How a Spy Changed the Sound of Horror Movies

How a Spy Changed the Sound of Horror Movies

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Have you ever wondered how those sounds became
associated with horror films? Sounds are critical to most films– they can
help establish a scene’s mood, provide insight into characters, and alert the viewer to important
information. There are two major camps of film soundscapes. Sounds that the audience can hear (but the
characters on screen cannot) are considered non-diegetic. They can be used to signal impending danger,
like background music. Diegetic sounds are ones that the characters
on screen can hear and react to, like someone screaming. This particular music is made by a theremin,
an electronic musical instrument played without being touched. The box has a vertical antenna on its top
and a metal loop on the side. The musician controls the pitch by varying
the distance of one hand from the antenna and controls the volume by moving the other
hand around the metal loop. The theremin then amplifies these electric
signals and sends them to a loudspeaker. It has a particularly “otherworldly” vibe. In 1967, the music critic Harold C. Schonberg
poetically described the sound made by the theremin as “not unlike an eerie, throbbing
voice” or “a cello lost in a dense fog and crying because it does not know how to get
home.” Which is weirdly tender to talk about the
theremin, but whatever. But despite the touching and tender sentiments
that it evoked in music critics, you may be surprised to learn that the theremin was developed
as part of a Soviet research program in the 1920s by a man who lived a life of art, espionage,
and forced exile from his adopted home. Theremin music often crops up as the non-diegetic
backdrop of our favorite horror classics. On the other hand is the diegetic movie trope
more popularly known as “the Wilhelm scream,” a stock sound effect first recorded in the
1950s and used hundreds of times since. Sometimes in action packed scenes and other
times to underscore onscreen horror that would make your blood curdle. But who the heck was Wilhelm? Why was he screaming? And why have sound engineers used this exact
scream over and over in hundreds (if not thousands!) of projects? So today we’re diving head first into the
sounds that make us scream, to figure out why these two devices started cropping up
in so many of our favorite films. So, first, a little bit of a rundown on the
theremin. In 1920, a young Russian physicist named Lev
Sergeyevich Termen was researching proximity sensors in the Physico-Technical Institute
in Petrograd. Proximity sensors are used to detect the presence
of a nearby object without physical contact. They work by emitting an electromagnetic field
(or a beam of electromagnetic radiation) and then tracking changes in the field or in the
return signal. Proximity sensors can be used in a variety
of applications, including in weapon systems. At the time that Termen was working, Russia
was embroiled in a Civil War. In this conflict, Vladimir Lenin’s Red Army
was defending his Bolshevik government against other Russian factions. Lenin had an urgent need for weapons. While researching proximity sensors for Lenin,
Termen discovered that they could also be used to produce unique sounds. He designed an “etherphone,” which isn’t
a telephone covered in ether that knocks you out when you pick it up, but rather a box
that contains vacuum tubes that produce two sound wave frequencies that oscillate above
the range of hearing. When positioned near one another, these tubes
create an audible frequency that reflect the difference in the tubes’ rates of vibration. By moving one’s hands near the box, it was
possible to alter these frequencies and make different sounds. In 1922, Termen demonstrated the instrument
for Lenin at the Kremlin. In the west, Termen became known as León
Theremin. In 1925, he traveled to Germany to sell the
patent for the instrument that the Germans dubbed the “thereminvox” to a manufacturing
firm. According to his biographer, Albert Glinsky,
the trip had two purposes. One was to make money off the sale. The other was to open a backdoor to Western
technology. Theremin toured other European countries,
demonstrating his instrument and gathering information. In the late 1920s, he and his Russian wife,
Katia, moved to New York, where Theremin set up the Theremin Laboratory, patented his instrument,
and performed at Carnegie Hall. Soon after, he sold the commercial production
rights for the “Thereminvox” to RCA, which started producing it in 1929. However, was there more to Theremin’s stay
in New York than meets the eye? It is established that Theremin had designed
tools for Lenin and also worked as a corporate spy on his behalf. Why, then, do some accounts suggest that Theremin
was taken from his New York apartment by N.K.V.D. agents (a group that would later become the
K.G.B.)? Theremin’s biographer, Glinsky, suggests
that Theremin may have fled the US to escape personal debts. Yet his reception at home was also pretty
chilly. According to the New York Times, Theremin
was convicted of anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to seven years of prison in Siberia
which is about as chilly as a reception gets. He was later moved to a prison in Tomsk. Here, he developed remote-control planes and
methods of tracking ships behind enemy lines. He also invented a small electronic eavesdropping
device. In 1945, one of these bugs was embedded in
a replica of the Great Seal of the United States that a group of Soviet children presented
as a “gift of friendship” to the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. “The Thing,” as this would later be called,
transmitted information from the embassy to the K.G.B. for six years. As a reward for his contributions to Cold
War espionage, the government released Theremin from prison and granted him the Stalin Prize
(in secret, of course). According to Glinsky, many in the West assumed
