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Ever heard of the Wilhelm Scream? Even if you haven’t, Steven Ellis reckons you will have heard it

The first time I heard it I didn’t even realise what I’d heard. It was nestled away in a little sci-fi film I saw as a child; as our plucky band of heroes fight to escape the clutches of the bad guy’s lair they shoot one of those bad guys, and as he falls to his death the baddie lets out a scream. The film was Star Wars – you might have heard of it – and that scream was a Wilhelm Scream.

The moment in Star Wars when the Scream is heard has a special meaning for me because it’s the scene I had with my View-Master toy. You remember those don’t you? Blocky red binocular-like toys that you put a round film cell in. You could re-watch all your favourite scenes from the films you loved. I had the Luke/Leia Death Star canyon scene and I loved watching that stormtrooper go back and forth through his death scene; making him fall to his death and then miraculously jump back up and start shooting again. If my View-Master had had sound I’d have heard Wilhelm Screams all day long as a child. Hours of fun. Maybe I had issues as a child…

The Wilhelm Scream turned up in the next two Star Wars films (and later in the prequels too) and was also to be heard in each film in the Indiana Jones trilogy. Heck, it was even in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special. Since then it has gone on to be heard in over 200 films, TV shows, cartoons and even video games. From the ’60s right through to today it’s still being used, although it does seem to show up in genre works more than anywhere else. The last time I heard it at the cinema was in the Pegg/Frost film Paul a few weeks ago. It turned up in the latest Lego Star Wars game. And it was on the telly just the other day in Spielberg’s The Poltergeist. You can even get it as an App for your phone these days.

The origin of the Wilhelm Scream was as a sound effect for a cowboy film from 1951 called Distant Drums and the actor who screamed is thought to be Sheb Wooley, an American actor and singer. It was used as a stock sound effect through the ’50s and ’60s in relative obscurity. It wasn’t until sound editor Ben Burtt found it while looking for sound effects for Star Wars that it started to become a film maker’s in-joke. Burtt named the sound effect after Private Wilhelm, a minor character who emitted the scream in the 1953 movie The Charge At Feather River, and he used it for the Star Wars films and later the Indy films and the rest is history.

As I said earlier, when I first heard the Wilhelm I didn’t have a clue what it was, and I’m not entirely sure when I did find out. Nowadays I hear it regularly, and I know it when I hear it. From an episode of Family Guy or The Middleman, from Disney films to horror movies and right through to the Star Wars Clone Wars cartoon that scream pops up all over the place. And it always gives me a warm geeky feeling. It’s like I’m in on a private joke that a lot of other people know nothing about. My family and non-geek friends wouldn’t have a clue what it was, but my geek friends are a different matter entirely. Sometimes me and geek friends gather at someone’s house and watch films and if there is a Wilhelm in the film there’s a cheer and everybody shouts “Wilhelm!” when they hear it. If it’s a cinema the Scream usually gets a little quiet cheer so as not to bother the other movie goers. We’re so polite in our geekiness.

I know that to a lot of people it’s just a silly little sound effect, but to me it’s a fun little geek thing that brings everyone a little closer together. It’s a knowing nod from geeks in the film industry to geeks in the audience. And little things like that are always nice to find.

Some people reading this will already know the sound of the Wilhelm Scream when they hear it, some will not, but everyone should listen out for it; it’s all around us. And I hope that when you do hear it, it brings a geeky smile to your face like it always does for me.