Wilhelm Weirdness

Here’s a little something that I found last night that is exactly up my ally: The Wilhelm Scream sound effect, and it’s history.

My friend Steve sent me the DVD for The Middleman, a short lived TV show on ABC Family that is to Comic Book Fiction what Buffy is to Vampire Fiction. The primary creator and writer is Javier Grillo-Marxuach, with more nerd credentials than I thought possible. (Not only does he write comics, but he was one of the writer’s and producers for the first two seasons of Lost. As I hadn’t heard of The Middleman before (how, exactly, I missed it is a mystery to me), I turned to the above-linked Wikipedia entry for more information, one of the first things I noticed was the short sentence, “Every episode used the Wilhelm scream in some way.” I couldn’t let a quick reference like that go un-Googled, so within a few minutes I had the whole story sorted out.

The short version: In 1951, a Warner Brothers movie called Distant Drums used a set of recorded screams that became popular among sound effects editors. As the years wore on, the scream became an in-joke among those editors, who would go out of their way to sneak it into films in any way they could. It is claimed that the effect appears in over 140 films. Sooner or later, film nerds began to catch on: George Lucas, Steven Speilberg, and Joe Dante were some of the first people to revive it’s usage, and the tradition has been picked up by Tim Burton, Quinten Tarentino, and Peter Jackson. As more and more film nerds become hip to the effect, it becomes used even more often, only perpetuating it as a sound chiché. It’s only fair, then, that when something as pure-geek as The Middleman starts being produced, you’d have to pull out all the stops and put it in every episode. At least Javier is following in a good TV tradition too: Wilhelm has screamed in Maverick, The X-Files, Angel, The Family Guy, and in commercials for both Dell and Comcast.

(I can only imagine that this kind of obscure referencing could have only contributed to ABC Family just scratching their heads before giving up and canceling something this idiosyncratic. Perhaps that’s why it is so appealing.)

For those of you not exactly sure if you can place the effect in film, some kind person has created a great YouTube video that collects some of the best useages of Wilhelm in an easy-to-digest 3 1/2 minute form. If this doesn’t bring a smile to your face, then really, what will?

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