First scream

The Wilhelm scream is a sound effect that has been used in hundreds of films, including Disney, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars films. But who was Wilhelm? And why was he screaming?

Sheb Wooley
OMAC Artist Corporation, Bakersfield, CA. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
You have almost certainly heard the Wilhelm scream. It’s used when someone gets shot and/or falls a long way. But the original use of this scream recording was for a man being bitten by an alligator. You can see the scene, with scream, in the YouTube clip below. It’s from a 1951 Western film set in Florida called Distant Drums.

The sound effect was reused in 1953, in the film The Charge at Feather River. It was a 3D film, with arrows flying directly at the audience to show off its 3D effects. In one scene, an arrow goes through the leg of a hapless private named Wilhelm while he’s filling his pipe on horseback. He screams and grabs his leg, and a movie legend is born.

Cut to the creation of the first Star Wars film. Sound designer Ben Burtt finds a film reel labelled “man being eaten by alligator” and uses it in the film. And he keeps using it in other films that he was working on, and then other people begin to notice the sound and use it as well. The Wilhelm scream becomes an industry in-joke and tradition.

Who was screaming? Burtt went in search of the source, and discovered that it was recorded by a bit-part actor named Sheb Wooley. Incredibly, Sheb went on to be quite famous in his own right, as the singer of the 1958 novelty hit Purple People Eater. (You know the one, the “one eyed, one horned, flying purple people eater.”) It’s a weird world sometimes, isn’t it?

2 Replies to “First scream”

  1. That’s great that it was Sheb Wooley!

    I don’t understand Wikipedia’s statement about why it’s not subject to copyright.

    1. Yeah, I couldn’t work it out either – but copyright law is an impenetrable nest of snakes at the best of times.

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