William Castle: The First Interactive Filmmaker

By David Konow

Before IMAX, D-Box, and the rebirth of 3D, moviegoing audiences were tempted to go to theaters with interactive gimmicks of filmmaker William Castle. Castle's schlocky horror movies employed ticking clocks, buzzers, and even floating skeletons!

Although the late William Castle, the man who gave us such films as Macabre, The House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler, had a reputation for making schlocky, low budget horror movies, he was recently called the first interactive filmmaker. And indeed, his gimmicks did make audiences an active part of the movie going experience, even if an inflatable skeleton floating over the audience, or seat buzzers zapping you with mild electrical current wasn’t as innovative as creating IMAX, Dolby Atmos sound, or even D-Box.

Castle was somewhat of a low budget Hitchcock, and much like the master of suspense he would appear in the coming attractions of his films, explaining what kind of low budget fun the audience had in store if they went to his movies. Like Hitchcock, Castle become a brand of his own, and a recognizable face to young horror fans growing up. (Castle would even appear at the local movie theaters, talking to fans, chomping a big cigar, asking them what they thought of the picture.)

It all started with his 1958 horror film Macabre. Castle knew he couldn’t make a movie as scary as Hitchcock, but he hatched a fun plan to bring audiences to the theaters. As Castle recalled in his autobiography, he heard that Lloyds of London would insure anything, and he got them to put up a million dollar policy for anyone who died of fright watching the movie.

“Nobody’s going to drop dead,” Castle assured them. “It’s just a publicity stunt.” The movie began with a ticking clock, and an announcer warning the audience: “Ladies and Gentlemen, when the clock reaches sixty seconds, you will be insured by Lloyds of London for one thousand dollars against death by fright during Macabre. Lloyds of London sincerely hopes none of you will collect.”

Audiences ate it up, and Macabre was a big hit. With the House on Haunted Hill, which starred Vincent Price, Castle came up with “Emergo,” where an inflatable skeleton floated above the audience on a wire. Once time the skeleton fell into the audience, who tossed it around like a beach ball, and at another screening, the kids in the audience threw trash at the inflatable for target practice.

Then came The Tingler, which also starred Price.

For The Tingler, Castle devised buzzers that zapped the audience throughout the film, a gimmick he called "Percepto!". The Tingler of the title is a monster that latches onto people’s spines, and shocks them to death. But the monster has a weakness: When you scream, it becomes paralyzed and stops shocking you.

In the trailer for The Tingler, Castle promised, “For the first time in motion picture history, members of the audience, including you, will actually play a part in the picture” So halfway through the movie, the screen goes black, and Price delivers a dire warning in the dark:

“Ladies and Gentlemen! Please, do not panic! But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in the theater!”

Then the seats start to buzz, and the audience starts screaming like crazy. Just try to imagine how much fun this would have been seeing it back in the day, and years ago there was a revival screening of The Tingler in New York, complete with seat buzzers, and the audience loved it.

With the success of Macabre and The Tingler, the movies, and the gimmicks, kept coming. For 13 Ghosts, the audience was given polarized “supernatural viewers,” so they could see the spirits floating around that would otherwise be invisible.

For Mr. Sardonicus, you were given a card with a thumbs up on one side, a thumbs down on the other. At the end of the film, you held up the card and decided whether the title character lived (thumbs up), or died (thumbs down). Of course only one ending was shot, which is part of the P.T. Barnum spirit of all this. Even if you felt cheated, you probably had a good laugh over it.

To this day, Hollywood is trying to come up with ways to make movies more interactive through technology. If Castle was still alive today, you have the feeling he would have come up with something like 4D, where scents are blown into the theater’s air system, and tubes of water splash people in the face. (This technology has been spreading to movie theaters all over Europe, and it may hit the States some day as well.)

Still, it’s very doubtful that Castle’s gimmicks could be done on a wide scale today. Try to imagine thousands of theaters across the country being remodeled for joy buzzers under the seats. In the good old days, low budget movies traveled from state to state, which made it easier to set up the local theaters for Percepto, Emergo, or whatever other fun invention Castle came up with.

As Jeffrey Schwartz, the director of the Castle documentary Spine TIngler, says, “There was something very charming about what Bill Castle was doing because it was so low rent and unsophisticated. You couldn’t do what he was doing today because it was very grass roots. The gimmicks added to the circus atmosphere of the movies, and enhanced your memories of them. Now it’s just so corporate and nobody takes any kind of chances. We’ve definitely lost the time where that could happen.”