The Wilhelm Scream

The Wilhelm scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both blockbuster and throw away movies. It has been in well over 400 films and TV shows since it was first recorded in 1951. The scream is often used when someone is shot, falls from a great height, or is thrown from an explosion.

The sound effect was first recorded for the Warner Brothers film “Distant Drums” 1951 and subsequently put into their stock sound library. In a scene from the film, soldiers are wading through a swamp in the Everglades. One of them is bitten by an alligator and dragged underwater. The scream for the scene was one of five other short pained screams recorded later in a single take. They were collectively labeled “man getting bit by an alligator, and he screamed.” There is still a debate on if it was the fourth or the fifth scream that was used for the alligator scene. The fourth, fifth and sixth screams have been used for other movies and are the most recognizable once you know what you are looking for.

General consensus says that the screams are attributed to the actor and singer Sheb Wooley. He is better known for the song “The Purple People Eater” 1958 and as scout Pete Nolan on the television series “Rawhide”. He was also a bit actor in the movie “Distant Drums”. This has been supported by an interview in 2005 with Linda Dotson, Wooley's widow.

In 1953 the fifth scream was used in the film “The Charge at Feather River” 1953. In the movie a character named Private Wilhelm gets shot in the thigh with an arrow. The scream had been used off and on for other Warner Brother’s films for the next 20 years but eventually it faded from use.

In the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from. As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. One of these students was future Academy Award winning sound designer Ben Burtt.

After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called “Star Wars”. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice. (In February 2018 it was announced Star Wars will no longer use the Wilhelm scream, with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” 2015 being the last film in the series to use it.)

Other sound designers picked up on the effect, and The Wilhelm Scream spread like wildfire. Soon it was used in every scene that called for a blood curdling scream. From huge blockbusters to straight to video releases inclusion of the sound in films became a tradition among the community of sound designers. The scream can be heard in other movies such as; “The Lord of the Rings”, “Pirates of the Caribbean”, “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”, “Toy Story”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Titanic”, “More American Graffiti”, “Willow”, “Aladdin”, “Avatar”, “Anchorman”, and “22 Jump Street”.

Additionally, the sound can be heard in the video game Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV, Grand Theft Auto V and in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. Not bad for a, basically, two second sound bite.