If ever there were a home for people with a flair for the dramatic, the cinema would be it. Sure, the live theater offers an audience the opportunity to give instant feedback to the performer, but in cinema the performance can be captured, rewatched, and spread around to unlimited audiences. And is there a better way to feed a giant ego than by the promise of celluloid immortality?
Few filmmakers put the spectacle ahead of the film like William Castle. Though he is best known for THE TINGLER, that film is better known for its use of “Percepto!” the gimmick that features buzzers under certain seats of the theater. That surprise, combined with the allegedly planted actors in the audience who fainted and screamed made THE TINGLER an interactive cinematic experience rather than another boring night at the pictures.
Castle’s immediate follow-up to THE TINGLER is 13 GHOSTS. In the film, a family inherits a spooky old mansion from a distant relative. The house carries its own history, which is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. Rumored to have the deceased uncle’s riches hidden somewhere in the house, the inheriting family is determined to find the fortune. However the house also contains twelve, soon to be thirteen, ghosts. Each of these ghosts is a unique apparition who torments the newly domesticated family.
Never one to be too concerned with plot, characterization, or production quality, Castle instead drew in the crowds be offering 13 GHOSTS in “Illusion-O.” Upon entering the theater each patron was given a special set of viewing glasses. They vaguely resembled 3D glasses of that era, in that they had a red viewer and a blue viewer, but these instead featured the viewing windows vertically, rather than one color per eye. Before the film began Castle himself appeared on screen explaining the Illusion-O technology. He knew that the film he created may be too terrifying for some viewers. With these special glasses, you could put them on at certain points in the film to either amplify the images of the ghosts or remove them entirely. In the black and white film these ghosts were shown in blue and thus viewing them through the blue filter removed the haunts, and viewing through the red filter made them clearer. It was a clever gimmick that worked well enough.
It would be completely unfair to fault Castle for focusing on a gimmick in order to market his film. There are plenty of traces of Castle’s marketing maneuvers in our current entertainment landscape.
The first that comes to mind is a certain souvenir that I received at a screening of HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 in 2011. Upon entering the theater I was promptly handed a barf-bag, marked with the film’s title and distribution company proudly on the front. We were told that the film was so disgusting (and it is) that previous screenings lead the film’s distributors to believe that such mass-produced receptacles were necessary for the film. I had zero worries about becoming sick during the film, but loved that I now had a take home token to show others how much I loved horror films. It was my first encounter with Castle style marketing and it has helped me remember HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 much better than many other similarly disgusting film screenings.
Another Castle influenced touch I recently encountered was in Las Vegas, of all places. At a Cirque du Soleil show, I was warned by my ticket taker that there were speakers built into the seats in the theaters. The information was relayed so that I would not be alarmed by my close proximity to the music. I could not help but think that were Castle alive today, he would proudly take credit for the invention. In fact, if Castle were alive today, we may have arrived at 4D cinema earlier, or integrated other sensory experiences into cinema.
More specifically related to 13 GHOSTS, it is apparent that Castle was on to something when he decided to focus a film on exploring a haunted house. Haunted houses are a strong American tradition. Every year millions of people tour the thousands of haunted houses which are open during the month of October. It is this collective experience and the nostalgia for the experience which makes haunted house films so popular. 13 GHOSTS feels very much like the annual tradition of visiting haunts. And the introduction of Illusion-O brings the personal interaction with the haunters from the houses to the theater.
At the annual Telluride Horror Show film festival one of the only two sold-out films this year was HOUSES THAT OCTOBER BUILT. The found-footage horror film is about a group of friends dedicated to exploring haunted houses and finding the scariest one. At the screening the entire audience was given a mask, so that they could become one of the creepier characters in the film after leaving the theater. Though the film did not involve an inheritance or finding treasure, its focus on haunted houses and viral marketing are a testament to the fact that William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS continues to be an influence on our best modern scares.