With Halloween lurking in the near future, now is surely the time for studios to release horror movies en masse, for grocery stores to stock aisles full of candy, and for us to celebrate the finest in pop culture screaming.
Jaws – Susan Backlinie
Jaws has a plethora of great sounds. One could talk endlessly about John Williams’ infamous two-note ostinato, the best fingernails against blackboard screech in the history of cinema, or even the ka-ching! of movie theatre cash registers in the summer of 75.
What gives that film its immediate, visceral impact is the shark attack in the opening minutes of the film. Poor Chrissie (Backlinie) makes the fatal horror movie mistake of getting drunk, trying to pick up a guy, and taking her clothes off. She’s rewarded by being dragged underwater to her death, but not without a gasping, spasmodic scream in which she feverishly gargles The Lord’s Prayer before being taken into the bloody depths.
Doctor Who – Deborah Watling
Debbie Watling’s Victoria Waterfield is Doctor Who‘s ultimate scream queen, and let’s face it, there were lots to choose from. Although Watling only hung around for a season that’s mostly been excised from the show’s archives, she left a loud, lasting impression. Whenever a monster turned up, Victoria’s instinctive response was to raise her voice at it, everything from Ice Warriors to Cybermen to the Daleks.
Still, those screaming chops were put to good use when the Doctor learned that Victoria’s screaming could destroy the weed creature from her final adventure, earning her the fan moniker “Leatherlungs”.
The Fly – David (Al) Hedison and Patricia Owens
Back in the late 50s, according to this movie, it was apparently plausible to swap one’s head and arm with that of a house fly’s, and have the resultant appendages be reduced (or enlarged) to scale. A good chunk of the plot has the audience waiting, waiting, to see what’s underneath the scientist’s hood, and when Hedison’s wife gets her first look, she lets out a doozy of a scream.
But really, the scream that counts comes at the end, with Hedison helplessly cocooned in a spider web. “Helllp meeeee!” he famously squeals, just as a hulking arachnid is about to engulf his face.
Thankfully, Herbert Marshall hurls a rock at him (and the spider) in the nick of time, with a very satisfying whump! Even more thankfully, David Cronenberg decided not to have a similar scene at the end of his variation on the story.
Raiders of the Lost Ark – Ronald Lacey
Classic movie screams tend to lean towards women characters. Here we start to incorporate some (evil) men. Most of the Nazis scream their bloody lungs out at the culmination of Spielberg’s best adventure flick, but none as memorably as Ronald Lacey’s slimy Nazi Toht. His final scream is a classic, and ends with a sickening gurgle as he literally melts before our eyes.
Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan – William Shatner
Okay, so the example here is admittedly not a scream, but it’s so notable in its volume, pitch, and intensity it warrants inclusion on the list. That’s right. Wrath of Khan.
You know the moment. Khan has trapped Kirk on the Genesis test planet, “marooned for all eternity in the center of a dead planet… buried alive! Buried alive…!” Come on, fellow geeks. Say it loud, and say it proud: “KHAAAAN!”
Blow Out – Nancy Allen
Possibly the cleverest use of a scream in movie history (and a spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen the movie yet. Go watch and then finish the paragraph). The movie’s MacGuffin concerns sound recordist Jack (John Travolta, in his best performance to date) being sent out to film some wild tracks for a horror movie, while his producer frets and fusses over a series of lackluster screams needed for a particular moment.
The movie meanders from here, but director Brian De Palma doesn’t forget his set-up, and the film’s payoff. Nancy Allen’s fatal scream, caught on tape, is both harrowing and hilarious.
King Kong – Fay Wray
If we’re judging not just by volume alone, but by facial expression and body language, then one can’t leave out the original scream queen.
There’s a great scene in which Wray’s character, Ann Darrow, is on the boat to Kong’s island and receives direction in how to give good scream. And she goes through the movie doing just that, whether being lashed up to some poles or ascending the Empire State Building in the hand of everyone’s favorite giant ape, all the while providing vocal feats Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts couldn’t replicate.
Wray reportedly performed all of her screams in one afternoon of post-production. We don’t want to speculate as to what her voice sounded like afterwards.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers – Donald Sutherland
Donald Sutherland’s final pod-scream from the 1978 version of Invasion of The Body Snatchers clearly impressed the heck out of the late, great, Pauline Kael, who described it as “a shrieking, warning cry that suggests an inhuman variant of the rhythmic trilling-screaming sounds of the women in The Battle of Algiers.” You just don’t get descriptions like that in film criticism these days.
Runner-up for best monster scream, by the way, probably goes to the titular creature in John Carpenter’s The Thing, after it copies Bennings (Peter Maloney), who opens his mouth and gives an inhuman howl that chills the bones even more than the Antarctic setting.
The Wizard of Oz – Margaret Hamilton
Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is not really a screamer, per se, but the most malevolent cackler this side of Oz. She does have a pretty ear-piercing shriek when Dorothy decides to throw the contents of a bucket on her at the film’s stunning climax. “Melting! Melting! What a world!” she ejaculates, before evaporating in a fit of smoke. Not bad, considering it’s said to be just water in the bucket…
Home Alone – Daniel Stern
Technically, Stern does his best screaming in Home Alone 2 – covered in bird seed whilst he’s mobbed by dirty New York pigeons – slightly louder, longer and higher-pitched than his famous first shriek in the first Home Alone. You can’t beat the original though. Seeing a big spider slowly lowered onto his face, he does the sensible thing and opens his mouth really, really wide in cinema’s most hilarious wail.
The sound of the scream has followed Stern around for years, and he leaned into it back in 2016 by publishing his own reaction to finding a house spider in his garage:
The Wilhelm Scream
The world’s most recognizable scream, used in a wide range of genre films, takes the cake. The Wilhelm, as it is now commonly referred to, was first heard in 1951’s Distant Drums during a notable alligator attack. It was later emitted by the eponymous Wilhelm after taking an arrow to the leg in 1953’s Charge At Feather River.
It’s the scream that sound designer Ben Burtt popularized in various Lucas/Spielberg pictures, and has made its appearance in everything from Them! to A Goofy Movie.
Pity that Wilhelm’s originator, Sheb Wooley, didn’t adjust his contract for an aural royalty clause. His infamous scream has been used in over 200 films as of writing.