The Big Picture

  • The Wilhelm Scream originated from a 1951 Gary Cooper Western
    Distant Drums
    & has appeared in over 400 movies and TV shows.
  • Though the Wilhelm Scream can be occasionally fun to hear in a movie, its overuse typically ruins the experience.
  • The Wilhelm Scream is often heard throughout the Star Wars franchise.

It’s a sound that has permeated the cultural zeitgeist, spanning across a diverse set of films from the Star Wars franchise to Kill Bill and everything in between: the dreaded Wilhelm Scream. There is a vampiric nature to the spirit of the moving pictures, essentially allowing them to feed off of works that came before them. A lot of those traditions have been passed on. Camera angles, cuts, movements, narrative developments, clichés and so on have been passed on from one generation to the next, acting as mementos of the cinematic past. The same cannot be said about the Wilhelm Scream, a relic of the past that has been tirelessly regurgitated as a running joke, often falling flat in its attempts at humor and style. Yes, it pays homage to the rich history of the wonderful world of movies, but some things are just better left in the past. It cannot be stressed enough: the sooner we can get rid of this tired old trope, the better.

A Gary Cooper Western Is (Sort of) Responsible for the Wilhelm Scream

Gary Cooper, Richard Webb, and Arthur Hunnicutt in Distant Drums
Image via Warner Bros. 

Benjamin Wright in his Offscreen journal article The Wilhelm Scream provides an astute history of the sound effect. The now famous track originated from a 1951 Gary Cooper Western, namely Distant Drums, in a scene where one of the troops is attacked and pulled under the river. It was a sound that was added in post-production, believed to have been done by The Purple People Eater singer and Rawhide actor, Sheb Wooley. Six recordings of the sound, initially titled “Man Getting Bit by an Alligator” and “He Screams” existed, with the fifth ultimately being the one that was used for the movie’s final product.

The various recordings were prospectively used in several films, such as The Charge at Feather River, Them, and The Wild Bunch. Interestingly, it was only in the 1970s that it acquired its famous name. As the old Hollywood legend goes, upcoming sound editor Ben Burt brought it into the mainstream when he was searching the Warner Bros. effects library for Star Wars. He coined it “The Wilhelm Scream,” naming it after the character who used it in The Charge at Feather River after being shot with an arrow in the leg. It’s inclusion in Star Wars with its rabid fan base sent the familiarity with the over the top sound effect into the stratosphere. The sound effect has made its way into over 400 movies, TV shows, and video games.

This inclusion in one of the biggest movies of all time breathed new life into an obscure sound effect. Other sound editors such as Richard Anderson, Gary Rydstorm, and Randy Thom began incorporating these into their film projects, like Poltergeist, Toy Story, and Monster House. Academy Award-winning sound designer Mark Mangini notes that they would always make it a point to sneak into the movies, as sort of an inside joke. Pretty soon it became a recurring theme in the industry, and has become synonymous with the image of the death of an extra, character, or a defenestrated villain. It is a tipping of the hat, a salute to those in the know. What’s fascinating is how an innocent sound began to seep into the annals of film production, and eventually, into television, and video games. Yes, the scream is as iconic as they come, but if we’re going to be honest about it, the schtick is getting old and really affects the movie-viewing experience.

The Wilhelm Scream Worsens a Movie’s Quality

Despite its appealing origin story, there is a strong argument to be made that the Wilhelm Scream should never be used again on film, or at least in the ones that want themselves to be taken seriously. It has become a victim of its own success of sorts, becoming too recognizable at this point in time, so much so that even non-movie lovers are familiar with “that weird screaming sound.” While strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with that per se, it becomes a hurdle to the immersive experience of the movies. It simply removes the audience from their suspension of disbelief, something that they definitely have paid good money for. A filmmaker can spend hours building up tension-packed sequences, climactic showdowns, and action-filled mayhem only to be ruined by the obsolete sound remains of a bygone era. For a practical joke that pays homage to the history of the moving pictures, it sure is a bummer to have it continuously go against the grain, thereby ruining the fantasy.


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So the question is, what movies would it arguably still have a place for? The answer lies in its complex reputation. Since it has become a long-running gag among filmmakers, it would still definitely fit in a parody-infested farcical world. Movies centered on comedy or satirical material may still have room for this candidate for the museum of long-forgotten cinematic artifacts. It would certainly fit the overall feel of these kinds of movies, and its conspicuous visage would actually give more credence to these films’ objectives. Of course, that is a virtual impossibility. Long-standing practices like this one will more than likely stand the test of time. More and more films, regardless of whether the Wilhelm Scream will fit in with their ambiance, will continue to use it. It’s not like the everyday moviegoer can do anything about it, but if they could, they would certainly send it to the nether regions of obscurity.

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