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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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Yes, You’ve Heard It! What We Know About “The Wilhelm Scream” So Far

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

Lord of the Rings has it, Star Wars has it, Indiana Jones, Spider Man, Star Trek, even The Wild Bunch (1969) has it too. But you can find it in Disney movies, nearly from every studio, at least a few big projects. So what is it? 

Known by insiders as “The Wilhelm Scream,” a term coined by George Lucas’ sound designer wizard Ben Burtt, this is that familiar toe-curling roar let out by dying Storm Troopers, bit players eaten alive by animals, and other movie calamity/fatalities from Swamp Thing (1982) Spaceballs (1987) to its original sound placement in the 1951 movie Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper.

Call it an inside joke among filmmakers and sound designers, The Wilhelm Scream has been tracked down through the years by some very astute writers, namely Steve Lee who compiled a list of titles a decade ago. Many others have tried to pin down the origin to Distant Drums, and possibly Sheb Wooley, who died in 2003, as the voice behind the iconic movie shriek.

What we do know is that Private Wilhelm was a character in the 1953 release Charge of Feather River. All agree that this is the movie that Ben Burtt sourced for the naming of the screech. 

We also know The Wilhelm Scream is technically a ‘wild sound,’ meaning a sound not shot synchronously with the film itself but rather added from a stock sound library.

Facts include that this ‘wild sound’ actually had a history before Ben Burtt. After Drums and Feather River, it showed up in The Command (1954), Them! (1954), the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (1954), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), The Sea Chase (1955), Helen of Troy (1956), Sergeant Rutledge (1960), PT 109 (1963), Harper (1963) starring Paul Newman, The Green Berets (1968).

Then it got rolled into The Wild Bunch (1969), Chisum (1970), Burt Reynolds’ Impasse (1970), The Scarlet Blade (1974), Hollywood Boulevard (1976), before becoming the plaything of Ben Burtt, Richard Anderson, and other famous sound designers who made this throaty treat their own.

According to many sources, Linda Dotson, Sheb Wooley’s widow, revealed after his death that it was indeed Sheb’s voice on the soundtrack of countless classics, hits, and misses in cinema history. 

Wooley was the musician who brought the quirky cult tune “Purple People Eater” into our musical vocabulary.

For 61 years, actually 63 years counting before it had a name, this horrifying bellow in film has been our sound friend in movies.

So where will The Wilhelm Scream appear next?

Is it in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar? Is it in Still Alice (answer: no way)? How about Gone Girl (would have been awesome)?

Put your money on the 2014 release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, Or just keep your ear to the screen for The Wilhelm Scream, the distant echo in film history when a man was eaten by alligators to the searing sound of Sheb Wooley’s gut-tensing vibrato… a guy whose vocal talents were such that he specialized in ‘dying,’ ‘laughing,’ basically various sane and insane flavors of human agony.

Now you know what to listen for… 


# # #



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About Quendrith Johnson

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