If you’re not sure right now, you’ll know it when you hear it. We’re answering the question, “where did the Wilhelm Scream come from?”
Obviously, genres and styles of films vary massively. Your experience of watching the latest Star Wars offering is going to differ vastly from one of Wes Anderson’s jaunts. However, there is one little thing that loads of films across the spectrum of cinema often have in common. Something that seems like a minor detail, but never fails to make you go, “huh, there it is.” The Wilhelm Scream.
An auditory cinema in-joke by now, this little sound effect has a long and rich history. Hip-hop has the air horn, films have the Wilhelm Scream. Whenever a character dramatically plummets to their death, or gets speared suddenly by a flying arrow, you’ll hear that scream. But, where did the Wilhelm Scream come from, and why does it get used so often?
The Original Scream
When I said this sound effect has a long history, it’s actually 60 years to be precise. Its first appearance was in the 1951 Western film, Distant Drums. Cast members were tasked with the job of recording different screams to accompany a vicious alligator attack scene. One scream in particular was favoured, and it is thought to have been produced by Sheb Wooley. So, where does the “Wilhelm” part come in?
The squawking sound effect re-appeared a couple of years later, featuring in the 1953 film, The Charge At Feather River. Another Western, naturally. This time, the scream was let out by Private Wilhelm, as he was shot in the leg with an arrow. Sound designer, Ben Burtt later used the scream in a Star Wars scene where Luke Skywalker shoots a stormtrooper off a ledge. Burtt supposedly credited the effect with its famous name, and henceforth it was known as such.
Why So Popular?
It probably won’t shock you to learn that it is the Star Wars franchise we have to thank for the Wilhelm Scream’s lasting popularity. The effect has been used in every single episode, up until The Force Awakens in 2015.
Reusing stock sound effects is a great saver of both money and time. This is perhaps why filmmakers reused the distinctive scream to begin with. However, over time, it became somewhat of an inside joke for sound designers and filmmakers. Many included it in films to give a subtle nod to cinema classics and old film greats. It’s also an amusing little Easter egg for film lovers to spot.
However, it has come under fire from critics, who have labelled it a distraction that actually takes audiences out of the film. It has to be said, the scream fits nicely in action packed blockbuster style movies, but it can feel jarring to hear it in a more understated, modest flick.
The producers of Star Wars have stated that they are retiring the Wilhelm Scream altogether now. In the hopes of creating its own filmic calling cards, Disney is opting to record their own sound effects as a replacement.
Don’t worry though. This, undoubtedly, is not completely the end of the ubiquitous cry of terror.
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