Ashley Peldon gets paid to scream.
While this may be a vocation that many people would jump at right now — why shriek into the void when you can pad your wallet doing it? — screaming for a living is a rarefied art.
The image of vocal terror is among our most universal and elemental, from Edvard Munch to Janet Leigh. But translating that into sound on film involves more than a microphone on set. Bloodcurdling from an A-lister is uncommon: Often, the screams we hear in movies and TV are created by doubles and voice actors, in Burbank studios, with specialists standing by to ghoul them up. It’s physically taxing and emotionally draining. And bizarro as a job.
“Usually, I’ll just type in ‘death scream,’” Trevor Gates, a sound designer, said of his effects database. One stock scream is so well-used it’s got a name, the Wilhelm, and has graduated into a soundtrack Easter egg.
Gates, who worked on Jordan Peele’s “Us” and “Get Out,” along with series like “The Haunting of Bly Manor,” brings performers into his sound booth to deliver the exact shrillness or suffocation the director envisions.
“There’s a psychology of the sound,” Gates said. “The bottom line is the performance of what you’re doing — it’s the visceralness, it’s the reality of hearing someone who could potentially be in pain. It’s a scary thing, and it’s a hard thing to recreate.”
Eli Roth, the filmmaker behind the “Hostel” series, asks auditioning actors if they can scream — “but I never make them do it.”
“Often people ask me, how do I direct the scream?’ he said. “Well, the truth is, you can’t. You just have to trust they have it in them.”
Peldon, a Los Angeles voice artist and former child actress, has been brought to tears, and giggles — she screamed at the pig in Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja” and once played a possessed baby goat. She specializes in “rage screaming,” she said (yes, dream job!) but risks damaging her vocal cords at work. On a typical day in her home studio, she might record “a smorgasbord of screams,” she said, along with the grunting, panting and heavy breath work that makes viewers feel scared, and empathetic.
“The best screams are like little doorways that just suck you into the movie, and trap you,” said Graham Reznick, a sound designer with a history in horror.
Performance and recording represent just two parts in the audible fright machinery. Here, an anatomy of cinematic screams and wails, and why they stay with us. Plus, is yelling better than therapy?
No one is quite sure when the first scream was recorded for the movies, but it didn’t take long. Screaming is one of the “melodramatic gestures that are part of film language from the very beginning,” said Adam Lowenstein, a film professor who directs the Horror Studies Working Group at the University of Pittsburgh.
Howard Hughes first used audible screams in 1930, for a plane going down in “Hell’s Angels.” A Variety critic described the pilot’s fairly mild cries as “overly gruesome” and “too tough” to hear, according to Robert Spadoni, a film scholar and professor at Case Western Reserve University.
What’s striking about Wray, considered the original scream queen, is that the first time she unleashes her pipes, she’s clearly faking: It’s for a screen test within the movie, and the director is advising her to shriek as if she’s seen — foreshadowing alert — a most terrifying beast. “It’s packaged for us, very self-consciously, as a performance, not as an experience,” Professor Lowenstein said. Screaming was already a trigger for audience emotion.
Spadoni, the author of “Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre,” argues that “sounds, as physical emanations of bodies, instantly made films more potentially sexy and carnal,” and, he added, “also more horrifying.” And nearly everyone in sound agrees that the most chilling cries come from women and children.
Men’s screams, on the other hand, can invite ridicule. Take the Wilhelm, an unlikely and not very convincing stock scream that started, legend has it, as a sound effect for a man being bitten by an alligator (even less believable as that), which was then repeatedly reused in westerns. You’ve now unwittingly heard it in “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones” and a host of Pixar flicks, among hundreds of others. For years, sound designers have made a joke of sticking the Wilhelm into projects. (The name comes from a character in a 1953 western.)
The filmmaker and actor Eli Roth learned about it when he was making “Inglourious Basterds” with Quentin Tarantino. “I was doing the sound design on the short film-within-the-film, ‘Nation’s Pride,’ that Quentin tasked me with shooting,” he wrote in an email. “Quentin, of course knew well who Wilhelm was” and wanted to make sure the sound effect got a cameo, which came during a 90-foot fall.
The scream itself is “nothing special,” Roth added. “It’s an inside joke for industry insiders. But once you hear it, you can’t unhear it.”
Inevitably, there have been movies in which screams themselves are objects of menace, like “The Shout,” a 1978 British horror film, about a terrorizing (male) scream that kills everyone and everything who hears it.
But the most famous — and certainly the most beloved among sound professionals — scream-as-terror-device film is “Blow Out,” the 1981 Brian De Palma thriller about a sound engineer (John Travolta) searching for the perfect scream and stumbling into a murder plot.
Nancy Allen starred as an escort who is stalked by a contract killer and whose screams (spoilers ahead) as she’s being attacked provide the elusive sound that haunts Travolta’s character.
De Palma rejected the original screams. “He said they’re not interesting, not bad enough,” recalled Allen, who was married to him at the time. “And I said, let me do them, I can make them really bad. I think I did strain my throat a little bit. It’s real.”
“You have to totally surrender to the moment of the scene that you’re in,” she added, especially since you can’t really rehearse a scream, in order to preserve the voice.
Her character’s final cries were a plea, she said: “Please hear me, can anyone hear me, can anyone see me?’”
Allen did the vocals a few times, she said, drawing on what she called her “scaredy-cat” tendencies. “It was a moment to really unleash every terror I ever had, and think: this is it, it’s do-or-die.”
Afterward, there was a sense of fragility. “Of course you’re going to feel very vulnerable at that point, and unsafe,” she said. “You’ve let yourself go there, to your worst nightmare. I think that kind of scream, there really wasn’t another way to go with it, as far as I’m concerned. You’re screaming for your life.”
Recording the Perfect Scream
How do you know when a scream is right? Sound professionals don’t just depend on goose bumps — though they still get them, even as they dispassionately discuss murder methods.
“A mother seeing her child getting run over by a car, that’s going to be an incredibly different scream than someone being stabbed by a knife punch into a closet,” Reznick, the sound designer and filmmaker, said evenly. Some moments call for apparent authenticity, the purest expression of human agony. And some involve pitch-shifting an elephant’s bellow and pretending it came from a person’s mouth (or a ghost’s).
For many reasons, sounds this extreme are rarely collected on set, where a good scream can blow out an expensive mic, and an even more expensive star’s voice. Similarly, no one is going to chance calling Ryan Reynolds or Scarlett Johansson into a booth in Burbank to shout themselves hoarse for 10 minutes.
Instead, a cadre of professionals are available to provide those vocals, which sound engineers and designers then tweak creatively.
“A lot of times screams are Frankensteined from four or five different people, just to make it work for the six seconds you need onscreen,” Reznick said. “I once replaced John Travolta’s death gurgles with my own voice.” (Just for a second, he was quick to add: “It’s a blend.”)
Sound designers like Gates have a stable of vocal performers to “loop” audio, the term for taping sounds or lines, and even creating background dialogue. That din of a restaurant when havoc strikes? Loopers.
They’re guided by a “loop group” leader, like a casting director for macabre whispers and guttural squeals. Audition tapes pour in; it’s not unusual for a loop group leader like Susan Boyajian to listen to 15 screams a day, she said. “There’s gradual screams, a buildup scream, kind of hyperventilating — say someone’s chasing you with a knife, and then you go into a scream,” she said brightly. “Is someone choking, the blood going into your throat?”
She chooses a handful for the sound crew and director to sift through, and then recording sessions begin, syncing to the performer onscreen. “You’re watching their mouth, you have to physically be that person and then give me what she or he is doing,” said Boyajian, a vocal teacher and actor.
Translating the director’s vision, Gates may start by perusing an effects database with entries like “shrill death scream” and “emotional carnage.”
They’re not always human. “If I want something to sound like it’s organic, then I have to start with a source that’s organic,” Gates said. “Maybe it’s a screaming pig or a horse that’s angry. A lot of times we do this when it’s somebody, like, supernatural, a monster.”
That was the case when the sound of a bellowing elephant was used to vocalize for a ghost bride in “The Innkeepers,” a 2012 indie from Ti West.
Why an elephant? “It’s a really upsetting sound when you lower it,” said Reznick, the film’s sound supervisor.
He needed something slow, which nixed the actress’s own vocal. (“You can’t scream in slow motion.”) Initially, he’d considered a yowl that faded in like a kettle’s whistle, but decided it was unoriginal and not sinister enough. The final noise, he said, felt as eerie as sleep paralysis.
Sometimes sound crews do luck out with cast members. In “Us,” the twins played by the teenagers Cali and Noelle Sheldon tried doing their own wails. “One twin was really good at screams, and the other was not,” Gates said. But one was enough.
“It was such a good capture of emotion, we actually had to think about taming it down when we mixed the film,” Gates said. “There was too much hurt.” The version in the movie was just adjusted for pitch, with “a subtle layer added of animal vocalizations.”
For actors, stepping into the sound booth can be high stakes. If it’s a big scene, the director may be watching. There’s also a risk if the performer doesn’t have physical training. “I blew out my voice on ‘Basterds’” after a particularly violent scene, Roth said. “It hurts. It really hurts.”
And there is only so much that can be done to coax a scream. “Usually I’ll just ask them, ‘Do you want this to be your last take?’” said Roth, the writer-director of the first “Hostel” movies. “If they trust that they can fully go for broke and know that they don’t have to do it again, they give you the scream you want.” He tries to give his cast a day of vocal rest afterward. “On ‘Hostel’ and ‘Hostel Part II’ the crew members told me they had nightmares after hearing the actors scream,” he recalled. “That’s how I know the scene’s going to work with audiences.”
Veteran horror stars like Lin Shaye have developed their own philosophy of screaming. “It’s kind of like an orgasm,” said Shaye, a Stella Adler- and Lee Strasberg-trained actress with memorable turns in “Asylum” and the “Insidious” franchise. “It’s all the foreplay that leads you up to the moment, and then the scream is kind of the crescendo of that.”
