One of the most famous of all recycled sounds is the so-called Wilhelm Scream, a sound effect found in over 225 films and counting. It first appeared in the 1951 Gary Cooper vehicle, Distant Drums, though the scream was named after the arrow-caused demise of Private Wilhelm in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River.
The sound effect has popped up every few years since then, but it became something of a sound effect in-joke after sound editor Ben Burtt used it in Star Wars and many other films he did since then. The likes of Quentin Tarantino and Peter Jackson have further picked up the joke and carried it forward.
It is not certain who voiced the famous shriek, but research seems to point at Sheb Wooley, the man who sang “The Purple People Eater“. Wooley played an uncredited role in Distant Drums, and he frequently did such voice work.
Now that the Internet has been cataloging appearances of The Wilhelm Scream for years, many seasoned film watchers easily catch a new Wilhelm appearance. However, what most people don’t realize is that the sound most often called the “Wilhelm Scream” is only one of six screams, and that all six are referred to as “Wilhelm”. The series of six takes were recorded together as “man being eaten by alligator”, and all six crop up in films from time to time.
Take 4 is actually the shriek most often identified as the Wilhelm Scream:
But Take 1 can be heard in The Empire Strikes Back:
And Take 3 can be heard in Star Wars coming out of a falling Stormtrooper, and can also be caught in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones:
(I have yet to find standalone digital recordings of the other three shrieks. Please let me know if you find a recording.)
Yet it is undeniable that Take 4 has won the hearts of sound designers, to a point where I’ve heard folks complaining that the Wilhelm Scream is now too ubiquitous. The sound is now so easily recognizable that it can distract an eagle-eared cineast from the urgency of a film’s action scene. However, I have a deep love for the Wilhelm, because it reminds us that the art of a sound minion is usually invisible: if it is done well, you don’t notice it. The Wilhelm is a little aural stamp that reminds us that all that sound has to be created, too.
What to know more? Check out this exhaustive history of the Wilhelm Scream:
Here’s a video starring the guy who wrote the history page listed above, during which he plays all six Wilhelm screams.
Here’s a great list of Wilhelm Screams, which includes detail on which scream was used in each film.
Want to see the Wilhelm Scream in action? Here’s a great, 12-minute-long compilation of film clips. Check the notes on the video for film titles.
Have you spotted a Wilhelm Scream in the wild? Let me know!