Oliver Francis

Thoughts from the spaces in between

The rise (and fall?) of the Wilhelm Scream

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Recently I came across this very thorough compilation of Wilhelm Screams. If you don’t know it, the Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect dating from 1951 that’s become a bit of an in-joke amongst movie makers. (There’s a good summary on Wikipedia and a nice little essay here.)

The compilation seemed to point, unsurprisingly, to an increase in use after the late 1970s when legendary sound designer Ben Burtt rediscovered it and used it in Star Wars (about 2 minutes into the above). Burtt also gave it its name after the original screaming character.

Idly I wished there was a graph that showed its use over time, but couldn’t find one. Realising that time doesn’t waste itself, with the help of www.whereswilhelm.net and IMDB I put one together.

Sadly my fancy graphing skills don’t reach beyond Excel, so perhaps this would be a better job for the smart people over at Information is Beautiful. But what is immediately obvious is that it even after its rediscovery in 1977, it pootles along at one or two mentions a year until the 1990s. The spike in 1992 is partly because of its use in a few Young Indiana Jones episodes. Indeed, where George Lucas and/or Ben Burtt go, the scream follows – in everything from Phantom Menace to Howard the Duck.

But things really take off in the 2000s, which can only be down to the internet, with the scream’s loudest moment yet being 2007, a couple of years after the launch of the likes of YouTube and Facebook. An early YouTube compilation was posted in June 2006, and even this seems to be a few years old by that point. It’s all a neat little demonstration of the power of the web to feed memes and inform wider culture (or should that be narrower culture?)

TV use adds to the screaming in the 2000s – again some of this is Lucas with the Clone Wars cartoons. The first computer game to use it appears to have been a Star Trek adventure game back in 1988, but by 2010 it’s accounting for nearly a quarter of references.

The lists of its occurrence are bound to be incomplete. In particular 2011’s thin year may just be a time delay in spotting and tagging by Wilhelm Scream enthusiasts. Even so, I wonder if this apparent drop-off post 2007 is the start of a genuine trend. Does the satisfaction of using an in-joke wear thin when everybody is making it? I suspect so.

There is a pretender to Wilhelm’s throne: the Howie Scream is doing good business, although its length makes it less versatile. That having been said, Wilhelm has shown himself to be surprisingly adaptable over the years: getting shot, being attacked by a giant ant, falling off a cliff, or even bizarrely as Judy Garland in A Star is Born. Long may he carry on screaming.

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