Director William Castle was a showman first and a filmmaker second. Although his films – most notably, House on Haunted Hill (1959) – are remembered fondly, his true genius lay in his ability to manipulate his audience, employing P.T. Barnum-style gimmicks that often began their work way before the projector started running. Castle didn’t simply produce films, but instead crafted immersive and participatory audience experiences, with a flair for the dramatic and the hilarious. Here are just a few of his masterstrokes.
Castle’s earliest recorded foray into the world of the gimmick was with his 1958 film Macabre. Before viewing, audience members were given a ‘Fright Insurance Policy’ backed by Lloyd’s Of London, which guaranteed to pay $1,000 if they died of fright during the screening. To add to the sense of hazard, ambulances were parked conspicuously outside theatres and ushers were encouraged to wear surgical scrubs.
House on Haunted Hill
Perhaps Castle’s best known film, House on Haunted Hill (1959) was a horror-comedy starring screen legend Vincent Price. In the film, Price uses a skeleton attached to a pulley system in order to scare his wife into a vat of acid. Dubbed ‘Emergo’, Castle’s prop skeleton would emerge midway through the film to terrorise his audience, although reports indicate that, rather than shrinking in fear, audiences were more likely to make a game of throwing popcorn at it.
The Tingler (1959) featured Price once more, this time playing a doctor who has discovered a parasite that lives in the human spine. The only way to save yourself from it is by screaming when, the audience are told, the creature is set loose in the movie theatre during the performance. The ‘Tingler’ was in fact a few vibrating motors hidden in seats throughout the audience. Price would appear on screen, encouraging the audience to scream in order to kill the monster, then the room would go dark. Stooges in the audience would scream and faint, in order to stoke the general hubbub. It was one of the first great incidences of audience participation in film and made The Tingler into a communal event and a great success.
In 13 Ghosts (1960), audiences were given the choice of either viewing or not viewing the ghosts on screen by the use of ‘Illusion-O’, a set of coloured strips inspired by early 3D glasses. The film was screened in black and white, but during the ghost scenes, the screen was tinted blue. ‘Brave’ audience members were encouraged to view the film through the red strip, which would reveal the ghosts to them, while the cowardly could stick with the blue.
Perhaps Castle’s most inspired idea came in 1961 with Homicidal. The ‘Fright Break’ was a brief pause, allowing frightened audience members to leave the auditorium and claim a free refund. At first it was a disaster, with far too many people opting for their money back than Castle anticipated. In a stroke of genius, Castle placed some embarrassing hurdles in their way. Those who left would have to follow the ‘Yellow Streak’ to ‘Coward’s Corner’, where registered nurses would take their pulses and insist they signed a certificate to the effect that they were a ‘bona fide coward’ before they could claim their money back. This was all accompanied by a voice over a loud speaker proclaiming “Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner!”.
Mr. Sardonicus ended with the audience getting to decide the fate of the film’s villain. Audiences were given cards to participate in the ‘Punishment Poll’ with thumbs up or down, Roman-emperor-style. Interestingly, his knowledge of human nature meant that Castle decided not to film an alternate ‘happy’ ending in which Sardonicus is granted a reprieve. Reports indicate that this was never an issue, with audiences voting for his death at every opportunity.
Some gimmicks were less successful than others. Wicked was shot in ‘Duo-Vision’, with two screens allowing the audience to simultaneously watch related events happening in real time. The result, unsurprisingly, was a set of impressive headaches. Migraines were also a feature of Earthquake (1974), which amplified its soundtrack in order to create rumbling sensation whenever the quake was occurring.
Of course, what isn’t recorded is how seriously audiences took these stunts. Were they there for the genuine tang of danger or just for the added sense of carnival? As Castle, and any true showman, would tell you; embittered cynic or credulous fool – the ticket price is just the same.