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Awesome Men Throughout History: William Castle


I just realized earlier this week that I haven’t seen a movie in an actual theater in a really long time. This isn’t something I’m proud of, mind you; I went to the movies a lot as a kid and part of me still wants that communal experience.

Unfortunately, going to the movies kind of sucks now. They’re way too expensive and, unless you leave near a city with more than one theater, the only things being offered are long-running character franchises and remakes of comic book movies. Also, a lot of people are basically savages who can’t stop talking or turn off their phones for 90 minutes and just enjoy something.

There also aren’t any fun, built-in extra features in movies anymore. Some stuff gets released in 3D, but even that’s wearing off because it’s always an afterthought. For gimmicks like that to work, the movie needs to embrace them, and no one did that like this week’s Awesome Man, William Castle.

Castle, who was orphaned at 11 and dropped out of high school to work on Broadway, loved gimmicks, and used them liberally in his low-budget horror films once he transitioned from live theatre to film. His first gimmick film was Macabre, released in 1958, and he had theaters give out certificates for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London to every customer, just in case the movie scared them to death. He also parked ambulances outside theaters showing the movie, and had the ushers dress like doctors and nurses.

It gets better. The House On Haunted Hill, which starred film legend Vincent Price, came to theaters with a pulley system that flew a plastic (or inflatable) skeleton across the theater when a skeleton emerges from a vat of acid in the movie. I’ll let you guess how much stuff got thrown at it by people seeing the movie for a second or third time. Maybe that’s why they didn’t bring that back when they remade the movie in 1999.

Castle’s most elaborate stunt was for Homicidal, a Hitchcock ripoff with a built-in “Fright Break” where people who were too scared to see the ending could get a full refund from the theater. It sounds simple, but John Waters remembers it as quite an involved process.

“You had to leave your seat,” Waters wrote in his 1983 book Crackpot, “and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light … you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: ‘Cowards Keep Walking.’ …all the while a recording was blaring, “‘Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner’!”

You get the idea. No one does stuff like this anymore, and it’s a shame. I mean yes, Castle’s gimmicks were really corny and none of his movies were scary at all, but they made going to the movies more of an event. Patrons certainly got more for their money than they do now, that’s for sure.

I’ll leave you with William Castle’s introduction to his 1959 film The Tingler, in which he indirectly warns the audience about the buzzers installed in some of their seats. Genius.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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