Wilhelm Scream

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This episode was written & produced by Kevin Edds.

When it comes to movie screams, what’s the first one you think of? Is it a scream that evokes a sense of fear, pain, or maybe even… humor? Perhaps you immediately think about a famous “Scream Queen” or a specific scene from a movie. But you may not realize that the most famous scream in Hollywood has a name—and it’s been used over and over and over in countless films, television shows, and commercials. What makes it so good? And how did it become a filmmaker favorite? Featuring Steve Lee, sound designer, film historian, and creator of the Hollywood Sound Museum.


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View Transcript ▶︎

[Music start]

From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story of the Wilhelm Scream.

[scream montage]

The two screams you just heard were from Will Farrell in Anchorman and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. Movie screams seem like easy work, but they’re not. That’s why some of the best are so iconic.

You’ve got scary ones like Captain Quint from Jaws… [Captain Quint scream SFX] Janet Leigh from Psycho… [Janet Leigh scream SFX] and the original Scream Queen, Fay Wray, from King Kong way back in 1933… [Fay Wray scream SFX].

Then you’ve got non-horror screams, like Kevin from Home Alone feeling the burn of after shave… [Kevin scream SFX] and Marv the burglar from the same film when Kevin puts a tarantula on his face… [Marv SFX] .

But the most famous scream is one you’ve heard, but maybe… never heard of, the Wilhelm Scream.

Steve: Hi I'm Steve Lee, I'm a sound effects wrangler, a film historian, and I'm forming the Hollywood Sound Museum.

It's interesting how Wilhelm has sort of become this sort of, you know, go to sound effect that sort of represents a lot more than just the one sound. It's fascinating how many of these sounds are actually reused over and over and over.

You may be thinking, What’s the Wilhelm Scream? If you think you’ve never heard it, it’s been used in movies such as Batman... [Wilhelm scream] Star Wars... [Wilhelm scream] Toy Story... [Wilhelm scream] Lord Of The Rings... [Wilhelm scream] Tropic Thunder... [Wilhelm scream] Beauty And The Beast... [Wilhelm scream] Team America... [Wilhelm scream] Spaceballs... [Wilhelm scream] Jurassic World... [Wilhelm scream] 300... [Wilhelm scream] Cars… [Wilhelm scream] Fight Club… [Wilhelm scream] Indiana Jones… [Wilhelm scream] and hundreds of other films. This barely scratches the surface.

Steve: When I was a kid growing up, I went to Disneyland. I lived in LA and I went to Disneyland, and I watched movies, and I recorded movies off the TV, and you know, studied the soundtrack. And I started to hear sound effects over and over. Wilhelm was one of them. But there are many other, too.

There was a dog bark, that is in The Pirates of the Caribbean ride in Disneyland...and, I remember hearing it again in Mary Poppins when I was watching that on TV once. And I'm going, "somebody must reuse these sound effects."

And that sort of was a very early realization. And that sort of lead the way for my research and fascination with how these sounds are collected, and reused, and cataloged.

The Wilhelm Scream has been used in tons of movies, but where did it come from?—what movie was it first heard in?

Steve: We've done some sort of back-tracking. Most of this done by Ben Burtt himself, who is the Star Wars sound effects designer who started using this as sort of a personal sound signature.

The name actually comes from what is probably the second film it was used in, which was Charge at Feather River, which was 1953 at Warner Brothers. Poor Private Wilhelm is at the end of this party going by on horses, and the leader yells back to him, to, you know, "Pick up your pace", and he says, "Oh I'm just filling my pipe" and in that moment he gets an arrow in the leg and lets out the scream.

[Charge at Feather River Clip]

They must have liked the Wilhelm Scream a lot because they ended up using it two more times in the film, once when a soldier is killed… [example] and another for an American Indian warrior in battle… [example].

The Charge at Feather River was the film that gave Wilhelm it’s name, but it was the second film it was used in, what was the first?

Steve: It started at Warner Brothers, and the first film it was in was a western called "Distant Drums," a Gary Cooper western.

Distant Drums was released two years before The Charge At Feather River, in 1951.

