The Wilhelm scream has become a well-known cinematic sound cliché, and is claimed to have been used in over 140 films, as well as every episode of Primeval, and in some form, every episode of The Middleman.
The sound effect originates from a series of sound effects recorded for the 1951 film Distant Drums. In a scene from the film, soldiers are wading through a swamp in the everglades and one of them is bitten and dragged underwater by an alligator. The scream for that scene was recorded later in a single take along with five other short pained screams, which were slated as "man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams." The fifth scream was used for the soldier in the alligator scene—but the 4th, 5th, and 6th screams recorded in the session were also used earlier in the film—when three Indians are shot during a raid on a fort. Although takes 4 through 6 are the most recognizable, all of the screams are referred to as "Wilhelm" by those in the sound community.
The Wilhelm scream's revival came from motion picture sound designer Ben Burtt, who re-discovered the original recording (which he found as a studio reel labeled "Man being eaten by alligator") and incorporated it into a scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker shoots a Stormtrooper who screams as he falls. Burtt named the scream after Private Wilhelm, a minor character who emitted the same scream in the 1953 film The Charge at Feather River. Burtt began incorporating the effect in other films he worked on, including most projects involving George Lucas and/or Steven Spielberg. Other sound designers picked up on the effect, and inclusion of the sound in films became a tradition among the community of sound designers.
Although the identity of the individual who recorded the scream (or more correctly, the entire series of screams) is unknown, Burtt uncovered documentation suggesting the scream might have been recorded by singer-actor Sheb Wooley. Burtt discovered a file at Warner Brothers that contained paperwork from the editor of Distant Drums. Amongst the paperwork was a short list of names of actors who were scheduled to come in to perform various lines of dialogue for miscellaneous roles in the movie. After reviewing the actors' names and listening to their voices, Burtt determined that Sheb Wooley seemed to be the most likely suspect. Wooley played the uncredited role of Private Jessup in Distant Drums, and was one of the few actors assembled for the recording of additional vocal elements for the film. It is conceivable that he was asked to perform additional vocal elements, including the screams for a man being bitten by an alligator.
As the popularity of the screams has grown from a movie industry in-joke into being public knowledge, the screams have started to make appearances outside of film and TV – most notably in popular music. A few examples include the songs "Wilhelm Scream Dream Team" by We Be The Echo and "Yinxianghechengqi" by Tortoise. The band A Wilhelm Scream takes their name from the effect.