When it was reintroduced in the 1970s, the Wilhelm Scream became the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with dubious origins that became the best movie in-joke ever.
What is it, exactly? You've probably heard it before but haven't given it much thought. The Wilhelm Scream is a common sound effect that has been used in both major blockbusters and low-budget films and television shows for more than 60 years and is typically heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a tremendous height.
The Wilhelm scream is a sound effect that can be heard in movies, TV shows, and video games. This characteristic scream sound effect is frequently used by Hollywood filmmakers in action, science fiction, and cartoon films. The Wilhelm scream's continued use in entertainment has become an inside joke among sound editors and designers who utilize it as an easter egg for those who detect it.
Wilhelm's Scream: A Brief History
Distant Drums, a western film, was the first to use the Wilhelm scream sound (1951). A soldier cries as an alligator drags him underwater in a swamp in the movie. Sheb Wooley, best known for his novelty song "The Purple People Eater," created the original recording. The Warner Brothers stock sound library included this scream.
The moniker "Wilhelm scream" comes from another western, The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm uses the same sound. Ben Burtt, a sound designer, discovered the Wilhelm scream in the 1970s and used it in multiple blockbuster films, putting in motion an auditory in-joke that would last decades.
As a satirical gesture to Burtt, directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out and used the sound in their films. They wanted in on the joke as well, and the Wilhelm Scream became an unofficial badge of honour for them. The moniker "Wilhelm Scream" has been utilized for anything from a band name to a beer to a song title and more, and it has become more than simply a sound effect.
The Wilhelm Scream in 5 Famous Cases
Hundreds of films, TV series and video games feature this classic sound. Take a look at some of the most well-known films in which the Wilhelm scream was utilised.
1. The sound design for Star Wars was created by George Lucas in collaboration with Ben Burtt (1977). After being shot by Luke Skywalker on the Death Star, a stormtrooper lets out a Wilhelm scream in the film. The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983), and The Force Awakens (2009) all used the Wilhelm scream (2015).
2. From Raiders of the Lost Ark to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ben Burtt used the Wilhelm scream in Steven Spielberg's legendary film trilogy.
3. Toy Story (1995): After being knocked out of a window, Buzz Lightyear lets out a Wilhelm scream.
4. The Wilhelm scream was featured throughout Peter Jackson's renowned film trilogy, The Lord of the Rings.
5. Quentin Tarantino used the Wilhelm scream during a pursuit sequence in his crime drama Reservoir Dogs (1992).
Whose voice, though, is the scream? The identity of the screamer had been unknown for decades, so Burtt undertook a lot of investigation himself. He ultimately came across a Warner Bros. call sheet for Distant Drums, which listed performers who were slated to record additional lines after the movie was finished. Sheb Wooley, an actor and musician who appeared in classics such as High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide, was one of the names mentioned as a possible Wilhelm screamer. You might also recognize him as the singer of "Purple People Eater," a classic novelty tune from 1958.