Death Rattle

Nonfiction by Benjamin Kessler

Graffiti cartoon of a man screaming.

Eventually, I will die.

And when that happens I want to die screaming.

I want to die like Sheb Wooley.

If you don’t recognize that name, ask your parents. They may know him as the actor who played the ailing principal in the seminal 1986 film Hoosiers. Further back, your grandparents might recall television appearances where he performed his hit song “The Purple People Eater,” which topped Billboard charts in the summer of 1958.

Though even if you can’t pick poor Sheb from a lineup of two, you’ve certainly heard his voice. You’ve heard it so much, in fact, that you can probably summon it from memory, despite never having seen it come from his own mouth.

Wooley, in only his sixth Hollywood film role, landed an uncredited part in the Gary Cooper Western Distant Drums, released in 1951. The film itself is classic cowboy fare, unremarkable save for one now-legendary scene. Sheb, playing the dispensable Army ranger Private Jessup, brings up the rear as his unit wades through a Florida swamp. Then, after a quick cut to stock footage of an alligator, Wooley is pulled into the water and eaten, emitting the infamous sound that would come to be known as the Wilhelm Scream. It was this moment, captured on acetate, that would make Wooley both infamous and faceless.

It’s a three-part thing, the Scream, an undulating wave of low-high-low. It sounds a bit like a yodel, but cut off prematurely, as though the source of the noise is falling down a deep well. It is, to some ears, the most quintessentially perfect stock sound effect ever put to tape. As such, it has been used countless times, in everything from Star Wars to Toy Story to Zombie Strippers.

The scream didn’t get its due (or name) until two years after its creation, when another Western, The Charge at Feather River, sampled the sound. In this film, actor Ralph Brooks (who would go on to have a long career of uncredited roles in television) is shot in the leg by an arrow while filling his pipe. Clutching the wound, Brooks—playing the namesake redshirt Private Wilhelm—is overdubbed with Wooley’s classic scream.

Neither Wooley nor Brooks’ characters were notable enough to warrant first names, yet together they spawned one of the longest running film-industry memes to ever exist.

There are hundreds of compilations of the Scream. Take a moment and Google it, though be warned that doing so will send you down a Wikipedia rabbit hole, at the bottom of which lies a many-headed hydra of classic foley.

The Scream has become so unmistakable that it represents something outside itself. To watch it “performed” is to witness the purest encapsulation of drama. The Scream feeds the primal part of our brains that wants to go out with a bang, rather than a whimper. So often we die without spectacle, lying atop a thin hospital mattress, a white sheet pulled over our faces. But in the world of the Wilhelm Scream, death is pure cinema.

The Wilhelm Scream makes me want to die spectacularly. It makes me want to die in a samurai sword fight atop a moving train, or after being thrown from a helicopter into a gurgling volcano. It makes me want to die in any way other than how Sheb Wooley actually passed: prostrate and bedbound from leukemia in 2003. His last words, if he had any, were not an utterance of the Scream that had given him eternal life. Rather, they were likely a request for water, another blanket, to turn the air conditioning down.

That fate seems far more terrifying than alligators. That we would rather end our lives with greater intention is admirable, even if the only thing left behind is our final pained wailing.

Perhaps it should have been the Wilhelm Scream that was sent up with Voyager I, etched into the grooves of the Golden Record. I can think of no better representation of our urge for pageantry, our desire to cry out and be remembered.


Benjamin Kessler‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, DIAGRAM, Hobart, Entropy, and Pithead Chapel, among others. He lives, writes, and parents a hedgehog in Portland, Oregon.

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

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