How the Howie scream got its name.
Today’s the spookiest day of the year, and I couldn’t be happier. I love Halloween most for all of the wacky, eerie sound effects tied to it (like those on today’s Google doodle), and I think a childhood spent marveling at creepy, wobbly synth effects is partly to blame for why I dig tech so much. But if creepy ambient music is the backbone of a good horror flick, the screams are the stars of the show, and of all the screams out there, there are two with Hollywood hall of fame status. Tell me: Which is the greatest scream ever?
The most famous of stock sound library screams is the Wilhelm scream, which is the subject of a plethora of YouTube mixes pulling clips from an ungodly number of films. It’s the classic high-pitched “alligator’s biting my leg!” squeal. Indeed, that’s how it was first used, in the 1951 western Distant Drums:
However, the Wilhelm scream is named after Private Wilhelm, a character in the 1953 flick The Charge at Feather River who gets shot with an arrow by a sneaky Indian:
The scream was a part of an old Warner Bros. sound library, which generally feature hundreds or thousands of random sound effects. From those humble beginnings, it’s become something of an inside joke in Hollywood, with it popping up everywhere. As this great Wired list notes (with times of appearance!), the scream has been used in Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Reservoir Dogs, Toy Story, Lethal Weapon, Willow, and god knows how many more movies.
The scream was initially limited to Warner Bros. flicks until Ben Burtt, a film student at USC who became the Star Wars sound designer, pulled the effect for use in the trilogy, and it eventually became a sort of ‘sound signature’ that he used throughout his long career. According to this exhaustive history of the scream, the actual voice has been pegged to Sheb Wooley, a actor in westerns who’s, strangely enough, most famous for singing “Purple People Eater.”
So, yes, the Wilhelm scream is the scream of connoisseurs, and certainly the most legendary, but there’s one most super-famous scream that’s actually my favorite of the pair. Folks, witness the pure terror of the “YOURAAGH!”:
This scream, also known as the Howie scream after the Howie Long death scene in Broken Arrow (first movie clip in the above video), is much more recent and less-exhaustively researched. Most accounts I’ve read date its first appearance to the bar brawl at the end of the 1980 film Ninth Configuration (which has one of the most absurd IMDB plot summaries I’ve read):
It appears around 3:00 in to the above video, albeit a bit less bassy than it’s appeared since. One incredibly intrepid internet researcher traced it to the Hollywood Edge “Premiere” sound library, where it’s unceremoniously known as “Screams 3; Man, Gut-wrenching Scream And Fall Into Distance.” You might recognize it from Face/Off, Last Action Hero, Beethoven’s Second (?) or the intro to “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters,” but it’s also been featured in a ton of video games. But it must have been “Aaahh!!! Real Monsters” where it first stuck in my brain:
Also, this appearance in “Wonder Showzen” might be my favorite clip in television history:
For Halloween, I think the Howie is just that much more ridiculous and horrifying, especially when it’s got a more hollow sound like at the end of “Real Monsters.” But, hey, the Wilhelm certainly has the better pedigree, there’s no denying that. Still, the Howie is my favorite Hollywood scream. What’s yours?
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.