If you’ve watched any franchise cinema from the past 70 years, chances are you’ve heard the Wilhelm Scream. Recorded for the Warner Bros. sound archives in the early 1950s, the exaggerated yowl can be heard in hundreds of films spanning all the way up to modern-day Hollywood.
How did this slightly goofy “ahhhhh-uhhhh” become the industry’s most popular noise? Read on for a full history of the Wilhelm Scream, including its origins, why it became so widely used, and who history believes is the man behind the yell.
The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect first used in 1951 that became an oft-repeated inside joke for sound designers to this day. According to the National Science and Media Museum, the trademark yell has been featured in more than 400 films.
Origins of the Wilhelm Scream
The Wilhelm Scream was first used in 1951 in a Warner Bros. film called “Distant Drums.” It appears in a sequence where a man is bitten by an alligator and—you guessed it—screams.
According to Steve Lee, sound archivist and founder of film archive Hollywood Lost and Found, the sound effect next showed up in the 1952 Western “Springfield Rifle.” In the scream’s third known appearance, it is used for a character in 1953’s “The Charge at Feather River” named Private Wilhelm who is shot by an arrow. For the next two decades, the Wilhelm Scream continued to pop up in all different kinds of Warner Bros. productions, including science-fiction creature feature “Them!,” John Ford’s Western “Sergeant Rutledge,” and John Wayne’s war drama “The Green Berets.” (You can even hear it in the background of a scene in 1954’s “A Star Is Born,” starring Judy Garland.)
But the sound effect didn’t become a widespread “in joke” until the late 1970s, largely thanks to a USC film student and his friend—Ben Burtt and Richard L. Anderson—who discovered it while sifting through a Warner Bros. sound archive. They dubbed the sound the Wilhelm Scream—since, according to Burtt, they “had no other way to identify” the vaguely titled file—and used it liberally in their projects.
Gaining popularity outside of Warner Bros.
After graduating and becoming sound designers and editors, Anderson was the first of the duo to use the Wilhelm Scream in a feature film: 1976’s “Hollywood Boulevard.” But it was Burtt who took the stock sound to new heights when he inserted it into George Lucas’ sci-fi adventure “Star Wars” during a moment where a Stormtrooper falls off a ledge.
Burtt and Anderson would soon work together on Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—where you can hear the Wilhelm Scream during the climactic truck chase—and separately on some of the most successful films of the next few decades, where the Wilhelm Scream became something of their signature. For Burtt, that includes the next two “Indiana Jones” films and the original “Star Wars” trilogy and its prequels. Anderson’s filmography projects that use the sound effect include “Poltergeist” and “Batman Returns.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Wilhelm Scream became a sign of the camaraderie between sound designers, a call-out for peers who knew what to listen for. In an interview with The Washington Post, Burtt described the use of the sound effect as a “rite of passage for every sound editor.”
Modern-day use of the Wilhelm Scream
Eventually, the Wilhelm Scream spread far outside the influence of Burtt and Anderson, appearing in everything from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” and “Transformers” to “The Incredibles” and “Cars.” Anderson also co-founded Weddington Productions, now part of Technicolor Sound Services, which employed a new generation of sound designers and editors devoted to the Wilhelm Scream, such as co-founder Mark A. Mangini (“The Fifth Element”), David A. Whittaker (“Planet of the Apes”), Steve Lee (“A Goofy Movie”), and George Simpson (“Batman: Mask of the Phantasm”).
Lee, who also founded the Hollywood Sound Museum, started a list on Hollywood Lost and Found that kept track of every Wilhelm Scream until 2010. That “caused the dam to break,” Lee tells us—the Wilhelm Scream has since appeared in commercials, video games, and theme parks. (There’s even a podcast, “The Wilhelm Team,” dedicated to discussing the sound effect.)
Is the Wilhelm Scream public domain?
However, despite its widespread use, the Wilhelm Scream is not public domain. Aspiring filmmakers and sound designers should take caution before using it without permission. But if you can acquire the rights, “use it,” Lee says. “It’s become like a ‘Where’s Waldo’ thing” that’s still used to say “hello” to other sound editors who are paying attention.
“The Charge at Feather River” Courtesy Warner Bros.
During production of the “Star Wars” prequels, Burtt made a trip to the Warner Bros. archives and discovered a postproduction memo from “Distant Drums,” specifically regarding the session that produced the Wilhelm Scream. Thanks to his research, Burtt believes that actor Sheb Wooley, who had an uncredited role in the film as Private Jessup, was responsible for the original sound effect.
Wooley worked on a variety of Western pictures of the time, including “High Noon” and the TV series “Rawhide,” and even wrote and performed the novelty song “The Purple People Eater.” Unfortunately, the performer died in 2003 and could not verify his role in the Wilhelm Scream recording. However, Burtt got in touch with Wooley’s widow, Linda Dotson-Wooley, who confirmed her late husband was known for performing screams in film. In an interview with True West, she remembered that “[Wooley] said they had him come in and scream and scream and scream…and he just thought it was funny that he had to do it.”
The Wilhelm Scream notably appeared in most of the “Star Wars” franchise until “The Last Jedi” decided to “let the past die” and end the streak. However, a modified version did appear in the second season of “The Mandalorian,” so maybe it isn’t gone from Lucasfilm for good after all.
Similarly, the sound effect can be heard in all four films of the “Indiana Jones” franchise—including the moment in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” that brings it back to its roots.
A sign of how embedded the Wilhelm Scream became in the cinephile crowd of the 1990s, director and noted movie obsessive Quentin Tarantino used it twice in his debut film, “Reservoir Dogs.”
“A Goofy Movie”
After becoming the sound librarian at Weddington Productions, Lee passionately recommended using the Wilhelm Scream. In 1995 he got his first sound design film credit on “A Goofy Movie”—and, naturally, he used the Wilhelm Scream to keep the tradition alive.
The Wilhelm Scream remains a part of popular culture, making an appearance in the 2022 Pixar film “Lightyear.”