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How Movie Gimmicks of the 1950s Reinvigorated the Horror Genre

Campy thrills hooked audiences in droves.

horror movie gimmicks
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  • Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures

In the 1950s, Hollywood's nerves over a declining industry in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II sparked a wild revolutionary craze: gimmicks. While movies across the board invested in publicity stunts to pull in audiences, no films were more successful in these attempts than those in the horror and science fiction genres. And though the occasional use of gimmicks started way back in the silent film era with the use of color-tinted film, this revitalized trend utilized audience interaction like never before.

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Some of the ploys to net an audience were relatively tame displays of fanfare and outreach. Pressbooks were provided to theaters with instructions and suggestions on how to generate buzz, including reaching out to the local Bird Watchers' Society for screenings of The Giant Claw, staging a monster parade down Main Street, and even providing coloring pages to children, despite the fact that they weren't exactly the film's target audience. However, some of the gimmicks were far more shocking—some might even say literally.

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Films would implement technologies that were new at the time, such as double projector 3D films, full-color features, and stereo sound—innovations which were especially intriguing for horror and sci-fi audiences, as they were in search of as many thrills as they could find. But gimmick master William Castle—executive producer of Rosemary's Baby and director on such old horror classics as 13 Ghosts and The Tinglerbrought in a whole new level of campy audience involvement.

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Castle's 1958 horror movie Macabre proclaimed that if any audience members died of fright during the viewing, their family would be compensated $1,000, while ambulances and hearses lined the street outside of the theater. Gags were woven into the movies themselves, with a "fright break" during the climax of Homicidal for people to go out to the "Coward's Corner" in the lobby if they were too scared, and a "punishment poll" before the end of Mr. Sardonicus for the audience to decide if the villain deserved more punishment or mercy. Dragging the audience into the terror, Castle would also pull such stunts as sending a skeleton flying over the audience during viewings of House on Haunted Hill.

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Castle's most famous gimmicks are undoubtedly those tied to the 1959 film The Tingler. Marketing promised that in the middle of the film the monster would come out and terrorize the audience, along with reassurances that viewers would be given instructions on how to protect themselves. Most notable is the sensation delivered through audience members' seats. A myth has followed this gimmick that Castle actually rigged the seating with electric shocks, but in actuality the seating was merely outfitted with bumper boxes (used to de-ice places) which caused a rattling sensation from below.

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Though these publicity stunts brought audiences out in droves, gimmicks fell out of fashion over the years. Still, they crept through in films from the 1970s, such as with Wicked, Wicked's use of "duo-vision", and again in the 80s with gimmicks like the scratch-and-sniff ODOROMA cards at viewings of John Waters's Polyester. Yet with the in-theater movie industry on the brink of yet another crisis with pandemic pressures and competition from streaming services, will gimmicks start making a come back? The array of new technologies via smart phones and the like certainly offers considerable possibilities.

One thing is for certain: the gimmick craze launched nearly 70 years ago changed the course of movie history. And another change may be just what the industry needs to survive.

Promotional still from "The Tingler" via Columbia Pictures