A brief history of screaming in film

BY Jamie Flook

28th Oct 2022 Halloween

A brief history of screaming in film

No classic horror film is complete without a good scream. From the bloodcurdling to the hilarious, we track the history of screaming in cinema

We’ve all screamed at some point, whether it’s because we’ve stubbed a toe on a door that we knew was there, accidentally boiled a finger while making a cup of tea or something else. A good scream can help us let off steam.

With Halloween now upon us, it’s that special time of year when the magic of the macabre becomes culturally dominant and scary movies become the order of the night.

With that in mind, pour yourself some wine (or blood) and join us as we explore a brief history of screaming in film.

Cinema's first scream

One of the earliest instances of screaming in a cinema was rumoured to have come from the audience rather than on the screen when the Lumière brothers released the short film The Arrival of A Train in 1896.

"People believed that they were about to be run over by the train on screen"

The story goes that people flipped out, started screaming and ran to the back of the cinema in the belief that they were about to be run over by the train on screen; but film historians have mixed opinions as to whether this actually happened.

It may just be an urban myth, but remarkably the Lumière brothers did produce a 3D version of the film that would have likely had the train appearing to protrude from the screen.

The Wilhelm scream is one of film's most famous screams

One of the most recognisable sounds in cinema is a stock sound effect known as the Wilhelm Scream, named by sound designer Ben Burtt who noticed it was being used in a lot of films from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It’s a scream of pained shock often accompanied by a character’s immediate death or serious injury. Burtt is credited with popularising an explosion of its use from the 1970s onwards as he and many other sound designers began adding it to films and TV shows that they were working on.

Before Burtt, its first recorded use was in a 1951 Western called Distant Drums starring Gary Cooper.

"It’s a scream of pained shock often accompanied by a character’s immediate death or serious injury"

The name however comes from another western made in 1953 called The Charge at Feather River, in which a soldier by the name of Private Wilhelm screams after being shot with an arrow.

It is unconfirmed who originally voiced the scream itself but popular consensus seems to hold that it is probably the work of actor Sheb Wooley. Whoever voiced the scream, their voice has now been included in hundreds of films and TV shows.

The list of films that the Wilhelm Scream has appeared in reads like a classic filmography of cinema itself over the last 50 years. Examples are said to include Toy Story, Batman Returns, The Lord of The Rings film series, numerous Quentin Tarantino films, most of the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones films and King Kong (2005).

Enter the scream queens of horror

Speaking of King Kong, the original version from 1933 gave us one of the original scream queens in actress Fay Wray. It is an early example of the classic damsel-in-distress figure that would go on to become a bit of an overused trope in Hollywood horror films.

The original King Kong is a cinema classic but Wray’s character Ann Darrow may not be palatable to some 21st-century eyes, as she seemed to exist mostly for the benefit of the men in the film.

In the decades that would follow, the scream queen role would evolve in more diverse directions and Wray deserves enormous credit as a pioneer in establishing a type of character that would serve so many great horror films really well.

By the 1970s, scream queens had more range, as demonstrated by Jamie Lee Curtis in the Halloween series of films with a character that is more combative and which she is still playing 44 years later.

"Janet Leigh became one of the most iconic scream queens in all of cinema history when she played Marion Crane in Psycho"

It runs in the family as her mother Janet Leigh became one of the most iconic scream queens in all of cinema history when she played Marion Crane in Psycho. Leigh’s famous shower scene left her unwilling to take another shower ever again in real life.

Scream queens continue to evolve and their role becomes increasingly nuanced as stereotypes fall into the shadows. Scream kings are now a thing too. Screaming is very effective, especially in the horror genre.

Actress Ashley Peldon actually earns a living out of screaming and provides screams on demand for lots of films, including Paranormal Activity and Jurassic World. She is in every sense a real scream queen and has even said that she finds screaming relaxing.

Screaming in film is a talent because different scenes require different screams, and this is where Peldon comes in. She can offer a scream quality that an otherwise great actor might not be able to achieve. Adding a scream from Peldon can complement the performances of other actors.

It is the spooky season so here’s hoping you don’t hear something go bump in the night…

Banner image copyright: Breve Storia del Cinema, CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr

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