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What’s Your Wilhelm Scream?—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on July 8, 2008.

What’s Your Wilhelm Scream?
By Ian Ayres ’86

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.