No two screams sound alike. They can swing in pitch, like the The Wilhelm; blare cacophonous, like The Donald Sutherland; or fire off spasmodically, like (my favorite) The Shelley Duvall. Few vocalizations are as nuanced as the fearful shriek. And yet, no matter the cry in question, you always know a scream when you hear one.
So, then. Whence does the scream derive its unmistakeability? “If you ask someone on the street, they’ll tell you a scream is loud and high-pitched,” says David Poeppel, a neuroscientist at New York University and the Max Planck Institute in Frankfurt. “Turns out it’s neither.”
Poeppel would know. In 2015, he and his colleagues set out to distinguish cries of fear from other noises. They began by compiling a database of screams. “We spent many joyful hours scanning the interwebs for weird material from YouTube and movies,” Poeppel says, “but then we also brought people into the lab and had them scream.”