Besides learning how to deliver from her diaphragm, not her vocal cords, she leaves much to the instant. “Sometimes I don’t even know I’m going to scream,” she said. “The scream is an expression of pent-up anger, fear, whatever. You can mimic a scream, but it won’t be as unique or probably as penetrating as if you investigate your own emotion that would lead you to that place.”
“Learning to not scream is also really important,” she added. “An interesting thought for an actor is to try to hold a scream back as long as you can, until you can’t. And then you have to scream.”
Tales of a Screamer
Screamers, some in the field argue, are born, not made.
While anyone can learn techniques to prevent injury, sustaining a 10- or 15-second full-out scream — as Peldon can — may just be a natural talent. “These people are basically vocal athletes,” said Dr. Jennifer Long, an otolaryngologist at University of California, Los Angeles, who works with voice performers.
Peldon has been known as a powerhouse since she starred as the titular “Child of Rage” in a 1992 TV movie. She auditioned with a scream. “It was really enjoyable for me, but everybody else was like — oh my God, horrified,” Peldon recalled.
Now she makes her living whimpering and wailing, with a reputation as one of the loudest in the business. She’s also known for her “efforts,” the industry term for the sounds a character makes as they’re running, fighting or in distress. (A-listers almost never do those. Sometimes even their breathing is dubbed.) Replacement sound makes those sequences easier to edit.
Like many loopers, she does a lot of voice-matching, including for household-name stars; for contractual reasons, she’s coy about who. But she did blow her voice recently when a few of them were in a TV episode together. For protection, her doctor advised her not to speak over 65 decibels when she’s off-duty. (Peldon: “I have two kids. That’s not happening.”)
Her technique for a bloodcurdling scream involves tightening her abs and then forcibly expelling air as she’s vocalizing. “My hand is in a claw poking in my stomach, I might even give a light push to my stomach to push air out,” she said. For animals and monsters, she reverses the process, vocalizing on the inhale — way weirder.
Once, she was doing a rat that got stepped on — eeeeeeee! Very high pitched. “I almost passed out,” she said. “I don’t get dizzy often — that one I was sitting on the floor after, and sweating.”
The physicality takes a toll. “Through the years of just screaming in video games, my voice has dropped and dropped,” said Scott Whyte, a voice artist and looper who once routinely played teenagers. He’s still versatile: in an hourlong conversation, he slipped into Homer Simpson, Morgan Freeman, Pee-Wee Herman, Christopher Walken, a Beatle, Hugh Grant, and young and old Harrison Ford.
Video games are among the most strenuous work, said Whyte, who’s also been the voice of Crash Bandicoot. There might be 300 effort-heavy script cues in a session — “different spellings of ‘Eeargh!’ and ‘Aaaaiieeee!’” said Reznick, a video game writer as well as sound designer. Throat damage was one of the main issues raised by video game performers when they went on strike in 2016. (The actors’ union reached a deal with video game companies nearly a year later.)
Whyte, who also started as a young actor (“D2: The Mighty Ducks”), grunted and winced for Tom Hardy in “Venom.” He’s more playful than Method — “there’s no acting training that’s going to help you when you’re going to be a zombie ripping someone’s head off,” he said. “It’s like, yeah let’s have some fun and see how weird the noises can get.”
Still, there’s an intensity to the job — emotionally, too. Peldon, who has a doctorate in psychology, recalled having to react as a woman who has set herself on fire as a martyr; the director wanted her to express pain and exaltation. “That was definitely a unique combo — how do you joyfully scream burning to death?” she said. She sometimes has dreams where she’s screaming a lot, “and those are scary.”
But more often, getting into the booth and screaming your head off is indeed therapeutic, voice actors said. As a group, they seem notably chipper, and maybe this is why. “You leave it all on the page,” Peldon said. There’s an adrenaline rush and then an unparalleled release (and a paycheck).
“Everyone walks out of sessions like that completely wiped,” Whyte said. “It feels so good.”
The Scream Today
Old screams are not so scary — that damsel-in-distress stuff doesn’t play now.
Instead, said Peldon, she does more empowered roars — “there’s a feminist awakening of those screams, we’re seeing a lot more in our superheroes.”
Witness scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis in the first “Halloween,” in 1978, and the most recent, in 2018: Her early ear-piercer has evolved into a battle cry.
Designers and filmmakers, though, still love that analog ’70s-’80s sound, and sometimes cultivate it now. The recordings of that era “blow out in a way that feels like the blood rushing to your ears and your brain shrinking into your head,” said Reznick. “When you hear a very clean present scream, it doesn’t sound true.”
That’s because, in large part, our very understanding of what heart-rending fear sounds like comes from Hollywood. “A scream is such an atypical reaction to what we experience in everyday life,” it immediately amps up the drama in film, said Jason Blum, the producer behind the horror juggernaut Blumhouse. It’s there because, in a primal way, nothing telegraphs terror better.
In real life, most of us have not found a dead body next to us in bed, or been attacked by zombies or aliens (yet). If we did, what would we sound like? Research shows that when confronted with trauma, many people are actually frozen into silence.
In actuality, the most horrifying scream is one with no sound at all.
Jason Zinoman contributed reporting to this article.