The blog of author Dennis Cooper

William Castle’s Scarier Movies Day *

* (Halloween Countdown post #14)


‘The disquieting advertisements appeared in magazines like Time and Billboard: “The producers of the film MACABRE undertake to pay the sum of ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS in the event of the death by fright of any member of the audience during the performance.”

‘A ploy to lure viewers to movie theaters, the ads were also 100 percent genuine: movie-goers around the country were required to sign life insurance policies from Lloyd’s of London upon entering the theater. Nurses stood by in case of death by fright, and hearses lined the streets outside. As for the director who orchestrated the entire hoopla (and underwrote the insurance policies), he made spectacular entrances of his own as Macabre premiered in cities like Milwaukee, Chicago and New York, either in a hearse or in a coffin. It was 1958, and William Castle was determined to “scare the pants off” his audience.

‘“Reportedly he was pissed no one bothered to die, because it would’ve been great press,” says film historian Catherine Clepper. “He was kind of a genius when it came to promotion, anticipating what would delight audiences or differentiate his product, which in many ways was an average, low budget horror-family film of that period.”

‘Castle’s trajectory to Hollywood began with a stunt of a very different nature. While working at a playhouse in Connecticut in the late 1930s, a coworker received notice that she should return to Germany for a Nazi drama festival, which she had no intention of attending. “So Mr. Castle fired off a cable to Hitler telling him, in effect, to go climb a tree,” reported the New York Times. That stunt caught the attention of Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, and soon enough Castle was producing and directing movies.

‘But it wasn’t until he departed from Columbia and formed his own film company with writer Robb White that Castle solidified his reputation for zany gimmicks, earning the reputation for being the “Abominable Showman”. The first three films the company produced were especially popular: Macabre, House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler.

‘The first, of course, came with the life insurance policies against dying of fright—a tie in with the actual plot of the movie, which features an insurance scam and death by fear. The 1959 cult classic House on Haunted Hill featured an in-theater gimmick called “Emergo.” At the end of the movie, in another plot tie-in, as a skeleton rises out of a vat of acid, another skeleton hidden in a box above the screen dropped down on a zip line and glided above the audience. At one showing the skeleton broke free of its moorings and landed on an audience member, causing more fear than intended, and a slight injury.

‘“There’s this amazing text—it’s not even subtext—that you’re coming to the theater, [Castle’s film] is going to kill you [from fear], and then the villain of [his] movies is fear,” Clepper says. “It’s really clever and suggests [the promotional stunts] weren’t just random, crass commercialism.”

‘And finally, with The Tingler—a movie about a lobster-like creature that causes death by fear and can only be banished by screaming—Castle had theater owners rig several chairs with electric buzzers. He placed a female “plant” in the audience to collapse into hysterics at the climax of the film, just as audiences were told by the on-screen narrator, breaking the fourth wall, that the tingler had escaped into their theater. The movie also used “the ingenious but simply executed mixture of color and black and white” in a final scene, where everything was colorless except the bath tub filled with bright red blood, writes Kevin Heffernan in Ghouls, Gimmicks, and Gold: Horror Films and the American Movie Business.

‘While Castle’s work was unique for the way his gimmicks tied in with the narrative plot of his films—and for their enormous financial success—he was only one in a long line of directors trying to manipulate senses beyond sight and sound.

‘“You see a much more expanded version of experimentation and willingness to play with form around 1950 when television really begins to crack the film market,” Clepper says. “[Castle] is such a fun person to study and write about because he is inadvertently touching on longstanding utopian visions of what cinema can be, that it can touch you, both emotionally and physically.”

‘Castle wasn’t the only one experimenting with gimmicks and different ways of affecting audiences. Screenings of the classic 1931 version of Dracula included nurses in the theater and a dose of ‘nerve tonic’ (sugar pills) before the film, Clepper writes in a paper for Film History. Promotional events for 1958’s The Fly included an enormous plastic fly bathed in green light, and the 1965 film The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies included a spinning hypnotic wheel and men in masks running down the aisles.

‘But Castle’s forays into horror seemed to secure a special place in the pantheon of cult classics. As Mikita Brottman writes in Film Quarterly, “A whole spectrum of established film critics have recalled a childhood experience of The Tingler as their archetypal horror movie-going experience.”

