The Hair-Raising Gimmicks of the Abominable Showman

William Castle went all-out to fright audiences with his horror movies and marketing strategy

William Castle was adept at using marketing ploys to lure audiences to the movie theaters for his horror films. (Allied Artists)
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The disquieting advertisements appeared in magazines like Time and Billboard: “The producers of the film MACABRE undertake to pay the sum of ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS in the event of the death by fright of any member of the audience during the performance.”

A ploy to lure viewers to movie theaters, the ads were also 100 percent genuine: movie-goers around the country were required to sign life insurance policies from Lloyd’s of London upon entering the theater. Nurses stood by in case of death by fright, and hearses lined the streets outside. As for the director who orchestrated the entire hoopla (and underwrote the insurance policies), he made spectacular entrances of his own as Macabre premiered in cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and New York, either in a hearse or in a coffin. It was 1958, and William Castle was determined to “scare the pants off” his audience.

“Reportedly he was pissed no one bothered to die, because it would’ve been great press,” says film historian Catherine Clepper. “He was kind of a genius when it came to promotion, anticipating what would delight audiences or differentiate his product, which in many ways was an average, low budget horror-family film of that period.”

Castle’s trajectory to Hollywood began with a stunt of a very different nature. While working at a playhouse in Connecticut in the late 1930s, a coworker received notice that she should return to Germany for a Nazi drama festival, which she had no intention of attending. “So Mr. Castle fired off a cable to Hitler telling him, in effect, to go climb a tree,” reported the New York Times. That stunt caught the attention of Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, and soon enough Castle was producing and directing movies.

But it wasn’t until he departed from Columbia and formed his own film company with writer Robb White that Castle solidified his reputation for zany gimmicks, earning the reputation for being the “Abominable Showman”. The first three films the company produced were especially popular: Macabre, House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler.     

The first, of course, came with the life insurance policies against dying of fright—a tie in with the actual plot of the movie, which features an insurance scam and death by fear. The 1959 cult classic House on Haunted Hill featured an in-theater gimmick called “Emergo.” At the end of the movie, in another plot tie-in, as a skeleton rises out of a vat of acid, another skeleton hidden in a box above the screen dropped down on a zip line and glided above the audience. At one showing the skeleton broke free of its moorings and landed on an audience member, causing more fear than intended, and a slight injury.

“There’s this amazing text—it’s not even subtext—that you’re coming to the theater, [Castle’s film] is going to kill you [from fear], and then the villain of [his] movies is fear,” Clepper says. “It’s really clever and suggests [the promotional stunts] weren’t just random, crass commercialism.”

And finally, with The Tingler—a movie about a lobster-like creature that causes death by fear and can only be banished by screaming—Castle had theater owners rig several chairs with electric buzzers. He placed a female “plant” in the audience to collapse into hysterics at the climax of the film, just as audiences were told by the on-screen narrator, breaking the fourth wall, that the tingler had escaped into their theater. The movie also used “the ingenious but simply executed mixture of color and black and white” in a final scene, where everything was colorless except the bath tub filled with bright red blood, writes Kevin Heffernan in Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business.  

While Castle’s work was unique for the way his gimmicks tied in with the narrative plot of his films—and for their enormous financial success—he was only one in a long line of directors trying to manipulate senses beyond sight and sound.

“You see a much more expanded version of experimentation and willingness to play with form around 1950 when television really begins to crack the film market,” Clepper says. “[Castle] is such a fun person to study and write about because he is inadvertently touching on longstanding utopian visions of what cinema can be, that it can touch you, both emotionally and physically.”

Castle wasn’t the only one experimenting with gimmicks and different ways of affecting audiences. Screenings of the classic 1931 version of Dracula included nurses in the theater and a dose of ‘nerve tonic’ (sugar pills) before the film, Clepper writes in a paper for Film History. Promotional events for 1958’s The Fly included an enormous plastic fly bathed in green light, and the 1965 film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies included a spinning hypnotic wheel and men in masks running down the aisles.

But Castle’s forays into horror seemed to secure a special place in the pantheon of cult classics. As Mikita Brottman writes in Film Quarterly, “A whole spectrum of established film critics have recalled a childhood experience of The Tingler as their archetypal horror movie-going experience.”

Kids were especially drawn to the silliness of the stunts, Clepper says. “The kids were the ones who brought repeated tickets [to House on Haunted Hill]. It was more of a carnivalesque atmosphere than a spooky, goosebumps atmosphere. You buy your ticket, you wait for that moment [when the skeleton appears], then everybody pulls out their slingshots”—and tries to shoot the ghoul.

Castle’s career continued beyond his “shock” productions, with perhaps his most famous producer credit coming from Rosemary’s Baby, which Castle purchased the rights to after reading the story upon which it was based. But today most remember him for the enjoyable spoofs he incorporated into his shows. Director John Waters is one particularly vocal fan: “William Castle is my idol,” Waters once said. “His films made me want to make films. I’m even jealous of his work.”

“Castle has had legs that he never anticipated having,” Clepper says. The director normally moved quickly from one movie to the next, discarding old gimmicks to come up with new ones. But even today, people want to remember them as they were seen originally: complete with dangling skeletons and buzzing chairs—an experience that an audience viewer, as Castle said, just couldn’t have at home in front of the television. 

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