Ever hear a sound during a movie that seems incredibly familiar but you just can’t place it? It may have been sly, yet still so distinctive that it stuck in the back of your brain? It was probably the Wilhelm Scream.
Dating back to 1951, the sound was first recorded and used in the Warner Brothers movie “Distant Drums” starring Gary Cooper. As a stock effect, it was reused fairly often and gradually garnered an underground following by sound editors either paying homage to earlier films or just as an in-joke. But then the sound was rediscovered, named, and repopularized by legendary film sound designer Ben Burtt (who now works at Pixar) in the late ’70s. The Wilhelm Scream has since become a veritable sonic cliché, featured in (by some claims) over 200 movies, dozens of TV shows, and has even made its way into a handful of video games!
And now that you’re really aware of this revered cinematic sound effect, your ears will perk up at it much more often. It practically leaps out of the speakers at me now, even when it’s used very subtly: