Why I Want to be a Science-y Lemming

The 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Disney’s White Winter, largely for the wonderful exploration the film made of the strange case of lemming mass suicide. It is one of those fascinating oddities of nature, this little rodent that heads off overpopulation by sacrificing huge numbers of its own into the sea every seven to ten years. Narrator Winston Hibler plays up the drama of such an event, speaking of the thousands of little creatures following one another to their deaths.

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Lemming not in the process of committing suicide. Argus fin [Public domain]
It is a striking image for sure, one that since that documentary has come to symbolize the human phenomenon of group think. As strange as lemming behavior may seem to our larger human brains, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to it. We like to be part of a group, to share in the camaraderie of a single purpose.

At times, that can be a great thing about humans. Together, large group of individuals united in a single purpose can turn the tide of public opinion form wrong thinking into righteous action. And there’s been a lot of good accomplished in the world because of that. For example, the US Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.

But there’ve also been plenty of devastating events throughout history that have resulted from people en masse running headlong into atrocity, chucking their individual ideologies in favor of the group. The Holocaust might be one especially alarming example.

But for better or worse, human nature does things like that. We glom onto the herd and head for the cliff. Sorry to say it Moms everywhere, but yes, if our friends jump off a bridge, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to do it, too. It’s just that lemming-like part of our brains.

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I mean, it looks fun, yeah? photo credit: jeffschwartz decisive moment via photopin (license)

Except that Disney kind of misled us about the lemmings.

I’m embarrassed to admit this story came as somewhat of a shock to me when I stumbled across it a little while back. Though I don’t use it beyond occasionally attempting to give myself a little credibility when writing about science-y kinds of things, I do have a degree in zoology and frankly, lemmings committing mass suicide doesn’t make a lot of sense from a science-y perspective. But I never gave it any thought. Everyone knows lemmings run off cliffs and drown themselves in the ocean.

Of course, lemmings don’t really do that. It turns out the creators of White Winter collected a dozen or so lemmings from local Inuit children and in an Alaskan location that was neither by the ocean nor the natural home of said lemmings, used fancy camera angles and some elbow grease to make it look like the little critters ran gleefully to their own altruistic deaths. In fact, the animals were thrown into a river by the filmmakers. And an Academy Award was won.

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And the award for Best Animal Cruelty in a Nature Documentary goes to. . .

I mean I guess if everyone thinks it’s a good idea to fling a bunch of helpless rodents into the water, it must really be a great idea.

To be fair, the documentary does suggest that mass suicide isn’t the best way to describe what the lemmings are allegedly doing. They are dispersing, or at least they might have been if the documentary had actually captured natural lemming behavior in the wild. For those of you without a science-y zoology degree, that just means the animals spread out over a wider area when their population becomes too dense. Sometimes when they do that, they’ll come upon a body of water in their way, and if they have to, they’ll swim. Some of them might even drown in the process.

But fancy filmmaking, which if you don’t consider the unethical choices made regarding wildlife might have been a good choice for Academy Award recognition, seems much fancier if it tells an awesome story. True wildlife filming is hard, because as anyone who watched that dreadfully boring television experiment in which National Geographic aired continual live footage of Yellowstone National Park can tell you, nature doesn’t just start acting all science-y the moment the director calls, “Action!”

Thinking is hard, too. I mean like really thinking, of the kind humans do when we listen to multiple perspectives even when we’re pretty sure some of those perspectives are being offered up by complete idiots. Or like when we conduct our own research on a controversial issue, looking to primary sources whenever possible and honestly challenging our own assertions. And boy here in the US for sure, and I suspect around the world as well, we have lots of groups shouting at us to throw ourselves off the cliff with the rest of the right-thinking people.

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Admittedly this doesn’t look like as much fun as jumping off a bridge, but it doesn’t look so terrible, either.

I suggest instead, we take another more important and much more science-y lesson from our friends the lemmings. Maybe instead of bunching up in the same place we’ve been, where we’re being crushed by the same ideas shouted louder and louder, we should take a moment to step back, to get away, to put some distance between ourselves and the mob.

