What’s Your Wilhelm Scream?

Jack Hitt turned me on to this cool YouTube compilation of “Wilhelm Screams.”

The Wilhelm Scream is probably the most repeated stock sound effect — having been jammed into more than 100 different movies. We’ve all heard it dozens of times (for example, in just about every Spielberg movie) without realizing it.

This got me thinking: What are other examples of attributes or messages that are there for all to see but are only appreciated by the cognoscenti? (I love software Easter Eggs too. But they don’t count because they are not really there for anyone to see unless we’re told that striking particular bizarre keys will produce a flight simulator.)

A couple come immediately to mind:

1. The New York Times artist Al Hirschfeld used to draw his daughter’s name, Nina, into his caricatures. Compared to the Wilhelm Scream, the hidden Ninas weren’t a very closely guarded secret (and Hirschfeld even started publishing next to his signature the number of Ninas that were hidden in a particular drawing).

2. Closer to home, law students have played the semi-obnoxious game of “gunner bingo,” where players get cards with the names of their classmates arranged in rows and columns. If the classmate speaks in class, you can check that name on your card. First player to complete a full row or column wins.

And while repetition is central to the Wilhelm phenomenon, there are also plenty examples of one-off messages that are hiding in plain view:

3. At the ending of Crocodile Dundee, Dundee is separated from his love on a packed New York subway platform and ultimately walks across the top of the crowd to get to her.

What’s the hidden meaning? Many Australians would realize that Dundee is mimicking the behavior of Australian sheep dogs who have been known to run across the tops of sheep herds to more quickly get from one side of the herd to the other. So this movie that is intended to sell tons of tickets in the U.S. is metaphorically suggesting that Americans are sheep.

4. Holbein’s painting, The Ambassadors has the incongruous piece of what at first looks like drift wood at the feet of the ambassadors:

But what is really a distorted image of a skull:


5. In the middle of The Lion King, Timon and Pumba find Simba passed out in the desert. What are Timon and Pumba (the Hakuna Matata pair) doing out in the desert when they could have stayed at the oasis? (Hint: they don’t venture out to save Simba.)

Pumba remarks “This one is alive?” To which Timon reacts, “Eewww.” I might be wrong, but I think the dialogue suggests that Timon and Pumba ventured into the desert to eat Simba. These lovable Disney sidekicks not only eat bugs, they eat carrion — another message that is there for all of us to see but remains largely unseen.

These examples give new meaning to the Freakonomics subtitle: “The hidden side of everything.”

So what’s your favorite “Wilhelm Scream?”

I asked this question over dinner the other night and got a couple of other great examples. Here’s a court decision that embeds several Talking Heads lyrics. And Quinnipiac professor David Valone told me that when he was a student at Princeton, the Colonial Club encouraged its members to insert specific incongruous phrases in their senior theses. In one year, the phrase that paid was:

“I will not merge with that blob-like object.”

In another, it was:

“Gid, a disease that makes sheep walk in circles.”

Does your profession have a Wilhelm Scream? Please post your favorite and we’ll send some free Freakonomics Schwag to the reader whose response we like the best.


In Dr. Strangelove the bomber crew used a device called a CRM-114 Discriminator. Kubrick inserted a homophone (Serum 114) into the script for A Clockwork Orange. Others have since paid homage in various media. See:



#2: The Wilhelm Scream is a sort of inside joke among sound editors. Ben Burtt, most notably a sound editor for Star Wars, was one of the first to notice the scream used over and over again and adopted it as his sound signature. He used it in all his films. It was a shout-out to his film school buddies, who used the same scream in all their films. It's not so much an inside joke anymore as it's pretty widely used by many sound editors.

Kristin Mac

OOh, that's a good one, tom! And sorry I beat you to that needle-scratch, Killer -- great minds think alike.


"That's what she said".

Thank you, Michael Scott! Every meeting I have I try and fit it in any which way I can ..."that's what she said".

Patrick K

The main theme from the ballet/opera "O Fortuna" has been used in more movie trailers (usually war, action and sports flicks) than I can count.

