The True Story Behind The Wilhelm Scream

According to IMDb, the Wilhelm scream has been used in 547 films and TV shows since the early 1950s. What exactly is the Wilhelm scream? Mental Floss writes that it's a sound effect that is primarily heard when a character falls down or is shot. It can be found in popular films such as "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood," "Toy Story," "Titanic," "The Lord of the Ring," and many more. Per All That's Interesting, the sound originated in 1951 thanks to "Distant Drums" a western starring Gary Cooper. In the film, a group of soldiers is making its way through a swamp when one of them is dramatically munched on by an alligator.

The soldier then lets out a short but noteworthy scream. As sound effects were often recorded in post-production, Far Out Magazine reports that it's widely believed that actor and singer Sheb Wooley (fun fact: you likely know his only notable hit — "The Purple People Eater") was responsible for the scream. The sound subsequently became property of Warner Brothers and was used repeatedly by the studio. In 1953, the sound was featured in "The Charge at Feather River" when a character named Private Wilhelm gets injured by an arrow (via Insider). Thus, the distinct yelp became known as the Wilhelm scream.

The Wilhelm scream is an inside joke in Hollywood

Insider reports that it was sound designer Ben Burtt (seen above) who named the screech the Wilhelm scream after the character in "The Charge at Feather River." Burtt became fascinated with the sound when he realized that it was used in various Warner Brothers films (via The Washington Post). As he explained, "some character would fall off a cliff or get shot off a horse, and it'd be the same scream." Burtt and his friend Richard L. Anderson began using the sound in student films when they were at the University of Southern California. It soon became a running gag.

He ultimately revived the joke for a small film called Star Wars. According to Far Out Magazine, Burtt used the sound in a scene where Luke shoots a stormtrooper. Since then, it's been in nearly every film in the "Star Wars" series. As his old friend Anderson also worked in the industry, they would slip the Wilhelm scream into their films and call each other to ask if they had heard it.

Now used in both big franchises and lower-budget films, the Wilhelm scream can be compared to a meme before memes were even a thing (per All That's Interesting). Burt said he never intended the joke to go so far but notes that "it escaped into the world." Nonetheless, he's proud that the Wilhelm scream has left its mark in film history.