The Wilhelm Scream
The History and the Recycling of the Stock Sound Effect, A Hollywood Joke Too Far?
In the last sixty years, the introduction of sound effects has undoubtedly contributed to the way an audience emotionally connects with the visuals of film, television and video games. With this sound effects revolution, major film industries such as Warner Bros have created a substantial archive of pre-made and ready to use stock audio clips to fill the significant details that visuals need to keep their authenticity and originality. When new sound effects are created for a film, there are also many sound effects that are recycled. There is, however, one recycled sound effect that stands out above all others, with its use in hundreds of films, television shows and video games.
This sound effect is known as The Wilhelm Scream. The sound effect consists of a high pitched male voice screaming when un-manipulated, the lasts for only one single second, yet this scream has built up a substantial amount of screen time in the cinema and has been described by directors and sound editors as one of the most influential sound effects of all time. The Wilhelm Scream, however, has lately come under direct attack from critics and online communities for its recent overuse in blockbuster films, and some argue that the use of a single, one-second scream can ruin the atmosphere of an entire film. So why does this single sound effect relic continue to be recycled in films, television shows and video games despite its negative criticism.
The historical origins of the Wilhelm Scream sound effect are not completely certain. The very first time the Wilhelm Scream is heard is in the 1951 film Distant Drums. During a scene in the film, one man is dragged underwater and eaten by an alligator, and here the famous scream is first heard by the audience. According to ‘Wilhelm enthusiast’, Amanda Poitras, the Wilhelm Scream is not taken from the live visual recording; it was in fact dubbed over afterwards by singer-songwriter Sheb Wooley. Poitras claims that: “During post-production recordings, Wooley recorded various vocal sound effects for the film, including a batch of screams- he being known for his screaming ability, something he was quite proud of according to his wife, Linda Dotson” Poitras. Unfortunately, Sheb Wooley died in 2003 aged 82 and was never able to confirm the scream was his own voice.
After a small appearance in the film Springfield Rifle, the Wilhelm Scream was then later substantially implemented from Warner Bros Stock Sound Library into the film The Charge at Feather River, two years after the original was used in Distant Drums. During a scene, the scream can be heard when a minor character named Private Wilhelm is shot in the leg with an arrow during an attack by Red Indians. The phrase “Wilhelm Scream” is taken from this unfortunate character’s name.
The placement of the Wilhelm Scream fits seamlessly and the audience would not easily notice the dubbing of the sound effect. However the ambush scene continues with the Wilhelm Scream being used three times within ten seconds. In 1953, the audience may not have noticed the stock sound’s repetitive use in the scene; however for the 21st century audience where expectations of sound editing are higher, the scene is deemed unrealistic and comical. It is unknown whether the implementation of the scream was deliberately created as a joke, or was serious in its professionalism and production.
The Wilhelm Scream continued as a standardized stock sound effect in the Warner Bros sound library and was not frequently used until reputable sound editor, Ben Burtt, came across the ‘scream scene’ in Charge at Feather River. Burtt was intrigued by the scream and decided to implement it into the films on which he was currently working. In Sennheiser’s Bluestage online magazine, it claims that Ben Burtt was “the inventor of the Wilhelm Scream” and “(the scream) comes from the creative brain of Hollywood’s master of tone”. Burtt obviously did not invent the Wilhelm Scream, however he did adopt it, promoted its name, and assigned the oddball sound effect a new life as a running joke.
After this adoption from such a prestigious sound editor, the Wilhelm Scream was planted into an endless number of films that Ben Burtt was working on. Burtt firstly added the scream into the 1974 parody film The Scarlet Blade. Soon afterwards, he was tasked to become the sound editor for George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise and the scream found its way into all three of the original trilogy. In Star Wars: New Hope, it can noticeably be heard as stormtrooper falls into a dark chasm when main characters Luke and Leia are in the death star. It became a tradition for Ben Burtt to implement the Wilhelm Scream into any film he was working on. Soon, most major blockbuster films of the 1980s contained the sound effect.
In the late 1980s onwards, other major directors realised the comical popularity of Ben Burtt’s Wilhelm Scream’s and decided to join in on the Hollywood in Joke. In 1992, Director Quentin Tarantino who had become a fan of Burtt’s work, insisted that the Scream was implemented into his thriller Reservoir Dogs. The scream is used when the character Mr Brown, played by Tarantino himself, is shot in his car. The scream here creates an even more parodic feeling to all those who recognise the sound effect. There are, however, audience members who are oblivious to Hollywood’s in joke. The Wilhelm Scream was also introduced to Peter Jackson during the sound mix of The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. According to Steve Lee from ‘Hollywood Lost and Found’: when Peter Jackson was told of the Scream’s history “he was so excited it was included that he had its volume raised – and insisted that it also be used in Return of the King“. The Wilhelm Scream can also be heard in all of Jackson’s latest films including The Hobbit trilogy.