‘Kids were especially drawn to the silliness of the stunts, Clepper says. “The kids were the ones who brought repeated tickets [to House on Haunted Hill]. It was more of a carnivalesque atmosphere than a spooky, goosebumps atmosphere. You buy your ticket, you wait for that moment [when the skeleton appears], then everybody pulls out their slingshots”—and tries to shoot the ghoul.

‘Castle’s career continued beyond his “shock” productions, with perhaps his most famous producer credit coming from Rosemary’s Baby, which Castle purchased the rights to after reading the story upon which it was based. But today most remember him for the enjoyable spoofs he incorporated into his shows. Director John Waters is one particularly vocal fan: “William Castle is my idol,” Waters once said. “His films made me want to make films. I’m even jealous of his work.”

‘“Castle has had legs that he never anticipated having,” Clepper says. The director normally moved quickly from one movie to the next, discarding old gimmicks to come up with new ones. But even today, people want to remember them as they were seen originally: complete with dangling skeletons and buzzing chairs—an experience that an audience viewer, as Castle said, just couldn’t have at home in front of the television.’ — Lorraine Boissoneault





The William Castle Blog
William Castle @ IMDb
Where to begin with William Castle
The Hair-Raising Gimmicks of the Abominable Showman
ReFocus: The Films of William Castle
Spine tingling came of age with William Castle
In praise of William Castle – undisputed king of cinema gimmickry
William Castle @ Letterboxd
Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle
William Castle: Grandmaster of Exploitation Cinema
William Castle, creep show king and Hollywood’s last great promoter
The Horror World of William Castle
WILLIAM CASTLE – Mad As Hell Movie Showman
Emergo! Percepto! Illusion-o! The William Castle Circus Comes to Town
Collective Screams: William Castle and the Gimmick Film
The Branding of an Author: William Castle and the Auteur Theory
The Social Relevance of William Castle



William Castle Gimmicks

William Castle, Hollywood Barnum

William Castle Discussion


John Waters on Becoming William Castle and His Love of Great Gimmicks
by Liz Shannon Miller


A dream came true for John Waters in “Hagsploitation,” Episode 6 of FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan.” For decades, the iconic director has been a vocal fan of William Castle, the B-movie king of showmanship whose promotional stunts remain legendary. In fact, “I wish I were William Castle,” Waters wrote in the 1986 collection “Crackpot.”

And thus, Ryan Murphy asked Waters to appear in “Hagsploitation,” which opens with Waters as Castle, introducing an axe-wielding Joan Crawford (played by Jessica Lange) during a promotional tour for the 1964 film “Straight-Jacket.”

“It was an honor to be asked to do it, because I’m such a fan of William Castle,” Waters said about the unannounced cameo. “I had to keep the secret for so long because we shot it a long time ago. And the secret kept. I was surprised, because there were 100 extras there.”

While playing Castle on screen, Waters is still very recognizably Waters, which was by design. “When they asked me to do it, I was like, ‘Well, I’m not fat, should I wear a fat suit?’ and they were like, no, we just like the conceptual idea of you playing him,” he said.

But the reverse was true when it came to his co-star. Waters hadn’t met Lange before, but said he thoroughly enjoyed spending the day with her, “because she was dressed like Joan Crawford and so we’d be having a normal conversation — but she’d look like Joan Crawford.”

This wasn’t the first time Waters was approached to be in a Ryan Murphy series — according to the director, he was asked to appear in “American Horror Story,” but the schedule didn’t work out.

Waters doesn’t necessarily plan to do more acting work in the future. “Every once in a while when they ask me, I just do it because I like the whole project. I was in the ‘Alvin and the Chipmunk’ movie, which was a real bucket list item.”

The one acting job he really wants? “I want to be in a ‘Final Destination’ movie.” (He’s a fan of the franchise.)

He’s also a fan of what Murphy’s been doing lately on television: “The O.J. thing [‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’] was great. I mean, he’s the hardest working man. I don’t understand how he doesn’t just drop dead.”

