The Wilhelm scream is a film sound effect that’s been used so much it’s commonly referred to as a sound cliché. Although it originated in the 50s, recorded for the film Distant Drums and known then as “Man being eaten by alligator,” sound designer Ben Burtt used it in Star Wars (1977). After that, the scream became a sound editors’ in-joke and was frequently used in films created by George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, typically sound edited by the same handful of guys.
And this is where I came in. In 1992, I was in college and watching George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) on VHS. There was a particularly good musical number called “Someone at Last,” which I was showing to my buddy Tom Cross. There’s a moment when the song comes to a halt, punctuated by an extreme scream. Immediately, Tom laughed knowingly. “They used that scream!” He said this as if I knew exactly what he meant, as if the scream was the reason I was showing him the clip (it wasn’t).
“’That’ scream? What do you mean?”
He got his tape of Star Wars and cued up the scene when Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia fend off stormtroopers. A stormtrooper is shot and as he falls, he screams.
Of course, it was the same scream. I looked at Tom quizzically, and I know exactly the look I gave him since I’ve been on the receiving end of it plenty of times myself: a mixture of astonishment that a mind could work that way, with a hint of sadness for all the lost years of social interaction.
“Dude, what the fuck? How did you know that?”
He cited a few other examples in films, such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and I stayed dumbfounded. It was just something he noticed from repeated viewings. Look, I have good ears—really good ones, as you’ll find out in the next few posts—but this one was mindboggling. 1
Years passed. 1997. I was now an up-and-coming sound editor in NYC. I was working at a small facility called Spin Cycle Post, in Manhattan. One morning, I came in super early and digitized the relevant scenes from A Star is Born and Star Wars, and edited together a crude presentation. As my co-workers came in, one-by-one, I called them into my edit room and played it for them. (Here’s my one and only Wilhelm compilation, which I dubbed “A Star Wars is Born.”)
Before long, I had a growing audience of confounded sound editors, all giving me that look I once gave Tom. (I made it a point to always give the credit to my friend, who was by this time plying his trade in picture editing.) I got a clean recording of the scream from the soundtrack to A Star is Born, and we all agreed to carry on the tradition of using it whenever possible. Since we knew nothing of Wilhlem’s history (is this where I remind you that there was no internet yet?), I named the scream “Yakima.” I imagined that if the famous, Old Hollywood stuntman Yakima Cannutt ever got killed in a film, this is the sound he would make.
Beginning in 1997, Yakima began appearing in New York independent films. The sound editors and I had an unspoken rule of sneaking the scream into the film without the director’s knowledge. Even though this was ridiculous (the scream barely works logically in a Hollywood action film; where would it make sense in a quiet indy picture?!), you shouldn’t underestimate a sound editor’s desire to be a part of a Secret Society.
In 2000, fellow sound editor, Dave Paterson, had a friend named David Serchuk, who produced radio docs for NPR. Serchuk, always on the look-out for a good story, heard about the scream and pursued it diligently (unearthing a ton of info I had never bothered to figure out). He interviewed me and others, on both coasts, and the wonderful end result aired on On the Media in early 2001. 2 As far as I know, this is one of the first instances of Wilhelm being explained and dissected to “outsiders.” Thanks in part to that doc, Wilhelm crossed over to the mass market. Before long, web pages devoted to the scream’s history began popping up.
Wilhelm belongs to everyone now, on both sides of the movie screen, with several video comps on YouTube (I’ve put some of the better ones below) and with regular appearances in films, TV shows, cartoons and video games, frequently at the request of filmmaker.
I hope I don’t sound jaded when I say I miss when Wilhelm was still an underground thing. True, I was not part of the 70’s inner-circle that first brilliantly put it to use—in fact, I was part of the generation of sound editors that let the Wilhelm cat out of the bag (shoot, I was even the direct link to David Serchuk’s NPR piece). But for a few years, I was a member of a sound editing community that used it covertly, with an insider’s knowledge. Wilhelm was our secret handshake, so to speak. And, safe to say, when my wife is pointing it out to me in films, it’s not underground anymore.
Anyway, being a one-time member of that Secret Society, I have some insight into Wilhelm that is still not commonly known (you don’t think I told Dave Serchuk everything about Wilhelm in that 2000 interview, do you?). And so in my next post, I will tell the real story of Wilhelm and his scream.
Interesting links about/compilations of the Wilhelm scream:
-Sound designer Steve Lee (who’s also in Serchuk’s radio doc) has an excellent essay about the history of the scream on his really cool website hollywoodlostandfound.net. Also, he’s in this short documentary:
BACK TO POST 2 Happily, Dave Serchuk’s radio doc is remembered fondly, and last Fall, NPR aired it frequently as part of their Best of the Decade series, which brought me many e-mails and phone calls of “Hey, Stephen, I just heard you on the radio!”