A Gimmick Experience: How William Castle Refined Horror in the Cinema


When it comes to the ultimate horror experience, our options are limited. Sure, some cinemas offer cheesy 3D glasses if a film has been shot in such a format (what a joke). Usually, the best way to truly enjoy a horror film would be to watch it at home and take appropriate measure to get a full effect (i.e. dim lights, candles, so on). At this point in time, we’re just short of having a fellow in a Leatherface getup knock down the door to the theater and run around with a fake chainsaw during a Texas Chainsaw Massacre showing (not that that will happen anytime soon).

It was a lot better in the days of William Castle. Castle, the director of several iconic horror originals including House on Haunted HillThe Tingler, and 13 Ghosts, believed that an audience had to be immersed in the film experience to fully enjoy the movie. Therefore, Castle came up with the idea of holding gimmicks in select theaters where his films were showing. With his first film, Macabre, he gave viewers certificates for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London if they were to die of fright. The gimmick was corny but fun, and it set into motion some other fantastic gimmicks that were quite memorable.

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Other memorable gimmicks that really stick out involve some of his Vincent Price films. In 1959’s The Tingler, Castle utilized his Percepto gimmick. At the film’s end, a silhouette of the titular creature is seen racing across the blank screen. At that moment, a voice-over by Price warns theater goers that the creature is actually loose in their very theater. Just then, a buzzing device would go off in select seats in a manner similar to the movie (the Tingler’s prescence would be announced by a small vibration in the lower back). Even if the film was nothing more than a campy, fun ride, the Percepto gimmick is known as one of Castle’s greatest gimmicks ever.

Also, in House on Haunted Hill, also released in 1959, Castle used the Emergo approach by having a large skeleton on a wire “fly” over audience goers during the film’s climax between a recently reanimated skeleton and the villainous wife of Price’s millionaire character. The gimmick was also a hit among fans. Castle would use other gimmicks as well (ask about “Coward’s Corner) and his style of filmmaking was loved by all.

Illusion-O was a fun gimmick. In 13 Ghosts, viewers were given red-and-blue glasses prior to the start of the show. In order to try and spot the film’s ghosts, viewers could look through one of the lenses of the other. It wasn’t a pair of 3D glasses, but it was a different approach anyway. Anther gimmick included the “Fright Break” in 1961’s Homicidal, where an audience member could leave and get a full refund if they were too scared to carry on watching the film.

For different reasons entirely it isn’t a good idea to pursue entertaining gimmicks in theaters these days. However, Castle’s gimmicks still stand the test of time and takes fans of the horror genre down a new and undiscovered road (to the younger fans at least). Gimmicks were a great way to captivate and hold the audience’s attention. If more theaters were willing to go the route of the gimmick (sans “Coward’s Corner) and incorporate various elements into the theater that are relevant to the movies that are showing, there would be more love for the genre as a whole.