Beyond working with Murphy, playing Castle was also an opportunity to celebrate the classic theater gimmicks that Waters loved as a kid. “When I first saw ‘House on Haunted Hill’ as a kid in Baltimore and the skeleton went out on the wire and the thousand kids in the audience went crazy … My whole life, I’ve tried to at least equal that cinema anarchy,” he said. “I came close with the end of ‘Pink Flamingos,’ but I didn’t tie with it. He still beat me.”

Waters likes to incorporate gimmicks into his performances, remembering how “Divine and I used to go around to the theaters — we used to come out and Divine would rip a phone book in half.” In fact, at his recent Christmas show, he distributed eyebrow pencils and little packets of anal bleach.

To Waters, “there’s always gimmicks and I’ll go to every one of them. I was the last person watching ‘Piranha 3-D’ in 3-D glasses by myself, the last time it played in a suburban theater in Baltimore. I still will go for the gimmick.”

There’s one gimmick that doesn’t work for Waters — the way some theaters have begun to upgrade to luxury seating. “They have seats now that are like first class airline seats, which make you go to sleep,” he said. “If I’m seeing a three-hour foreign film, I don’t want to watch it in a bed.”

Waters’ favorite gimmick remains Castle’s invention of the Percepto, which attached buzzers to theater seats during screenings of 1959’s “The Tingler.” (The instructions for how to wire the seats for the Percepto is just one item in Waters’ collection of Castle memorabilia.)

But he also fondly remembers the distribution of vomit bags for certain films, a trend which remains common. “I read that ‘Raw’ is giving out vomit bags — which is hardly an original idea and ‘Raw’ is a good movie. So I don’t even think it needed that. But the vomit bag gets revived every decade at least.”

After all, a good gimmick can often enhance a film or TV show. A gimmick, for example, like making sure that a iconic director gets played on screen by his biggest fan.


Macabre (1958)
‘William Castle was just figuring out his gimmicky horror-suspense style when he made the boring “Macabre”. He’d get it right next time, with “The Tingler”–a person couldn’t GET more right than “The Tingler,” in fact. But “Macabre” is kind of a swing-and-miss, with its story of a missing little girl, possibly buried alive, and silly cemetery hijinks.’ — Mark Rinker


the entirety


House on Haunted Hill (1959)
‘Frederick Loren has invited five strangers to a party of a lifetime. He is offering each of them $10,000 if they can stay the night in a house. But the house is no ordinary house. This house has a reputation for murder. Frederick offers them each a gun for protection. They all arrived in a hearse and will either leave in it $10,000 richer or leave in it dead!’ — Letterboxd


the entirety


The Tingler (1959)
‘A cultish chiller that acquired some fame on its original US release when Castle wired up the cinema seats with electrical buzzers to give his audiences a little extra shock value. The plot is ingeniously ludicrous: a doctor (Price) discovers that fear breeds a centipede-like organism in the base of the spine. The organism can kill if its grip is not released, and only a scream can do that. So the good doctor experiments on a deaf-mute, the wife of a cinema-owner who only shows silent movies. Castle was a real Hollywood showman, a downmarket Hitchcock whose work shows considerable flair. The scenes in the movie theatre are very striking, and the way the doctor torments his victim – by providing her with visual shocks (a kind of acid trip) and by causing running water from a tap to turn into blood (black-and-white gave way to colour here) – is clearly the work of a sick mind. Castle recalled, ‘I was asked by somebody at Yale whether The Tingler was my statement against the establishment and whether it was my plea against war and poverty. I said, Who knows?” — Time Out (London)

Introduction to “The Tingler”

the entirety


13 Ghosts (1960)
‘William Castle’s masterpiece – a gimmick (illusion-o, in which red and blue filters were placed separately and on a horizontal axis to either emphasize or hide the spooky haunts, otherwise known as Ghost-Viewers) that actively yearns for participation within the exhibition space, constantly switching back and forth from different combinations of viewing, resulting in a varied experience of individualized image making. You make your own movie! Proto-Scooby-Doo in that it utilizes ghosts as a cover-up for earthly criminality. Even ends with the young boy putting on the villain’s dollar-store Halloween mask to scare the family as they chuckle heartily! I love this movie as much as I love cobwebs and secret passages…so a whole fucking lot!’ — Silent Dawn


