The Wilhelm Scream—Hollywood’s Inside Joke

I’m in total movie mode this week. We’re six days from the Oscars, and I’m keyed up. I’ll go into exactly why the Oscars excite me so much later in the week, but suffice it to say I’m thinking movies nonstop—making my predictions for Oscar night, reading about upcoming movies (strangely excited to see how Gone Girl turns out when it hits theaters October 3rd), and I came across a gem of a story about how one second of sound became one of the longest-standing traditions in Hollywood.

First, here—listen to this.

What started as a simple sound effect in 1951 has turned out to have a legacy no one could have ever predicted. In the film Distant Drums, a scene was shot where a character is bitten by an alligator and dragged underwater. As is usually the case, the character’s scream was recorded separately and inserted later. In post production, six screams were recorded in a single take. Three of the screams were then used for various scenes in the film and that was that. Then, as future movies were made and screams were needed, sound editors referred back to the ones already in the bank and continued using them in several Warner Brothers films over the years. By 1976 the scream had already been used in some manner in 18 films and a few episodes of TV shows.

Which brings us to 1977. Ben Burtt was the sound editor for Star Wars, and a huge movie buff. He was doing research for the film, looking for sound effects, and stumbled across the original recording  of the screams from Distant Drums. Having already noticed the recurrence of the scream throughout the years as a film student, he decided to make it a cross between an inside joke and signature of sorts. He named the scream the Wilhelm after the earliest character he knew of to utter the cry, and included it in all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, Willow, Poltergeist, and several others.

A friend and colleague of Ben’s, Richard Anderson, began using the scream liberally as well, and by the 2000’s they had an impressive number of films peppered with their now-trademark wail, ranging from Planet of the Apes to Madagascar. Future generations of filmmakers also began to use the scream once it was discovered that the classic version was free to use without penalty or fines, and regardless of studio attachment.

In recent years, noted filmmakers to use the Wilhelm in their films include Peter Jackson (2 of the 3 Lord of the Rings movies) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1, Inglorious Basterds). Once I realized what the scream was and how often it was used, I realized it was like that road sign you pass a thousand times and don’t notice until someone points it out. I’ve unknowingly heard it probably hundreds of times, and every time I hear it from now on I can’t help but chuckle.

For a much more detailed account of how the Wilhelm came to be the stuff of legend, including a theory of whose voice is actually providing the scream, click here for the full story. And just in case you think I’m exaggerating about how much it’s been used, click here for the most recent list of movies that feature some variation of the scream (last updated in 2010 with over 200 films). There are also some compilations on YouTube, if you’re so inclined. I guarantee you, you’ve heard it before.

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