December 1951 marked the American premiere of a film that is now long forgotten, but which changed the sound of cinema forever. It was there that audiences not only saw but also heard the famous cinematic scream for the first time.
The film Distant Drums premiered just over 70 years ago, in December 1951. The western, with its unusual setting of Florida swamps instead of the traditional Utah desert, had the potential to become a smash hit. It was directed by Raoul Walsh, freshly off the set of a series of popular gangster films starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, with Gary Cooper at the peak of his career playing the lead. Despite fairly positive reviews, Distant Drums did not win over the hearts of the audiences, and is impossible to find on today’s lists of the top 100 most popular productions.
It would most likely remain one of the hundreds of westerns made at the time and remembered only by the most zealous followers of the genre, if it weren’t for one scene. At one point, as Cooper’s team is wading through muddy waters, one of the cowboys is attacked by an alligator. As he dies, he lets out a scream which, if you have a good ear, may sound familiar. Perhaps you remember it from The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or the Indiana Jones series? Maybe from films by Quentin Tarantino or various Pixar movies?
“Even without the sixty-year reputation and cultlike following that has eventually attached itself to this sound clip, [it] is remarkable. It scrambles up the anonymous author’s throat in an emasculating glissando, then slides back down the scale to land on a dejected ‘unh.’ Equal parts yelp, belch, and exhale, the scream is as dire as it is goofy, a buffet of all five falsetto vowels crashing into one another, then falling down a flight of stairs. On paper, it’s impossible to render. My best guess would be ‘IeehAAAAOOUunh!’” writes journalist Elena Passarello in her 2012 collection of essays about famous screams, Let Me Clear My Throat.
The most famous cinematic scream has been used in over 400 productions – from big Hollywood hits to the Polish Battle of Warsaw 1920. For many years, as a running joke, sound designers all over the world have been killing (mostly minor) characters to the accompaniment of the sound recorded 70 years ago.
Silent screams, censored screams
Screaming as the elementary form of expressing emotions has been present in cinema almost from its very beginning. It appeared in movies even before it could be heard (the first film in which the human voice was heard was The Jazz Singer in 1927). Film historians consider the 1920s as the beginning of the first golden age of horror films. Audiences were horrified by productions such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and The Man Who Laughs. Oftentimes such productions featured a silent scream – usually in the form of a close-up on the face of a defenceless victim. The most notorious one is probably found in The Phantom of the Opera, when Mary Philbin’s Christine takes off the Phantom’s mask and sees his deformed face. The contemporary press wrote about viewers fainting during the scene and cinemas filling with shrieks of terror. The viewers didn’t need to hear the actor scream to start screaming themselves.
But as soon as it was possible to not only see, but also hear emotions on screen, early horror film creators jumped at the chance, despite increasing resistance from the budding film censorship. “Our feeling is that the screaming of the woman of the street [...] is over-stressed, not only from the standpoint of possible audience reaction but also censorship objection. Because the victim is a woman in this instance, which has not heretofore been the case in other so-called ‘horror’ pictures recently produced, censor boards are very likely to think that this scene is done in gruesomeness over. We therefore suggest that you ought to consider making a new soundtrack for this scene, reducing the constant loud shrieking to lower moans,” wrote the head of Studio Relations Committee (SRC) to the creators of the 1932 film Murders in the Rue Morgue, a loose adaptation of a short story by Edgar Allan Poe.
The above-mentioned scene shows a sex worker crucified and brutally tortured by a mad scientist. Although the committee was at that point not yet rigorously enforcing its objections (the Hays Code, which brought strict censorship to American cinema, would only come into full force in 1934), the film-makers obeyed the SRC’s guidelines. Three minutes of the film were removed, and significant parts of the scene were cut. In some prints screened in American theatres, the scene was missing altogether.
Soon, the ‘screaming woman in distress’ became one of the most stereotypical motifs in suspense films. Later, the actors playing these roles came to be known as ‘scream queens’. “If you asked the average b-movie aficionado who the first official ‘Scream Queen’ ever to appear on celluloid was, the majority would say Fay Wray, star of the 1933 classic King Kong. Not only was Wray hired [...] because of her on screen sexuality, but because she had an incredible set of lungs. She was no novice to shrieking for the camera. Wray had made horror movies before starring along side the most famous primate in film history, Doctor X (1932) and The Vampire Bat (1933) both made her eligible for the title Scream Queen prior to Kong’s release,” wrote Debbie Rochon years later for GQ magazine. Rochon is an actor herself, famous (in some circles) for her screams in low-budget splatters, such as Tromeo and Juliet.
The scenes involving the beast in King Kong were shot using stop motion animation, so the actors were not entirely aware of what they should be terrified of. This is how Wray herself remembers the role she and her lungs played:
“A battle scene between Kong and a tyrannosaurus had been prepared by Willis O’Brien for rear projection onto a huge screen. I was placed in a tree alongside the screen. Photographing the two elements together gave the illusion that I was actually seeing the monstrous fight. Cooper directed these scenes. From his vantage point behind the camera, he had perspective and detailed clarity. From my position, all I could see was large blurry shadowy movements on the screen. It was like having the worst seat on the house, too close to define what the shadows were. But I kept moving, kept reacting as though I really could see the fearsome creatures, and would scream when Cooper said, ‘Scream! Scream for your life, Fay!’” she wrote in her autobiography.
