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The King of Gimmicks: William Castle

October 26, 2011 3:34 a.m.

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando profiles the King of Gimmicks, William Castle.

Related Story: Screening: '13 Ghosts'


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

In honor of Halloween, the San Diego Central Library will be showcasing William Castle's 1960 horror film "13 Ghosts." KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes a look back on the career of the man known as The King of Gimmicks.

CASTLE (ba).wav 3:51

(Tag:) "13 Ghosts" screens tonight at 6:30pm at the San Diego Central Library downtown. For more of Beth's film reviews visit K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-slash-cinema-junkie.


In the 1950s and 60s, William Castle was known as the King of Gimmicks.

CLIP: Wow-wee! Do you have trouble seeing ghosts? Of course you do.
TERRY CASTLE: It was really a theater going experience. It wasn't just going to see a movie, it was an entire experience because of all the gimmicks. (:12)

His 13 Ghosts screens tonight at the Central Library. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando has a profile of the horror filmmaker coming up next on Morning Edition.

William Castle didn't just make movies, he put on a show.

CLIP MONTAGE: Your attention please... Wow-wee! Do you have trouble seeing ghosts?... This is the fright break... The only picture ever to offer a money back guarantee for those too frightened to see its shocking climax... ten seconds more and we go into the house. It's now or never...

TERRY CASTLE: I think that there was an innocence in the fifties and sixties, and I think that dad made the experience of theater, it was really a theater going experience. So it wasn't just going to see a movie, it was an entire experience because of all the gimmicks.

Terry Castle remembers her dad as a showman who attended every theater opening.

TERRY CASTLE: There were nurses taking your blood pressure and there were ambulances waiting in case people died from fright, and he connected with the audience, he was a showman.

CLIP I'm William Castle and I feel obligated to warn you about the next attraction you will see at this theater.

If you were lucky enough to grow up in the fifties and sixties, you could have enjoyed a "Fright Break" in "Homicidal," or experienced "Percepto" during "The Tingler," or voted in the punishment poll for "Mr. Sardonicus."

CLIP My latest picture, "Mr. Sardonicus," offers something no audience has ever had before -- the power to determine the fate of a character on the screen, the power to punish.

TERRY CASTLE: Dad made these pictures, he started out with a movie called Macabre. And I think he made it for $90,000, he probably shot it in a week. But I think he made the films and then I think he was frightened that nobody would come and so he decided he would have to create a reason for people to come. So with "Macabre," he went to Lloyds of London and he got insurance policies and insured movie goers against death by fright.

CLIP Macabre trailer: However, not even Lloyds of London will not grant coverage for any person with a known condition or for suicide by any member of the audience.

For the 1960 "13 Ghosts," Castle came up with something called Illusion-O.

CLIP Illusion-O trailer: Now when you came in, you were given a special Ghost Viewer like this.

TERRY CASTLE: Dad went to the eye doctor once and they put this contraption on your eyes and show you, can you see this, can you see this? And dad had this brilliant idea for Illusion-O. And basically, he created Ghost Viewers or Ghost Removers. And it was not 3-D, it was a strip of cellophane of red cellophane and a strip of blue cellophane...

CLIP Illusion-O trailer: If you believe in ghosts you look through the red part of the viewer and if you do not believe in ghosts you look through the blue part.

TERRY CASTLE: But of course you wanted to see the ghosts cause you were there to see a horror film. Right?

Of course right! If you went to a William Castle film you went wanting to get scared, especially if you were a kid. Castle could give you that delicious adrenaline rush from sitting anxiously on the edge of your seat and then screaming with glee when a ghost popped out from behind the curtain.

CLIP Scream... you'll be scared too when you see what they see, 13 ghosts materializing in ectoplasmic color through the magic of Illusion-O, the Ghost viewer.
Even today, Castle's films have a devoted cult following and are a blast to watch with an audience in a darkened theater.

CLIP The tingler is loose in this theater and if you don't scream it may kill you, scream, scream for your lives.

The San Diego Central Library recently showed "The Tingler" and audience members did scream for their lives. Now it's presenting "13 Ghosts" as part of its ongoing Schlockfest Film Program.

CLIP See "13 Ghosts," a wonderful film for the whole family.

Castle's memoirs -- "Step Right Up: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America" -- have just been reprinted. Castle's daughter Terry, proving that showmanship is hereditary, has announced that her father has returned from the grave to pen a novel for young adults due out on Halloween. Guess you can't keep a good showman in the grave.

For KPBS News, I'm Beth Accomando