Yes, we might come upon a body of water. But I think having a little more elbow room, and listening to our own voices for a change, might be worth the swim.

I Hope I Didn’t Ruin It

In 1906, Englishman George Albert Smith invented the Kinemacolor contraption for producing films in color. Smith was building on the ideas of Edward Turner who had done something similar in 1902, but passed away shortly after. For a good six years, Smith took the world of cinema if not by storm, then at least by steady shower.

Other techniques came along and soon surpassed the abilities of the Kinemacolor, and the world of cinema moved on and kind of forgot George Albert Smith. But film historians are beginning now to resurrect his work and have rediscovered how truly innovative and influential he was, not just because of the Kinemacolor, but also because with a previous career in hypnotism, Smith’s work had a sense of whimsy and wonder that was unique to film at the time.

Among some of his advances is the first ever use of parallel action in a film, which he did in the 1898 Santa Claus. And this is where I think the story gets really interesting, because even though no actual film historians that I found have made this claim, I think this man Smith basically invented the Hallmark Christmas Movie.

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Every Hallmark Christmas movie also includes a whimsical scene in which a Christmas tree is decorated. At least one person ends up wrapped in garland. And I love every moment. What?

I’m sure you know what I’m talking about—those feel-good movies that you can’t help but turn on this time of year, even though you know exactly how they’re going to end. This is where I give you a “spoiler alert” warning, just in case you don’t know that the pretty career girl turns down the big promotion to pursue a relationship with the handsome, rustic single dad who reminds her of the true meaning of Christmas, works tirelessly to save the small town’s endangered holiday festival, and has a cute kid who wants her to celebrate with them. Did I ruin it? Sorry about that.

Obviously, George Albert Smith didn’t manage such an intricate plot in a film that lasts about one minute and sixteen seconds, but he did choose the right topic if he wanted to evoke a sense of wonder. The basic plot of his movie, in case you don’t have one minute and sixteen seconds to spare, is that a nanny tucks two children into bed, Santa comes down the chimney and leaves them presents, and they wake up to a great deal of Christmas joy.

It is likely that this is the first Christmas story ever shared in the medium of film, though the tradition certainly took off. From It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street to yet another version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, we love our Christmas movies.

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I bet even this guy likes to watch Hallmark Christmas movies. photo credit: H. Bos Dickens Festival 2015 via photopin (license)

It doesn’t really take much this time of year to conjure feelings of joy. No sophisticated plots or complicated emotional twists required. Even for those among us who find the holiday difficult or don’t celebrate it for one reason or another, it’s hard to shut out the warm fuzzies entirely. In those parts of the world where Christmas is widely observed, there is enough general holly jolly to penetrate nearly every heart. And if not, there are well over a hundred versions of A Christmas Carol to cheer your inner Scrooge.

But just to warn you, that one comes with a happy ending, too—Ebenezer Scrooge, the single-minded career man is reminded of the true meaning of Christmas and learns to open his heart to his family and friends, mostly because of a cute kid who loves Christmas and wants Scrooge to celebrate it with them. I hope I didn’t ruin it.

Coming Soon . . .

In 1913, Marcus Loews, founder of Loew’s Theatres and later the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film studio, hired a young press agent named Nils Granlund to market a vaudeville show called Hanky Panky. Granlund must have turned out to be pretty good at his job because he was soon promoted to publicity manager for all of Loew’s Theatres.

In this position, Granlund used live revues to encourage more interest in some of Loew’s underperforming theaters. Then he thought further outside the box and spliced together some rehearsal footage from the Broadway show The Pleasure Seekers and tacked it onto the end of a film. The viewing audience was intrigued. People whispered furiously to one another to express whether or not they might want to see the play and to ask for their turn with the ultra-large mega-tub of popcorn with extra butter.

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And now I’m wondering how popcorn became so linked to movies. Also I’m a little bit hungry. via Pixabay

Okay, I don’t really know about that last part. The history of movie popcorn is another post. But the point is, the movie trailer was born. And it caught on with other promoters who, eventually moving it to the front end of the film so an audience would suffer through it, used them across the United States and throughout the world.

