Does That Scream Sound Familiar?

You've probably heard the Wilhelm scream -- if you've been to the movies.

ByABC News

Oct. 14, 2007 — -- You've probably never heard of it by name, but if you saw "Star Wars," "Indiana Jones" or even "Toy Story," you've heard the Wilhelm scream.

Hollywood's best known sound effect has been heard by millions of people who probably don't know that they're listening to a little piece of film history.

Watch Brian Rooney's report on the Wilhelm scream tonight on "World News." Check your local listings for air time.

The scream was recorded in 1951 for "Distant Drums," a western directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Gary Cooper as a captain who leads a group of soldiers on a mission to defend 19th century Florida settlers from Seminole Indians.

During one scene, a soldier is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator and he screams the whole way down. The soldier may have died, but a new star was born.

After "Distant Drums," the scream stayed quiet for a couple of years until 1953, when a soldier named Pvt. Wilhelm (played by Ralph Brooks in "The Charge at Feather River") got shot in the leg by an arrow. Sound editors needed a good scream and decided to reuse the one from "Distant Drums."

In fact, the scream worked so well, it became a go-to for sound editors. The blood-curdling shriek was heard in "Them!" in 1954, "Land of the Pharaohs" in 1955 and "The Green Berets" in 1963, without anyone catching on.

Nobody, that is, except Ben Burtt, a budding sound editor and sound effects buff at the University of Southern California. Burtt started to notice the distinctive scream popping up everywhere.

While researching in the Warner Bros. sound archives, he tracked down the original recording and called it "Wilhelm" after the soldier in "The Charge at Feather River."

Burtt decided to continue the tradition of sticking the scream into soundtracks. He got it into many of the films he worked on, including all of the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" films.

His friend from USC, Richard Anderson, decided to get in on the joke when the two worked together on "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). Anderson has since used Wilhelm in "Poltergeist" (1982), "Batman Returns" (1992), "Planet of the Apes" (2001) and "Madagascar" (2005), among others.

Directors including Robert Rodriguez, Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino have used the scream too.

"The scream just got to be an inside joke," said Anderson, "It's so over the top and so funny."

According to, "Wilhelm" has been used in 112 films and TV shows in all, and that's not including its stints in theme parks and commercials.

So who is responsible for the scream heard by movie-goers 'round the world? The truth is no one really knows -- but everyone's best guess is a voice artist and singer by the name of Sheb Wooley, most famous for his one-hit wonder "Flying Purple People Eater." Wooley was one of the few actors called back to do voice cuts for "Distant Drums," and so it is likely he was asked to scream as if he were being pulled underwater by an alligator.

Little did he know that his cut would go on to successfully scare more than 50 years later.

To hear the scream, CLICK HERE

ABC News' Brian Rooney and Hanna Siegel contributed to this report.

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