The Scary Scary World of William Castle

Nobody ever forgot a William Castle movie viewing experience, and he made sure of it. Castle was the king and creator of the horror movie gimmick – a creepy, spooky, silly, scream-worthy bonus that made each film wholly unique.

Castle mortgaged his house to pay for his first independent film Macabre (1958), the story of a doctor’s daughter who was kidnapped by a maniac and buried alive.  To promote the film Castle had Lloyds Of London issue $1000 insurance policies against death by fright which were handed out to every audience member, in addition stationing nurses in the lobbies and hearses parked outside theaters across the country!

He parlayed the money into his next feature The House On Haunted Hill (1959).  The film starred Vincent Price and was presented in EMERGO! Sounds exciting, right?! Emergo consisted of a rubber skeleton on a pulley that floated above the audience.  SPOOKY … but it was enough.

The Tingler (1959), presented in PERCEPTO, again starring Vincent Price.  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 movie’s finale, one of the creatures removed from the spine of a mute woman (who was killed by the creature when she was unable to scream) is let loose in a movie theatre.  Then guess what happened … some seats in theaters across the country showing the Tingler were equipped with military surplus air-plane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) purchased by Castle himself.  These machines were attached to the underside of the seats, and 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.”  And they did!

More movies and gimmick followed.  13 Ghosts (1960) was filmed in “Illusion-O;” a hand held ghost viewer/remover with strips of red and blue cellophane was given out to use during certain segments of the film. By looking through either the red or blue cellophane the audience was able to either see or remove the ghosts if they were too frightening.

Homicidal (1961) featured 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 advised the audience of the time remaining in which they could leave the theatre and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see the remainder of the film.  Obviously most of the patrons stayed, but those that took advantage of the offer were forced into total humiliation.  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!’

The pranks continued, and the films became even more wonderfully ridiculous over time. Castle changed the face of horror, and the nature of the movie going experience. Why can’t horror movies still be so much fun?!

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