The Amazing Gimmicks of
Castle directed and produced a number of sci-fi and horror B-movies
including The House on Haunted Hill
(1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960),
but he is
best remembered for his movie-house gimmicks, the likes of which
haven't been seen on this scale before or since. Most of the
compiled/adapted from Wikipedia and the Trivia sections of the
individual entries for these movies on the IMDb. The included
photos are stills from the trailer for 13 Ghosts.
- A certificate for a $1,000 life
insurance policy from Lloyd's of London was given to each customer in
case they should die of fright during the film.
- Showings also had nurses stationed
in the lobbies and hearses parked outside the theater.
- Another source reports similar:
Showings also had ushers dressed in surgical garb with ambulances
- Additionally, during its initial
theatrical release, attendees were given a small badge that said, "I'm
no chicken. I saw Macabre."
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
- William Castle used a gimmick called
"Emergo" in theaters. When the skeleton rises from the acid vat
in the film, a lighted plastic skeleton on a wire appeared from a black
box next to the screen to swoop over the heads of the audience. The
skeleton would then be pulled back into the box as the skeleton in the
film is "reeled in."
- The gimmick did not always instill
fright; sometimes the skeleton became a target for some audience
members who hurled candy boxes, soda cups or any other objects at hand
at the skeleton. Many theaters soon stopped using this "effect"
because when the local boys heard about it, they would bring slingshots
to the theater; when the skeleton started its journey, they would pull
out their slingshots and fire at it with stones, BBs, ball bearings and
whatever else they could find.
The Tingler (1959)
- William Castle opened the film with
an on-screen warning to the audience: "I am William Castle, the
director of the motion picture you are about to see. I feel
to warn you that some of the sensations—some of the physical reactions
which the actors on the screen will feel—will also be experienced, for
the first time in motion picture history, by certain members of this
audience. I say 'certain members' because some people are more
sensitive to these mysterious electronic impulses than others.
unfortunate, sensitive people will at times feel a strange, tingling
sensation; other people will feel it less strongly. But don't be
alarmed—you can protect yourself. At any time you are conscious
tingling sensation, you may obtain immediate relief by screaming.
be embarrassed about opening your mouth and letting rip with all you've
got, because the person in the seat right next to you will probably be
screaming too. And remember—a scream at the right time may save
- In the film a docile creature that
lives in the spinal cord is activated by fright, and can only be
destroyed by screaming. In the film's finale one of the creatures
removed from the spine of a mute woman killed by it when she was unable
to scream is let loose in a movie theater. Some seats in theaters
showing The Tingler were equipped with military surplus air-plane wing
de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) purchased by Castle, attached
to the underside of the seats. When the Tingler in the film
attacked the audience the buzzers were activated as a voice encouraged
the real audience to "Scream - scream for your lives." Articles
regarding this often incorrectly state the seats in the theater were
wired to give electrical jolts.
- Shills planted in the audience let
out their own screams. To enhance the climax even more, Castle
hired fake "screamers and fainters" to plant in the audience.
were fake nurses stationed in the foyer and an ambulance outside of the
theater. The "fainters" would be carried out of the auditorium on
gurney and whisked away in the ambulance, only to return for the next
- During the climax of the film, The
Tingler was depicted escaping into a generic movie theater. On
the projected film appeared to break as the silhouette of the Tingler
moved across the projection beam. The film went black, all lights
the auditorium (except fire exit signs) were turned off, and Vincent
Price's voice warned the audience "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not
panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler
is loose in this
theater!" This cued the theater projectionist to activate the
buzzers and give several audience members an unexpected jolt. An
alternate warning was recorded for drive-in theaters; this warning
advised the audience the Tingler was loose in the drive-in.
- Although The Tingler was filmed in black and
white, a single color sequence was spliced into each print of the
It showed a sink (in black and white) with bright red "blood" flowing
from the taps and a black and white Judith Evelyn watching a bloody red
hand rising from a bathtub filled with bright red "blood." Castle
used color film to film the effect. The scene was accomplished by
painting the set white, black, and gray and applying gray makeup to the
actress to simulate monochrome.
- William Castle toyed with other
ideas to frighten audience members, in addition to "Percepto," which is
what the hidden buzzer effect was called; among them:
- Rolling bean bags to brush against
the legs of audience members
- Speakers mounted at different
areas that would give a 'screech' when the tingler appeared
- Possibly even using 'shills' to
operate some type of mechanical device to tickle the legs of the
audience members; but the only viable way of doing it was by attaching
buzzers in select seats to coincide with the appearance of the tingler.
- The movie was filmed in "Illusion-O"
and a special viewer was needed to see the ghosts. This resulted
in a number of sources incorrectly stating that the film was originally
shown in 3D. The "ghost viewers" (shown at the right being
demonstrated by Castle) contained a red filter and a
blue filter, but unlike 3D viewers/glasses, both eyes would look
through the same color filter. The red filter would cause the
ghostly images to intensify while the blue filter caused the images to
fade. However, if you chose not to use the viewer, the ghosts
were still visible. The lower picture at right is from the film
itself where the protagonist is wearing his own ghost glasses.
