The post-3D gimmicks of William Castle

Unlike 3D, it would be difficult to think Hollywood ever believed that Percepto or Emergo would be the salvation of the movie business. 

William Castle didn’t think they would be either, he just wanted people to come see his movies, and although the original House on Haunted Hill, Macabre, and the original 13 Ghosts aren’t in the same league as The Exorcist, they’re a great hoot to go back and watch today, even without the gimmicks.

Right as 3D was fizzling out at the end of the 50’s, William Castle knew he needed something extra to bring people to see his horror film Macabre, so he came up with a gimmick that would be copied many times, where the audience was insured in case they died of fright. 

For The Tingler, he wired the seats to zap theater goers like a joy buzzer (this was “Percepto”), and with Emergo, blow up skeletons hooked up to a track would float above the audience.

With 13 Ghosts, different colored glasses allowed you to see the ghosts onscreen, and with Mr. Sardonicus, the audience got to vote at the end of the film if the title character lived or died. (Of course, Castle only shot one ending).


Many modern masters of horror grew up with Castle’s movies, and still remember them fondly. Stephen King recalled in his book Danse Macabre that he snuck in to see Macabre against his mother’s wishes, and he memorized the plot of a Davy Crockett movie from looking at the film’s trading cards, which told most of the story. 

Castle’s showmanship was pure hokum, but he was charming in his P.T. Barnum-esque ways, and even without the gimmicks, they’re still great fun to watch. As Terry Castle, his daughter, told the L.A. Times, “They are so much fun to see. I think at the time they were scary and now they are really entertaining. I think today new audiences and my father’s fans would love to go back to that time of innocence.”


Terry also felt with Rosemary’s Baby, which her father acquired for Paramount and produced, and Night of the Living Dead, “horror films and the world changed. You had the Tet offensive, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and Martin Luther King’s assassination. I think after Rosemary’s Baby my dad lost footing because the world did change.”