the entirety


Homicidal (1961)
‘Needless to say, the film has a somewhat campy feel to it now. No more so than when Emily goes on the rampage in the wedding shop, snapping the head off a nearby statue of a groom. However, at least the film does achieve one unexpected chill, when Emily describes to Helga how the justice of the peace suffered with surprising ferocity. Typical of the showman that Castle was, the film came complete with a couple of gimmicks. The first was a ‘fright break’ a 45 second timer ahead of the film’s climax as the ‘final girl’ approaches the house where the killer lurks. If movie-going patrons couldn’t stand the suspense, then Castle had fashioned a ‘coward’s corner’ in the lobby! Whilst certainly entertaining, HOMICIDAL is, despite the gimmicks, more restrained than some of Castle’s more celebrated movies.’ — Justin Kerswell


the entirety


Mr Sardonicus (1961)
Mr. Sardonicus is a 1961 melodrama directed by William Castle. When it was originally released to cinemas, it was allegedly distributed with two alternate endings. Which ending was shown at any given screening supposedly depended upon the results of an instant poll of audience members. Only one ending is available in existing versions, however, and the existence of the second is unconfirmed.’ — Lost Media Archive


the entirety


13 Frightened Girls (1963)
‘While attending a Swiss school for diplomats’ daughters, the teenage daughter of the American ambassador uses her access to various embassies to engage in espionage.’ — Letterboxd

Trailer #1

Trailer #2


The Old Dark House (1963)
‘This film originally came about due to the fact that both Hammer and Castle were in pre-production on their own separate versions of The Old Dark House, and thought it would be silly to release them at the same time. Why not produce one together? So Hammer convinced William Castle to venture out to England and work on their film as a co-production, and Castle agreed.

‘The film itself had some censorship problems in the UK. The BBFC (British Board of Film Certification) did not release it in England until 1966 and it was significantly cut down. While the US got the film at 86 minutes in 1963, the UK had to remove all close-ups of corpses in order to achieve an “A” rating, leaving the film at a total running time of 77 minutes. Additionally, while the film was shot in Eastman Color, due to financial restraints, the original US distribution of the film was all black and white prints. It was much cheaper to print black and white 35mm prints from a color negative than to release the film in color.’ — New Beverly



Strait-Jacket (1964)
‘In 1964, William Castle would employ the biggest gimmick of his moviemaking career – Joan Crawford as an ax murderer in Strait-Jacket. Working at Columbia Pictures, Strait-Jacket would turn out to be William Castle’s most respectable movie to date, with a screen legend front and center and Psycho author Robert Bloch penning the screenplay. Of course, Strait-Jacket is now hailed as a camp classic, which it is no doubt, but it’s also a throwback melodrama that is punctuated by its moments of violent ax murders.’ — Fan Boy Nation


Joan Crawford Wardrobe/Makeup Test for Strait-Jacket



The Night Walker (1964)
‘Don’t watch The Night Walker at night, or you will run to hide beneath your covers with all the lights on! Solid Castle flick with an abundance of spooks, ghouls, and frights! Barbara Stanwyck has to put up with a bunch of old dudes fucking around with trying to get their hands on some money, that’s the only bad part. How William Castle continued to nab famous Hollywood women for shit like this is beyond me. As far as I know, this film didn’t have a gimmick… but it didn’t need one! That wedding scene plus some of the stuff at the end was enough to make me want to poop my pants!’ — Scare-ik


Opening scene


I Saw What You Did (1965)
‘Following Joan’s termination from the film “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” in August 1964, “I Saw What You Did” was her first appearance in a film. Upon signing her contract for the film on September 29th, 1964, Joan supplied producer William Castle with paperwork from her doctors documenting her complete recovery from her ailment. For her services, Joan received $50,000.00 and top billing on promotional material. Grayson Hall was reportedly promised the role of “Amy Nelson” before Joan accepted it. The film’s original title was “In Case Of Murder.” “I Saw What You Did” was the first of a new five-film contract William Castle made with Universal. Pre-production arraignments began in July 1964 upon Castle’s completion of “The Night Walker.”‘ — The Concluding Chapter




