I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“MAN GETS EATEN BY AN ALLIGATOR”: The Wilhelm Scream


by Casey Dewey
June 6, 2013

At some point in 1997 my friends and I were debating the merits of the remastered, souped-up re-releases of George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy. We discussed the issues of introducing Jabba the Hutt in the first film, how the CGI-enhanced added TIE-Fighters was a positive addition, and we lamented the loss of the Ewok’s “Yub-Yub” song at the end of Return of the Jedi. On Jedi, one of my friends said “With all of the stuff Lucas added visually, couldn’t they have at least changed Boba Fett’s pussy-ass scream when he died?” Little did we know at the time that the “pussy-ass scream” was in fact the legendary Wilhelm Scream.

What is the Wilhelm Scream? Trust me, you’ve heard this sound effect over a thousand times. You’ve heard it in every single Star Wars film, even the dreaded new trilogy. You’ve heard it in all of the Indiana Jones movies, you’ve heard it in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and also The Hobbit. You’ve heard it in most Quentin Tarantino movies. You’ve heard it when Harold and Kumar went to White Castle. You’ve heard it when you’ve played the video games Red Dead Redemption, God of War or Mass Effect. You’ve heard it on the small screen and you’ve heard it when you were stoned out of your mind when you were watching cartoons.

So, what does it sound like?

Allow me, if I may, to demonstrate.

Cough, cough. Ahem.

“EYYYYYYYYYAAGHHHH!!!!!”

That my friends, is the Wilhelm Scream.

Take it back, way back. The year is 1951 and a Western called Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper, is being shot in the Florida Everglades. A scene calls for a group of soldiers to ruck through the dense, Everglade swamp. One unlucky bastard gets snagged by an alligator and is dragged underwater and presumably, eaten alive. This specific scene, titled “MAN GETS EATEN BY AN ALLIGATOR”, was the first to utilize the scream, and was recorded specifically for the alligator feast. But Distant Drums didn’t make the Wilhelm Scream infamous, nor is that the source of it’s iconic name. Take my hand and let’s go a little further.

It is now 1953 and another Western is being filmed, this time in 3-D. It’s called The Charge at Feather River and it’s not that significant, except this is the film where the scream gets its name.

A man is shot in the chest with an arrow and falls a remarkable distance. He screams. It’s the same scream the soldier emits when he becomes the alligator’s dinner in Distant Drums. The character’s name that gets it by an arrow and howls in pain? Pvt. Wilhelm.

Sound designer extraordinaire Ben Burtt, the man responsible for the bleeps and bloops of R2-D2 and many of the other recognizable sound effects in the Star Wars saga, stumbled upon a can of film at a studio marked “MAN GETS EATEN BY AN ALLIGATOR”. Burtt learned what films up to that point had included the scream, and it was Burtt that dubbed it the Wilhelm Scream after watching The Charge at Feather River. Soon enough, Burtt was including in it any film he could. When an Intergalactic Stormtrooper was knocked down from a laserblast on the Death Star, there’s the scream. Same when Nazi fell off a cliff in Raiders from the Lost Ark. Soon enough, the Wilhelm Scream was the favorite in-joke of the sound designer community. It was both an ode to the cheesiness of film’s past and ode to a few films made by Lucas and Steven Spielberg that redefined the blockbuster.

So, who’s pipes are we constantly hearing? Good question. It could very well be Sheb Wooley, the kooky kookster behind the novelty hit “Purple People Eater.” After digging through some paperwork at Warner Brothers, Burtt found Wooley’s name on a shortlist of actors recording snippets of sound elements in an overdubbing studio for Distant Drums. According to Wooley’s widow, it was indeed her wacky Wooley who recorded the scream. Think about that for a second. The Wilhelm Scream and Purple People Eater are one in the same. Damn, sometimes life is just too crazy.

"The Decatur Daily, Ala., column: There's no scream like a Wilhelm scream." Decatur Daily, The (AL) 23 Apr. 2009

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream
Casey Dewey resides in Tucson, Arizona. He's a film writer for the Tucson Weekly and host of "Deep Red Radio" , a radio show dedicated to film soundtracks on 91.3 KXCI FM. He enjoys tacos, cervezas and garlic in everything. He wakes up every morning to a fresh pot of black coffee and at least two hours of Dragnet on TV.