Wilhelm Scream – Is It The Purple People Eater?

The Wilhelm Scream is probably the most famous scream in the world – after Edvard Munch’s painting of ‘The Scream’, that is. Although you may not know it, if you have watched more than a handful of movies during your lifetime, you have almost certainly heard the Wilhelm Scream at some point…

Foley’s Choice Of Scream

When a movie goes to post-production, teams of audio technicians and Foley artists step in to imbue it with sonic details that deliver a more immersive and realistic theatrical experience. Although Foley artists do create sounds specifically for particular scenes, it is also common practise to pull stock sound effects out of sample libraries when required, as this saves both time and money.

Screams can be hard to get right, so rather than bringing in an actor to record a new scream, producers will often choose to pull one from stock. In terms of popularity, and the number of films in which it has appeared, the Wilhelm scream stands out as a clear leader.

Wilhelm’s Silver Scream

The Wilhelm scream was given its name by Ben Burtt when he was creating sound effects for the first Star Wars movie (1977). Whilst searching the audio archives, he came across the original recording of the scream, made in 1951 for the film ‘Distant Drums’.

The scream was originally called ‘man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams’, but Burtt decided to call it Wilhelm after the character of Private Wilhem in the 1953 movie ‘The Charge At Feather River’. Wilhelm emits the scream after being hit in the leg by an arrow, and the producers decided to use the scream from ‘Distant Drums’, beginning a chain of appearances for Wilhelm that continues to this day.

Burtt liked the scream so much that he used it in several films, including all of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. Quentin Tarantino used the Wilhelm scream in ‘Reservoir Dogs’, and Peter Jackson included it in ‘The Two Towers’ and ‘Return of the King’.

Is It A Screaming Sheb?

The identity of the artist who performed the Wilhelm is not exactly documented, but the most likely candidate is Sheb Wooley, an actor and musician who appeared in several Westerns, including ‘High Noon’ (1953) and ‘Distant Drums’ (1951).

However, he is most famous for his song ‘Purple People Eater’. This is a novely song that went to number one in the United States in 1958 and stayed there for six weeks, selling 3 million copies in the process. It was so successful that it was even made into a movie, in which Wooley also starred.


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