One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1954 sci-fi/monster thriller, Them! That’s the one about nuclear testing in the New Mexico desert causing common ants to mutate into nine-foot giants. One thing about it that always struck me as funny was that the scream uttered by the sailor being mauled by a giant ant aboard a ship sounded exactly like the scream uttered by co-star James Whitmore as he is being mauled by a giant ant in a storm drain, which sounded exactly like the scream uttered by a soldier when a wooden beam falls on him in the same storm drain. Well, guess what, they were all the same. Let me tell you about the Wilhelm Scream.
A PURPLE PEOPLE EATER?
The scream in question is a stock sound effect in Hollywood and has been used in numerous movies and TV series. Its introduction came about in the 1951 western, Distant Drums, starring Gary Cooper. The scream was voiced by actor/singer Sheb Wooley, who had a small role in the film. You may remember Wooley for his popular hit song about a “one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater.”
Afterward, Warner Bros. added the scream to its stock sound library, and in 1953 it was used in another western, The Charge at Feather River, by a character named Private Wilhelm. It has been known as the Wilhelm Scream to this day, and is still in use. A sound designer named Ben Burtt, best known for his involvement in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, is credited with naming the scream.
I could rattle off a whole bunch of popular TV shows and films where the Wilhelm Scream is used, but for the most part I would have no idea when it would show up…except for this example. Near the end of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, remember when villainous Molo Ram of the Thugee cult falls off the precarious rope bridge into the waiting jaws of some hungry crocodiles? Yep, that’s the Wilhelm Scream he’s supposedly voicing.
Or even easier, go to the Wilhelm Scream page on Wikipedia, where you’ll find a two-second version of it. Really, that’s how long—or short—it is. Not exactly Fay Wray when King Kong shows up for their date…but effective enough.