Of course we see trailers everywhere now. Thanks to the genius of Nils Granlund, trailers make up the first fifteen minutes of any movie-going experience. That’s just about enough time for you and your friends to get through the ultra-large mega-tub of extra buttery popcorn. Don’t worry. It comes with free refills.

Trailers are also some of the most emotionally stirring ads on television, the conversation pieces shared across social media platforms, and the third most watched type of video on the Internet, behind news and I guess maybe those hours-long YouTube productions featuring some guy playing a video game in his mother’s basement.

And though it took nearly a century for it to catch up, the book industry is now making trailers, too. Most aren’t as fancy as the slick media masterpieces made by people who know what they’re doing. Many are created by the authors themselves on shoestring budgets and with no discernible talent for movie-making.

But they serve the same purpose as both that early collection of rehearsal footage slapped together by Nils Granlund and the first glimpses of the most highly anticipated thirty-seventh retelling of the story of Spiderman. They stir in us an emotional response, and spark in us a desire to share in the enthusiasm of an artist who has poured time and energy and heart into his or her art.

So, of course, I made one.

Exactly two weeks from today my novel will make its official entrance into the world. I know that it won’t be for all of you. Every book has its reader and every reader has his or her book. But I hope you’ll watch the trailer I made on a shoestring budget and with no discernible talent for movie-making. If you do find yourself emotionally stirred or mildly interested or even if you just want to show your friends the worst example of a book trailer you’ve ever seen, I hope you’ll share it.

Thanks!

 

Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Lately my youngest son, who tends to like to play the pessimist anyway, has become obsessed with things that don’t work.  It’s something of a family joke that stems from our recent vacation to Disney World in Florida, and it started with the Big Thunder Mountain rollercoaster in the Magic Kingdom.

My son had picked out our first Fastpassed ride of the day and it was a good choice. Neither of my kids love roller coasters, but this one was just the right kind: not too fast and not too jerky, not too upside down or backwards, and not too dark.

We had a great time on the ride. Then, as soon as we exited, they shut it down temporarily because of technical difficulties. We counted ourselves pretty lucky at that point and felt it was a great start to our adventure. And it was.

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We really did have a great trip, and I don’t think we actually broke Disney World.

But it turned out that this was the beginning of a trend, because it began to seem to us that every ride we either went on or were just about to ride had to be shut down. We thought it must somehow be us.

It happened when we were in line for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Test Track, and Splash Mountain. The Kali River Rapids, Haunted Mansion, Seven Dwarf’s Minetrain, and even the Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover and the oddly fascinating Carousel of Progress, all shut down for a while not long after we exited them. And either all or part of our group was actually caught in a mid-ride shutdown on Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the Great Movie Ride, and Spaceship Earth.

It really got to be pretty funny. But our greatest shut-down adventure occurred on the Pirates of the Caribbean Ride on which we remained stuck, three boat lengths from the exit, for about half an hour.

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The live version of Captain Jack was a little less creepy.

Opened at California’s Disneyland in March of 1967 and at Florida’s Disney World in 1973, Pirates of the Caribbean is one of the older rides in the Disney collection, spawning the billion dollar movie franchise and wowing Disney guests with animatronic creepiness and complete historical accuracy.

Well, that might be a stretch (the historical accuracy, not the creepiness), but the ride does make great use of its theme song, “Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me),” written by George Bruns and Xavier Atencio, paying loose homage to that old timey sea shanty “Dead Man’s Chest.” That song, featured in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island published in 1883, has allegedly been around so long the origin of it is unknown.

Except that it’s not. Stevenson’s book itself was probably the most influential work of fiction defining the image of the Golden Age pirate until 2003 when Johnny Depp hit the big screen as Captain Jack Sparrow. It turns out Stevenson’s pirate song was pretty influential, too. When versions of it began to show up on the stage and the small screen decades later, the origin of the words had become muddled, lending credence to the rumor that this was a song that had been in the air for centuries.

