A Brief History of the Wilhelm Scream Oct 23, 2015 3:57:42 GMT
Post by Phil on Oct 23, 2015 3:57:42 GMT
From the thunderclaps haunting Frankenstein’s castle (repurposed for Back to the Future’s lightning strikes) to Tarzan’s reverberating 1932 jungle call (repurposed as screams for both the Star Wars and James Bond franchises), many of Hollywood’s stock sound effects have become staples in the film industry.
But one in particular has become a legend by appearing in hundreds of movies, inspiring a website dedicated to just looping the effect, and fueling arguments over whether its use is genuine, comical, or done to death: the Wilhelm Scream.
History and Origin
The infamous scream didn’t start out as an inside joke or intentional viral effect—it actually dates back to 1951, when it was created as a legitimate sound effect to convey pain and terror in the film Distant Drums (directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Gary Cooper). In its first on-screen appearance, a group of soldiers is wading through a swamp in the Everglades. Anyone who knows anything about the Everglades (or has seen the movie) will know where this is going: an alligator bites a soldier, who is subsequently dragged under.
A total of six screams were recorded in sequence after principal photography had ended, but scream five is the one that cinema remembered. After the film’s release, the sample was filed away in the Warner Bros. sound effects library and went on to make several on-screen appearances between 1954 and 1968—before its big break and resurgence.
The Resurgence and Christening
It wasn’t until the late seventies that the scream became something of a staple in larger movies. A few years prior, a young sound effects artist named Ben Burtt noticed the same screaming effect had appeared in multiple films throughout the fifties and sixties, and its use became somewhat of an inside joke amongst his filmmaker friends at USC. When he was hired to do the sound effects for an obscure, low-budget indie film called Star Wars (1977), he rifled through the collection at Warner Bros. Studios and stumbled upon a track labeled “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Instantly, Burtt knew what he had uncovered—the sound that had found its way into all those films he and his friends pored over in school was now his power.
After renaming the track “Wilhelm” after a (screaming) soldier who falls prey to an arrow in The Charge at Feather River (1953), Burtt paired the scream with the Stormtrooper who falls from a platform while Luke and Leia make their famous swing by way of grappling hook. The Wilhelm Scream went on to find a home in more films Burtt worked on, including all three Star Wars prequels, all of the Indiana Jones films, More American Graffitti (1979), and Willow (1988).
In total, the Wilhelm Scream has made an appearance in more than 300 films since its 1951 debut. Both amusing and annoying for movie fans, the scream is one of the best known Easter eggs in cinematic history—and has yet to hit its peak, for better or worse.
Other Runners Up
While we’ve established that the Wilhelm Scream is arguably the most reused stock sound effect in cinema, it’s definitely not the only one—and it’s not just sound effects that get recycled. Movie scores have been remixed and reused in all sorts of movies, taking specific and well-known motifs from the track and using them again and again. One famous example is Clint Mansell’s “Lux Aeterna,” which was originally used as the end theme in Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). It was later remixed and used again in various teaser trailers, including King Arthur (2004) and Sunshine (2007).
Perhaps more so than the Wilhelm Scream, these scores have had an additive effect on cinema beyond mere mockery. “Lux Aeterna” in Requiem highlights the hopelessness of the main characters, whereas the impending battles of King Arthur and the urgency of the space mission in Sunshine benefit from the uplift in drama. The infamous “BRAAAM” from Hans Zimmer’s Inception (2010) score also found its way into numerous trailers in the early part of this decade and so remains a subject of some ridicule among film buffs.
When you think about it, the fact that a single stock scream sound effect has become a decades long rallying point of tribute is pretty amazing—and who is to say if and when another sound will take the top spot?
While our library at AudioBlocks doesn’t contain the famous scream itself, it does contain many others—all equally fit for use in both alligator attacks and Stormtrooper falls. Listen to ten of our best stock scream sound effects available for unlimited downloads with an AudioBlocks subscription and decide for yourself which is most likely to go viral.