The Wilhelm Scream

The Scream : Mick Peck's article on the history of the Wilhelm Scream

Chances are that you’ve heard the Wilhelm Scream dozens of times without even realising it.

The Wilhelm Scream is a sound effect of a male screaming in pain.  It was first used in the relatively obscure 1951 western Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper.  In the film an unnamed soldier is crossing the Everglades in pursuit of Seminole Indians when he is attacked and dragged underwater by an irritated alligator.  As he goes under he dramatically screams in shock.  Several slightly-different takes of the same scream were also used later in the film as the death cries of Indians.

The sound effect was placed in the effects library at Warner Brothers but wasn’t used again for two years, for The Charge at Feather River.  In this film another solider, one Private Wilhelm, is struck by an arrow and he too lets out the dramatic cry of pain.  It was because of its use in this film, the first by a named character, that the effect would later become affectionately known as the Wilhelm Scream.

Over the next few decades the scream was used in other Warner Brothers films such as Them! (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Sea Chase (1955), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), PT-109 (1963) and The Green Berets (1968).  It appears twice in Judy Garland’s A Star is Born (1954).

Motion picture sound designer and aficionado Ben Burtt began to notice the common use of the same distinctive scream in Warner Brothers movies.  He sampled the effect from Distant Drums and began to use it in his own productions.  Several years later he was hired to work on Star Wars (1977), and included the Wilhelm Scream in a memorable scene featuring a Stormtrooper falling to his death in a chasm on the Death Star.  He also used it in each of the Indiana Jones films.  Following this exposure the over-the-top cry started to become somewhat of a cinematic sound in-joke.  Other sound editors picked up on it and it was included in Poltergeist, Spaceballs, Gremlins 2, Reservoir Dogs, Batman Returns, Toy Story, Disney’s Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast, The Fifth Element, Pirates of the Caribbean, Kill Bill and dozens more.

By 2013 the Wilhelm Scream has been included in more than 225 films, television shows and video games.  Given half a chance, prominent directors such as George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino and our own Peter Jackson slip the Wilhelm Scream into just about every one of their productions.

For years the voice-actor who provided the scream was a mystery.  Due to the cult status of the effect Ben Burtt visited the Warner Brothers archives to try and discover the name of the voice behind the scream.  After reviewing a list of actors from Distant Drums and comparing their speaking voices to the scream, the most likely candidate emerged as Sheb Wooley, a musician and character actor who also appeared in the likes of High Noon (1953), Rawhide (1956) and James Dean’s final film Giant (1956).  Wooley is mostly remembered for his 1958 novelty tune “Purple People Eater”.  Which you just started singing in your head.

Here’s a compilation video of twelve minutes worth of nothing but clips of the shriek from various film and television appearances.  Bonus point if you can make it through the entire clip without turning it off.

– Screamin’ Auckland Magician Mick Peck

– Originally Appeared in the May 2013 edition of Inside Entertainment, the monthly membership magazine for the Variety Artists Club of New Zealand Incorporated.

And, because you’re just about to look it up anyway –