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.


The "With all due respect" quote is not only commonly used in many a workplace but is also referenced in the popular television series The Sopranos. The phrase is oft used by capo Paulie when he subtly questions Tony's authority on questionable decisions. The wikipedia article for the episode 'All Due Respect' describes it nicely: "The phrase is intended to be one of reverence, but usually precedes someone in authority being told something they don't want to hear."


Marc B

The sound effect in Goldeneye 007 (Nintendo 64) for the KF7 Soviet has been repeated in many many movies, I just don't keep a record of them :)


Dan@4 (and others), there are a lot of other corporate logs with more-or-less hidden arrows. 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.

Someone collected some here, I remember seeing more of them at some point:



In the opening credits of the A-Team for some seasons (and one episode), Templeton Peck (AKA Face) is confronted by a Silon from Battlestar Galactica at Universal Studios.

Of course, the same actor played Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica.


Thanks for stopping by, folks, to check my Wilhelm rant! By way of adding something to the mix, the grinning face of J.R. "Bob" Dobbs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Dobbs), founder of the Church of the SubGenius, was found in many places through the 80s and 90s, from a Devo album cover to the background in the opening credits of "Pee-Wee's Playhouse." Including a Dobbshead as part of a collage, music video, graffito, or even a plain-Jane business presentation while at one's day job was fairly common for a stretch. I still think of "Bob" every time an animator or cartoonist throws a slim, 1950s-looking man smoking a pipe into his or her work. (Never got my goat as much as the Wilhelm, though; guess it's the way I'm wired.)


architecture students are generally fond of sneaking in characters or people into their presentation renderings and drawings. know an architect? ask him or her about it; you'll probably get a mischevious smile and a funny story or two.

alternatively, there are those who model their entire project on something and attempt to present without ever mentioning the real motivation. i remember one particular colleague's project whose plan was directly copied from an anatomical cross-section of female genetalia.

Don C

My favourite is Stan Lee, creator of many Marvel superheroes, appearing as a minor character (bus driver, old neighbour gardening, etc.) in every Marvel film and often in other comicbook derived films and TV (like Heroes).


Disney comic book artist and writer Keno Don Rosa hides the letters D.U.C.K. (Dedicated to Unca Carl from Keno) in the first panel of all his stories and on most of his covers. This is a tribute to fellow Disney comics artist Carl Barks.



Here's an arcane, dated one.

80s/90s prog(ish)-rock band Queensryche had a concept album, "Operation Mindcrime," that came complete with a bit of voice acting.

The first song begins in a hospital, with a woman's voice announcing "Doctor Blair, Doctor Blair. Doctor Jay Hamilton, Dr. Jay Hamilton."

I remember watching a TV hospital show--might it have been very early ER, or St. Elsewhere?--in that time period, and hearing it again--made me laugh and laugh, because adolescent-me thought it was code that someone on that show was a kindred Queensryche fan...

I've been listening for it ever since, but I've never 'til this minute thought to look it up online. Seems it was used in a lot more places than that--seems to have been from a sound-effects recording at the time.


RE: #7

I thought the Amen Break was the most sampled.



What about stock nuclear armageddon? The exact same cgi footage of missile silos all over America emptying themselves was used in Terminator 3, Smallville and at least one other movie (who now escapes me! Anyone able to help remember it? It might be one of the Matrix films!) I'm sure the footage also then turned up in the Sarah Connor Chronicles and more besides. Anyone seen it cropping up anywhere else?


There's a scene in Mars Attacks when the humans fire nuclear weapons at the Martians. The Martians send out a little droid that sucks the resulting explosion into a giant balloon. The head martian then mocks the humans by inhaling the contents of this balloon then speaking in a funny voice.

This is especially funny to anyone who realizes that modern nuclear weapons work by converting hydrogen to helium (aka the H-bomb) and that the Martian's reaction actually has a mild basis in real science! I think the atomic reaction of H -> He joke is lost on most people though.

Taylor Smith

How about that in the Super Mario Bros (NES) the only difference between the clouds and the bushes is the color? http://www.gameasylum.com/Images/museum/1985/nes/mario.gif


I think it was also in "Fight Club" where the character pointed to the corner of the screen and explained that the little thing that appeared indicated a splice.

I have seen it many times in movies since then.


Every time a colleague presents, he includes a picture of his college room mate. Amazing how easy it is to have a picture of a seemingly random person in a slideshow.


#60: Speaking of Rickroll, how about the Rickroll?






Am I the only one for whom the Wilhelm scream has become more distraction than insider nudge-nudge? My case (made into a TinyURL to fit on page; not a Rickroll): http://tinyurl.com/6lemgj


Comic books are filled with small things for the keen reader to notice. Its often just something like an artist or writer's favorite band on a t-shirt of a background character, but there are many examples. I know that people in comics have for sometime put Howard Stern references in their pages, they know that someone always points it out to him on the air and they get free advertising.

The most recent example is probably marvel comics placing "Colbert for President '08" in the background: http://www.marvel.com/news/comicstories.3547.Colbert_for_President

My honorable mention go to Peter Jackson being in all his movies, including LOTR.


Once you see several Dukes of Hazard episodes, you realize that there was only 1 big jump over the pond they ever shot.


In the Java computer language, all valid class files must start with the hexadecimal sequence CAFE BABE.