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A Short History of the Wilhelm Scream

With it’s release on DVD this month Skyline may not be joining any best of sci-fi list any time soon. It does however become one in a long line of films that has used a 60 year old collection of sound effects commonly known as the Wilhelm Scream. What started as a simple recording in a sound studio, became a sound editor in-joke then finally a full-on cult for film buffs worldwide. You may not be familiar with it but you’ve most definitely heard it at least once, if not more.
In 1951, an actor stepped into a recording studio and was asked to make the sound of a man being attacked by an alligator for the Raoul Walsh Western Distant Drums. 6 screams were recorded with the 5th scream being used for the alligator attack. The 4th - 6th screams were also used earlier in the movie, when three Native Americans are shot during a raid on a fort. They were then stored in the Warner Brothers sound effects library. 2 years later scream No 4. was used in the film The Charge at Feather River where a character called Private Wilhelm was shot in the leg with an arrow. Over the years the sounds were used for many Warner Bros pictures including Them!, A Star is Born and The Green Berets.
In 1977 Ben Burtt was hired to supply sound effects for Star Wars. Carrying out research around various movie studios’ sound departments he came across the original Distant Drums recording (which he found as a studio reel labeled “Man being eaten by alligator”) and decided to name it ‘Wilhelm’ after the character in The Charge at Feather River. Having already been familiar with the scream as a film student (he used it in a student film in 1974 called The Scarlet Blade, borrowing it from another film’s audio track), Burtt decided to use it as a kind of signature and to see if he could put it in as many films as possible along with friend and fellow sound editor Richard Anderson.
Over the next few years they managed to put the sound into all the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films and other George Lucas films like Howard the Duck and Willow and the TV series The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones. Anderson went on to use it in several films including Poltergeist, Batman Returns and Planet of the Apes. Finding a place in the sound library at Skywalker Sound, colleagues of Burtt included it in Toy Story and Hercules. It became something of an in-joke amongst the sound community who appreciated it’s history and the opportunity to share it. Although it has never been available commercially, sound editors would share it and in a few cases where the effect was ‘in the clear’ (including A Star is Born) it has been ‘borrowed’ for use in other projects.
The scream soon became a favourite of several directors also. Both Joe Dante and Tobe Hooper started using it. Quentin Tarantino learned of it’s history when it was used for Reservoir Dogs and later used it for Kill Bill Vol1, and Peter Jackson used it for both The Two Towers and The Return of the King.
The cult continued to grow and became more widely known, thanks in part to sound technician and historian Steve Lee who started to record the history of the scream, listing all the films that it appeared in on his website
Many movie fans were curious to know who supplied the famous scream. In 2005 Ben Burtt was continuing his research between the last two Star Wars films and came across documentation that listed the actors who had been hired to record post-production sounds and lines of dialogue. After looking at the names and listening to the voices it was decided that the most likely candidate was Sheb Wooley, a musician and character actor who had appeared in many Westerns, including High Noon and the TV show Rawhide. He was most famous however for the 1958 novelty hit Purple People Eater. He played an uncredited role in Distant Drums and was one of the actors asked to record additional vocal elements for the film. One of which was most likely to be the scream of a man attacked by an alligator. Though this can’t be known for sure, as Wooley died in 2003 of Leukemia, his widow Linda Dotson-Wooley has confirmed that he was very proud of his work performing laughs, screams and dying vocals for films.
With the scream now out in the open, several sound editors and directors lost interest in using the effect. Ben Burtt decided that after completing Star Wars and joining Pixar he would no longer use it and Joe Dante did the same believing it wasn’t as much fun now everyone knew of it’s use and history.  That didn’t stop others using it though.  It has since been heard in films as diverse as King Kong, Juno, Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, Tropic Thunder and Inglourious Basterds, on TV in shows like The Simpsons, The X-FilesReaper and Family Guy and also in several computer games (including many of the Star Wars games). Skyline is just one of the more recent films to use it and is unlikely to be the last. It seems sound editors and film-makers will continue to pay tribute to the most distinctive scream in cinema history.
Skyline is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 21st March 2011.

Visit to see a Wilhilm Video compilation (By the way there is one in Simon Pegg's latest movie - Paul)


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