Have you ever heard of the Wilhelm Scream? It’s been in over 200 movies, and it’s so recognizable that if you didn’t notice it before reading this post, I’m sure you’ll start to notice it everywhere.
It was introduced to modern cinema by all-around amazing sound guy Ben Burtt when he was designing the sound for Star Wars in 1977- he used it for a sequence where Luke shoots a Stormtrooper across a chasm while trying to escape the Death Star. When the trooper falls, you hear the Wilhelm Scream.
Ben Burtt didn’t create the sound, though- he just found it in the studio sound archives, on a reel labeled “Man being eaten by alligator.” The scene described there is from the 1951 movie, Distant Drums. In that movie, a cowboy in the Everglades was indeed eaten by an alligator, yelling out the scream as he is dragged underwater.
The scream was used again in the 1953 movie, The Charge at Feather River, and it’s heard by several different people as they die. One of them is a guy named in movie dialogue as Private Wilhelm, and he makes the scream when he is shot in the left leg with an arrow.
When Ben Burtt found the sound on the “Man being eaten by alligator” reel, he also found the Private Wilhelm footage, and it was Ben Burtt who named it the Wilhelm Scream. He went on to re-use the Wilhelm in all the remaining Star Wars movies as well as the Indiana Jones movies. It wasn’t long before other sound designers started to use the Wilhelm in other movies, and now it’s all over the television and movie landscape, including Toy Story, Batman Returns, Aladdin, Howard The Duck, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit, Lethal Weapon 4, and many many more.
Everything up until this point is material that I knew as I began to write this post. There’s one interesting fact that I didn’t know until I started researching to write this up: It is now widely believed that the voice of the Wilhelm Scream is none other than Sheb Wooley, known to most for his novelty song, “The Purple People Eater.” Ben Burtt found notes at Warner Brothers which indicated that Wooley was on a short list of people who recorded dialogue for Distant Drums, and he recorded material for several types of screams.
Here’s two short compilations of a bunch of Wilhelm Screams:
What’s the last movie you saw containing a Wilhelm Scream?
Editor’s Note: I’m attempting to blog every day in November with CheerPeppers. I don’t expect to succeed because life be crazy, but any blogging in excess of my previous post-free month is a win, right?