Have you heard The Wilhelm Scream? The answer is ‘Yes, probably’. In fact, if you’ve seen Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and/or Indiana Jones, then undoubtedly you will have heard it, possibly without even noticing.
The Wilhelm scream is a film and television stock sound effect that has been used in more than 300 movies, beginning in 1951 for the film Distant Drums. The scream is often used when someone is shot, falls from a great height, or is thrown from an explosion. Most likely voiced by actor and singer Sheb Wooley, the sound is named after Private Wilhelm, a character in The Charge at Feather River, a 1953 western in which the character gets shot with an arrow. This was its first use from the Warner Bros. stock sound library, although The Charge at Feather River is believed to have been the third movie to use the effect.
The effect gained new popularity (its use often becoming an in-joke) after it was used in Star Wars, the Indiana Jones series, Disney cartoons and many other blockbuster films as well as many television programs and video games.
The Wilhelm scream originates from a series of sound effects recorded for the 1951 movie Distant Drums. In a scene from the film, soldiers are wading through a swamp in the Everglades, and one of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. The scream for that scene was recorded later in a single take, along with five other short pained screams, which were slated as “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screamed.” The fifth scream was used for the soldier in the alligator scene—but the 4th, 5th, and 6th screams recorded in the session were also used earlier in the film—when three Indians are shot during a raid on a fort. Although takes 4, 5, and 6 are the most recognizable, all of the screams are referred to as “Wilhelm” by those in the sound community.
The Wilhelm scream’s revival came from motion picture sound designer Ben Burtt, who discovered the original recording (which he found as a studio reel labeled “Man being eaten by alligator”) and incorporated it into a scene in Star Wars. Burtt is credited with naming the scream after Private Wilhelm (see The Charge at Feather River). Over the next decade, Burtt began incorporating the effect in other films he worked on, including most projects involving George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, notably the rest of the subsequent Star Wars films, as well as the Indiana Jones movies. Other sound designers picked up on the effect, and inclusion of the sound in films became a tradition among the community of sound designers. In what is perhaps an in-joke within an in-joke, one of the scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom actually features a man being eaten by an alligator accompanied by the scream.
Research by Burtt suggests that Sheb Wooley, best known for his novelty song “The Purple People Eater” in 1958 and as scout Pete Nolan on the television series Rawhide, is likely to have been the voice actor who originally performed the scream. This has been supported by an interview in 2005 with Linda Dotson, Wooley’s widow. Burtt discovered records at Warner Brothers from the editor of Distant Drums including a short list of names of actors scheduled to record lines of dialogue for miscellaneous roles in the movie. Wooley played the uncredited role of Private Jessup in Distant Drums, and was one of the few actors assembled for the recording of additional vocal elements for the film. Wooley performed additional vocal elements, including the screams for a man being bitten by an alligator. Dotson confirmed that it was Wooley’s scream that had been in so many westerns, adding, “He always used to joke about how he was so great about screaming and dying in films.”
The Wilhelm scream has become a cinematic sound cliche, and by 2011 had been used in many instances, including more than 225 movies, television shows and video games (and video game advertisements). Some directors, most notably George Lucas (Star Wars original trilogy and prequel trilogy movies), Quentin Tarantino, and Peter Jackson (in two of the Lord of the Rings movies and also The Hobbit) include it in almost every one of their productions.