The Google homepage Wednesday honors the opening of the first drive-in theater. Click on the animated tickets, and a cartoon montage plays: There are vintage cars, a popcorn stand, an amorous couple, a few kids giggling in the back of a pickup truck, and the glow of the big screen. But the doodle pays tribute to more than just the first drive-in theater, which opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J..
The cartoon also functions as a kind of homage to the "Wilhelm scream," perhaps the most famous sound effect in the history of film. So hey, what is the Wilhelm scream? It's a very particular guttural yelp, basically, elongated and exaggerated – the last gasp of someone being stabbed, bludgeoned, tossed off a cliff, or otherwise disposed of in a suitably (and cinematically) action-packed manner.
If you've watched a blockbuster in the past few years, chances are you've heard it. (It appears near the middle of the Google doodle clip.)
For instance, according to an astonishingly comprehensive list over at FilmSound.org, the Wilhelm scream has appeared in Gremlins 2 (when a victim of the titular monsters falls to his death); Batman Returns (when a clown gets a bat-fist in the face); the direct-to-video Little Mermaid 2 (when a crew member on a doomed ship leaps overboard); and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (during the battle for Helm's Deep).
Remember Just Visiting, a poorly-received 2001 comedy flick starring Jean Reno and Christina Applegate? No? Well, the Wilhelm scream gets a cameo there, too, when a knight is smacked in the face with the sharp end of an axe. In fact, writes Steve Lee of FilmSound, a small cadre of sound effects maestros – including Lee himself – have made it their business to keep the Wilhelm scream alive for decades.
"[We] continue the crusade to keep Wilhelm alive," Lee writes. "The Wilhelm scream continues to be heard in new films every year."
The Wilhelm scream traces its history back several decades, to the 1951 Gary Cooper adventure Distant Drums, which takes place in the Florida Everglades. At one point, an ancillary character is attacked by an alligator. Before he is pulled underwater for good, he manages to get off a good dying screech. And thus was the Wilhelm scream born.
But the sound effect did not get its current name until 1953, when Warner Brothers released The Charge at Feather River, a big-budget western. (Interesting bit of side trivia: Like plenty of the flicks slated to hit cinemas this summer, The Charge at Feather River originally appeared in 3D.) The movie centers on the efforts of a gaggle of cavalry soldiers to save a damsel from the clutches of Chief Thunder Hawk, a Cheyenne warrior. (PC it was not.)
Among the soldiers that does not survive the battle with the Cheyenne is a character named Private Wilhelm. Poor Wilhelm takes an arrow in the chest, and topples to the ground – all to the sound of the same scream originally recorded in Distant Drums. Much later, the Wilhelm Scream became an "inside geek joke among sound designers," Matthew Wood of Skywalker Sound told Wired back in 2007.
So now you know the history of the Wilhelm scream. Perhaps it's time to watch a few clips of the scream in action.
Here, for instance, is the very first scream, from Distant Drums:
And here, the Wilhelm scream gets a... shout-out in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:
And another from Star Wars:
And finally, a compilation of screams from movies old and new. Try not to scream:
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