William Castle: The P.T. Barnum of Horror

Born on April 24th, 1914, legendary director and producer William Castle is best known today for his theatrical showmanship and ability for stretching small budgets to create memorable horror films. Before Cannibal Holocaust and The Blair Witch Project claimed to be comprised of “found footage”, William Castle had prop skeletons “floating” over audiences. Several years before The Texas Chainsaw Massacre proclaimed that it was “based on a true story”, Castle gave audiences an opportunity to take a “fright break.”

Like Roger Corman, Castle was essentially a B-film horror director. He turned out dozens of low-budget films over his career. In addition to being limited by budgets, Castle also had to contend with a competitive film market. His solution to put “bums in seats” – marketing gimmicks. Not since P.T. Barnum had a showman so effectively found clever angles to get spectators to ‘rubberneck’ at his shows.

Indeed, Castle had much in common with exploitation filmmakers –  his movies combined cheap terrors, gore, cheesy humor, and taboo subject matter. But Castle also marketed his films with ingenious gimmicks that promised his audiences so much more than just a movie.

You’ll Need Life Insurance To See It

While not a particularly memorable film, Macabre represented Castle’s signature combination of lurid subject matter and outlandish promotional stunts.

Before making 1958 horror-suspense film Macabre, Castle had already amassed a large filmography as a director in the Hollywood studio system. The cheaply-made Macabre was Castle’s first independent film, financed in part by mortgaging his own home. While not a particularly memorable film, Macabre represented Castle’s signature combination of lurid subject matter and outlandish promotional stunts.

Briefly, Macabre told the story of a doctor’s daughter, kidnapped and buried alive in a coffin, with only five hours to live before running out of air. To lure patrons into screenings of Macabre, Castle issued $1000 life insurance certificates to each and every audience member just in case they had a heart attack during the film. “Nurses” were even stationed in the lobby. To dissuade viewers from sharing the film’s climatic twist, a narrator warned the audience to refrain from talking about the ending with friends or family.

The Amazing New Emergo

Do you dare enter The House on Haunted Hill? Today’s teaser trailers have nothing on William Castle. Following the box office success of Macabre, Castle continued to turn out B-horror films that drew in audiences with fantastical promotional stunts. Starring Vincent Price, The House on Haunted Hill was marketed as filmed with the brand new “technique” of Emergo. Castle’s trailer, with Price’s trademark sinister narration, promised that a ghost would actually soar into the audience from the screen. Prop skeletons with glowing red-eyes were rigged with wire to soar over viewers’ heads at specific moments in the film.

So successful was Emergo with audiences, Castle used “another new film “technique”, Percepto”, for The Tingler. Vincent Price once again joined Castle for this film about a small creature that attached itself to the human spine, causing death when its host experienced fear. The only way to save yourself – scream! For this promotional stunt, Castle purchased and installed vibrating motors on the bottoms of select theater seats. At the film’s conclusion, star Vincent Price would warn audiences that “The Tingler” had escaped into the theater and implored the film-goers to “scream, scream for their lives”.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For 13 Ghosts, which Castle promoted as being filmed with “Illusion-O”, patrons were given ghost goggles as they entered the theater. At the start of the film, Castle promised that audiences could look through their googles and see real ghosts.

Homicidal and ‘Fright Breaks’

With his next major release, Castle was clearly building off of the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. The parallels between the two films are undeniable. Similar to Hitchcock’s classic film, Homicidal features a psycho-sexually frustrated killer and concludes with a gender-bending twist. The contrast between the two films illustrates Castle’s unique approach to luring audiences into theater seats. Homicidal is far more explicitly graphic in its presentation of violence; its subject matter is certainly more sensationalized.

While Hitchcock famously urged theaters to not admit patrons once the film had started, Castle one-upped him. Audiences were given a “fright break” – a brief intermission before the climax of Homicidal – if the film became too intense and they wanted to leave. When a small number of patrons used the ‘fright break’ to try and get refunds, Castle introduced the “Coward’s Corner” in theater lobbies to shame patrons.

Homicidal

A One-Of-A-Kind Showman

…his actual films have outlasted the gimmicks that he used to promote them.

Castle was undoubtedly a one-of-a-kind showman. Notable filmmakers, including John Waters and Joe Dante, have cited Castle as a major influence on their work. What’s particularly interesting about Castle’s legacy is that, in many ways, his actual films have outlasted the gimmicks that he used to promote them. While The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and 13 Ghosts are all clearly B-films, they’ve still retained much of their charm for audiences. To date, two of these films have been remade by Hollywood with diminished returns. There’s a clear love for the genre in each of his movies that’s often missing in big-studio horror films. So a Happy ‘Belated’ Birthday to a true innovator – William Castle.

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Author: Andrew Welsh

I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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