The Wilhelm scream is, as you may know, a stock sound effect that’s been used in hundreds of movies, beginning in 1951 in the film Distant Drums when a soldier is bitten and then dragged underwater by an alligator. It is likely voiced by Sheb Wooley (best known for his one-hit wonder “The Purple People Eater”) and named after Private Wilhelm, a character in the 1953 western The Charge at Feather River who gets shot with an arrow (but this was already the 3rd movie to use the effect).
The Wilhelm was re-discovered by sound designer Ben Burtt (it was a reel labeled unforgettably as “Man being eaten by alligator”), who incorporated it into a little film he was working on called Star Wars. And then he kept on throwing it into all kinds of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg productions over the next decade until other sound designers picked it up and made it a tradition, or almost an in-joke among the industry. In fact when it appears in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, it’s when a man is being eaten by an alligator. In-joke on an in-joke? Today it’s used religiously by Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino, and Tim Burton. You can hear it in Titanic, Inglorious Basterds, Spiderman, Planet of the Apes, Despicable Me, Sin City, and a hundred more.
Lesser known is the Howie scream, which made its debut in the 1980 film The Ninth Configuration but got its name from Howie Long’s death scene in the movie Broken Arrow. Its common labels Gut-wrenching scream, and Fall into distance give you some idea of how it’s popularly used.
Some of my favourite screams on film:
Janet Leigh in Psycho. Unforgettable.
Susan Backlinie in the opening sequence of Jaws. It’s gurgly and gasping and totally desperate.
Ronald Lacey in Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are lots of good Nazi screams in this movie, but Lacey’s final scream is classic. The burble at the end as he’s melting? Ooof. Brutal.
Margaret Hamilton as the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. I don’t know if it’s a scream so much as a shriek but it pierces the ear unlike any other before or since.
Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Remember his last pod scream? Of course you do. Fuck.
Shelley Duvall in The Shining. That poor woman. Her scream is so visceral you might be led to believe she didn’t quite trust Jack Nicholson with that ax.
Now I’m not sure that you’re the equal of Fay Wray, but if you’re anywhere close, now’s your chance to prove it.
Andrew J.D. Robinson is a powerhouse director, producer, and all-round film-industry juggernaut to the city of Ottawa, and one of his many current projects is a Scream Queen contest as part of his 15 Seconds of Horror Film Challenge.
He’s looking for entries from one and all, so if you have a camera and a vocal cord (or two), you’re good to go. All you have to do is unleash your inner murder victim. One loud, terrorized, blood-curling scream, and you’re done. Andrew’s assembling them all into what I can only imagine will be the most alarming montage in movie history.
So do your best – or your worst – and send them to Andrew at workobeyfilms @ gmail.com by October 21st and be sure to include any social media of yours you’d like to be linked to. And then please god send it to us. Post them right here in the comments.