A few months ago I published a short piece on the history of the Wilhelm Scream in Offscreen, an upstart film journal. They put out an issue on sound in the cinema, and I was asked to contribute a short article on my favorite moment of film sound. It didn’t take long for me to realize that my most favorite moment was, in fact, the repeated use of a classic studio sound effect, known affectionately as the Wilhelm Scream.
For a brief history of the Scream, see my original article which is available here at the Offscreen website. In short, the scream was first heard in the Gary Cooper western Distant Drums (1951), when an American soldier attempts to evade a slew of Seminole Indians in a Florida swamp and ends up being dragged under the water and eaten by an alligator. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the voice effect — originally recorded by Sheb Wooley — was re-used in several films that required a high-pitch male cry, including The Charge at Feather River (1953) and Them! (1954). Contrary to popular belief, there were five Screams, each different in duration and pitch. In the mid-1970s, Ben Burtt was combing through studio sound libraries searching for material for Star Wars (1977) and came across the Screams, which were then catalogued as “man getting bit by an alligator.” It was the Scream’s use in The Charge at Feather River that inspired Burtt to rename the effect the Wilhelm Scream after the character who is unceremoniously shot with an Indian’s arrow and falls off his horse.
Burtt’s inside-joke homage to old studio sound effects led to the Scream’s use in the original Star Wars trilogy and the first three installments of Indiana Jones. The Scream invariably accompanies a villain’s fall, such as when one of Jabba the Hut’s goons falls into the Sarlac pit in Return of the Jedi (1983) and when a Nazi is thrown off a moving truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). For Burtt and directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg the Scream functions as a comic gag and an allusion to the old Hollywood system of which Star Wars and Indiana Jones are indebted.
After the final Star Wars prequel was released in 2005, Burtt announced that he was retiring the vocal effect from any further use in his own work. However, Burtt’s decision has had the opposite effect on sound editors and filmmakers, who have saturated its use in movies and TV shows. By the turn of the 21st century the novelty of Wilhelm has worn thin as a new crop of filmmakers have used the effect as an homage not to classical Hollywood, but to the New Hollywood and its second-generation revival. Quentin Tarantino used it sparingly in Reservoir Dogs (1992), while Peter Jackson and his sound team placed the Scream in all three Lord of the Rings films. It’s been used in animated films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991), Toy Story (1995), and most ingeniously in Gary Rydstrom’s Pixar short, Lifted (2007).
Indeed, it has become difficult not to spot the Wilhelm Scream in current movies and TV shows. Family Guy and American Dad treat the Scream like a musical sting that accentuates a gag. Both shows wear their love of the Star Wars saga and 1980s pop culture on their sleeves, so it is not surprising that the cultural currency of Wilhelm is not lost on their writers. More and more films are using the Scream, including Batman Returns (1992), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), Hellboy (2004), Team America: World Police (2004), Anchorman (2004), and Aeon Flux (2005).
Interestingly, I can’t think of a film or TV show in recent memory that has used the Scream in a straight-forward and dramatic fashion. In some sense, there’s a comic quality to the tone and timbre of the scream itself, which lends itself to parody and homage in programs like Family Guy.
As much as I am a fan of the Wilhelm Scream, I can’t help but think that it has overstayed its welcome. As a punchline, it is no longer that funny, since its singular use (to enhance someone’s fall) has been repeated with little variation. As homage, the Scream is in its third generation of use, and its allusionist qualities are wearing thin. As the Scream is endlessly repeated, its value as a Hollywood artifact and inside joke is greatly diminished. Perhaps retirement is not necessary, but a more creative and textured approach is definitely needed in order to keep Wilhelm from becoming a stock comic effect in the sound track arsenal.
For those who don’t see the irony in the situation, let me clarify. Burtt revived the original Scream, which had become a stock sound effect in the studio system, and fell out of favor with New Hollywood craftsmen in the early 1970s. Burtt’s placement of the Scream in Star Wars alluded not only to the B-movie origin of Lucas’ space narrative, but to a by-gone era of studio filmmaking. Its use in Star Wars and Indiana Jones is pastiche at its most fun and irreverent.
For a time, the recycling of the Scream became a game for sharp listeners, who, after being introduced to it in the 1980s, fell under its spell. You felt as if you were part of a secret club of movie geeks who could list all the Scream’s appearances in the post-Star Wars era. Now, even the most untrained ears can spot the buffoonish cry under layers of other sound effects.
The Scream, which was once used to parody old stock sound effects, has become a parody of itself. We’ve had our fun, so let’s store it away for a while, let it collect some dust, and wait for another sound designer to one day discover it all over again.
For the uninitiated, here is the Wilhelm Scream. What are your own favorite Wilhelm moments?