Seems like such a complex origin story for one tiny sound effect.
Even if you didn't know that it had an actual name, you most definitely knew the Wilhelm Scream, when you heard it. This iconic sound effect has shown up in countless films, from 1954 sci-fi monster movie Them! to the recently released Deadpool 2, but aside from knowing that it's everywhere and hilarious, how much do you really know about one the most famous sound effects of all time? Where did it come from and how did it become so popular? Fandor takes you through the interesting but strangely complex history of the Wilhelm Scream in the video below.
So, for those who like their history lessons even more bite-size than a 209-second video, here's the timeline.
- The Wilhelm Scream, most likely recorded by Sheb Wooley, first appeared in the 1951 Florida Western Distant Drums during a scene in which an Army soldier lets out a scream when he gets eaten by an alligator.
- That same sound effect appears again in 1953 in a western entitled The Charge at Feather River during a scene in which a minor character, Private Wilhelm, gets shot in the leg by an arrow.
- It becomes famous when sound designer Ben Burtt used it during a scene in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker shoots a Stormtrooper off of a ledge. In fact, Burtt is credited as naming it the "Wilhelm Scream" after Private Wilhelm from The Charge at Feather River.
Since achieving its well-deserved diva status, the Wilhelm Scream has been used on countless movies and TV shows. Burtt has even included it in all of the Star Wars films—all but one. The Wilhelm Scream fell silent in The Last Jedi (it was also absent in one of the Anthology films, Rogue One), and of course, Star Wars fans and cinephiles alike are up in arms. Supervising Sound Editor on the film, Matthew Wood explained to ABC News:
In this movie, we decided to move from the Wilhelm scream. We’re letting the past die, as Kylo Ren says...We’ve started another scream that we like. It’s actually been in this film and Rogue One, and some other films that are not Star Wars-related. But it’s our own little calling card.
Doing my best to channel my inner Church Lady through the internet, I say, "Well, isn't that special." Matthew Wood, you heartbreaker! But fine, ignore the inside joke. It's cool. It's cool. You know why? Because it's more than just an inside joke among sound designers. It has become a way for filmmakers to tip their hat to the great filmmakers of the past. The Wilhelm Scream, really, has become an auditory distinction of cinema itself. Indulge me while I get weird on this.
Like, if one day we found out that the essence of cinema was actually a sentient alien race from a distant planet, whose visage couldn't be perceived by our limited intellect, and celluloid and the technology for the Kinetograph were actually gifts from them to us so we could at least feel them through hundreds of proxy offspring, how do you think they'd respond to the somewhat cliché but absolutely inevitable exchange of us slowly approaching them exiting their galactic station wagon and saying, "Me human. You...?"
Yeah—it'd be the fucking Wilhelm Scream and you know it. The Wilhelm Scream is cinema, man. Every time you hear it in a movie what do you say? "My, my, my! That Stormtrooper was very fearful as he fell to his death!" No! You say, "Haha...there it is! Stupid scream. I'm watching a movie right now." It almost seems like it's the filmmaker's way of taking us aside during the film to ask us how we're liking the movie so far.
Okay, we've veered wildly. At any rate, the Wilhelm Scream's origin story is quite fascinating and its future will surely endure for another 67 years. (Even though it has been cut from the Star Wars tradition like Luke Skywalkers hand.)