Scream Wilhelm Scream

In Halifax last month, my friend David Clark showed me this video on Youtube. Having screamed my heart out for days while recording sound for my Screaming video, I find the story fascinating:

In a scene from the 1951 Warner Bros. film Distant Drums there is a scene where soldiers are wading through a swamp in the everglades. One of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator! Six short screams for that scene were recorded later, and the sound effect was labelled “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” One of those screams was used for the scene.

After Distant Drums, the recording was archived in Warner Brother’s sound effects library, and re-used in many of their productions. Up until the mid-70′s, the scream recording was used exclusively in Warner Bros. productions, including Them!, Land of the Pharaohs, The Sea Chase, Sergeant Rutledge, PT-109, and The Green Berets. In A Star is Born, the scream is heard twice – one of the times because a scene with the scream in Charge at Feather River is playing in a screening room.

Sound effects fan Ben Burtt noticed the same distinctive scream reoccurring in a lot of movies. He made a film with friends, called The Scarlet Blade, borrowing the scream from another film’s sound track and including it on his own. Years later Ben Burtt was hired to create sound effects for Star Wars, and had access to the sound effects from several movie studios. While at Warner Bros. he found the original Distant Drums scream – which he called “Wilhelm” after the character that let out the scream in Charge at Feather River.

Ben adopted the scream as a personal sound signature, including it in all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, among others. Richard Anderson, another sound editor, also continued the tradition, including the scream in the films Poltergeist, and Planet of the Apes. Other editors have used it in Toy Story, Hercules, Pirates of the Caribbean, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Fifth Element, and Tears of the Sun. It became an easter egg for film junkies.

Although it has never been available in any commercial sound effects library, the recording has made it around the sound community through editors who appreciate its history. Only a few studios have the master of the Wilhelm, but because the clear scream can be found in a few films – such as the Judy Garland version of A Star as Born, it has been borrowed for projects by other studios. It also has been used in TV shows – including The X-Files, animations including Family Guy, commercials for Dell and Comcast, video games, and theme park attractions.

The Wilhelm Scream – listen for it in films near you!

You can see a massive list of films featuring the Wilhelm Scream here.

One Response to “Scream Wilhelm Scream”

  1. Traci Says:

    That is incredibly fascinating.

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