Steve: And it had a scene where a man is walking across the Florida Everglades with other soldiers, and he's bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. And they needed a scream for that [movie scene clip]. Ben found a memo in the Warner Brothers archives that said that several people came in to do, sort of post vocals for the film. And we're pretty sure that the scream was recorded in that session.

And one of the gentlemen on the list of people, was a guy named Sheb Wooley, [Purple People Easter song] who is most famous for his pop song "Purple People Eater." But he was a character actor, and he was in a lot of these old westerns. We're pretty sure that he's responsible for the scream.

And many years later, I was able to put Ben Burtt in touch with Sheb's widow. And she was delighted. And she actually remembered that Sheb used to talk about going in to do sessions like that, and screams, and things like that.

So we're like, 99% sure it's Sheb Wooley.

Sheb Wooley sounds like a fascinating guy: a singer, and on-screen actor, and a voice actor. How was the Wilhelm Scream actually captured on tape.

Well, thanks to Steve, we’ve acquired the full length original recording of the session. It was recorded from a Warner Brothers soundstage in 1951 on the set of Distant Drums. Remember, Sheb is not actually in a river surrounded by alligators, he’s trying to create the sound of tremendous pain, agony, and fear, from the safe surroundings of a film lot. Steve Lee will talk us through this…

Steve: The session starts out, you hear several people on a stage, we believe it was actually recorded on a filming sound stage, and not a recording stage, because you hear several people milling about.

[recording playing in background]

And then you hear someone slate through, and he says, [example from recording] "Man getting bit by an alligator, and then he screams." And you hear a director like, shutting everyone up, and then he tells the guy, "Okay."

And he asks for the first scream [scream from recording]. And it's pretty good, it's like a quick scream, and he does another one… [scream from recording]. And then he asks for a little direction [example from recording]. You know, I share the frustration with the director, and say "No that's not what I want, I want a real scream." [scream from recording]

And he’s getting closer and it’s still not quite, and then the director gives him something that motivates him to do the classic scream that we all recognize [clip from recording]. And then the next two are very similar to that [screams from recording], and we've actually used these, all three of these last ones, as sort of the official Wilhelm.

If this obscure scream was first used back in 1951 how did it get so popular that it’s been used in so many movies since then? We’ll find out in a minute.

[music out]


[music in]

We’re now pretty sure that Sheb Wooley was the voice behind the Wilhelm Scream and know how it was recorded… but how did it spread like wildfire and become the most iconic movie scream in history?

Steve: Ben Burtt went to college with two guys, Rick Mitchell, and Richard Anderson, Richard and Ben won an Oscar for Raiders of the Lost Ark together, for sound effects.

[Raiders of the Lost Ark clip]

Yep, that was our friend Wilhem in Raiders.

Steve: And they were sort of doing this as a little joke in film school, at USC, using this scream, that they remembered from all these old westerns. And they started using it in their short films at USC, and when they went to pro, they started sneaking it into the films that they did for real. Real, feature films.

For decades, this was a below the radar thing that only sound designers knew about. Maybe someone in the industry who used the Wilhelm Scream themselves might recognize it in another film, but it wasn’t really a thing.

Steve: Warner Brothers used it quite a bit. It was in their library. And sound editors could just pull it and use it! Up until the early seventies it was still getting used out of Warner Brothers exclusively. And Ben tracked it down when he was doing research for Star Wars. He said, "Oh I gotta use this. This is a favorite of mine." He tracked down the master, and he started using it in all the Star Wars films, all the Indiana Jones films.

And that's when I started to really take notice and started maintaining a list of all, as best I could, I mean there are hundreds of films.

And like many things, when the internet came along, everything changed.

Steve: I started sort of pushing Wilhelm, and we used it in quite a few films. And, I think I sort of overdid it. Because, it really got noticed by a lot of people. And then when I published the list online, on a movie history website I run, I published this list and sort of the definitive history of Wilhelm. And that's pretty much when the dam broke.

Ben Burtt started this and Steve kind of took the baton and ran with it. I asked Steve, what are some of the best uses of the Wilhelm Scream? Or at least the most memorable?

Steve: He was doing it as a little in joke and then I sort of pushed the envelope a little in the late eighties and early nineties. We used it in everything. I even got it in a Goofy movie. I was the sound designer of a Goofy movie, and it has absolutely no business being in a Goofy movie.

