History of the Wilhelm Scream Sound Effect Explained – Armessa Movie News

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We’ve all heard it. At some point in a movie, there will be a moment where a background character falls or perhaps is harmed severely and they’ll emit a scream. But not just any yelp of pain. They’ll emit a very specific pronounced kind of wail, something that simultaneously doesn’t like a noise a human can make yet also channels the sort of indescribable pain every person’s encountered in their lives. This is the Wilhelm Scream, and though it’s been popularized by movies like Star Wars, its history dates back far into Hollywood’s past.


When Was the Wilhelm Scream First Used?

The Wilhelm Scream can be traced back to the 1951 movie Distant Drums, in which it was used as an exclamation from a man getting attacked by crocodiles. The character wasn’t terribly important in the context of this movie, but he was the originator of a noise that would echo throughout the history of Hollywood. The noise would get its name from The Charge at Feather River, a 1953 Western that used the noise once again to reflect the pain of a character named Private Wilhelm getting hit by an arrow. With this film, not only was its recurring use in major movies solidified but its name was also cemented.

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In 1954, the Wilhelm Scream found its way outside of the domain of adventure and Western films by showing up, by way of appearing in an in-universe movie, in the 1954 George Cukor drama A Star is Born. With this appearance, the Wilhelm Scream was proving more and more flexible in terms of where it could manifest. Given its ubiquity even as early as the mid-1950s, it bears the question of who was responsible for producing that scream in the first place. Sheb Wooley has been credited as the man responsible for producing that famous scream. A character fixture of mid-20th century Westerns, Wooley’s legacy in this genre and in the medium of film itself is apparent through the enduring nature of the Wilhelm Scream.

In 1977, Everything Changed

In the years that followed the early 1950s, the Wilhelm Scream would occasionally appear in movies like The Wild Bunch or Chisum, with Westerns and adventure movies being a common domain for this noise. But then, in 1977, everything changed for the Wilhelm Scream when Star Wars debuted. This George Lucas directorial effort made memorable use of this scream and, thanks to its enormous global success, rocketed the sound effect to a new level of prominence. 1977 was a great year for the Wilhelm Scream, as that same year it also made an appearance in the James Bond title The Spy Who Loved Me. There was no going back now. The Wilhelm Scream was officially in the pop culture consciousness of countless moviegoers across the planet.

The Wilhelm Scream would only get more and more prominent as the years went on and the influence of properties like Star Wars and James Bond began to grow increasingly noticeable in pop culture. The Indiana Jones franchise, for instance, would utilize this scream throughout this adventurer’s various escapades. In the 1990s, the Wilhelm Scream managed to reach a new level of notoriety once it was featured in a Best Picture-winning movie, Titanic. Now even serious dramas were employing a noise that was once reserved for B-movie Westerns. Sheb Wooley could’ve never imagined just how far this one sound effect would go.

Into the 21st Century, the Wilhelm Scream Became Inescapable

A whole generation who had grown up on movies like Star Wars was now running Hollywood and making the biggest films on the planet. These people wanted to make features that evoked the motion pictures they’d seen in their childhood and that included maintaining that Wilhelm Scream. This meant that everything from two of the Lord of the Rings movies to a Kill Bill installment to even Date Movie was now trotting out the Wilhelm Scream. There was no escape from that distinctive scream, though there was a downside to its popularity.

The Wilhelm Scream hadn’t been a total secret for decades, but even in the immediate aftermath of Star Wars, thanks to the absence of the internet, the name for this sound effect also wasn’t common knowledge nor was it used in multiple movies a year. Thanks to this scarcity, it could still be employed in serious dramatic works or even just rollicking adventures that weren’t supposed to be parodies of themselves without distracting the viewer. But as the years went on and more films started to embrace the Wilhelm Scream, it became harder and harder for it to still function as it did in the past. What this sound effect gained in increased visibility it lost in its ability to just be another noise on the soundtrack.

The Willhelm Scream Became Easy Fodder for Jokes

As a result, the Wilhelm Scream became easy fodder for jokes in projects like Ratchet & Clank or as a way to wink at adults in the audiences of kid’s movies like Cars 2, but it couldn’t function like it did in the past. The novelty of the Wilhelm Scream had worn out so much by the mid-2010s that one of the franchises forever entangled with this noise made a major announcement that it was parting ways with this sound effect. After Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, the Wilhelm Scream was no longer being used in Star Wars movies. Given that the first Star Wars projects after Force Awakens were darker titles like Rogue One and The Last Jedi, it’s understandable that Lucasfilm brass was hesitant to utilize a noise that had become synonymous with parodies and comedies.

While this development signaled that the attitude towards the Wilhelm Scream had changed in Hollywood, it did not signal the downfall of this sound effect or even its demise in major Hollywood productions. On the contrary, the Wilhelm Scream continues to be rampantly utilized in motion pictures of all shapes and sizes, including the recent Best Picture nominee Nightmare Alley. Just because adventures in a galaxy far, far away won’t be employing the Wilhelm Scream anymore doesn’t mean that other modern movies won’t be happy to engage in this historic sound effect.

And why wouldn’t they? The Wilhelm Scream can no longer function as novel as it did in 1977, but it’s also become so omnipresent that it’s looped back around from being obnoxiously overplayed to being a comfortingly prominent part of the film landscape. Hearing that noise is just one of those things that makes you feel like you’re watching a real honest-to-God movie, one that’s better of a long tradition of cinematic storytelling that goes back to the 1950s. There’s also no denying that Sheb Wooley’s pained vocals communicate anguish in a way that few other noises could ever hope to achieve. Even if it’s inescapable and, paradoxically, absent from future Star Wars movies, the charms of the Wilhelm Scream are undeniable and make it clear why it’s endured in Hollywood for so long.

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