Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Ever since I set my phone sms tone to the Wilhelm Scream, I've noticed the ear piercing movie and video game sample all over the place. It was actually Massachusetts punk-rock band A Wilhelm Scream that first turned me on to the legendary sample. Intrigued by the band name, I Googled and discovered it was a kind of in-joke movie scream sample used in films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones - but I had no idea the joke was still running.

Now that the scream means a new text message in my inbox, my ears have pricked up to the sound, singling it out from the crowd and often reaching for my phone in vain. Recently, I heard the Wilhelm Scream in video games God of War 3 and Red Dead Redemption - it's all over Red Dead. But where did it come from? And who's the screamer?

Recorded in a single take by actor Sheb Wooley, the sample was first used in director Raoul Walsh's 1951 western Distant Drums, to vocalise a character being torn apart by an alligator. The sound effect was originally named "Man Getting Bit By An Alligator, And He Screams."

Then in 1953, director Gordon Douglas used the sample in The Charge at Feather River. Legendary sound designer Ben Burtt (who created the lightsaber hum, R2D2's "voice" and Darth Vader's breathing sounds) named the sample after a minor character in the film, Private Wilhelm, who emits the scream when he's killed by an arrow.

The sample became famous in the '70s/'80s when Burtt rediscovered it, now named "Man Being Eaten By Alligator," and used it in the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies. Nowadays, the sample has become a kind of cliché traditionally used when characters are killed by arrows, fall to their deaths from a great height or get blown up. But really, it's an industry inside-joke used tongue-in-cheek in video games like Red Dead Redemption and cartoons like American Dad.

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