- The film contained a "Fright break"
with a 45 second timer overlaid over the film's climax as the heroine
approached a house harboring a sadistic killer. A voiceover
audience of the time remaining in which they could leave the theater
and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see the
remainder of the film. To ensure the more wily patrons did not
stay for a second showing and leave during the finale Castle had
different color tickets printed for each show.
- In a trailer for
the film, Castle explained the use of the Coward's Certificate and
admonished the viewer to not reveal the ending of the film to friends,
"or they will kill you. If they don't, I will." About 1% of
patrons still demanded refunds, and in response: "William Castle simply
went nuts. He came up with 'Coward's Corner,' a yellow cardboard booth,
manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright
Break was announced, and you found that you couldn't take it anymore,
you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow
yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you
reached Coward's Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled
message: 'Cowards Keep Walking.' You passed a nurse (in a yellow
uniform?...I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the
while a recording was blaring, "'Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in
Coward's Corner'!" As the audience howled, you had to go through one
final indignity -- at Coward's Corner you were forced to sign a yellow
card stating, 'I am a bona fide coward.' Very, very few were
masochistic enough to endure this. The one percent refund
to a zero percent, and I'm sure that in many cities a plant had to be
paid to go through this torture. No wonder theater owners balked
booking a William Castle film. It was all just too
(From John Waters in Crackpot: The
Obsessions of John Waters.)
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
- In this gothic tale set in 1880
London a baron's face is frozen into a permanent grotesque hideous
smile after digging up his father's grave to retrieve a lottery ticket
left in the pocket of his father's jacket. The audiences were
allowed to vote in a "punishment poll" during the climax of the film -
Castle himself appears on screen to explain to the audience their
options. Each member of the audience was given a card with a glow
in the dark thumb they could hold either up or down to decide if Mr.
Sardonicus would be cured or die during the end of the film. (An alternate version was
drive-ins, in which drivers were asked to flash their car's headlights
in response.) Supposedly, no
audience ever offered mercy so the alternate ending was
never screened. In fact, it is widely believed that William
filmed only the one ending
for the movie since the alternate, "merciful" ending has never been
- Each patron was given a full-size
plastic replica of the amulet that was central to the film's plot as a
promotional item. In color, size and design, the replicas were
essentially identical to the film amulet, with the additional feature
of a small hole drilled at the top, for a key chain.
13 Frightened Girls! (1963)
- Castle launched a worldwide hunt for
the prettiest girls from 13 different countries to cast in the film.
- Audiences in the theater were given
lickable lottery cards for a chance to win a prize.
- Advised by his financial backers to
eliminate gimmicks, Castle hired Joan Crawford to star and sent her on
a promotional tour to theaters. At the last minute, Castle had
cardboard axes made and handed out to patrons.
I Saw What You Did (1965)
- The film was initially promoted
using giant plastic telephones but after a rash of prank phone calls
and complaints, the telephone company refused Castle permission to use
them or mention telephones, so he turned the back rows of theaters into
"Shock Sections." Seat belts were installed to keep patrons from
being jolted from their chairs in fright.
- Advertisements for the movie read,
"William Castle warns you: This is a motion picture about
UXORICIDE!" and, in an early trailer for the film, Castle advised
the audience that a section of the theater would be installed with seat
belts for audience members "who might be scared out of their seats."
The advertised gimmick was abandoned prior to the release of the film
and never actually used.
- Castle advertised a million-dollar
life insurance policy taken out on the film's star, "Hercules" the
(2007) - About the life
and times of the most inventive gimmick-driven director in B-movie
history. It is included as a bonus feature in the 5-disc William Castle dvd set.
Blood Feast (1963) - Similarly, the producer of Herschell Gordon
Lewis's gore-fest Blood Feast had barf bags printed up with "You may
need this when you see... BLOOD FEAST." Supposedly he had half a
million of these printed and handed out a week before the picture
played, according to producer David F. Friedman.
Popcorn (1991) - This horror
movie about (among other things) a movie theater steals several of
Castle's gimmicks such as "shocking seats" as well as inventing other
ones such as a more sophisticated version of John Waters'
Odorama (or maybe the original Smell-O-Vision).
also the fake nurse outside the theater asking patrons to sign forms
"in case you die of a heart attack." During the showing of the
fake film Mosquito (a pastiche of '50s giant insect movies like
Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis), a glowing prop giant
mosquito flies out from behind the screen over the audience. Even
the names of some of the gimmicks sound like
Castle's (e.g., Project-o-vision and Shock-o-scope vs. Illusion-O and
Matinee (1993) - A film with
played by John Goodman who is loosely based on Castle and employs a
similar promotions, including the buzzer gimmick from The Tingler.
Contagion (2011) - My friends
Bill and Alexandra went to see Contagion
in 2011 and told me afterward about a very William Castle
gimmick. After the film was over, as the patrons were leaving,
crews entered the theater in fake hazmat suits and pretended to scrub
down everything, including the seats and even the edges of the
screen. I don't know if this was something done locally or if it
was part of the film's marketing, but I'm sure Castle would have gotten
a smile out of it.