Even if you’ve never thought about it, there’s nearly a 100 percent chance that anyone that’s watched films during their life has heard a particular sound effect. Most of the time, it’s in the background, while other times can be heard loud and clear. It’s the scream of a man that appears to be in a mix of pain and shock, many times falling from the top of a structure.
It’s known as the Wilhelm Scream, and has been in use for nearly 70 years. The noise can only really be described in text as “aaAAHH!” but you’ll know it if you hear it. It’s been used in essentially every film that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have had their hands on. The sound effect, though, is much older than their films.
The first time that the Wilhelm Scream was recorded came back in 1951 by actor/singer Sheb Wooley for the film “Distant Drums”. While several soldiers are wading through swampy waters, one of them is attacked by an alligator. That man was rightfully in a lot of pain, and belted out the famous scream. The recording of the scream was held onto by Warner Bros. for stock use in their extensive library.
Two years later, the scream was used as a sound effect for the first time in the film “The Charge at Feather River”, and it’s where it earned the name. Private Wilhelm was one of the soldiers in the film, played by Ralph Brooks. Wilhelm took an arrow to the leg, which led to him screaming in pain, but it wasn’t Brooks’ voice, but instead Wooley’s sound effect.
For the rest of the 1950s, the Wilhelm Scream became one of the most commonly used sound effects in films such as “Helen of Troy”, “The Sea Chase” and “Land of the Pharaohs”. By the 1960s, it wasn’t as commonly used with only a handful of films incorporating the sound effect between 1956 and 1977.
Then, it was Lucas that made the sound effect a part of Hollywood history once again. During “Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope”, Lucas offered a new hope for the Wilhelm Scream himself. Stormtroopers that were shot by blasters could be heard making the scream, and it was then used frequently in films heading into the 1980s, and Lucas’ friend Steven Spielberg kept it going with his “Indiana Jones” films.
The 1980s saw the biggest use of the Wilhelm Scream, and it very much lived on throughout the 1990s with films such as “Batman Returns”, “Aladdin” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance”. Now, almost everyone that’s involved with sound production in Hollywood is familiar with the effect, and will try to work it into their movies, sometimes for a laugh. It’s even used in video games these days, especially from Rockstar Games.
The good news for independent filmmakers is that they don’t have to pay Warner Bros. to use the Wilhelm Scream in their movies. Because of its age, the sound effect can’t be copyrighted, and is a part of the public domain. For that reason, the Wilhelm Scream will live on forever as long as there are movies to be made.