A Sound Effect Legend: The Wilhelm Scream

A Sound Effect Legend: The Wilhelm Scream


So I watch a lot of movies (duh), and I notice this utterly ridiculous scream sound effect that seems to appear in EVERY movie I watch: Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Beauty and the Beast – I mean this scream is everywhere. So are studios lazy? Do they all just pull from the same sound stock? Oh no my friend. This is a saga sixty years in the making. I’m ashamed to only just have learnt of it…

Surely I can’t be the only one new to this phenomenon?! Let me share the joy with my fellow behind-the-times film lovers

In 1951, the Warner Bros. film Distant Drums required a scream to be dubbed over a scene where a man was bitten by an alligator. Following standard movie-making procedure it was post-recorded, used and archived in the studio sound library.

It was used again several times in the 1953 film The Charge of Feather, most notably when character Private Wilhelm gets shot in the leg.

The scream proved to be quite popular and was used by Warner Bros. in several films up until the mid 70’s where it finally broke out to seize world domination!

Observant sound effects gurus Ben Burtt and his friend Richard Anderson noticed this recurrent scream and became rather fond of it. Infact, Burtt was so partial to the scream that he gave it a pet-name: The Wilhelm Scream (after the screaming character in The Charge of a Feather).

Naturally, when Burtt was hired to do sound effects for Star Wars, he had to include it. He also slipped it into Indiana Jones and Willow just to name a few.

Despite only a few studios owning the actual master recording, the Wilhelm scream has shrieked it’s way across the ages, with the sound community sharing the love freely.

Quentin Taratino learnt the significance of the scream when it was slated into Reservoir Dogs. Peter Jackson got so excited by the story that he had the sound effect level bumped right up in The Two Towers and used it again in The Return of the King.

Still don’t know what scream I’m talking about? Watch this compilation of Wilhelm Screams in films and all will be revealed! 

Sian's love for movies spawned from having a tight mother whose generosity stretched only to hiring movies once a week for entertainment. As a pre-teen Sian spent more pocket money then she earned on cinema tickets and thus sought a job at the cinema. Over the next decade she rose to be one of the greats in her backwater, six-screen cinema complex, zooming through the ranks from candy bar wench with upselling superpowers, to pasty projectionist, to a manager rocking a pencil skirt. Sian went on to study Journalism at university though feels her popcorn shovelling days were far more educational