There is one constant that unites the worlds of Star Wars, Toy Story, The Lord of the Rings, Reservoir Dogs, and hundreds of other films: the Wilhelm scream. For more than 50 years, sound designers have intentionally been using the same stock scream over and over again, transforming a decades-old recording into Hollywood legend.
It’s a distinct, piercing shriek that’s difficult to describe in words — but if you were to type it out, it might look something like “AAAIIIEEEAAAGGHH!!!” Most audience members will never pick up on it, but once pointed out, it can be heard everywhere. “It’s a lightning-in-a-bottle scream,” says sound editor/designer Erik Aadahl, who’s used it in films like Kung Fu Panda and the Transformers series. “It wouldn’t have become what it was if it wasn’t so recognizable.”
It’s believed that actor Sheb Wooley (best known for singing “The Purple People Eater”) first uttered the shriek as part of a recording session in the 1950s. Though its first recognized onscreen use is in 1951’s Distant Drums, when a man gets attacked by an alligator, it gets its name from the 1953 Western film The Charge at Feather River, in which it’s used after a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.
But it was sound designer Ben Burtt who made the Wilhelm scream famous, tucking it into 1977’s Star Wars when a stormtrooper falls off a ledge in the Death Star. Burtt went on to include the scream in six more Star Wars films and the Indiana Jones series, inspiring dozens of other sound designers to use it in their own projects.
Thanks to the multitude of Wilhelm compilations online, more and more film fans have discovered the joke, and it’s no longer the secret it used to be. “I try to avoid the traditional Wilhelm now because it’s sort of played out after years of throwing it into places,” sound editor/designer Geoffrey Rubay (Star Trek, Mad Men) says. “What has personally turned me off is the fact that I heard it in a commercial recently.” Even Star Wars has moved on: 2015’s The Force Awakens was the saga’s last film to include it.
Still, the scream endures, and editors who do use it are getting more creative. “I’ve pitched it up, using it for small creatures, and I’ve processed it to make it sound like a robot,” Aadahl explains. “Sound is so plastic that you can manipulate it and use it in all these different ways.”
For last year’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Rubay even included an alternate version of the Wilhelm scream, taken from a different part of the same original recording session. (You can hear it in the film when Spider-Man Noir punches a Nazi.) “It’s what [we] referred to as the ‘deep-cut version’ of the Wilhelm,” Rubay says.
It seems that as long as there are films about people punching each other or falling off things, the scream will echo on.
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