Frequently used in situations where someone falls from a great height or is shot or possibly even blown up, its unique shriek usually reflects the unpleasant death of a sacrificial subordinate in a tense scene, thus serving as stark reminder to both the audience and the protagonists of the seriousness of their situation.
The origins of this modern day scream meme are a little hazy, but it’s generally believed to have its beginnings in a movie called Distant Drums, made in 1951. At about the 45 minute mark, as Gary Cooper leads a band of American soldiers and their rescued companions through the dangerous Florida Everglades, the last of the group is picked off by an alligator and yelps helplessly as he’s dragged underwater, barrel-rolled, then more or less dismembered. All implied tastefully of course by lots of ripped up clothing floating to the surface.
Oklahoma-born actor and country-western singer Sheb Wooley played the poor Private Jessup and was uncredited in the movie. However, his hapless demise was not in vain. This expendable extra may not have had much of a speaking part, but what he did do was unwittingly create a cry of anguish that would establish itself in the annals of cinematic history.
Wooley reportedly recorded the scream in post-production after the scene was shot, together with five variations, all of which were saved on a studio reel labeled “man being eaten by alligator” and placed in the Warner Brothers stock sound library at some point in the next two years.
In the years that followed, the woeful wail was used exclusively by Warner Brothers in a number of movies, the most notable of which was in the 1953 western The Charge at Feather River when Private Wilhelm, played by Ralph Brooks, was struck in the leg with an arrow. Other worthy examples from that era include Them! in 1954, Land of the Pharaohs in 1955, and The Green Berets in 1963.
Then, in the early 70s, a group of young sound designers at the University of Southern California, including Ben Burtt, Rick Mitchell, and Richard Anderson, recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in the films they were watching.
Unaware at that time of its debut in Distant Drums, they coined it the "Wilhelm scream" after The Charge at Feather River and kept the in-joke going, incorporating it into their early films. A few years later, Burtt discovered the original recording in the Warner Brothers archives during some research for a science fiction project called Star Wars he was working on for fellow USC alum, George Lucas. As a hat-tip to his friends, he included the scream, which can be heard when an Imperial Stormtrooper is shot and falls off a ledge and into a chasm moments before Luke and Leia swing across it as they make their way to the Millennium Falcon to escape the Death Star.
Over the next decade, Burtt began incorporating the sound effect in other films he worked on, namely most projects involving George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, including the rest of the Star Wars movies and the Indiana Jones saga. Other sound designers picked up on the effect and its inclusion in movies became a tradition among the community.
It’s thought to have been heard in over 200 movies and the IMDb currently lists over 300 examples, including TV episodes, animations, and so on. It’s also cropped up in some more unlikely places from a band name, to a beer and a song title.
From a stormtrooper getting shot by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars to a Nazi scientist being disintegrated as he’s sucked into an open portal to the Seven Gods of Chaos in Hellboy, the often-overlooked Wilhelm scream has served pop-culture well. As Hollywood has grown, many directors, like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers have sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a nod to Burtt and this epic scream of the silver screen.