William Castle was a great showman, and the gimmicks that he used to promote his films were just as fun as the kooky stories he told.
“As an artist, I’m there to entertain,” Castle said.
At a young age, Castle caught the "showbiz bug" at camp. His ability to put his legs behind his head earned him roaring applause and the nickname “Spiderboy." Soon he was doing daring feats for more attention, such as running across the train tracks or swimming across the Hudson River in the winter.
But one person had a particularly strong influence over him – Bela Lugosi.
After seeing him perform in a staged production of Dracula, Castle went backstage to meet the legend.
Based on that meeting, he was invited to be Lugosi’s assistant stage manager as they took Dracula on the road. Castle learned about showmanship from a master. Lugosi began his performance by entering via a coffin. He also equipped his hired nurses with smelling salts just in case someone fainted. These fun touches helped get the audience in the mood for what they were about to see, and Castle never forgot them.
He later wrote, “Bela Lugosi was a humble, gentle man, quite unlike the roles he portrayed.”
Castle’s next big venture came thanks to Orson Welles. After directing several summer stock performances, Welles was ready to say goodbye to his theater. That’s when Castle called. He found Welles’ number and convinced him to pass on the space.
Castle’s first play, Not for Children, found the spotlight thanks to the stunts he pulled. When his lead actress was invited back to Germany for a reunion with the cast of one of her previous films, Castle allegedly sent a telegram “telling Hitler” that his star wouldn’t attend. The newspapers ate it up.
Later, he held a press conference at his theater where acts of vandalism had allegedly taken place. He left out the detail that the Nazi graffiti was a publicity stunt.
Nevertheless, it worked, and the play benefitted from the buzz. And so did Castle.
“Hitler was indirectly responsible for opening the doors of Hollywood for me,” he later wrote.
Enter Harry Cohn, the studio head of Columbia Pictures. Cohn was known for his big bulldozer personality which intimidated most anyone who worked for him. Thankfully though, Cohn and Castle hit it off. He was hired, and the up-and-coming director was able to learn about the movie business as a result.
Castle began directing “B” pictures before realizing that his ticket to bigger things lay in developing his own projects, which lead to his leaving Columbia. The buzz around 1955’s Diabolique stirred Castle to look for a similar property that could spook audiences.
Macabre, based on The Marble Forest, was that property. The low-budget film was shot in approximately a week. Castle wagered almost everything he had on this movie and needed it to be a success.
Thus, he came up with “death by fright” insurance. In the event that someone in the audience died from watching the film, their family could collect. The stunt worked, and the movie was a success. His follow-up feature, House on Haunted Hill, followed in its footsteps.
After two successes, Columbia Pictures wooed Castle back, and the director continued his spooky trend with The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, and more.
Eventually, William Castle movies became their own brand, and fan clubs dedicated to his work sprung up. Audiences knew what to expect when they saw his name above the title, and they were ready to scream for their lives.