The Wilhelm Scream
Over six decades ago, a musician and actor named Sheb Wooley1 recorded six variations of a scream to be dubbed into a scene in which a man is eaten by alligators in a swamp.
The resultant movie was released in 1951, and Sheb’s distinctive screams have since appeared in hundreds, if not thousands, of subsequent movies (and now, video games). The fourth scream is a favorite and is thus the one typically referred to as “the Wilhelm scream,” although that name can also refer to any of the other five screams.
This is all common knowledge for film industry insiders and movie buffs. It’s interesting to me because it’s (slightly) secret knowledge that adds some irony2 to movies. In the years since its existence was brought to my attention, I haven’t been able to watch Inglorious Basterds, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones without my consciousness jumping to the fact I just heard the Wilhelm again. In this way, my “Wilhelm awareness” forms a parallel to my typographical awareness (which I half-jokingly refer to as a disease).3 I can’t read a sign typeset in my favorite font without pointing it out, for example, or read a book without pausing to incredulously stare at an egregious typographical mistake (like the “ﬁ” ligature appearing in a
monospaced font, like this:
In this silly blog post, I become Kilgore Trout4, passing you the disease of Wilhelm awareness. Have fun re-watching The Avengers!
And definitely let me know if have a similar sickness!
Probably. The work was uncredited. ↩︎
Irony arises whenever two different audiences take away different meanings from the same work. Here, those who recognize the Wilhelm share a joke with the movie director or sound editor. ↩︎
In Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, his fictional sci-fi author discovers ideas cause disease just as germs do. ↩︎