Kill Uncle (1966)
‘The great Nigel Green brings a delicious patina of sardonic menace to one of his few lead roles as the cheerful would-be assassin of his newly rich nephew. One of William Castle’s later efforts, it’s gimmick-less and shot pretty much like a tv show, but its uneasy mix of fun and child murder has a pleasingly unwholesome tone.’ — Trailers from Hell



Shanks (1974)
‘Malcolm Shanks is a sad and lonely man, deaf, mute and living with his cruel sister and her husband, who delight in making him miserable. His only pleasure, it seems, is in making and controlling puppets. Thanks to his skill, he is offered a job as a lab assistant to Dr. Walker, who is working on ways to re-animate dead bodies by inserting electrodes at key nerve points and manipulating the bodies as if they were on strings. When the professor suddenly dies one night, Shanks gets the idea to apply their experimental results to a human body, and then to start exacting some revenge.’ — Letterboxd






p.s. Hey. ** David, Oh, thanks. Does anything do more than just sort of work when you really think about it? Okay, Jon is a total newbie to me. I’ll, you know, google. My friends/collaborators Zac and Sabrina both felt sick yesterday, so something’s in the air. For Halloween night itself? This week is insane on my end, so I might just be ready to chill by then, we’ll see. Anything Halloweeny on the coast? ** _Black_Acrylic, That is one very good looking spooky house there. Of course the photo flatters its spooky side, but still. It would make a nice …well, pretty much anything. ** Bill, Thanks, we’re going to need the luck for absolutely sure. Did I forget to post the Bernard/Crying day to my FB blog page? Oh, shit, you’re right. Weird. I’m not sure why that happened. I’m usually pretty automatic/diligent. Good potential news about the gig video. I think the only horror movies I’ve seen this month are ones I watched partly re: making blog posts like the one today. Hm. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Cool, I would like to see Budapest. I’ll put on my thinking cap and see how that could happen. Fun! Thanks, yeah, I don’t think there’s much to be done about the anxiety. The builders still haven’t finished the Haunt/game, and the version we have is incomplete and full of glitches, and today is our long tech rehearsal for which we’d hoped to have the finished thing, and now it looks like we may have to present the Haunt/game without having been able to see/test it beforehand, and the producer of Zac’s and my new film is bringing about five rich art world people who are maybe interested in putting money into our film, so there’s the added pressure of hoping to impress them enough to invest in the film, and, so, yeah, it’s stressful with no real solution. Generally, with me, I get anxious before things happen, but when they actually happen, I just surrender to my fate and relax and do it. I hate stress, don’t you? It’s so not fun. Yes, new additions to your town! It’s becoming a real metropolis. And I’m ever more happy to be a homeless citizen. My faves? Hm, Haunted Hoochie and Dent Schoolhouse are legendary, so them. I think maybe the carwash one, and there’s something about Psycho Path Dark Ride that charms me, so that one too. Very hard to pick. Love turning the air I breathe into a sedative, ha ha, G. ** Misanthrope, Hi. Thanks for the ‘Dune’ review. I still think I’m going to skip it, but I’m happy you were sated. Oh, fuck. I think you know how I feel about heroin. That is very grim. I think if that’s true and he doesn’t turn around very quickly, he’s in deep, deep trouble. Having had too many friends and a bf either die and have their lives destroyed by heroin, my policy is either the heroin user goes into serious rehab or uses another method to stop using it very quickly or I cut them loose. That is a very bad, very dangerous path he is on. I’m very sorry to hear that. ** Jeff J, Hi, Jeff. Thanks, man. I got the email/Zoom link. I think you had Zac’s email right, but I’ll make sure when I see him today. Excited! Oh, ‘Memoria’ … What he was trying to do is painfully evident, and all I saw was the effort, and I thought it failed at almost every turn. It has his mystical stuff in it, but it isn’t effective except in tiny bits because the film in general is so thin and draggy. It seemed like an exercise in ‘slow cinema’ tropes. And, like I kind of said, Swinton was a terrible choice to pin so much intended charisma on. She wanders through the film doing her usually schtick in tediously slow motion, and she radiates almost nothing. I don’t know. See it and see what you think. It’s very long and feels very long. Be prepared for that. ** Steve Erickson, Good luck finding the totality of your muse. You will. That Bonnetta documentary sounds pretty interesting. I’ll look for it. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. ** Rafe, Hi, Rafe. Cool that you came back. I’m guessing you write and make art? Is the studying feeling beneficial? I bet your français is a million times better than mine, I’m embarrassed to say. Thank you again. I hope I’ll get to see and experience your work, I’d like to. It’s cloudy and slightly chilly here today, and that’s kind of my ideal, so I’ll be fine, thanks. And the same ideal (in your terms) weather to you. ** Halloween continues unabated around here with this look into the movies of horror pioneer William Castle. Fun is there to be had. See you tomorrow.


