Why do so many movies still use the Wilhelm scream? Is it sort of a running joke throughout cinema? It seems like you could find thousands of other audio files of screams.

The Wilhelm scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in more than 225 movies and television episodes et al, beginning in 1951 for the film Distant Drums. The scream is often used when someone is shot, falls from a great height, or is thrown from an explosion, and is most commonly used in films and television.

I guess I just don't get how after decades of use in every movie from b movies to Hollywood blockbusters, you can find a wilhelm scream.

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    My best guess (which is why this is a comment and not an answer) is that it's a bit of an "insider" homage. Your average moviegoer has no idea what a "Wilhelm Scream" is, so wouldn't notice it. What I want to know is, does he get a royalty check every time it's used? :o) Dec 31, 2015 at 15:08
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    Is it used that often? The Wikipedia article only says it has been used in over 22x shows/films. Which is like .00001% of movies/shows since its inception. There are probably more general sounds that have been used millions of times, it is just no one has kept track. This sound is just so well known because it is so ridiculous. Any sound included in some general sound package for film and TV probably has an equally long or longer record.
    – Jonathon
    Dec 31, 2015 at 16:23
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    Please check this post, it might contain your solution. Dec 31, 2015 at 16:41
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    It would help to provide a link for better context: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream
    – user9311
    Dec 31, 2015 at 17:16
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    In some cases, it's definitely a running joke. The TV show The Middleman used a Wilhelm scream in every one of its twelve episodes, including a few situations where it didn't entirely make sense. Feb 10, 2016 at 17:41

1 Answer 1


It appears that the Wilhelm scream started as an inside joke, an easter egg maybe. However, over the years it has become a snowball, spawning more and more movies that incorporate the bit of audio.

Distant Drums (1951)

The scream was first used in the 1951 movie Distant Drums, as a sound effect for someone being eating by a crocodile:

Pretend an alligator just bit off your arm. Now scream. That's what a voice actor did to overdub a shriek for the 1951 film Distant Drums.
Cue the Scream: Meet Hollywood’s Go-To Shriek

Voice actor of the scream.

About the suspected voice actor of the scream, wikipedia reports the following:

Research by Burtt suggests that Sheb Wooley, best known for his novelty song "The Purple People Eater" in 1958 and as scout Pete Nolan on the television series Rawhide, is likely to have been the voice actor who originally performed the scream. This has been supported by an interview in 2005 with Linda Dotson, Wooley's widow. Burtt discovered records at Warner Brothers from the editor of Distant Drums including a short list of names of actors scheduled to record lines of dialogue for miscellaneous roles in the movie. Wooley played the uncredited role of Private Jessup in Distant Drums, and was one of the few actors assembled for the recording of additional vocal elements for the film. Wooley performed additional vocal elements, including the screams for a man being bitten by an alligator. Dotson confirmed Wooley's scream had been in many Westerns, adding, "He always used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films." Despite the usage of the sound, no royalties are paid.
Wikipedia - Wilhelm Scream

Star Wars (1977)

That was it for a long while, until sound designer Ben Burtt stumbled on the original recording. He then used it in a scene in Star Wars, in which Luke Skywalker shoots a Stormtrooper off of a ledge.

The start of the easter eggs.

Reportedly, Ben Burtt then continued to use this sound effect as some sort of small red line throughout his career. As taken from his wikipedia page:

Burtt has a reputation for including a sound effect dubbed "the Wilhelm scream" in many of the movies he's worked on. Taken from a character named "Wilhelm" in the film The Charge at Feather River, the sound can be heard in countless films: for instance, in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope when a stormtrooper falls into a chasm and in Raiders of the Lost Ark when a Nazi soldier falls off the back of a moving car.

One of such examples might actually be a reference back to the original recording, as it is used in a scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, when someone is actually being eaten by a crocodile once more.

Inside joke.

Using that original piece of audio ended up becoming an inside joke, used by 372 movies and counting.

In the following radio broadcast, an interview with Stephen Altobello, sound editor at Spin Cycle Post in New York, it is claimed that using the piece of audio is also a way "of marking your film, of autographing the sound on it."

STEPHEN ALTOBELLO: I don't want to say it's a stupid sound, but it's ridiculous. It's certainly extremist. You watch it once, and you don't know it's there. You're like, okay this scene's fine. But when you watch it knowing it's there, it really does leap out of the sound track too. You're like oh, my God, that's a big - that's a huge ridiculous scream there, but it works. They always find the right spot, the right frame.

DAVID SERCHUK: Sound editors like Anderson and Altobello say that often when directors notice The Wilhelm they demand it be pulled. But it seems it's become almost an obsession for Altobello, and frequently the first thing he looks for in a new project is "The Wilhelm Moment."

STEPHEN ALTOBELLO: I've even tried to mix it in, like mix it into a track so that it can't be removed. Like if you want this car sound on that TV set, you gotta have the scream. I can't even turn - you know - and I act stupid, like, "Well I don't know! That's just part of it! You know?" I tried to get it into an HBO after school special about not using drugs but the filmmaker pulled it out. I tried to get it into a film called Chicago Cab, and they were like, "You've got to be kidding me."

A Star is Born (1954)

They go on explaining that specifically the use in A Star is Born (1954) the reason is for their homages, not as much the Ben Burtt films:

STEPHEN ALTOBELLO: Whoever put it in the movie in the background for one scene, that's fine; that was probably expected. But whoever found a way to weasel it into the arrangement of a Judy Garland song, that's somebody who really pulled off the ultimate, I think, because the movie stops and it's the only thing that's happening. I'll never be able to pull that off.

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