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.
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.
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.