A simple sound effect—a man's brief, agonizing cry while being attacked by an alligator—has become a Hollywood in-joke, a stock piece of audio for science fiction and western movies, a good luck charm for various filmmakers and has even inspired the name of a Massachusetts-based rock band.
The Wilhelm Scream, as the sound effect is known, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which featured the aforementioned alligator attack (above). It is actually one of a series of six screams the movie’s sound department recorded with singer and actor Sheb Wooley at Warner Bros. Wooley’s distinctive “ah-AYE!-uh” was subsequently used for—and got its name from—The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.
The scream was used throughout the 1950s in westerns like The Command (1954), science fiction tales like Them! (1954), war movies like The Sea Chase (1955) and even a big-budget musical. In A Star is Born (1954), the scream is heard twice—in a screening room where studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) is watching a western and in “the production number to end all production numbers,” Judy Garland’s around-the-world song “Somewhere There’s a Someone.”
In later years, the audio effect was revived by sound designer Ben Burtt and used in Star Wars (1977), every Star Wars sequel and every Indiana Jones film. To date, the Wilhelm Scream has been heard in more than 200 movies and television shows.
Here’s a sampling of its use over the years.