The scream heard around the world

Have you heard this before?

It is very likely that you have heard it but not have heard of the Wilhelm scream by name. The scream was originally heard in the 1951 film Distant Drums but that brief clip of the scream got its name when it was re-used for the third time in the 1953 film The Charge at Feather River when it was put in the mouth of the character Private Wilhelm.

It then became popular as a sound effect in many films and later became a kind of in-joke, especially favored by filmmakers George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino.

Here is a compilation of the scream in some of the 200 or so films in which it has appeared.

Listen for it in the next film you watch.


  1. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Stephen Fry did a section on this in QI a couple of years ago, along with the ubiquitous ‘frogs’ and ‘cicadas’ soundtracks.

  2. Tadas says

    Haha! I love these obscure topics. My understanding is that it is an inside joke with movie makers anytime they use the Wilhelm scream or any other pre-recorded soundbite – like the screeching door sound.

    And Acolyte of Sagan, what a delightfully charming character Stephen Fry is! He was on the Colbert Report about a month ago. Didn’t know who he was until I saw him on the show. He has another fan.

  3. says

    Most likely, filmmakers use stock sound effects because it’s cheaper, but also because it’s what people expect to hear. The real sound (for example) of some firearms is a small “thwup!”, while audiences have been conditioned to hear loud bangs.

    Anyone who watches a lot of anime will tell you the same thing. There are stock sounds that appear in pretty much every series (wind blowing, bugs, train horns, etc.). It could almost be used as a drinking game.

  4. says

    Also, that boring screechy ‘eagle cry’ that’s really some sort of hawk, but is used every time they want to emphasize that something’s desolate or deeply wild.

    Primeval, the show about time portals bringing ancient creatures into the modern world, used this scream at least once in every single episode, at least in the early seasons.

  5. says

    The Wilhelm Scream proves the adage that what has been heard cannot be unheard. Every time I hear it, I feel compelled to say, “Wilhelm Scream.” And then my wife feels compelled to say, “shut up about that already!”

    The short-lived TV show The Middleman had a Wilhelm Scream in every one of its twelve episodes.

  6. rq says

    When heard out of context like that, it just sounds so… ridiculous. I’m pretty sure I’ll be hearing it in all movies now – just like I see orange-and-teal everywhere, to the point where watching The Hobbit was a chore, all because Mano pointed it out. Stop ruining my movie-going experience! (Although that vague unsettling feeling that something’s not quite right doesn’t exactly ramp up the entertainment value, either…)

  7. says

    Yeah, I didn’t know if there were other anime fans in-thread, so I didn’t mention the cicada-buzz that is in every single anime I’ve seen that has a hot day, with a very distinct woooow-wowowowowowwwww sort of thing in it.

  8. says

    @6 & @9 (Putting it down here because I want to address both points)

    I understand that viewers have expectations as to what things sound like. I’ve watched documentaries on sound effects and such, and stock sounds in and of themselves don’t bother me, even when I’m aware of them.

    I think it’s a problem of degree. The Willhelm scream is jarring. It’s too iconic. It’s not subtle at all. I had called it the “Lucas Scream” as a kid because I first noticed it in A New Hope…then Indiana Jones…then in an N64 star wars game.

    I think there needs to be a balance. Reusable sounds have to be generic enough that they maintain verisimilitude.

  9. says

    CatieCat @6.1, that same cicada can be heard on the Japanese golf courses in all the “Hot Shots!” golf games for PlayStation.

  10. Acolyte of Sagan says

    If you like what you saw, seek out some A Little Bit Of Fry and Laurie (that’s Hugh ‘Dr. House’ Laurie), or Fry’s incarnations as Melchett in the second and fourth Blackadder series’.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    And if you like Fry and Laurie, you should then follow up with Jeeves and Wooster. Heck, everyone should watch Jeeves and Wooster.

    He was also Mycroft in the recent Downey Holmes movie, which was one of the better parts of the movie.

  12. rq says

    Some of that verisimilitude gets lost when it is pointed out to you, though (I find). But I have to say, another one my life’s little mysteries has now been solved. I’d always wondered at that out-of-character, out-of-context little scream given in the Death Star shoot-out scene in A New Hope. Now I know it’s just a silly little inside joke. (But I always wondered who, exactly, was making the sound, because it seems so woefully out-of-place in that particular scene.)

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