“We mustn’t scream at each other, the walls in this house have ears.”
—Tennessee Williams in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
“If there is one sound that follows the march of humanity, it is the scream.”
“Laughter is just a slowed down scream…”
Scientists say the loudest living thing on earth is the blue whale—whose vocalizations can reach 188 decibels and have been recorded 500 miles away. Perhaps, but the whale’s low-frequency noises are pretty much below human hearing—much like the sound of a woman asking her husband to take out the garbage.
But when it comes to all-out audible screaming—the noise that most mammals make when they are scared, embarrassed, thrilled or goosed—my personal vote for loudest of all creatures goes to Tom Walker.
Walker was a kid who lived three blocks away in my old neighborhood. He was the Babe Ruth of yowlers. Even at ten years old, Walker had the loudest scream I have ever heard on a living creature—including hyenas, wolves, elephants and Jamie Lee Curtis.
Young Walker’s soaring human loudspeaker was perhaps even more strident than a howler monkey, whose screech is said to be just under a train—especially if the howler monkey is under a train.
But Walker’s scream was not the result of suffering or fear—it was just something he liked to do. He knew he was gifted at it, and he loved to show it off.
One day, to fully test the reach of Walker’s mighty holler, some friends and I positioned him atop a 300-foot cinder cone—a butte— that sat on the outskirts of our little town. Placing ourselves at the foot of the hill we waited to see if we could hear his scream from so far. It was no contest.
In fact, a nearby neighbor called the police, certain that a murder was taking place on top of the hill. But even the police siren was drowned out by Walker’s ear-splitting wail. When the cops finally showed up at the peak, Walker—standing alone—just shrugged and said he had not heard anything, but would certainly report in if he did.
I thought about the legendary Tom Walker recently when I came across something called “The Wilhelm Scream.” It’s a sound effect that was first used in a movie from 1953 called The Charge at Feather River. In this NOT-Oscar-nominated film, a character named Wilhelm gets shot in his leg with an arrow—and screams out in pain. After all, it was not one of those arrows with the suction cup on the end.
This is it:
Since its debut, this unremarkable screech has been used in over 300 movies—even some you’ve heard of—including several Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, Batman Returns, Toy Story and more. (For the record, the “Wilhelm Scream” was never used on TV’s The Apprentice—in which Donald Trump did his own yelping.)
Most people believe the guy who recorded the original scream was a musician and voice actor named Sheb Wooley. Some say Sheb was not his real name. Sedro maybe.
Sheb Wooley had one big number one hit song in 1958: “The Purple People Eater.”
This is it:
The same Mr. Wooley also recorded the so-called “Wilhelm Scream”—a painful cry that has been featured in more movies than Johnny Depp, but without the billing.
A person with nothing better to do put a compilation of the many appearances of the “Wilhelm Scream” together on You Tube. If you have nothing better to do, check it out:
If he had been born in an earlier time—and circumstances had been favorable—Tom Walker, and not Sheb Wooley, might have been the author of the most famous scream in the movies. Whether it was an “Aaay!”an “Eeoww!”or even an “Aargh!”—Tom Walker could have delivered it with gusto and volume.
I’ve lost track of Walker over the years, but I like to think he’s still out there somewhere—shouting at slow traffic, bawling about the IRS—or screaming at kids to get off his lawn.
And everyone within miles would know him as “Old Yeller.”