It is not only films that have implemented the Wilhelm Scream, but also television shows and video games have included and manipulated the sound effect. Video games include Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, LEGO games and Assassin’s Creed. Youtube channel “IGN Deutschland” created a popular Wilhelm Scream game compilation video – IGN Deutschland, 2012. It has also appeared on television shows and adverts such as “The X-Files” and “Dell Computers – PC Dreams” TV Commercial. The list is endless, and many ‘Wilhelm’ enthusiasts have attempted to create an updated list of all of its uses. However with the Wilhelm Scream’s constant implementation into films, there has recently been negative feedback to the scream’s recent overuse and suggestions that the sound effect has become clichéd and a ‘joke too far’.
An example of this negative uproar is the Wilhelm Scream’s use in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, Extended Edition. In the extended edition, an important scene is added that develops the storyline of two major character; Gandalf and Thrain. A darker atmosphere and an intense audiovisual experience are built up, creating an epic connection with the audience. The scene hits its emotional peak when character ‘Thrain’ is sucked away into the abyss by the main antagonist Sauron.
However, the Wilhelm Scream is then clearly implemented. The scene has been uploaded on to Youtube by user Devansh Sharma, and disapproval is clearly evident from the user comments. User ‘tankmaster1018’ comments “Worst use of the Wilhelm Scream in the history of film”. User ‘Bernhardina Hörnstein’ also adds “Ugh the wilhelm scream completely kills the emotion in this scene”. ‘MisterKorman’ comments “Deep, emotional moment absolutely ruined by the most hilarious use of the Wilhelm scream ever” Devansh Sharma. The list of negative comments is endless, with many suggesting that the scream ruined the entire film. When I watched the scene and heard the screams use for myself, I agree that the noise creates an anticlimactic moment to a great visual experience and gives connotations of mockery and parody: the scream clearly does not fit the visual’s atmosphere.
The example of the scream’s unpopularity is not restricted to this scene from The Hobbit: there have also been forum posts and open letters expressing the community’s disapproval of excess and inappropriate use of the scream. In 2012, ‘MonkeyKingGod.com’ published the article ‘Dear Hollywood: Please stop using the Wilhelm Scream’. Within the article, MKG perfectly summarises the audience’s reaction when the scream is heard. They suggest: “whenever I hear a Wilhelm Scream I am taken out of the movie experience” MKG, 2012. Users have also created threads in forums such ‘You ever get sick of hearing recycled sound effects?’ Omphofo-Bravo, 2011 where concerns are posted about the scream’s overuse.
However, the Wilhelm Scream is not the only recognised stock sound effect to have been ‘abused’ by the film industry. ‘The Howie Scream’, ‘The Tarzan call’ and ‘The Screaming Cat’ noise have also been commonly recognised by the community as a recycled stock sound effect – Multiple Authors, 2009. What makes the Wilhelm Scream independent from these other recycled sound effects is that the scream is known only as an inside joke between directors and sound editors.
The scream is no longer used as a deliberate implemented sound effect in comparison with other commonly recognised stock effects. The communities’ dislike of the Wilhelm Scream is obviously present, with the endless Youtube comments, articles and forum posts pleading towards its cap. However, there are unfortunately little comments from Hollywood directors and sound editors in response to the communities claims (though this does not mean that they are not aware of it).
After disapproval and negativity from the community aimed towards Hollywood directors and sound editors, it is unknown what the future of the Wilhelm Scream will be. The negative feedback has contributed to Sound Editor Ben Burtt no longer using the Scream in his works but that does not stop other Hollywood directors from digging into the Warner Bros Sound Archive and continuing to implement the scream into more television shows, video games and films. Individuals continue to accuse Hollywood of distracting the audience by inappropriate placement of the scream, which in turn interrupts the flow of the storyline and overall ambience of the film such as the The Hobbit example beforehand. As an avid film and television audiophile, I feel the exact same way.
The Wilhelm Scream, however, affects each individual in a different way due to our own perception of sound effects and audio. A film critic will instantly recognise it together with Film enthusiasts and professionals, but for the general audience, are they aware of the scream’s existence? Perhaps this is why directors and sound editors are continuing to recycle this sound effect as the Scream has not yet run its course. As more and more blockbuster films are released, the tradition of the Wilhelm Scream continues to be recycled, with or without the critics’ complaints.
However this particular sound effect carries with it more than half a century’s worth of crucial film history. I do agree with the community that there is a time and a place for the Wilhelm screams use, and sometimes the scream is inappropriately implemented into scenes than others. The scream’s implementation is seamless in some films, video games and television shows where it is completely unnoticeable to the audience, whereas, sometimes the scream stands out above all other sounds during the audiovisual experience. Perhaps it is the Wilhelm Scream’s implementation that needs to be improved to satisfy the demands of both the general audience and the avid film communities; directors and sound editors could ‘embed’ the scream deeper into their films, making it a challenge to locate the sound effect.
By doing this, the directors and sound editors can continue their unique tradition, ‘Wilhelm Enthusiasts’ can continue to list and archive the screams recycled use, and the community does not get easily distracted by its implementation. The inside-joke has lived a long historical life and been revived many times by influential sound editors and directors, so why not keep the tradition up? Some might say it is a harmless piece of fun whereas to others, the Wilhelm Scream will continue to remain as an irritating distraction that continues to distort the audiovisual experience of film, television and video games.