Once you’ve heard it, you can’t unhear it. While it may have been hiding in plain sound for many years within hundreds of films, The Wilhelm scream is one of cinema’s worst kept secrets and inside jokes. Appearing in well over 400 films and television shows since it’s introduction in 1951, The Wilhelm scream is a stock sound effect that may ellicit laughter at someone’s misfortune.
The schadenfreude element is strong with this one but thankfully the sound effect is typically reserved for henchmen who had it coming anyway. The unintentionally turned intentionally funny sound effect is generally used to express someone’s scream, whether falling from a height, being shot or blown away by an explosion. This high pitch piercing scream sounds out of place at the best of times but if you don’t know about it, may pass by without notice. While the scream is now a self-indulgent elbow in the ribs to moviegoers by today’s standards, it has a rich history, dating back over 70 years.
The Wilhelm scream originated in a scene of soldiers fleeing from Seminole Indians in the 1951 film Distant Drums. While wading through a swamp one of the soldiers screams after being bitten and then dragged underwater by an alligator. Recorded after the fact, who knew just how far that scream would echo? Later included in the Warner Bros. stock sound library, it made its way into other 1950s and 1960s films. The sound effect got its famed title in 1953 thanks to Private Wilhelm who discovered an arrow in his thigh in The Charge at Feather River.
Since then, it’s gained widespread cult notoriety thanks to its inclusion in the original Star Wars film. The Wilhelm scream has also featured in Toy Story, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, The Simpsons Movie, Batman Returns and in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark as a Nazi soldier falls from a truck. Not sure if you’ve heard it or not, take a gander at the video above of some of the best examples to see (or hear) what you’ve been missing out on all this time!
Now a form of meta-humour, the scream is used to amuse those in the know as if it were part of a drinking game. Nowadays directors use the stock sound effect as a wink to the audience, allowing for this level of self-awareness to transcend the film experience and peek over that fourth wall. The unique and recognisable sound effect has become entrenched in pop culture, tipping the hat to the history of film sound design and adding an extra layer of enjoyment to film experiences for more seasoned movie lovers.