The Ghost Emerges Right Off The Screen’ – How William Castle Brought the Bizarre To Horror Cinema.
“The ghost emerges right off the screen…and actually soars into the audience” boasts the trailer for 1959’s House on Haunted Hill. “Ghosts materializing in ectoplasmic colour through the magic of Illusion-O”, warns the teaser for 13 Ghosts. “You will feel some of the physical reactions, the shocking sensations experienced by the actors on the screen”, The Tingler’s director William Castle explains directly to the camera in the film’s preview.
As cinema attendance is overtaken by instant streaming services, perhaps current theatre chains should look to horror director William Castle’s career for some inspiration in enticing audiences to fill their seats. Often in partnership with the iconic Vincent Price, Castle created innovative (and sometimes ridiculous) stunts to accompany his films in theatres and to spark public interest in his lower budget movies. While theatre owners might not have appreciated some of his stunts, the director managed to attract 250,000 to join his mail fan club – The William Castle Horror Advisory Board – fifty years before filmmakers clamored for likes on social media.
According to Castle, and detailed in his autobiography, he decided to become a horror director after being inspired by French thriller Diabolique. Years before the term was established, Castle was perhaps the first creator of viral marketing. Shortly after he left high school, he wrote a play in a single weekend in which he cast a German leading actress. Under the Nazis, German-born actors could only appear in plays originally performed in Germany – so Castle translated the entire play, then claimed that the actress had turned down an invitation to perform for Hitler in order to appear in his performance. To add to the sensationalism, he secretly vandalized the theatre and painted swastikas on the exterior. The hype ensured a play, written in days by a very young Castle, saw great success.
But it was when his creativity was turned to making horror films that Castle’s imagination really got going. Through his fan club he ran a mock presidential campaign, with fans photographing themselves holding banners promoting his candidacy. For a time he worked with Columbia, but left to direct his own B-Movies, the first being Macabre. Castle mortgaged his house to finance the film, and arranged for nurses to be situated outside of the theatres in hearses during screenings. He took out newspaper ads offering life insurance policies for his viewers, redeemable if they were to die from fright during the film.
But when he had the chance to utilize the iconic Vincent Price in his films is when Castle really ramped up the stunts. Embodying the spirit of midnight spook shows and drive in theatres – a trip to the theatre for a Castle picture was guaranteed to be good fun. His haunted house classic House on Haunted Hill contained what was advertised as a brand new technology called EMERGO, allowing the ghouls in the movie to fly put of the screen and in to the audience. With a complex systems of pulleys installed in theatres, a plastic skeleton swooped across the screen to terrify guests. According to legend, children learned to bring air guns and sling shots along with them to fire at the EMERGO skeleton.
Decades before the current 3D movie trend, Castle introduced horror fans to Illusion-O in 13 Ghosts. Attendees were given a pair of special glasses when attending the film – which allowed braver viewers to see the ghosts on screen while the nervous could opt out.
The technology wasn’t quite there for this stunt, and the ghosts remained slightly visible even without the glasses.
Perhaps the most complicated of Castle’s ideas was for The Tingler – a creature that can be killed by the power of screams. In the theatre, certain seats were rigged with vibrating devices in the directors new discovery – Percepto! The buzzers were small surplus airplane wing deicing motors left from World War II. The cost of this equipment added $250,000 to the film’s budget.
Towards the films conclusion, Vincent Price would declare that the tingler was loose. Price’s voice warned the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The tingler is loose in this theater!” at which point the projection operator would activate the buzzers and several members of the audience would leap up screaming.
Some of Castle’s work might have a good amount of cheese. But there’s no doubt he made the cinema a fun place to be and a unique experience. Which is why this October for one night only, the magic of a Castle screening is returning.
Glasgow Horror Fest 2018 will be showing House on Haunted Hill in EMERGO! – partnering with Scare Scotland to bring several of the notorious stunts back to life. Expect emerging ghouls, live spooks and nurses issuing death warrants to the audience in a fun packed Halloween revival!