Why Is the Wilhelm Scream Everywhere?

(Last Updated On: August 2, 2022)

You might not know it’s called the Wilhelm scream, but we promise it’s a sound you’ve heard a lot. It’s also something you will never be able to unhear once you are aware of it. It’s a bit of an in-joke now, but it’s in hundreds of movies. Honestly, you might have some fun with your friends placing bets on whether or not you’ll hear a Wilhelm scream before watching any given movie. But if you’ve ever heard it and not known what made the scream an in-joke it probably took you out of the movie and you just sat there thinking about the Wilhelm scream instead of just watching the movie like everyone else. Now you’ve forgotten what the plot is and you’re just thinking “why is the Wilhelm scream everywhere?” Or is that just us?

Where Did It Come From?

It shouldn’t surprise you that the scream is a stock effect, given its ubiquity. But to be a stock effect, something has to be made in the first place.

The Wilhelm scream can be traced back to Distant Drums (1951), which was directed by a guy named Raoul Walsh and distributed by Warner Bros. Distant Drums is a Florida Western–which is a narrow subset of Western films that take place during the Second Seminole War (which was a really expensive war for the purpose of relocating indigenous peoples). The film’s not really significant for much–it’s Wikipedia page goes out of its way to tell us Distant Drums was super historically inaccurate, it wasn’t a big financial hit, and found mixed reception. 

Distant Drums makes its use of the Wilhelm scream when an American soldier is dragged into the Florida swamp by an alligator.

So maybe we should revisit those accuracy claims?

Either way, the scream was originally recorded as “Man getting bit by an alligator, and he screamed.” Fair reaction for getting attacked by a pair of giant jaws on legs. If you’re wondering if we know whose voice is behind the Wilhelm scream, it’s not a guy named Wilhelm. The voice is said to have been Sheb Wooley’s, who went uncredited in Distant Drums.

Why Is the Scream Wilhelm’s?

So we know where the Wilhelm scream comes from, but we haven’t yet answered why it’s attributed to Wilhelm. The name is attributed to a character (aptly named Private Wilhelm) from The Charge at Feather River (1953), another Western distributed by Warner Bros. 

While it’s named after a 1953 film, the Wilhelm scream wouldn’t be noticed until the 1970s. Sound designer Ben Burtt (whose credits include Star Wars, Star Trek, and Indiana Jones) caught the Wilhelm scream popping up in lots of movies distributed by Warner Bros. Studying for a masters in film production at UCSC, Burtt had become familiar with sound libraries back in the day. Warner Bros. had their sound effects for screams or explosions, Paramount had their own set for the same, and so on. While he and his friends started putting the scream into their work, Burtt recalls naming the Wilhelm scream after The Charge at Feather River because there just wasn’t another way to identify it

In 1977, Burtt would be brought on to do sound design for A New Hope, and he thought it would be funny to stuff the Wilhelm scream into the movie. Eventually he just started putting it in movies as a joke between himself and his friends. Then the joke escaped into the industry once other sound designers caught on.

Now it’s everywhere.

Speaking of the Wilhelm scream, see if you can identify the people screaming here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.