The growing influence of censorship in the US led to the quick demise of the first golden age of horrors, most commonly associated with Universal studio productions (such as Dracula, The Mummy and Frankenstein). Naturally, the actors still put their lungs to use – as evidenced by the cowboy eaten by the alligator in Distant Drums in 1951 – but the next golden age of screams did not arise for almost half a decade.
It does not mean that famous screams disappeared completely – the best example being the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – but screaming actors only achieved true cult status in the slasher era of the 1970s. One of the first films of the genre was the 1978 Halloween, in which a young Jamie Lee Curtis (daughter of Janet Leigh, the shower victim from Hitchcock’s movie) escapes the maniac killer Mike Myers. Not so long ago, cinemas were screening Halloween Kills, the 12th film in the series, also starring Lee Curtis (although her current age forced her role to evolve, and she no longer plays the traditional ‘screaming teenager’), which proves that the trend is still going strong.
A certain form of culture has evolved around beautiful women terrorized on screen by serial murderers, hellish beasts, and other monstrous creatures. It led to the emergence of zines such as Scream Queen Illustrated, with the scantily dressed heroines of lesser-known horror films on the covers. These actors received niche awards and participated in fan conventions. Although most fanzines are long gone, the cult of horror movies is alive and well – the fans migrated to Facebook groups. In 2008, American television started broadcasting Scream Queens, a reality show in which young women actors competed for a role in the Saw franchise. Eight years later, a series parodying the convention was released under the same title.
Some of the actors who made a name for themselves with the power of their lungs managed to escape the niche. Apart from Jamie Lee Curtis (who, at the peak of her career, starred in the most expensive film in cinema history at the time: the action comedy True Lies), similar turns can be observed in the careers of Naomi Watts (who screamed in Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering, the English-language The Ring franchise, and the remake of King Kong, but also worked with David Lynch and was nominated for an Oscar for her role in 21 Grams) and more recently, Anya Taylor-Joy (The VVitch, Split, but also The Queen’s Gambit) and Chloë Grace Moretz (who has starred in Carrie, The Amityville Horror and Suspiria on the one hand, and in Hugo, Kick-Ass and Desperate Housewives on the other).
Unfortunately, fate has not been equally kind to all scream queens. Linda Blair forever remained the possessed girl who screamed, spat phlegm and tussled on the bed in The Exorcist, and the name Heather Langenkamp is familiar only to the biggest fans of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series.
Screaming from the archives
Even though the Wilhelm Scream has been heard in hundreds of films and television series, we still don’t know for certain who recorded it. It was definitely not a Wilhelm, and almost certainly not the actor eaten by the alligator in Distant Drums.
The scream is often used in technically-complex action scenes with post-synchronized sound. In the case of the 1951 production, one of the actors asked to record additional sounds was Sheb Wooley – a country musician who played supporting roles in a number of westerns. The tape titled “Man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams” contains six screams recorded in a single take. Number five became the famous Wilhelm Scream (the others were also used in the film, in the scene of a Native American attack on the fort). The tape was most likely recorded by Wooley. Years later, when the scream he supposedly let out was already famous, his widow recalled: “He always used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films.”
The scream became a part of Warner studio’s sound base. This is standard procedure – many productions don’t record every single sound they need, but rely on existing tapes or, more recently, digital files. This is why it seems to us (and rightly so) that the sound of a gun being pulled out of a holster is identical in almost every movie. The sound archives include thousands of screams of various lengths, volumes and timbres – after all, long torture and falling off a high cliff require two completely different sets of moans. Apart from the screams, some of the recordings most often reused in various productions include the sounds of storms, owls, ringing phones, and meowing cats.
Even before the Wilhelm Scream came to be known by this name, it was already appearing in other films, such as Them!, in which mutant ants terrorize America, and The Green Berets, in which non-mutant John Wayne terrorizes Vietnam. It also appears several times in another forgotten western, The Charge at Feather River. It can be heard, among others, in the scene when Private Wilhelm (!) gets shot in the leg with an arrow. This is how the famous scream drew the attention of the man responsible for its popularity: Ben Burtt. He soon began using it as his signature sound, but also as a running joke in the films he worked on as a sound designer. Since these included some of the biggest hits of the era – the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises – it quickly gained popularity in the industry.
Of course, this is not the only scream used in a number of productions, although its fame is quite unparalleled. Another scream with its own pop cultural name is the Howie Scream. Longer than the Wilhelm, it is more commonly used in scenes of someone falling from a great height. Just like its fellow scream, it wasn’t named after the original production in which it appeared (the 1980 horror The Ninth Configuration); instead, its name references the death scene of Howie Long’s character in the 1996 action flick Broken Arrow. Apart from these two productions, the scream can also be heard in horror films (Friday the 13th Part 2), family comedies (Beethoven’s 2nd), Disney animations (WALL-E, Beauty and the Beast), and a number of video games (Half-Life 2, StarCraft).
Almost two decades ago, after he finished working on the Star Wars prequels, Ben Burtt announced that he will no longer be using the Wilhelm Scream. Indeed, it is nowhere to be found in the newest chapters of the space saga, though that doesn’t mean that its popularity is on the decline. It can be heard in the recent animated film Clifford The Big Red Dog, to give just one example. In 2021 alone, it appeared in the Lupin television series, Fast and Furious 9 and The Forever Purge. Even the Star Wars universe is not entirely free of it – although it is no longer featured in the films, it can be heard in an episode of the animated series Star Wars: Visions.
Translated from the Polish by Agata Rudowska
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