What is Wilhelm Scream - Featured Image

What are some of the most iconic sounds in cinema history? Sure two lightsabers clashing or even the suspenseful score of Jaws make that list. However, one sound effect has been used throughout movies of all genres for over fifty years. It is none other than the iconic Wilhelm Scream.

You may have heard it and asked yourself “What is that same scream in all movies?” The iconic sounds have been passed on like a cinematic artifact over time. What is the Wilhelm Scream and where did the original Wilhelm Scream originate from?  In this article, we’ll be taking a look at one of the most iconic sounds in film and how filmmakers have continued to use it to this day.

What is the Wilhelm Scream?

First, let’s define the Wilhelm Scream

The Wilhelm Scream sound effect has been used by some of the most iconic filmmakers such as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino. The same scream in all movies came from the same place. What is the Wilhelm scream that can be found in cinema’s most classic films?

WILHELM SCREAM DEFINITION

What is the Wilhelm Scream?

The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in over 400 films and television shows. It originated in 1951 in the film Distant Drums. The Wilhelm scream sound effect is most commonly used when someone is falling from a great height, shot, or thrown from an explosion.

Wilhelm Scream movies and iconic examples

  • Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  • Toy Story
  • Reservoir Dogs

Original Wilhelm Scream

The History of the Wilhelm Scream

Where did the original Wilhelm Scream originate from? The recording of the original Wilhelm Scream dates back to the 1951 film Distant Drums. Producers of the film had cast members record a variety of screams for an alligator attack scene. One scream in particular stood out and was used in the final cut of the film.

The Original Wilhelm Scream

However, the original Wilhelm Scream in Distant Drums was not its defining moment. That would come two years later in the 1953 film The Charge at Feather River. The sound effect was used for a character named Private Wilhelm who was shot in the leg with an arrow and let out the distinctive scream.

The Charge at Feather River  •  Wilhelm Scream movies

With the origins of the Wilhelm Scream sound effect dating as far back as the 1950s, how did it become so widely used in modern cinema? What influenced the Wilhelm Scream movies of today? The answer can be found in a little film franchise that you might have heard of called Star Wars.

Wilhelm Scream Star Wars

Star Wars and the Wilhelm Scream

Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt made the Wilhelm Scream famous by using it in the original 1977 Star Wars film. Burtt is even credited with coining the term “Wilhelm Scream” named after the character of Private Wilhelm from The Charge at Feather River.

The Wilhelm Scream was later used in every single movie in the original Star Wars series up until the recent 2015 film The Force Awakens. The first use being a stormtrooper Wilhelm Scream as he falls to his death. Here is a  Wilhelm Scream compilation from Star Wars.

Every Wilhelm Scream Star Wars compilation

Beyond Star Wars, the Wilhelm Scream has been used in films from Toy Story to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to Reservoir DogsNow that we’ve answered the question of “What is the Wilhelm Scream?” you may be wondering “Why have filmmakers chosen to use this sound effect for over sixty years?” What started as a convenience has turned into quite the inside joke for filmmakers and film buffs.

What is the Wilhelm Scream reused for?

Why is the Wilhelm Scream reused?

There is no doubt that the Wilhelm Scream has become distinctive and recognizable in cinema. So why do filmmakers continue to use it? Firstly, reusing the stock sound effect saved both money and time. It is an easy go to and has become the famous movie death scream in cinema.

However, as more prominent filmmakers made use of the Wilhelm Scream, the sound effect became an inside joke among sound designers. Some say it's used as a tip of the hat to classic films in cinema. Hearing the Wilhelm Scream also became somewhat of an easter egg for film buffs. This video by Insider analyzes the history of the Wilhelm Scream and how it became an iconic sound in cinema.

Wilhelm Scream Movies Analysis

What is the Wilhelm’s Scream’s utility in storytelling? Although the Wilhelm Scream remains an iconic sound in cinema history, some have criticized it to be distracting and disengaging for an audience. Some say it has become more popular and more redundant with its viral use in memes on the internet.

In fact, producers of the revamp of the Star Wars films have decided to retire the Wilhelm Scream from the franchise. Sound designers of the new Disney branded Star Wars films have begun recording new sound effects in an attempt to make their own unique calling cards.

Still, the iconic sound can be found in more recent films such as the 2018 movie Venom. And there is no doubt that the Wilhelm Scream can be found in some of the most classic films in cinema history. Here’s WatchMojo’s list of the top 10 best Wilhelm Screams in film.

Top 10 Wilhelm Scream Movies

What is the Wilhelm Scream’s future? Although some film franchises have decided to retire the Wilhelm Scream, there is no doubt that it will be used in films still to come. Be on the lookout for the sound effect and you’ll find yourself getting in on one of Hollywood’s longest-lasting inside jokes.

UP NEXT

How Foley Artists Bring Movies to Life

The Wilhelm Scream is one of the most iconic sounds in cinema. However,  not all sound effects are recorded from an actor. Discover how foley artists create the sound effects of movement, props, and footsteps and bring a film to life in our next article.

Up Next: How Foley Artists Bring Movies to Life →
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