and pulls me away from the film I’m watching. I hear it ALL THE TIME and I always think to myself, oh yeah, that’s the Wilhelm Scream. I hate it. I wish they would stop using it.

  4. I wasn’t trying to imply that Ben Burtt or others who do this have no creativity at all. I’m just saying that this, like in many other cases, can be a victim of an inside joke being funny or amusing, even charming to some, but to those outside the group that find it funny it’s just, well- annoying.

    I’m not even saying that this should never be used- I just think these types of effects can be put where some really cool effects could be put in instead- Like you said- It’s a tradition, but how many much cooler stuff have come out from breaking tradition? It’s all I’m saying-

  5. Whoa, Brendan take a step back man no need to be so uppity about an effect that is somewhat of a tradition in movies. Using one single scream, which I don’t think many people notice, out of the all of other sound effects isn’t lazy.

    For myself that scream is staple from my childhood and on. I never new the story behind it till now, but I have always associated it with Star Wars and the Indy films. And whenver I hear it in a movie now I smile a little.

    Of course now….thanks to you Rodney…I know where the scream came from…I’m not sure if I want to thank you for the trivia knowledge or yell “boo” hehe

  6. Brendan, if there’s one thing you can’t accuse Lucasfilm’s Ben Burtt of, or Peter Jackson and his sound team of… it’s lazy. How long is that scream, a second? Out of the hours and hours of sounds they have put into a movie, for them to use a stock scream for a second you consider LAZY?

    They could have easily put in other screams in there in a few seconds, but I find it really gratifying that they would do something like this out of pure fun. And it really is all about fun, and nearly all of it won’t distract you at all from enjoying the film. Rodney spoils it a bit for us a bit, of course.

  7. Very interesting piece of trivia Rodney! I’ve actually seen most of those movies and I’ve never even noticed I was hearing the same scream.

    However, when I was watching The Two Towers and saw one of the elves get thrown off the wall, I did notice how strange the scream was… for an elf. It was a sound that seemed inappropriate. It was the one and only time I noticed the scream, and I didn’t know that there was actually a history behind it.

  8. It’s funny cause what to you people who laugh at the ‘Insider gag’ seems funny, many others including myself find the use of the scream and the childrens’ laughter a very cheesy and lazy effect put in for filler or because the sound people were too uncreative to come up with their own scream or laughter.

    I chalk it up to being about the same level as using stock photos in graphic design, website templates or any other cut and paste form of junk you can find.

    It’s not that people can’t use these- just keep in mind it can come across as super cheesy to those of us that don’t agree with unimaginative copy-paste junk.

  9. Just read a bit on The Children’s laughter, which was posted in Roger Ebert’s “Movie Answer Man” notably, Ebert’s column picked up on The Wilhelm Scream some time ago, (I think thru David Poland’s Movie City News, but anyway…)

    Here is the Ebert Column on what it to be a nice side-effect of ‘laziness’ in sound editting:

    Q. I’ve followed with interest the continuing Q&A about the “Wilhelm Scream,” a sound effect that has appeared in over 150 movies. Growing up I enjoyed a children’s TV show called Flipper. One of the limited special effects was a sound that I’ve come to call the “Flipper Giggle.” This was the sound that Flipper would make whenever it would interact with its human handlers. I think this sound effect is still the only one used to signify human/dolphin interaction in just about any movie where that occurs. – Matt Robillard, Cary, Ill.

    A. My favorite sound-effects experts struck out. Maybe a reader will know. The Answer Man would swell with pride thinking that the column might have helped identify the Flipper Giggle.

    Q. Your last Answer Man column mentioned the Flipper Giggle, and that reminded me of a sound effect I’ve noticed in dozens of TV shows and movies over the years. Very often when there are children playing in the background of a scene, the same sound effect will be used. It originated on “Little House on the Prairie,” and if you listen to the shouts you can clearly hear Melissa Gilbert yell out, “Nellie! Noah, catch up!” It’s actually a fairly short sound clip, and in a few longer scenes it really distracted me to keep hearing the same shouts at Nellie and Noah every 15 seconds.
    Joe VanPelt, Richmond, Va.

    A. The Prairie Players on top of the Wilhelm Scream and the Flipper Giggle brings a whole dimension of cut-and-paste to the concept of sound editing.

    (And As I went to fetch these tidbits, I noticed one of the questions in the Answerman Column was from FilmJunk’s Jay Cheel. ! )

  10. How the track of childrens laughter? I hear that all the time in movies or tv shows that have several children playing.

    There is another scream track I think I can’t really think of a movie but I know it came out in End of Days when Gabriel Bynes charcter kills off some of the members of the vatican church. I know its not a movie that many people may have seen but it does have a familar scream track in there which has been used in several other films.

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