And that’s how folklore is born. Because “Dead Man’s Chest” is a Stevenson original, and “Yo Ho” is a sort of Disneyfied version of it, written for use in the creeptastically wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Of course it also appears in the movies and is a favorite of Jack Sparrow’s. If you ride the attraction at Disney World, you can hear animatronic Jack sing it to a parrot while resting comfortably on a chair in a room full of treasure, about three boat lengths from the exit.disneyworldstopped

If you’re lucky enough to get stuck on the ride at that point, you might even have time to learn some of the lyrics, if you can hear them over the complaints of the nine-year-old sitting beside you insisting that he needs to use the restroom.

I have to give Disney World some credit, though.  After about fifteen or twenty minutes, they did raise the lights and turn off the sound, leaving only a kind-of-creepy Jack and his parrot moving silently to the tune. And for our trouble, we received Fastpasses that fortunately did not have to apply to the same ride.

Actually, I think it was a highlight of the trip. We got a great story out of it, a few laughs, and when anyone asks my son about his vacation, he smiles and happily responds, “We broke Disney World.”  In a strange way, the experience has even continued to help him work through his impatience since we’ve been home, too. When something doesn’t work out the way we’d planned, he shrugs and says, “We’re just experiencing technical difficulties. It figures.”

Popcorn for One

This past Saturday night, I did something new and wonderful. My husband spent the day with an old buddy of his and my children both attended an event Saturday night, so I found myself with some time on my hands at the end of a long, stressful week.

I thought about using the time to get some more long, stressful work done, but then I remembered that Beauty and the Beast was showing at the movie theater nearby and that I kind of wanted to see it, and no one else in my family did.

So, I bought a ticket and went to the movies by myself for the first time ever. Maybe it’s strange that a nearly forty-year-old American 21st century woman had never had that experience, and maybe you go to the movies by yourself all the time, but this was a first for me.

I bought some popcorn that I didn’t share with anyone. And when the person sitting beside me had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie, it wasn’t my problem.  In fact, once the lights went down and the movie started, I didn’t even notice the people next to me, because not one of them whispered to me, spilled his drink on me, or buried his eyes in my shoulder at the scary bits.

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Just one, please. With the perfect amount of butter.

I never entertained the fleeting thought that I should have chosen a different film because my movie-going neighbor clearly wasn’t enjoying this one. I just watched as the story of Belle and her Beast overwhelmed my senses and the stress of the week melted away in the dark auditorium.

And maybe that’s how it should be. After all, movie watching hasn’t always been the group activity it is today when movie-goers tend to grab their families, their sweethearts, or their rowdy group of friends, split a giant tub of popcorn, and sit back to enjoy the show.

When, on May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison first unveiled a working prototype of his laboratory’s Kinetocope, about 150 women gathered round to enjoy the experience, one at a time. The women were attending a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, and among them was Mina Edison, wife to the famous inventor.

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Edison Laboratory’s Kinetoscope, what a movie theater looked like in 1891. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The device these ladies got to see was a large box with a small peephole in the top so that one person could peer inside and see a picture that moved. Edison (and more so his assistants, William Dickson and team) wasn’t the only one making progress toward moving pictures at the time, but when the ladies got a chance to look into the box and see William Dickson waving his hat at them, it was certainly a wholly new experience for them.

And it happened to the right group. Because the National Federation of Women’s Clubs had been developed to support women’s organizations engaged in improving lives through volunteerism. These were some hard working ladies, tackling some of the biggest civic issues of the day including women’s suffrage and child welfare. They had likely come to the conference exhausted, in need of encouragement and empowerment, and also rest and refreshment.

Though the moving picture they saw lasted only a few seconds, I have to assume they enjoyed their moment of solitude and focused entertainment, when in the midst of all these many people, each lady got a turn to see Dickson’s picture greet only her.

The experience caught on. Edison’s team also patented the Kinetographic Camera and by autumn of 1892, the movie viewing system had been fitted with a nickel slot and was headed into production. The first public Kinetoscope viewing parlor opened in New York in April of 1894, and soon the machines were in several major cities and in traveling exhibits throughout the United States. Folks lined up with their nickels, often paying a whole quarter to spend a few minutes jumping down a line of movie boxes to view a series of very short films.

