Happy Birthday to the Wilhelm Scream, Hollywood’s Most Important Sound

Happy Birthday to the Wilhelm Scream, Hollywood’s Most Important Sound

There are certain sounds that have become a staple of movies over the decades. From the 20th Century fanfare to THX’s synthesized Deep Note crescendo and the musical sting that opens The Matrix, hearing them elicits some kind of feeling for older moviegoers, even if it’s just the simple feeling of nostalgia. And then there’s the Wilhelm Scream—which when heard, usually elicits the feeling of “There it is!”

The sound effect that’s been heard in countless movies and TV shows over the decades technically has two birthdays. As a sound itself, it originally debuted in the 1951 film Distant Drums from singer-songwriter Sheb Wooley. But it was officially given its name with the minor character of Private Wilhelm in The Charge at Feather River, a western that came out July 11, 1953. In that movie, Wilhelm (played by actor Ralph Brooks) screams after being shot in the thigh with an arrow, which would come to define its use: in all of its appearances in future media, it would be used when someone got shot, blasted back by an explosion, or fell from a high distance.

Top 10 Wilhelm Screams

Recently, CBS News did a (now-deleted) story on the Wilhelm Scream, and the outlet revealed that it managed to find a tape with the first recording session Wooley did for the scream. CalArts researcher Craig Smith explained to CBS that he found the tape among many from the archives of the University of Southern California’s film school that were close to being trashed. The first post-Feather River film to use it (and what led the charge for other media to employ it) was Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977. As sound designer Mark Mangini explained to CBS, he and his colleague Ben Burtt thought it was the “corniest, funniest sound. We thought, this will be our Easter egg, so we always found a way to sneak it into a movie.”

If you watch movies or TV in any capacity, you’ve heard the Wilhelm Scream a good amount of times during your life. Beyond classics like Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Incredibles, it’s more recently been used in The Boys and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. It’s even managed to show up in blockbuster video games like Mass Effect 2, Grand Theft Auto V, and The Witcher 3. Altogether, it’s reportedly been used in 400 pieces of media over the decades—and that number will surely continue to climb for one of Hollywood’s hardest-working sound effects.

Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.