You know, "O For-tune-ah! *BOOM* O For-tune-ah! *BOOM*" Then a big crescendo as armies rush at each other. The one that comes to mind first is the trailer for "Glory" with Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Matthew Broderick.


How about one from one of the most popular tv shows of all times. The Simpsons! Matt Groening, the creator of the simpsons, has his initials in the head of Homer Simpson in every episode. Look at his ear and you will notice the hair above his ear makes the M and his ear makes the G.

Dennis B

Many TV shows that show characters playing a video game, the sound is from Pac-Man that came out for the Atari 2600 in the mid-80s. It's very distinctive.

Lyle Seaman

"The Amazon logo is a particularly good example, you assume its just a smile but if you look closer its an arrow from A to Z."

Really? I always thought it was a stylized flatworm. But maybe I'm just a fluke.


I can't believe no one has mentioned the guffawing guy who is on every laugh track from the "Brady Bunch" and "Gilligan's Island" era. Sadly, you also hear his nyuk-nyuk-nyuk dubbed into episodes of "All In The Family," and other shows that were "taped before a live studio audience."

Mr. C

Speaking of television sound effects.

The "eagle cry" is a very common sound effect, usually heard when displaying a scenic vista of mountains or desert. You'll hear this a lot in television shows.

Another sound effect you'll hear repeatedly is the quick police siren double-whoop. Always heard whenever showing a police car with lights flashing. Odd thing is, usually the car has no driver and is simply parked at a crime scene.

H Tran

I thought it was called 'bullsh-t bingo'. Draw up a list of fashionable or predictable words and phrases, with the prize going to the person that has the courage to call "bingo".

btw/ in addition to Requiem for a Dream's 'Lux Aeterna', closeups of the human eye have become much more common (eg. Lost).

Monkey washing a cat: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9wAqNN-Dic


better example of #1 is that "sex" is written in Abe's beard on the $5 bill- millions use it, but few ever see it


Not too subtle but a lot of documentation in the IT world has at least one page with "Intentionally Left Blank" on it. I always try to slip at least one into my documents.


In Stargate SG-1, there are continuous references to the simpson's, especially Homer. Later its found that the main character is seeing parts of another man's life, played by the voice of homer simpson


setting clocks to 4:20 in film and tv is quite common - "turn on, tune in, drop out" ...

Bob Sigall

When I was a child, I believed adults would one day explain all the hidden meanings of life to us when we reached a certain age.

Now I realize, this article and the comments is the explanation of hidden meanings I've waited for.

I thought I would have been told it before I was 57...


I have noticed that there seem to be common voicebox devices used for kids' stuffed toys that play sounds. The bark is always a woof-wof-wof-wof. The oink is a snarling snuffling oink-oink-oink. The quack is a barkish quack-quack-quack.

It doesn't matter if you have the dollar-store crappy neon plush puppy or a fancy velvety one from an upscale toy store. If it plays a bark, I'll bet you it plays the woof-wof-wof-wof one.

matt otto

I try to put Girl from Ipanema into a sound design as much as possible. Its my go to piece for musack.

I also heard that the Sound Design staff at the Humana Festival on Louisville Kentucky requested that every sound designer fit the Tragdor theme song from Homestarrunner.com into each show that year and they did.


In the old days of Eastenders (UK Soap) someone who lived in the Queen Vic had a small child who would always be crying upstairs. I've heard that cry/scream so often I swear I could mimic it - they used it all the time for this one child and since for all sorts of other kids.

Now, probably a good 10 years later, I hear the same noise on all sorts of programs to represent children crying and of course it always reminds me of Eastenders.

So annoying. I mean, how difficult is it to have more that one recording of a crying child?

Nick L.

The line "You have no idea" was used by Jeremy Irons in "Reversal of fortune" - a film of the Von Bulow trial - about a husband who may or may not have been a killer.

Then, in the Lion King, Jeremy Irons used the same line when his character (Scar) was told by Simba - "You're so weird." Irons reply "You have no idea..." became famous..