  1. David

    ‘Jon + Robert’ did the original ‘co-video’ performance… although no internet back then so it didn’t really go viral… although in a way it did actually through a distorted lens.. hope your pals feel better soon… I still feel shite… snorted salt water 3 times this morning to kill the pain.. and it worked… although still feel crap…. I posted the ‘what’s Dennis Cooper doing on the 20th anniversary of September 11th?’ of me ‘both’.. the twin thing to your email yesterday… the uncensored version… I’m unsure if anything will be happening in Folkestone Halloween wise.. hopefully it will… cheers for this post!!! X all the best the antichrist/David

  2. Dominik


    Shit, Dennis; I think even someone who usually isn’t anxious about stuff would be in this case. It really, really sucks that you might not get to rehearse properly even once before going live with the final version. I do keep my fingers ridiculously tightly crossed. How was the rehearsal?
    Stress is an absolutely fucked up thing, especially when it’s there like… every time we’re about to do something fun. I do hope yours melts away tomorrow and for all the good reasons.

    Indeed! My town might be getting a bit more difficult to manage but who cares? Ah, yes, we need a school, don’t we? Of course. And all the others are welcome, too. I thought about Haunted Hoochie myself.

    I do hope your love works its magic somehow! Love turning into your haunt’s guardian angel and smoothing its path to absolute success, Od.

  3. Misanthrope

    Dennis, I like the insurance policy against dying of fright. Hahaha.

    Yeah, I’m seeing a lot of people who I thought would hate Dune actually like it. I find that interesting. The French Dispatch is getting good reviews too.

    Thanks for that. Yeah, so a family member knows someone at the treatment place David got kicked out of. He tested positive on each drug test and it was for heroin. One result was close to OD levels. Fucking crazy. He swears he’s not doing it and just doing pills, but his behavior suggests otherwise.

    He’s been hired at a retail place, one of those pop-up Christmas stores, now. He starts Friday. Of course, he wants $200 from me suddenly. Thing is, he got a paycheck for $370 last Friday and got spotted another $200 in drugs and it’s all gone. Almost $600 in 3 days. Fucking insane. And really, until I stop giving him money, nothing’s going to change.

  4. Misanthrope

    Btw, yeah, I’ve had several friends I grew up with OD on heroin over the past few years. At least a dozen. It’s fucking horrible.

  5. _Black_Acrylic

    Been trying my best to get some horror in via DVDs this week. Showed Carpenter’s The Thing to my dad, and he had to admit that it’s pretty good. William Castle is probably a step too far I think.

    Saw Deerskin the other night and really enjoyed it. You seen that?

  6. Jamie

    Hey Dennis,
    How are you? I hope you’re looking forward to your event tomorrow/today, although I read that you’re, entirely understandably, stressed about the whole thing. I was really hoping I could come and witness it, but it was working out as a heavily expensive day trip, so it’s not possible. I’ll hopefully catch it in some way or form soon. I have a feeling it’s going to be excellent, and I’ll have fingers and toes crossed and I’m looking forward to hearing how it went.
    Did you know that John Waters played William Castle in the TV series Feud, about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? I didn’t know and found it quite touching when he appeared. I spent some time recently trying to imagine how one could apply William Castle tactics to a novel, without it becoming House of Leaves.
    Best wishes for today!

  7. David Ehrenstein

    Castle’s most famous film is “Rosemary’s Babt” — which he produced but did not direct. He makes an appearace in it coming ut ofa phone booth that Mis Farrow desperatelywants to get into to make a call.

    Castlle also appears in the climactic Bistro Gardens scene in “Shampoo” where he flirts with Julie Christie.

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