If You Hear a Scream in a Movie, It's Probably the Wilhelm Scream

By: Nathan Chandler  | 

Wilhelm scream
If a cowboy accidentally rides his horse off a cliff in a Hollywood western, you can bet he'll let out the Wilhelm scream. HowStuffWorks

In 1977's "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope," Luke Skywalker blasts a Stormtrooper, who falls to his death. As the henchman plummets, he unleashes a bloodcurdling scream — a scream that would eventually become famous, featured in hundreds of Hollywood films.

It even has its own name: the Wilhelm Scream. But what is this odd scream, and why would a death yell find its way into so many different movies?

"The Wilhelm Scream is 1950s ADR (automated dialogue replacement) recording for a B-movie about a jungle safari," says Mike Miller, a film editor based in Ventura, California. "The recording was for a man getting eaten by an alligator."

The movie Miller's referring to is 1951's "Distant Drums," starring Gary Cooper as a U.S. Army captain who fights Seminoles and gun smugglers in Florida's Everglades. The subpar reviews make it clear that this wasn't one of Cooper's best onscreen efforts, but it did serve as the genesis of the now-iconic scream, which happens as an unfortunate soldier is dragged underwater by a hungry gator.

To capture the scream, the film's producers asked various cast members to offer up their most terrifying shrieks. They reportedly recorded six screams, but it was the fourth that apparently most accurately captured the horror of being eaten alive by a ferocious reptile.

Advertisement

Private Wilhelm Makes His Entrance

One in particular stood out, and it's the one that made the final cut of the movie. Though no one is 100 percent certain, it's generally attributed to western film by actor and singer Sheb Wooley.

But the movie — and the scream — didn't initially make a mark. In 1953, though, a film titled "The Charge at Feather River" featured a scene in which a horse-mounted soldier is shot in the thigh with an arrow.

The character's name? Private Wilhelm. And yes, the filmmakers dubbed the scream from two years earlier to accurately express his agony.

These kinds of reused and recycled sound effects are common in Hollywood. It saves time and money as studios crank out film after film.

Advertisement

And Then Came Luke Skywalker

But even after the second movie, the scream wouldn't have its brush with destiny for more than two more decades. Then, along came Luke Skywalker and Co.

"Ben Burtt, the audio sound designer for the original Star Wars was rummaging around for replacement audio when he was working on Star Wars and found the audio recordings of the voice actors screams, and used one in Star Wars," says Miller. "He named the one he picked Wilhelm. Ever since then sound designers in film have used the audio file as a calling card."

Every single "Star Wars" film up to 2015's "The Force Awakens" used the scream. But Burtt's unearthing of Private Wilhelm's painful yell has reverberated throughout countless other famous flicks. They include, "Toy Story," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "Reservoir Dogs," "Avengers: Infinity War," and "Venom," "More American Graffiti," and "Willow," just to name a few.

In "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," the joke goes even further, deploying the scream as a character is — you guessed it — torn to shreds by an alligator.

All of them use the exact same recording, albeit tweaked by sound engineers, that was tucked away in the Warner Bros. archive so many years ago.

Yet without Burtt's discovery and use of the scream, well, Miller puts it best. "No 'Star Wars.' No Wilhelm Scream gimmicks." All six of the first "Star Wars" movies have the scream layered in at least one moment.

Advertisement

The Scream Lives On

There are numerous compilations online, compressing dozens of instances of the scream into easy-to-view clips. No one will ever be able to account for every use of the scream, but higher estimates guess that the bloodcurdling shriek's been used in as many as 400 movies. Others place the number at just over 200 — still an amazingly long run for a single sound effect that originated seven decades ago.

And the scream isn't limited to the big screen. It's also wormed its way into television shows, video games, and other media.

The Wilhelm Scream is far from the only trope that's tucked away into various movies. Subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) "Easter eggs" are hidden in hundreds of films, little tidbits scattered by filmmakers who love teasing their audiences with such details.

But the scream? Well, it's a noisy homage to a tradition that's just not quite ready to die.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Loading...