The Gimmicks of the Gimmick King

Director William Castle is remembered for being the king of gimmicks. While they may seem silly in retrospect, the stunts were actually quite business savvy.

“Every picture had to have a gimmick, something to sell. You must have some sort of a campaign plan,” Castle said. “I know I’m a darned good showman. No one could top my gimmicks.”

Check out some of them below!

1. Fright Insurance

William Castle’s first feature film gimmick began with Macabre (1958). He hoped to make something as scary as Diabolique (1955), but fell short. However, failure wasn’t an option, especially since he had mortgaged his home to make the movie. So he came up with fright insurance. He promised viewers that if they should be scared to death from the film their next of kin could inherit. Lloyds of London handled the policy which cost $5 thousand. No one dropped dead, but the audience had fun filling out the beneficiary forms and spread the word.

2. Emergo

When Castle pitched this gimmick for House on Haunted Hill (1959), the publicity department said it was impossible. After all, how could they get a skeleton to fly into the audience at the same time it was terrorizing a woman on the screen? But Castle found a way. The stunt didn’t work at first though. In fact, at a screening which featured John Huston and other Hollywood well-knowns the skeleton actually fell onto the audience. Eventually though, the flying skeleton successfully traveled via a wire into the audience and back. Audiences ate it up too. To read more about House on Haunted Hillclick here

3. Percepto

The Tingler (1959) actually had two gimmicks. Tingler were an imaginary creature which supposedly lived in every person. But when someone couldn’t scream, their tingler posed a threat. Castle had a box that was chained shut keep nearby with a sign that warned a tingler was inside. When the film was released in theaters, certain seats were rigged to buzz when the monster gets loose in a scene (set in a movie theater).  

4. Illusion-O

“Do you believe in ghosts?” asks Castle in 13 Ghosts (1960) before explaining his “Ghost Viewer”. Illusion-o allowed audience members to choose if they saw the sinister spirits in the movie or if they wanted to play it safe. The 3-D glasses were also a fun souvenir for the audience. To read more about 13 Ghosts, click here.

5. The Punishment Poll

Mr. Sardonicus (1961) revolves around the titular evil man whose face was permanently damaged due to a horror he saw. Towards the end of the film, Castle appears and asks the audience to decide what should happen to the villain using the Activator Booth – a card which had “Mercy” and “No Mercy” printed on opposite ends. Audience members could then vote on Sardonicus’ fate and see the winning ending. While Castle alleged that an ending for “Mercy” existed, it doesn’t appear to ever have been filmed or scripted. In other words, Mr. Sardonicus never had a chance.

6. The Fright Break

Homicidal (1961) was Castle’s nudge at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). The movie promised to be so scary that it had a Fright Break. When the indicator came on the screen, anyone could leave the movie and get a full refund. Some tricked the system though. They stayed for a second showing of the film and then walked out to receive their money back. To stop the cheating, movie theaters changed the colors of the redemption slips and made the retreating audience member collect the money in the Cowards’ Corner.