With House on Haunted Hill, the Horror Movie Gimmick Became Iconic

Ever have an inflatable skeleton fly at you?

William Castle Productions
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The haunted house is one of the true icons of horror. Its simple set-up has inspired countless stories over the centuries, making the trope almost as old as the genre itself. In 1959, director-producer William Castle released one of the most iconic versions of this tale, House on Haunted Hill. It's a familiar enough plot: an eccentric millionaire (played, of course, by Vincent Price) invites a group of people to a party in his crumbling gothic mansion, and whoever spends an entire night there wins $10,000. Could you survive it? Could you even survive watching the movie itself?

Castle made sure that everyone who saw House on Haunted Hill would remember the experience, and his tricks kickstarted a new era of interactive cinema.

William Castle was a horror-loving high school dropout who worked his way through the film industry mainly through working on cheap B-movies. He gained a reputation for making films quickly and under budget, but he wanted to make more than throwaway flicks. Soon, he moved into directing and producing films independently. In 1955, he saw the legendary French thriller Les Diaboliques, and he knew that horror was the genre for him. But getting audiences interested was easier said than done. After all, Castle was competing with the big guys in the studio system, mega-blockbusters on Cinemascope, and this new-fangled invention, television. He needed a gimmick unique to the theater, yes, but also unique to himself.

With his first horror film, 1958's Macabre, Castle gave every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from a real insurance company lest they die of fright. He also stationed fake nurses in the lobbies with hearses in case of a deadly emergency. He traveled to various theaters (arriving in a coffin) touting the policy and making sure everyone knew what a risk they were taking by seeing Macabre. It worked. Even though the reviews were bad, everyone wanted to see what all the fuss was about. Castle had his hook, and he had even more ideas for how to frighten viewers into paying for tickets. The King of the Gimmicks was born.

William Castle playing the director of the Battle of Waterloo sequence in a scene from the 1975 film The Day Of The Locust.

Michael Ochs Archives/Moviepix/Getty Images

House on Haunted Hill is a far better movie than Macabre, both creepy and camp and anchored by Price’s reliable eerie charm. The pull, however, was "Emergo." Certain theaters were rigged up with pulley systems that allowed them to fly a skeleton over the audience during a scene in the film where a skeleton attacks one of the house's visitors. Audiences were obsessed. They came just for the skeleton. Some kids started trying to pull it from the ceiling while others knocked it around with their popcorn cups. The most conservative estimates have House on Haunted Hill making back over 12 times its initial budget. Clearly, audiences wanted more, and Castle gave it to them.

That same year, Castle released The Tingler, another Vincent Price horror (they would make five films together) wherein the source of all human fear is a parasite buried inside our' spinal cords. When one grows strong enough, it can kill its host. And one gets free and worms its way through the theater you're in! To pull this off, Castle installed "Percepto!" The simple act of having mini buzzers attached to a handful of seats was enough to spread fear through the entire room. To make the experience all the more frenzied, Castle paid people to scream and faint during screenings, all to be removed by the same fake nurses who made Macabre so eerie.

Other gimmicks would come: the original 13 Ghosts offered rudimentary 3D glasses so audiences could see certain ghosts hidden on-screen; for Mr. Sardonicus, audiences were given the chance to vote for the ending; audiences at Homicidal were given a "fright break, with a timer overlaid on the film's climax, so they could flee if they got too scared. The thrill of the gimmick eventually dulled for audiences, particularly as the '60s ended and the new Hollywood emerged from the shadows of the studio system. Castle's own hopes of making a prestigious horror were scuppered when the book he mortgaged his house to buy the rights to was handed off to a hot young Polish filmmaker called Roman Polanski. But he did keep the sole producer credit and even cameo-ed in what would become Rosemary's Baby, possibly the most important horror movie of the era.

The inflatable skeleton terrorizing audiences of House on Haunted Hill.

Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

Castle is celebrated these days as a king of marketing, the man who proved that independent cinema could keep up with mainstream Hollywood with the right publicity. He was a rarity in his time: a director more famous than his films or stars. His influence, however, stretches beyond the gimmick. John Waters called him one of his idols and the man who made him want to become a director (he even played Castle in the first season of Feud.) Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante cited him as an influence. Even Alfred Hitchcock was moved to make Psycho in part because he saw how Castle made horror successful. The Castle gimmicks also paved the way for many a midnight movie party, whether it’s a Rocky Horror shadow performance or people flinging kitty litter at the screen for Cats.

Gimmicks get a bad rap because we tire of them so easily and they’re, by design, not intended to withstand scrutiny. Yet Castle fully understood that, at its heart, horror is reliant on an age-old gimmick: scaring people is exciting, harder than it looks, and something people will rush to experience. Horror at its most potent is something best enjoyed with a community. Being in that shared space and feeling the tension rise before the scream is unbeatable. When done well, there’s nothing more fun. That’s what makes Castle’s movies stand out, even today, and even if you watch it without the gimmicks: they’re just a blast, the work of a guy who is enjoying himself way too much. Horror deserved a great showman who believed in it, and there could have been no more fitting king than Castle.

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