[Goofy Movie use of Wilhelm Scream]

While Ben introduced the Wilhelm Scream to guys like George Lucas it sounds like Steve has done his fair share. I wondered if there’s a good story about any directors he brought into the Wilhelm Club.

Steve: We were very lucky at our sound shop. We worked with a lot of directors over and over, who kept coming back, and some first timers that went on to be really great and do some amazing things.

One of them is a guy, I'm sure you've heard of, named Quentin Tarantino. We did his first film, Reservoir Dogs, and there are a couple Wilhelms in that one.

[clip from Reservoir Dogs]

And I will never forget. We cut it in, and then when we were dubbing the film, we pointed it out to him and told him the history. We actually schooled him on it. And he loved it. Quentin's a huge movie fan, and just eats that stuff up.

And I had a little tiny black and white TV in my office, and I turned it on, and lo and behold Distant Drums is on the Saturday afternoon film…

So I ducked my head into the dub stage and said, "Hey guys, you remember I told you about that scream, well the movie's on right now, that it was recorded!" And Quentin went nuts. "Oh my God, really? Really? Do you know when it's coming up? Can you tell us when it's coming up?" …”Yeah, I could probably give you five minutes notice.”

..."Okay, do that, and we'll take a break!"

…and sure enough, I did, and I called them in, and there was like, ten guys in my little office. And as soon as it came on, Quentin was screaming, "That's in my movie!"

That’s pretty good. It’s gotta be hard to top Quentin Tarantino.

Steve: Peter Jackson was another one. When it was in The Two Towers, he apparently told the mixers to turn it up, make it louder!

Like many movie styles or special effects, they eventually fade out. Has interest in using the Wilhelm Scream started to die down?

Steve: It's still used all the time. It's in commercials. I'll turn on the TV and I'll hear it in an Exxon commercial or something, it's pretty crazy.

And you know, kids coming out of film school are eager to use it too, there's a scene in the Judy Garland "A Star is Born" where it's actually completely in the clear and you can notch out the classic, take number four, Wilhelm. And people are stealing it out of that to use in their student films, and things like that. It's pretty crazy.

So why does the movie industry continue to use the Wilhelm Scream? Is it cliché? Or cache?

Maybe it's a connector, a through-line, a way to be a link in the chain of movie history, from 1951 to today—to share a common bond with directors like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and Quentin Tarrantino.

Steve: A week does not go by where I don't get an email, or a message from someone saying, "I heard it in such and such," or "Hey we're on a dub stage in Australia putting it in some little movie" or you know "Hey, it's gonna be in a Twix commercial! It's gonna start airing in December!" You know, that kind of thing! Ben accused me of starting a cult, and I'd have to agree with him.

It's sort of a way of communicating with others in our craft, also. It's like a way of saying hi. One of my dear friends, another Oscar winner, Dave Stone, he equated it to dogs on a fire hydrant. And other dogs would come by and "Oh yeah, Sam's been here."

We put it in there to see if others of our kind get noticed. I for sure, if I hear it in a movie that I wasn't aware it was in, I'll wait and look at the credits more closely, and say, "Oh yeah, so and so did this!" Yeah, that dirty dog, he snuck it in!

Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound, a sound team dedicated to making the world sound better. Whether it’s a commercial, television show, web video, trailer, video game, documentary, VR, or even physical products, Defacto makes it sound insanely cool. Get in touch at Defacto Sound dot com.

This episode was written and produced by Kevin Edds...and me, Dallas Taylor. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Nick Spradlin.

Huge thanks to film historian & sound effects archivist Steve Lee who is heading up the Hollywood Sound Museum project. The museum will be a destination for fans, students, scholars, and professionals - where you’ll be able to discover the art of creating sound for film, TV, and other media through exhibits and educational programs. Please help get this great cause off the ground by visiting hollywoodsoundmuseum.org. Let’s locate and preserve the rich history of sound design in Hollywood to share with future generations. Again, visit hollywoodsoundmuseum.org.

The music in this episode is from Musicbed. And we have an exclusive playlist you can check out at music.20k.org.

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Thanks for listening.

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