Personally I’d find that a little frustrating and I’m glad that film soon moved into a bigger venue that could accommodate a larger audience. If not for that, we’d never have come to enjoy the hilarity of Mystery Science Theater 3000, or gotten to listen to rustle of hundreds of newspapers unfolding at the boring part of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or squirm in discomfort when an infected someone sneezes in the crowded movie theater during Outbreak. And we’d never miss a pivotal scene in order to accompany a kid to the bathroom.

Don’t get me wrong here. I still enjoy going to the movies with my family and friends. I think I even prefer it most of the time, but this is definitely an experience I will repeat when I get the chance. The movie was good. It’s a familiar story (my friend Pat recently wrote this fascinating post showing the Beast through the years), but it was well done with talented actors, strong voices, and plenty of Disney magic performed just for me. Most importantly, I did not leave in the middle to go walk with anyone to the bathroom. And my popcorn was just the way I like it.

A Plague of Gesundheits

Sometime over the past few weeks, influenza descended in full force on our fair city, stretching across the region, flooding our doctors’ offices, our schools, and our homes. One area school even recently reported nearly 200 student absences in a single day. I probably don’t need to tell you there’s been a lot of sneezing, and a fair number of “God bless yous.”

For quite a while now my social media feed has been filled with friends lamenting that their households have fallen victim, warning those whose children have had social contact with theirs might just be next, and offering a sort of wish for good health in spite of the odds.

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Does it make me a bad person that I think this is actually kind of a relief from the political squabbling? photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

And, really, that’s what that wonderful phrase “God bless you,” is really probably all about. Though no one can say for certain exactly where it came from (even Snopes.com, which I have to assume at least tried), the most often related story attributes the custom to Pope Gregory I who took over for Pelagius II, when the latter fell victim to the plague in 590.

This was the tail end of what history remembers as the Plague of Justinian, possibly the first recorded instance of bubonic plague (like you might even today encounter in a National Park), or at least something related to it. The exact bug behind the pandemic probably doesn’t matter all that much. What we do know is that it killed quickly, and it started with a sneeze.

Gregory didn’t exactly want to be named Pope, but he received the title by acclimation, and soon set to work ministering to the stricken people of Rome. He prayed for deliverance from sickness and encouraged repentance, even organizing a large procession to the Vatican, in which the faithful gathered in a large coughing, sneezing crowd in order to share in worship and germs.

Allegedly Gregory also began the practice of offering a blessing for good health upon a person who sneezed, thereby praying away the plague. The Justinian Plague didn’t really extend beyond Gregory’s stint as Pope, so maybe there was something to his approach. Or maybe the bug had simply run its course through the population.

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If he were around today, I’ve no doubt Pope Gregory would encourage holy flu vaccination. By Unknown – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Either way, the tradition of saying, “God bless you,” or wishing someone good health (with a Gesundheit or similar expression) is so deeply ingrained in our behavior pattern now, it’s hard to remain silent when we hear a sneeze.

The question is, I suppose, does it help? Sadly, I don’t know that anyone has ever researched that. But what does help is vaccination. Now, fortunately for our family, we are well vaccinated folks, so when it was our turn last week our symptoms were relatively mild. We dealt with a few aches, some low-grade fevers, a good helping of fatigue, and plenty of coughing and sneezing and gunk. But all in all, it wasn’t too bad, with only my oldest developing a secondary ear infection, easily taken care of with an antibiotic.

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All I can say is there is not nearly enough of this going around at that middle school. photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

For us, then, this week has been a return to our regularly scheduled program. Everyone has gone to school or work, and my oldest is off and running, heading into the next big thing. For him, that means making a movie with several of his friends to enter into the school district’s upcoming film festival.

For weeks now they’ve been working on a script and costumes, rehearsing lines, and practicing stunts. I admit I’m not entirely sure what the film is about. The plot keeps changing, though I’m fairly certain it involves a wizard or two. Their biggest hurdle in getting it finished has been that members of the crew keep getting sick.

