Shock and Awe: William Castle’s Horror Gimmicks


Poster for ‘House on Haunted Hill’

If you’ve wandered into a multiplex recently, you may have noticed that a number of new amenities have been integrated into the experience—most of which, it seems, are designed to make you forget you’re at the movies. The arcades, fast-food kiosks and ice cream vendors crowding out the lobby are nothing new, of course, but lately these distractions have expanded their purview, and now freely impinge upon the inside of the theater doors. Once a patron has settled comfortably into his leather-cushioned, airline-style seat, carrying an oversized novelty cup filled with a melange of flavored Cokes, he is invited to brandish his iPhone and join a communal pre-show videogame. IMAX screenings begin with an elaborate tech demonstration, replete with booming narration and a flourish of neon-green lasers. A digital placard advises the audience to “PUT ON 3D GLASSES NOW!”; they like to show trailers in 3D now, too, to better tease the spectacle with sizzle-reel velocity. By the time the film you’ve paid for begins it’s difficult to remember what you’re there to see.


Ad for ‘Macabre’

Tempting though it may be to regard this inanity as merely a reflection of a generation long accustomed to overstimulation, the truth is that none of these developments were introduced arbitrarily. They are not intended to appease an easily distractible audience, but rather to impress upon them a sense of going to the movies as something more valuable than simply watching a movie at home, where access is unlimited and expense is nil. All of this garish ornamentation has one purpose: it aims to distinguish the multiplex from the home theater, however obnoxiously. You are no longer provided with a movie, but with a movie-watching experience—an event of some ceremony and significance, lavishly adorned and therefore, the thinking goes, well-worth your twenty dollars. And presumably for some audiences the big-screen videogames and laser shows and commercial ephemera are incentives to visiting the multiplex rather than a deterrent, as they remain perhaps for cinephiles who need only a dark room and a working set of eyes to leave satisfied. We used to go to the movies. Today we go to entertainment complexes where movies are occasionally played.

This trend is not without its history. Complaints about the recent 3D boom invariably invoke the brevity of its heyday in the early 1950s, when Hollywood sought to draw back the audiences it felt had lost in recent years to the ubiquity of television. Suddenly, it seemed, the appeal of an ordinary motion picture was not enough to justify the price of admission, and studios were eager to convince moviegoers that the theatrical experience was appreciably different from the content available to them for free at home. The new 3D technology, rudimentary though it was at the time, seemed an attractive recourse, an easy way to distinguish the cinema from its new competitor, and soon enough everybody from Howard Hughes to Alfred Hitchcock was working to prove its worth. But the novelty quickly diminished. Projectionists found the systems difficult to work with; audiences found the quality inconsistent and the image hard on the eyes. The studios, following the path of least resistance, opted instead to champion the burgeoning CinemaScope format, and by the mid-fifties 3D had all but plummeted into obsolescence.


Ad for ‘The Tingler’

Well, one man maintained that technological embellishments, not aspect ratios, were the ticket to stratospheric success in the movie business: director William Castle, who emerged at the end of the 3D fad promising innovations of unprecedented grandeur and audacity. From the late 1950s until the mid 1960s, Castle promoted low-budget horror pictures as if they were used cars in a lot, hawking his second-rate wares beneath a banner of sensationalism. As a filmmaker, Castle would be regarded by critics as vulgar and indiscriminate, a certified schlock-auteur whose work seemed largely frivolous. But as a businessman he proved shrewd: his idiosyncratic approach to marketing, though laughed off by many, yielded almost uniformly sizable returns.

Castle’s promotional strategies ranged from the inspired to the absurd—and quite often both simultaneously. Sample brilliance: the ticket price for his debut picture, Macabre, included a complimentary life insurance policy worth $1,000, redeemable should anyone in the audience die of fright during the course of the film. Homicidal, a fairly routine psychological thriller, featured a forty-five-second “Fright Break” moments before the climax of the film—an opportunity for audience members too frightened to endure the forthcoming terror to leave and receive a refund (in addition to a certificate signifying their cowardice for having done so). For screenings of The Tingler, Castle rigged theaters with special motors whose vibrations were meant to scare audiences into thinking of the film’s deadly creatures had somehow wriggled its way free of the screen. And, for Mr. Sardonicus, Castle interrupted the film before its conclusion to invite the audience to vote on the fate of the villain: they could choose punishment or mercy, and, so Castle attests, they never once chose the latter.


Ad for ‘The House on Haunted Hill’

My favorite of the Castle films is also perhaps the most famous: House on Haunted Hill, from 1959, in which a wealthy Vincent Price challenges several men and women to survive an evening in his rather dangerously appointed mansion (which, as it happens, is the Ennis House in Los Angeles). Even today, more than a half-century after its theatrical debut, House on Haunted Hill is occasionally very frightening—indeed, the surprise reveal of the blind caretaker’s wife never ceases to terrify me, and without any need for ironic distance. More often, though, the film is quite funny, though in a way I find more endearing than embarrassing. Is it ridiculous? I suppose, but ridiculous and lovely in equal measure. It was sold with Castle’s simplest gimmick: toward the end of the picture, as Vincent Price guides a skeleton on strings to spook his wife, a glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton would drop from the theater’s ceiling for the pleasure of the audience. It’s difficult to imagine anybody finding this gag scary. Then again, House on Haunted Hill is a film about precisely this sort of stunt: it’s about the theatricality of horror, in which a rich man stages scares for the entertainment of his guests. It seems to me that while we laugh at the playful antics of William Castle, his way ultimately won out. Every blockbuster is sold with a gimmick: with 3D (again), with games, with lights and lasers. We may be past skeletons. But the experience is here to stay.

See more vintage advertising art at The Friends of Marty Melville.

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