Today I wanted to discuss one of the world’s most successful film stars. The star in question has enjoyed a glittering career spanning seven decades and encompassing over two hundred films. These include some of world’s biggest blockbusters. But, despite such a phenomenal CV, most people would struggle to name this particular star. Its fame is largely unknown outside the world of film buffs. It’s likely you’ve never heard even of it, but you’ve probably heard it. It’s a stock audio clip called the Wilhelm Scream. It also happens to be one of the film industries’ most enduring inside jokes.
The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that’s been used since the 1950s. It first appeared in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums when a man wading through a swamp was attacked by an alligator. As is common practice with film sound effects it was recorded in a sound booth and overdubbed afterwards. After being recorded it was entered into the Warner Brothers sound library where it was used in numerous other films.
In the 1970s a sound effects fan named Ben Burtt noticed the distinctive scream cropping up repeatedly in films. Burtt and his friends at USC’s film school nicknamed it the Wilhelm Scream after a character from The Charge at Feather River where they first noticed it. They even borrowed the sound effect themselves and used it in a film made during their studies.
After graduation Burtt was approached by former USC alum George Lucas. Lucas wanted Burtt to do the sound for a film he was working on called Star Wars. Work on the film gained Burtt access to the Warner Bros sound department where he was able to locate the original clip. As an in-joke for his friends Burtt used the scream in the film, most famously when a stromtropper, shot by Luke Skywalker, falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt began using the clip in other films, such as a particularly famous example in Indiana Jones. This inspired his friends to do the same. Eventually other film buffs and sound effects enthusiasts began noticing the effect. This inspired other filmmakers, keen to be in on the joke, to begin using it. After hearing about it during the making of Reservoir Dogs Quentin Tarantino decided to use it. Peter Jackson learnt about the story during the making of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and decided to use it. He so enjoyed the joke that he used it again in Return of the King.
After it gained cult status Burtt began research into who made the original recording. The most likely candidate turned out to be an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley. Wooley died in 2003, so there’s no way to confirm the suspicion. But his wife has mentioned that he often claimed a talent for performing laughs, screams and dying vocals for films. Besides his work on Distant Drums he did a great deal of TV and film work, but he’s possibly most famous for his 1958 number one hit Purple People Eater.
The Wilhelm scream:
Here’s a Youtube compilation of some examples:
A website detailing more examples can be found here.