But I’m looking forward to seeing the completed project and I imagine it will work out just fine. After all, the first surviving film copyrighted in the US, now considered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” consists of nothing more than 5 seconds of a man sneezing.

Gesundheit!

 

And speaking of ongoing creative projects, I currently have two books projects underway that will be published this year. If you’re interested, you can check them out on this recently re-installed book page.

 

Scary Stuff: The Attack of the One-Eyed, One-Horned Alligator in Short Shorts

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween is not my favorite time of year. Not that I don’t like a fun costume or a good sugar high. I just really don’t enjoy scary things. Horror movies, haunted houses, and Ouija boards are not for me. If something frightening startles me, I’m likely to scream and punch (scary clowns be warned).

And as far as monsters go, unless they live on Sesame Street or spend much more of their time in philosophical reflection upon their own nature and creation than they do engaging in actual scaring, then I’m not a big fan. But I do have a soft spot for one particularly friendly rock ‘n’ roll loving, purple people eating, flying monster in short shorts from my childhood.

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The Purple People Eater isn’t scary because he only eats purple people. At least I hope that’s right.

Because I have fond memories of setting the needle of my Fisher Price record player on a Wacky Winners record and dancing around the living room to Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.” (Once in a while, my actual age startles me, and I’m likely to scream and punch.)

The story goes that the son of one of Wooley’s friends came home from school with a joke one day: “What has one eye, one horn, flies and eats people?” The answer, so obvious to us now, was, “A flying purple people eater!” The joke struck the funny bone of the kid’s dad, who shared it with his friend Sheb. He liked it so much, the actor/songwriter sat down immediately to scribble some lyrics.

Then in 1958 (and just to clarify, that was long before me and my Fisher Price record player came along), Sheb Wooley had a hit on his hands, with “Purple People Eater” becoming the only novelty song to ever to sit in the top spot of the Billboard pop chart.

Wooley went on to record a number of novelty songs, and had a run of successes as an actor, particularly in western films. But while he is certainly best known as the voice behind everyone’s favorite pigeon-toed, under-growed flying monster who plays a mean head horn, his voice has been heard most in something else.

Because most likely the songwriter/actor is also the man responsible for the most famous scream in the world. Performed in a sound studio for use in the 1951 film Distant Drums, the scream was a response to the need to fill in the sound a guy would make if he were suddenly attacked and dragged under water by an alligator.

Personally, I think Wooley nailed it.

And apparently so did a lot of filmmakers, because after the unique scream became a part of the Warner Brothers sound library, it got plopped into a whole lot of movies. So many movies, in fact, that a group of film students at the University of Southern California took notice and set out on a quest to uncover the first movie that ever featured Wooley’s well-used scream.

The earliest they found was a 1963 western movie called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm takes an arrow to the leg and lets out a scream that, to my mind, sounds a lot like the noise a guy would make if he were being attacked and pulled under water by an alligator.

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Sheb Wooly. If this man is attacked by an alligator, he will scream like a falling storm trooper. By OMAC Artist Corporation, Bakersfield, CA. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of course the film students were off by a few years, and who knows how many movies, but the sound clip took on the nickname “the Wilhelm scream” anyway. And that might have been the end of a fun little story, except that among the USC classmates that discovered the unique little piece of movie sound was Ben Burtt, the sound designer who worked on a unique little movie called Star Wars.

As a nod to his friends, Burtt decided to include the Wilhelm scream in the movie, because it turns out the sound a storm trooper makes when falling down a chasm is pretty much the same sound a man makes when getting attacked by an alligator.

In fact, the sound makes it into every Star Wars movie, as well as each Indiana Jones. And basically all the filmmakers you’ve heard of have picked up on the joke, too. Wooley’s iconic scream has been included in The Lord of the Rings, Toy Story, Titanic, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Some estimates put the number of films that have used the clip close to 300. I would attempt to verify that, but there’s a good chance at least a few of those are horror movies.

Nearly 300 Hollywood folks have been attacked and dragged under the water by an alligator because of the otherwise harmless purple people eater. And that’s pretty scary stuff. Man, I hate Halloween.