Every workplace has its inside jokes. Here at Northwest Registered Agent, we thought it was funny to rename our blog the “Blaugg,” (bl-aʊ-g.) It’s kind of dumb, kind of silly, but it makes us all laugh whenever we hear someone try to pronounce it (just try to say it out loud.) Business formations and compliance are no laughing matter, but as a company we’ve always recognized the value of playfulness. It keeps people engaged and can help make even the bureaucratic malaise of forming businesses funny if viewed through the proper absurd lens. That’s the true heart of Northwest Registered Agent.
After renaming our blog as The Blaugg (please say it out loud, and laugh as you struggle) it occurred to us that most industries must have their own inside jokes, and we’d like to highlight what is likely one of the biggest inside jokes of all time: the Wilhelm Scream.
You’ve already heard the Wilhelm scream, more than likely dozens of times. The use of “stock” sound effects in film is very much akin to the use of stock photography in mass media, and the “Wilhelm Scream” is by far the most recognizable of all sound bites in film. If you’ve seen any movie where someone falls from a height, or is propelled from an explosion, odds are you’ve heard the blood-curdling scream in question. If you haven’t, then you’ve probably called a rock a domicile for many years—it’s that common. Give it a listen here, and maybe replay it a few times for good measure.
You probably have a lot more important things to do with your time, but if you’re like me, further inspection of the Wilhelm Scream left me with numerous questions. For starters, who on earth screams like that, and why?
The Wilhelm Scream has been used in over 400 films. Yep, you read that correctly, 400. Wilhelm’s howl has graced the likes of every Star Wars and Indiana Jones film, as well as just about every Pixar movie as well. But the origin of the cinema’s most common commotion can be attributed to 3 different films equally.
Distant Drums (1951)
“Distant Drums” was a soon-to-be-forgotten historical biopic that took some serious artistic liberties regarding the Seminole Wars of the mid-19th century. Although it starred the biggest actor of its era, Gary Cooper, it’s enduring legacy belongs to one scene. While a group of soldiers are crossing the everglades, one unlucky fellow is dragged under water and eaten by an alligator, and the very first use of the Wilhelm Scream ensues.
It wasn’t known as the Wilhelm Scream yet; at the time it was just a preemptively recorded scream that Warner Bros. had recorded by an on-set voice extra named Sheb Wooley. Coincidentally, Wooley would later go on to record the novelty pop song “The Purple People Eater” that was No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart for 4 straight weeks. The screams recorded for the film were labeled “Man being eaten by alligator” and were used in numerous Warner Bros. films in the coming years.
The Charge At Feather River (1953)
Ultimately, “The Charge At Feather River” became another film that vanished into obscurity only to be brought back into relevance by its part in propagating the Wilhelm Scream. What was supposed to be Warner Brother’s paramount foray into 3D cinema ended up being only a moderate success. It’s much wider release and how it prominently showcased the Wilhelm Scream is why we talk about it today. The Wilhelm Scream was spliced into a scene where a side character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow in the thigh. Ouch.
While The Charge At Feather River wasn’t memorable to most, it ended up being emblazoned in the memories of a group of USC film students who recognized the very atypical scream, and that it was used in many films of the time period. The group of film students found great pleasure in noticing such a small detail used in many films, and within their circle dubbed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after the character’s demise that followed it in “The Charge At Feather River.” One member of that group of students was budding sound designer Ben Burtt, who was destined to not let the Wilhelm Scream remain only known to his social circle…
Star Wars (1977)
When taking a historically-critical look at the first entry in the Star Wars franchise, it’s undeniable how much of it is a rehashing of 50/60’s adventure films. This sentiment was also showcased once sound designer Ben Burtt got his hands on the film. Burt recalled that scream that he and his friends at USC film school enjoyed so fondly and thought that it would work perfectly for the sound of a very unlucky storm trooper falling from a great height on the Death Star. With the staggering success of Star Wars, Ben Burtt landed many more blockbuster gigs for sound editing, and he blessed all of them with his group’s inside joke.
The Wilhelm Scream spread like wildfire and soon every scene that called for a blood-curdling scream was adorned with it. From huge Spielberg and Lucas films to insignificant straight-to-video releases, every sound editor jumped at the chance to be part of the joke. Being popularized by the massive success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, the Wilhelm Scream became what it is today— an inside joke that the world of cinema has embraced wholeheartedly.
Behind the kitschy 3 second clip is something most of us take part in often—the “in-joke.” It’s plausible that there are many in-jokes around your workplace or home. Essentially, that’s exactly what the sound editors for all of the films that feature the Wilhelm scream have done as well. Maybe your office’s inside jokes are delivered half-muttered around a water cooler and not projected on the silver screen, but that doesn’t change why we enjoy them so much. We find inside jokes so great because they blend two vital social needs, camaraderie and humor.
The Wilhelm Scream’s presence in over 400 films has invited all of us to be a part of one of the biggest inside jokes ever. So take part in it, familiarize yourself with it, and the next time you hear it in a film, have a laugh to yourself. After all, that’s exactly what Ben Burtt and his contemporaries wanted.
As a company we’re kind of in awe of the Wilhelm Scream: an inside joke that will live on in movie history forever. Our Blaugg will likely never come close to reaching such heights and the joke will likely die with the people here who thought it was funny. But regardless of the outcome, we think the important thing is that we had fun while working. There’s value within that effort.