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Focus on the Frightful: William Castle

William Castle was born William Schloss Jr. in 1914 but was orphaned at age 11. William Schloss later changed his name to William Castle (Schloss is German for castle).

He went to see Dracula when he was 13 and was entranced. He met Bela Lugosi who recommended him for the position of assistant stage manager for the road company tour of the play. Columbia Pictures hired him at 23 and his career took off from there.

But what I’m interested in (and what most people remember) is the gimmicks he would use to promote his movies. Because they were great and it kind of bugs me that theatres have become so complacent to not bother with them anymore.

So let’s journey through some of the more well-known gimmicks and movies! Starting with Macabre (which he mortgaged his house to fund).

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For Macabre William Castle got the idea to issue $1,000 life insurance policies along with having nurses (or at minimum actresses dressed as nurses) in the lobby to take the blood pressure of theatre patrons and parked a hearse outside.

House on Haunted Hill


House on Haunted Hill (starring Vincent Price) was filmed in ‘Emergo’ which is really just a fancy name for a plastic skeleton zooming out over the crowd during a key moment of the movie. Once it got around kids would try to throw things to try and knock it down (go figure).

If you’d like a more in-depth view of House on Haunted Hill you can check out Lilyn and I’s Original vs. Remake: House on Haunted Hill.

The Tingler


Filmed in ‘Percepto’ (William Castle certainly liked his fancy titles, didn’t he?). I still need to add The Tingler to my Vincent Price shrine…um, I meant collection.


In The Tingler the titular monster attaches itself to the host’s spine and tingles them to death. The only way to escape the Tingler was to scream. Castle purchased military wing de-icers and would have crew travel to different theatres and attach them to random seats. At a point in the film, the Tingler would ‘escape’ the film and terrorize the audience. Vincent Price would tell people to scream for their lives while the rigged seats vibrated.

I would have loved to have experienced that.

13 Ghosts


Also filmed in another ‘O’ – Illusion-O this time, 13 Ghosts equipped you with a carboard viewer with red and blue cellophane so you could see the ghosts or make them go away.



Homicidal started out with a gimmick of a ‘fright break’ before the movie’s climax started. You could leave and get a refund. And, of course, people took advantage of it. So he got even more creative. I can’t even tell it myself so I’ll let John Waters (via Wikipedia) tell it:

William Castle simply went nuts. He came up with “Coward’s Corner,” a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. 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.

John Waters (from the Wikipedia page)

In a trailer for the film, Castle explained the use of the Coward’s Certificate and admonished the viewer not to reveal the ending to friends “or they will kill you. If they don’t, I will.”

Mr. Sardonicus


In Mr. Sardonicus you could vote on the villain’s fate. At a certain point Castle would appear onscreen to give instructions on what to do and the audience was equipped with cards with thumbs up and thumbs down on them to vote. Supposedly the villain was never shown mercy. Not really surprising, knowing people.



Each patron was given a ‘magic’ glow-in-the-dark coin. I also have to wonder if that’s where the candy got its name from. I just looked up Zotz (candy) and they were invented in 1970 so…possible!

13 Frightened Girls


Castle held a worldwide casting call and filmed slightly different versions, highlighting each girl for show in her country. I thought that was a pretty cool idea. I doubt it was done more to keep things culturally relevant but as a gimmick but it’s still pretty neat.



Castle was told by his financial advisors to reign in the gimmicks so he went the normal route of Joan Crawford doing publicity at various theatres. He could not help himself, though, and at the last minute Castle had cardboard axes made up and handed them out to theatregoers. Much to the relief of teens everywhere, I’m sure. How disappointing would it be to go to a Castle movie and there’s just…a movie.

I Saw What You Did


This was promoted at first using giant, working telephones but after a rash of prank calls ‘Ma’ Bell slapped the banhammer down on Castle from using them for promotion he fell back on making the last row the ‘Shock Row’ with seatbelts to keep you from running in fright from the theatre.



Castle’s main gimmick for Bug was a life insurance policy on the film’s star – Hercules the cockroach.

I have to wonder if they started reigning in Castle’s gimmicks out of cost because some of them seem fairly costly, like buying the wing de-icers and paying a crew to travel to install them. Or maybe he ran out of ideas, I don’t know. But they seemed to dramatically decrease after Strait-Jacket.

I can see the issues nowadays with doing some of these but at the same time I can’t help but wish that theatres weren’t so complacent with viewership that they would go the extra mile to attract customers (or hell, even knock a damn dollar off the ticket price now and then).

In my opinion, in the reviewing world in particular, it ties into the hype when a highly anticipated movie comes out. We feel obligated almost, to rush to the theatre to be able to review a movie as soon as we can. Theatres cannot deny that they don’t benefit from this.

It does also benefit genres such as science fiction and horror. They have always been genres that fluctuate in popularity but with social media and horror and sci-fi fans finding a place to be able to talk about their passions has made theatres and products far, far more available to us.

What was your favourite gimmick? I would have loved to have experienced the Tingler one (I also realize how dirty that sounds).

Published inFocus on the Frightful


  1. Gee, what could be the gimmick for a Castle film that never got one?

    I am, I admit, a fan of “The Spirit is Willing,” a Castle-produced comedy film from 1967, which featured several of the better-known comedians of the era, ghosts, poltergeist activity, a triple role for Jill Townsend, and ghost sex (off screen, but clearly alluded to). And John Astin (Gomez from “The Addams Family” TV series of a year or two before) makes an appearance.

    Since the ghosts do engage in the aforementioned poltergeist activity, it would have been funny to have someone hurl objects in the theater (definitely not to hit anyone, of course . . . well, hmmm . . .), books and crockery being plausible items, which would have shaken up the audience. Or would it? Would the sound system have drowned out the real sounds in the theater?

    I don’t think we could arrange the ghost sex in the theater, though, do use your imagination on that one.

    Maybe a drinking game every time Jill Townsend shows up as a different character from her previous appearance?

  2. That is so cool and nostalgic. I had not heard of any of those.

    • I thought it was so creative and interesting. I really thought his reaction to people abusing the refund offer was perfect, lol

  3. It must have been really good fun! I’d pay extra happily for any of those!

    • Right? It would be so amazing!

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