First recorded in 1951, the ‘Wilhelm scream’ was initially featured as stock sound effect in Raoul Walsh’s western Distant Drums, and since then has been used in over 400 films and TV programmes. It even features in some videogames! But why is it called the Wilhelm scream? Why has it become so popular? And what exactly causes us to find screams so frightening?
Although Distant Drums was the first film to feature the sound effect, the Wilhelm scream is named after Private Wilhelm, a character in the 1953 feature The Charge at Feather River. When Private Wilhelm takes an arrow to the leg, he lets out the fabled blood-curdling cry which came to permeate Hollywood’s soundscape.
Interestingly, we’ve never known exactly whose voice was used to record the sound effect. However, Sheb Wooley, an uncredited voice actor who appeared in Distant Drums, is often cited as the likely voice behind the iconic Wilhelm scream. Linda Doston-Wooley, his former wife, famously stated in a 2005 interview that ’He [Sheb Wooley] always used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films’, leading many to believe that Wooley is indeed the man behind one of the film industry’s most recognisable memes.
However, you might recognise Sheb Wooley’s voice from somewhere else—more specifically, the 1958 hit ‘The Purple People Eater’, a go-to track for nostalgic memories of Haven Holidays.
Research by sound designer Ben Burr, well known for his work on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, also points to Sheb Wooley being the man behind the scream. Burr’s work included some of the most notable uses of the Wilhelm scream, particularly within the Star Wars franchise, which helped to propel the sound effect to its iconic and recognisable status. Taking note of the sound effect from Distant Drums and The Charge at Feather River, Burr named it the ‘Wilhelm’ and incorporated it into Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker shoots a stormtrooper off a ledge.
Following its use in A New Hope, the sound effect grew to be something of a meme and ‘injoke’ in the world of film-making, serving as a small easter egg for film buffs in a wide variety of media. If you find yourself with some time on your hands, there are dedicated YouTube compilations which show its wide-reaching use in cinema and television.
You’re probably used to hearing the Wilhelm scream when characters meet a grim and grisly end, from being shot to falling off a building to being caught up in an explosion. Which raises the question, why do we scream when we’re scared or in danger? And why do we find the Wilhelm scream, and other famous movie screams (such as the Howie scream) to be so jarring and scary?
Well, a 2015 report in the scientific journal Current Biology may yield the answer… A group of researchers determined that human screams possess a specific acoustic characteristic known as ‘roughness’. According to their research, hearing ‘rough’ sounds (such as human screams or fire alarms) causes a spike in activity in the amygdala. Also known as the brain’s ‘fear centre’, the amygdala is best known for triggering our ‘fight or flight’ response. This is why screaming can signal danger and scare the living daylights out of the listener.
So what exactly is auditory roughness? Essentially, ‘roughness’ refers to how frequently a sound changes in in loudness, and the scientists found that the ‘rougher’ the scream, the greater the fear response experienced by the participants
Using SoundViz wave art software, I created a visual representation of the Wilhelm scream soundwave (below) so you can see its ‘roughness’ for yourself! It shows the amplitude, or height, of the wave (which represents volume) changing rapidly—which is characteristic of a ‘rough’ sound.
This ‘roughness’ is precisely why you may find the Wilhelm scream to be so chilling, thus cementing its iconic and meme-worthy status. Next time you’re watching a film, be sure to keep an ear out for it!