Sheb Wooley: King of Screams

By Emma Hutchings

Fay Wray of King Kong (1933) fame may historically be known as the Scream Queen but the King of Screams is undoubtedly a less-talked-about star of the Western genre called Sheb Wooley; the  man behind the voice of the Wilhelm scream. Not sure if you even know what the Wilhelm scream is? I promise you, you do… 

A Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into the depths of the Death Star. Buzz Lightyear is knocked out of a bedroom window. Indiana Jones crashes into a band in a nightclub. Legolas climbs a Mumakil and throws one of its riders to the ground. Chances are you’ve viewed all of these popular movie moments more than once but did you recognise their common denominator? A high-pitched, drawn-out, comedic scream that unites over 200 films, TV shows and video games over the past 60 years including numerous Hollywood blockbusters. 

This commonly-used cry, known to those who care about such things as the Wilhelm scream, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which starred Gary Cooper. The scream’s premiere scene involved a soldier who was bitten by an alligator and dragged underwater – reason enough to let out a hair-raising yelp I’m sure you’ll agree. The stock sound effect, however, was deemed so atmospheric that it was then archived in Warner Bros’ sound effects library and used in many subsequent productions for the studio throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Sound designer Ben Burtt discovered the recording and decided to incorporate it into the films he worked on. It was he, so the story goes, that named it after the character Private Wilhelm – a character who was shot in the leg by an arrow in the film The Charge at Feather River (1953). Burtt then adopted the scream, inserting it into all of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films and many other works of the Lucas / Spielberg ilk. Perhaps most importantly it features in Howard the Duck (1986). Burtt’s friend Richard Anderson also began using it, continuing his tradition. As it grew increasingly familiar amongst the sound community and appeared in a large variety of films other editors began to use it because of its history and its prominence, some directors have even requested it by name.  For the record when Burtt originally found the sound file it was labelled as “Man being eaten by alligator”, a very difficult tagline to resist! 

The man behind the scream, the aforementioned Sheb Wooley, was unknown for a long time. Ben Burtt researched the names of the voice artists who had provided various sounds for Distant Drums and the most likely candidate was Wooley, a character actor and singer. Wooley played a villain in the classic Western High Noon (1952) and appeared in the TV series Rawhide as scout Pete Nolan. He played an uncredited role in Distant Drums and recorded additional vocals for the film. His widow, Linda Dotson, later confirmed that it was his bloodcurdling scream that had been used in this and many other old Westerns. 

That notorious “Aaaarrrgghh!” can be heard in Reservoir Dogs (1992), The Fifth Element (1997), Gremlins 2 (1990), Team America: World Police (2004), Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), Sin City (2005), Up (2009) and many other titles. The most recent occurrence I’ve heard was in Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s Paul (2011) and once you know about the Wilhelm scream it becomes a little bit of a sad obsession.  You find yourself listening out for it in the most unlikely genres: rom-coms, documentaries, coming of age masterpieces. Before you know it you too will be watching this Youtube montage on repeat or simply clicking here so you can listen to the sound to your heart’s content. Such is the odd destiny of the wayward cinephile.

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