William Castle and the Movie Experiences You’ll Never Truly Know

By  · Published on April 24th, 2014

On the centenary of William Castle’s birth, I’m wondering if there could ever be another cinematic showman like him. The filmmaker is famous for his gimmicks, including the use of props and special viewing devices and vibrating seats to enhance the experience of watching his pictures (see our list of these gimmicks from a few years ago). Movies like The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts were events, mainly for young audiences who loved the interactivity, no matter how cheesy it might be.

That’s something of an assumption. I can only really imagine what it was like to go to the movies during Castle’s height of success in the 1960s and what it meant to have another of his frightening features arrive in town. Watching a fictionalized version of him and his work in Joe Dante’s Matinee and hearing stories told in the documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story can only go so far to make us understand the half of it.

Movies comparably demanding a theatrical viewing are rare these days. And even while something like Gravity might come along every now and then, the fact is that seeing it on the big screen is better but not entirely necessary to get it. We’ve had to come to realize that we can’t all watch Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey or Playtime as they were intended to be seen, so the same is understood of anything new that comes along where critics implore you to make the effort to get to the theater.

Meanwhile, 3D movies are less and less special, and that doesn’t even have to do with the format being more and more accessible for home viewing thanks to affordable 3D TVs and Blu-rays. It’s just not an extraordinary treat anymore. There really isn’t any equivalent today to what Castle was doing. Not even D-Box motion seats, which haven’t caught on and which don’t provide enough of a unique concept for individual films anyway.

You wouldn’t have waited for a Castle movie to be available in some form of home entertainment, even if that was a possibility back then (obviously home video didn’t exist, but his movies could have been aired on TV). For one thing, you wouldn’t be doing what all the other kids were doing, so you’d be out of the loop – and it wasn’t just limited to kids, as these occasional film attractions were as much a talking point for water cooler discussions as they were on the playground.

Mostly, though, you’d miss out on the skeleton floating above the audience during House on Haunted Hill, and you’d miss the opportunity to democratically choose the ending of Mr. Sardonicus or to see if anyone prematurely exits through the “Cowards Corner” during the special intermission of Homicidal. Actually, that last idea could still be a thing today, only without the whole shaming act, as we privately judge people we see walking out of, say, Evil Dead. It’s not the same, but it also might not entail as many gang-up bullying in the schoolyard.

One thing that might not have been so apparent at the time is how horror movies of that era related to what was going on in the world. Matinee makes the point of Castle and others’ peddling of frightening films coincided with the the nation’s real fears during the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis and with the Bomb in general. Regardless of whether audiences were conscious of the connection, the context of the experiences of these movies was still there and we can’t possibly share in that circumstantial condition of the past while viewing these movies now.

Another factor that would make a career like Castle’s difficult today is spoiler culture. Or maybe that factor is really social media. Not only was it imperative to see most of Castle’s movies in the theater, but it was important to see them immediately. And no second or third or fourth viewing could be the same as seeing House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler for the first time, unaware that the skeleton would appear above you or that your seat would buzz at moments to heighten the already unexpected scares of the movie.

Of course, you’d also not want to be totally spoiled on what the latest Castle gimmick is prior to going in. There was a different kind of experience for follow-up viewings, as apparently kids would later prepare an attack on the skeleton during screenings of House on Haunted Hill or look under the seats ahead of The Tingler to find the ones that would vibrate. That’s another reason it’d have been beneficial to see the movie right away, before it became ruined by too many audience members already knowing what would happen.

Castle was keen on his movies not being spoiled, as you can see below in the classic promo spot for Homicidal, which focuses more on the protection of the twist ending than on whether it was too terrifying for the audience to sit through. In the half-century since, a lot of other movies have been marketed on there being a big secret that shouldn’t be revealed and just has to be experienced first-hand. Now, though, a twist is not enough to get people in the seats, especially as many are fine just spoiling the secret for themselves by looking for it on the Internet.

Homicidal was released a year after Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, which shocked audiences with its groundbreaking twist and opened the world up to the idea of movie spoilers (Hitchcock was one of the first to request that audiences only be allowed to see the movie from start to finish rather than having the option to walk in halfway through). Hardly anyone sees Psycho today without already knowing about that twist (and the ending), but it’s a good enough movie to be enjoyed in spite of such awareness. Homicidal is fine, but its worth for then and now is a lot more dependent on the ending being a surprise, with the experience then being even more satisfying thanks to the fun of the “fright break.”

Throughout the history of cinema, there have been many famous “you had to be there” moments, some as specific as the legendary reaction to the Lumieres’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat at its debut in 1896, others as common as shrieks during the big reveal in The Crying Game (specific reactions were also possible with this one; when I saw it during a sold out show – and I’ll never forget this experience – a man very loudly pointed out what was plainly obvious to the rest of us: “she has a penis!”). And there have been other theatrical gimmicks, like how Les Blank’s documentary Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers was screened with garlic being cooked in the back of the auditorium.

But they’ve been fewer and fewer in the past couple decades. There hasn’t been a really amazing twist in a while, and the closest thing to movies being marketed for the theatrical experience – not counting 3D, which isn’t even being pushed much in ads anymore anyway – is with the horror movies where commercials focus, with night-vision footage, on audience reactions, showing not just how scary they are but how fun it is seeing them in that communal way. Still, these ads all look the same, and there’s no distinction that says “you must see this and be a part of cultural history.”

Most of Castle’s movies were the “you had to be there” kind and are definitely a part of the cultural history of cinema. We could even include Rosemary’s Baby, which he produced, as it was probably a thrill to see that ending with a big crowd back in 1968. But it’s mainly the films he directed and offered souvenirs with (whether in the form of memories or literal souvenir items like the glow-in-the-dark coins from Zotz!) that could never truly be replicated. None of us who born too late will ever really know the experience of seeing them as originally presented and intended.

That’s a shame for us, but it sure makes Castle more notable for having been such a one-of-a-kind filmmaker, working at a very unique time. There aren’t many others who’ve had that kind of distinction.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.