A Pop Cultural History of the Scream

Of all the vocalizations that humans make, screams are likely the rarest. An expression of pure terror, the scream is also capable of provoking fear. Its distinguishing feature, acoustic “roughness,” activates the amygdala, which regulates our feelings of fear. Scientists believe that the scream, as a warning system, was the precursor to other human vocalization. It is primal, and thus a source of universal fascination.

Because of its unusual qualities and relative rarity, the scream has been given tremendous salience in cultural expression. It exists as its own character, a unifying symbol or meme, and as an auditory cue. Let’s take a look at some of the scream’s biggest moments in popular culture.

The Scream as a Symbol: Edvard Munch’s The Scream

Few paintings have been parodied as much as Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream, originally titled Skrik (Shriek) in Norwegian and Der Schrei der Natur (The Scream of Nature) in German. Munch said that he was walking along a bridge when the sky suddenly turned an angry orange-red. He considered it to be the mundane world emitting a terrific shriek. While the painting depicts the bridge and colorful sky that Munch described, he gave the scream to a humanoid character who seems to be looking at something just out of frame.

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When the copyright expired, the painting became a favorite target of copycats, most notably Andy Warhol, whose modus operandi was to strip art of its high-class trappings and make it mass-reproducible. Warhol’s and other pop artists’ renditions, along with the bizarre character, unusual composition, and vivid colors of the painting, helped cement The Scream’s status as a popular motif. The Scream is famous in its own right, as well as through popular references such as Kevin McAllister’s face in Home Alone and the scream emoji.

Inspired by the hairless, ghoulish face of Munch’s character, costume designer Brigitte Sleiertin created a gaping, skeletal mask for Halloween. The mask may have faded into oblivion if not for director Wes Craven, who thought it would be the perfect disguise for the killer in his upcoming feature film, Scream.

The Scream as a Source of Terror: The Scream Films

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Scream (1996) parodied the slasher films of the 1970s and ’80s. It lived up to its name, featuring a whopping 37 screams throughout the film (by the time the franchise reached its fourth installation, that number had nearly doubled), compared to the handful in Halloween. That’s one scream every three minutes.

As discussed above, the scream itself is a source of fear, and Craven used that to his advantage by building in auditory cues for the viewer to feel increasingly frightened. Compare this technique to that used by Hitchcock’s Psycho, which featured only one notable scream, or to Ridley Scott’s Alien, which, despite its tagline, “In space, no one can hear you scream,” largely limits its screams to the inciting incident (Kane’s death) and the climax (Ripley’s defeat of the Alien).

If you’ve ever noticed that a character seems to scream excessively or unnecessarily in a scary movie, such as when the phone rings or they read a newspaper headline, that is because the filmmaker is using the amygdala-provoking power of the scream to increase anxiety in the viewer. Craven set the bar high for films’ scream count; this new standard had a significant impact on horror filmmaking from then onward.

The Scream as a Meme: The Wilhelm Scream

In one notable case, such an auditory cue has become a meme used in hundreds of films made since 1951. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect named for the character for whom it was dubbed in the 1953 western The Charge at Feather River, although the scream was originally recorded for the 1951 film Distant Drums. The scream became so amusingly common that filmmakers eventually began to use it for humorous effect or as a tongue-in-cheek nod to classic film.

A meme can succinctly impart a combination of cultural, linguistic, and psychosocial information that interacts with its context to produce a new meaning. The Wilhelm Scream is more than just a sound effect: It provides a consistent auditory cue to signify a tragic or exceptionally painful death for a character. For savvy viewers, it also communicates a rich cinematic history and, depending on the context, establishes the filmmaker’s rhetorical position. For example, George Lucas uses the Wilhelm Scream in almost every Star Wars movie, because his sound designer, Ben Burtt, was one of the group of students who unearthed the sound effect from the Warner Bros. stock library and gave it its nickname . When Lucas uses it, he’s usually marking the death of a minor character, but he’s also providing a consistent auditory backdrop for his world-building. However, when Mel Brooks uses the Scream in his Star Wars parody, Spaceballs, he’s both teasing Lucas and using the scream for humorous effect. In time, the excessive use of the Wilhelm Scream in Star Wars films made the effect a defining feature of the series’ soundtracks, to the point that recent installments in the franchise have successfully used the Scream in a serious manner, albeit as a nod to the original films.

The Scream as a Superpower: “Hush,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Screams hold immense semiotic power. As a fixture of horror films and science fiction films alike, screams create a feeling of anxiety and mark defining moments for characters, such as Ripley’s ferocious scream as she expels the Alien from her shuttle or Luke Skywalker’s distressed wailing as he learns that his enemy is his father. One notable entry into the genre explicitly named the scream as a source of power: The 66th episode of the groundbreaking TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush,” is almost entirely silent, featuring a group of heart-collecting monsters who steal the character’s voices because a scream will destroy them.

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The episode was conceived by creator Joss Whedon in response to both praise and criticism for the show’s heavy emphasis on dialogue and campy horror. Naturally, screams were a large part of the show as various creatures attack its characters. However, the cool-headed titular character rarely screamed and instead favored witty banter with the monsters she dispatched. In “Hush,” the monsters strip Buffy of this banter, but she reclaims her power when she is finally able to scream and destroy them. This is a defining moment for Buffy as she flips the scream queen trope on its head, using her scream as a literal weapon. It perfectly captures the overall theme of the show, that small, blond cheerleaders can be superheroes too.

The Scream and the Self

As we’ve traced the scream throughout pop cultural history, we’ve seen how it’s served as a recurring subject of pop art, an auditory cue in horror cinema, a filmmaking meme, and a character in and of itself. Throughout all these uses, the scream symbolizes existential dread. As our amygdala lights up, so does our deep-seated angst about our own freedom of choice. We wonder what the character in The Scream is screaming at — anything? Would we scream too, if the sky suddenly turned blood-red?

When we watch characters scream, we connect with them on a primal level and imagine ourselves in their shoes. And when we feel we cannot scream in our everyday lives, we turn to popular culture to get our fill.

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