2 Overused Movie Screams and their Origins


If you're more than just a casual movie-goer, you start to notice certain patterns. Sometimes it's a generic story, a certain hackneyed trope, or particular cinematography techniques.

But sometimes, it's reusing more than just the same technique, but the same audio file. You've probably heard at least a few sounds in TV and movies that sounded familiar to your ear. At certain times, their use is so brazen and overdone, that it can completely derail the experience and stretch your suspension of disbelief.

Where do these sounds come from? Is there a mix CD that all sound designers receive along with their film school diploma? Today, I'm looking at a couple of these infamous sounds, both of which are manly screams, and examining where they came from and when they're commonly used.

Wilhelm Scream

The Wilhelm Scream is perhaps the most famously overused sound effect in the biz. It's been used for decades, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. It's mostly used in action scenes and usually preys on peripheral, "redshirt" type characters. Perhaps our hero punches a no-name henchman off a bridge, and we see a brief flash of them being flung to certain doom, before quickly refocusing on the next disposable bad guy our hero has to fight. In another scenario, perhaps we have two opposing armies advancing towards each other, weapons drawn, and one or more character will be stabbed, shot, or bludgeoned. One of those characters (or more if the sound designer is feeling especially cheeky) will deliver a Wilhelm Scream, and the camera will hurry away, never to be seen again.
The particulars can be mixed and matched, but more often than not, the Wilhelm is basically shorthand for a background character dying in an inconsequential death in the midst of pandemonium

If you need your memory refreshed as to what the Wilhelm Scream actually sounds like, here's a compilation of them put together by YouTuber "Biker Dash".

A quick warning: There's a fair bit of violence, sometimes bloody, so if that makes you squeamish, you've been warned.

So where did it come from? The first time this sound played in a movie was in a little western film called Distant Drums in 1951. Here's the clip:




The actor pulled under the water to an alligator-y death was asked to come in post production to record some screams that would be put over the final cut of the scene. He gave six howls in that recording, and number five is the one you hear above. His direction? Give us something that sounds like "a man gets bit by an alligator and he screams." I guess he nailed it.

For a while it wasn't known exactly which actor it was that gave the scream, but decades later most people believe it was none other than Sheb Wooley, who–small world–is best known for writing and performing the "Purple People Eater" song.

But hold up. Sheb Wooley's character wasn't named Wilhelm, so what gives? Well, after the sound was recorded, it become part of the Warner Brother's library of sound assets, and that's when it started being reused. One of the first times it really stood out to people was in another film called Charge at Feather River in 1953. An idiot cowboy character named Wilhelm gets hit in the thigh with an arrow and it's kinda hilarious.




A generation of filmmakers and sound designers used the sound effect in all kinds of movies as a kind of inside joke, and more than half a century later, they're still laughing.


Howie Scream

This is another scream, but I see it used as almost the polar opposite of the Wilhelm scream. While the Wilhelm is used to show a quick, unimportant character's death or dismemberment, the Howie Scream tends to show the death of a very important character. When the Howie Scream happens, it's an event, and you're ostensibly supposed to feel the epic-ness of the moment. Most often it's the gut-wrenching scream that an important side-character lets out as they fall to their certain death down a 30 million-foot (give-or-take) cliff. You usually don't even see the impact. You're just meant to feel the heartbreak of their demise.

That is, you would feel something if it wasn't an utterly ridiculous sound.

The Howie Scream gets its name from actor Howie Long, for its use in his death scene in the movie Broken Arrow in 1996.

(It's in the first 14 seconds of the clip, so feel free to stop watching after that.)

But the very first time the Howie was used was in 1980. In a movie called The Ninth Configuration, actor Steve Sandor's character is in a knock-down, drag-out fight to the death in a bar. A bloodied Steve whips out a knife, snarls, and lunges at his victim, letting out the first gut-wrenching scream of its kind.

It is one of the greater injustices of this world that the Howie Scream doesn't get more internet love. It's known, but is talked about much less and therefore, only the Wilhelm gets compilation videos of sightings in the wild.

While it's not as prevalent as the Wilhelm, the Howie has been used in lots of productions. Movies like Natural Born KillersFace/Off, Last Action Hero and even Beethoven's 2nd. It also played a crucial part in the theme song of the cartoon Aaahh!!! Real Monsters.

But my favorite use of the Howie Scream has to be in the movie The Medallion. This was a lukewarmly recieved Jackie Chan flick from 2003. It's objectively a bad movie, and boasts a 17% on Rotten Tomatoes. But this movie will always hold a special place in my heart. I saw it as a young lad, and along with Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights was part of the reason young me idolized Jackie Chan.


(Above: Julian Sands, moments before being sucked into a magic medallion by spectral fish, and uttering his own Howie Scream in The Medallion.)

I don't have a clip, because frankly, nobody saw this movie, but if you can believe it, The Medallion boasts not one, but TWO USES of the Howie Scream at different parts in the movie. That alone shows you how astoundingly low the bar was set for this movie, just for it to trip over at the first hurdle. But heaven help me, I can still watch that garbage any time and enjoy it.

What other film topics should I explore? Let me know in the comments!

And if you'd like to see my guilty pleasure movie for yourself, try renting it from the link below!