Over 100 Hollywood films use the same scream - here's how it became the go-to sound effect for action movies

  • The Wilhelm Scream is one of the most famous sound effects in film history, first used in the 1951 movie "Distant Drums."
  • Since then, it's become an insider trope used in over 100 Hollywood films today.
  • We spoke with Jonathan Kuntz, a film history professor at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, to find out how the scream got its name and became synonymous with action films.

Narrator: Does this scream sound familiar? That's because it's used in over 100 films. It's a movie trope called the Wilhelm Scream.

Jonathan Kuntz: The Wilhelm Scream is maybe the most famous sound effect in Hollywood, that is used when characters are shot or fall off high places in action films.

Narrator: The scream made its first appearance in a 1951 film called "Distant Drums."Advertisement

Narrator: Now, this was just one of many different screams in the film.

Kuntz: To make a film, you need a sound effects library, a collection of sound effects. And you're going to use them in different parts of the film. Maybe in one part of your action film, you need a two-second scream, but in another part of your film, you might need a one-and-a-half-second blood-curdling scream.

Narrator: Producers had cast members record a variety of different screams. But there was one man's scream in particular that stood out among the rest.

Narrator: But its first appearance in 1951 wasn't the scream's shining moment. That happened when it was used again in the 1953 film "The Charge at Feather River." A character named Private Wilhelm was shot in the leg with an arrow.Advertisement

Kuntz: And that's how it got named the Wilhelm Scream.

Man: Wilhelm!

Wilhelm: Yeah, I'll just fill my pipe.Advertisement

Narrator: Since then, the sound has been used in more than 100 films. Why? Well, for one, it's cheaper and easier to reuse preexisting sound effects.

Kuntz: You have to give credit to Ben Burtt, the wonderful sound designer, who's been working on the biggest films in Hollywood since the 1970s, a close associate of George Lucas. He is the one who really discovered the Wilhelm Scream and researched out its origins.

Narrator: Burtt used the scream in a memorable moment in "Star Wars."Advertisement

Narrator: The scream actually appears in all of the original "Star Wars" films.

Kuntz: And then it became an in-joke.Advertisement

Narrator: The scream then spread to many other famous films.

Narrator: The sound is now famous among film buffs.Advertisement

Kuntz: I think you can go on YouTube and see compilations of dozens of Wilhelm screams. I mean, it has its own Wikipedia entry. And so, for people that love movies, this is part of their enjoyment of it, is finding this little insider detail.