that Theremin had died near the end of the Second World War. However, he continued to work for the K.G.B.
until 1966. But during the period that he was away from
the United States, the theremin became a niche instrument. In the 1950s, Robert Moog began building theremins
as a hobby. Later, he mass-produced theremin-building
kits. Moog claims that tinkering with these kits
helped him develop the Moog analog synthesizer, a device that altered the sound of many late-20th
century works of music. The music has cropped up in the works of a
wide range of classical musicians who use it in their performances. But it’s probably more famously known for
its appearances in popular films. Although it’s hard to pin down the first
date the theremin appeared, some of its earliest appearances are in film soundtracks that require
an eerie, other-worldly vibe. The composer, Miklós Rózsa, used the instrument
in film scoring in 1945, when he wrote the score for “The Lost Weekend.” And he won the Academy Award using it in the
score for Alfred Hitchcock’s suspenseful “Spellbound.” In 1947, Rózsa used it in the score for the
film “The Red House.” In 1951, Bernard Herrmann followed suit and
used the theremin in his score for “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” More recently, it has been used in the soundtracks
for “Ed Wood,” “The Machinist,” “Monster House,” and “First Man”. So, the next time that you hear this, you
can think of Cold War espionage and the fascinating life of the man who made the sound possible. Has someone been shot? Is a stormtrooper falling from a ledge? Is an alien flying into space after an explosion? Not today. I am simply pushing a button that plays “The
Wilhelm Scream,” a stock sound effect from the Warner Brothers library. Much as theremin music contributes to the
viewer’s experience of a movie scene, this particular scream resonates with the viewer
on two levels. This scream seems to be diegetic sound–that
is to say, a sound that one character makes and that other characters in the movie might
hear. But it’s actually a stock sound effect that
is added to the film after production. For those in the know, the familiar sound
of the Wilhelm scream draws attention to the constructed nature, or “fakeness,” of
the violence being presented visually. Its effect can be to ironize the violence
and (perhaps) even to alter its significance. And here’s PBS’ resident monster expert,
Dr. Emily Zarka from Monstrum to tell us a little more about it. The Wilhelm Scream is named after Private
Wilhelm, a character in the 1953 Western movie, “The Charge at Feather River,” who had
the rather unfortunate fate of being shot in the thigh by an arrow. As Sean Hutchinson has reported in “Mental
Floss,” a group of sound designers at USC’s film school during the 1970s observed that
this scream had been used in many films and named it after this character. However, the sound effect had, in fact, been
used earlier, in the 1951 film, “Distant Drums,” as a soldier walking through a swamp
in the Everglades is attacked by an alligator and dragged underwater, and again in the 1952
film, “Springfield Rifle,” as a raider is stabbed with a sword. The scream is widely thought to have been
made by the actor/musician, Sheb Wooley, who had been a voice extra on “Distant Drums”
and who, in 1958, would gain fame for recording the popular song, “Purple People Eater.” The USC film school students began adding
the effect into the films that they were making as a sort of in-joke. One of the students, Ben Burtt, went on to
design the sound on George Lucas’ “Star Wars.” Burtt used the sound effect after Luke Skywalker
shoots a Stormtrooper, who screams as he falls from a ledge in the Death Star. Burtt would later incorporate the scream into
other films in the “Star Wars” series. Several film enthusiasts have painstakingly
compiled these scenes in online videos. In February 2018, Matthew Wood, Supervising
Sound Editor for Skywalker Sound, announced that the studio was going to move away from
using the Wilhelm scream in Star Wars Films and has already started using a new scream
that he dubs, “our own little calling card” Keep your ears open for these! Thanks Emily! But even though Star Wars gave Wilhelm a sonic
facelift, the old Wilhelm Scream is still peppered throughout our favorite films. It’s even cropped up in scenes that are
lighter on the horror and action side, showing these hollering pipes really do have the range. Ben Burtt won Special Achievement and Best
Sound Effects Editing Academy Awards for his work on the Indiana Jones series. In one scene, he uses the scream as a crocodile
eats a man, making a subtle gesture towards the film, “Distant Drums.” Other notable films that also use the scream
are Lord of the Rings, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Volume 1, Inglorious Bastards, Toy Story,
and Avatar (to name just a few!). A website called “” has compiled
an extensive list of uses of the scream in anime , animated and live action films, literary
references, television shows, music, pinball games, video games, and web animation. Check it out if you have some free time. Or a lot of free time, because it’s a long
list. It’s a real scream! I’m sorry, but you had to know that I was
going to do that somewhere in here


  1. …anyhow the first time I heard about theremin was that it was first developed with the intent to emulate the whole string orchestra sound by playing it the way a conductor conducts an orchestra — or at least that was what I first read about it 😄

  2. Hey my Originauts! As always I'll be down here in the comments for the next hour or so responding to questions about the episode. Happy Halloween month to everyone!

    Peace, Love, Boo, and Learning!


  3. So sad you can't hear my scream of joy after watching this episode. One of my favourites, good enough to make me sound like Wilhelm.

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