If you don’t recognise this phrase, you’ve almost certainly heard the scream it describes. Often used for characters being wounded, killed, or falling from great heights, the distinctive “Agghaahuh!” (or nearest approximation) has become so recognisable as to be something of an audible meme.
First recorded for the 1951 Gary Cooper throwaway vehicle Distant Drums by actor and singer Sheb Wooley, it was noticed in 1971 by sound designer Ben Burtt, then a student at the University of Southern California (USC), as the scream emitted by the character Private Wilhelm in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River, thus gaining its name.
Burtt would go on to use the effect in Star Wars in 1977, in the famous Death Star sequence in which Luke Skywalker shoots a stormtrooper, who issues the scream while falling into a shaft.
Burtt included it as an in-joke for his USC friends, and would go on to use it in a number of other films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. It has since been used in over 100 films, often enough by other filmmakers that it’s perhaps one of the most identifiable sound effects in history.
Sheb Wooley, the proud originator of cinema's most famous squeal. He shall not age as others do.
Skywalker shoots the stormtrooper, and the Wilhelm scream’s place in history is secured.