ByTommy DePaoli, writer at
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Tommy DePaoli

Horror movies have a long history of using whatever means necessary to get people to the theater. This often translates to inventive viral campaigns (The Blair Witch Project, You're Next), crossover appeal (Freddy vs. Jason), and questionable authenticity (Cannibal Holocaust).

My favorite strategy to make the cinematic fear larger than the movie involves in-house gimmicks that require altering the theater or the experience itself. While these were extremely popular in the 1950s, I had no idea that [The Conjuring](movie:600664) had a one-off nod to these gimmicks at one of their screenings in Chicago.

Referencing the Catholicism of the real life husband and wife paranormal experts, Warner Bros. put out a sign that claimed certain audiences experienced supernatural occurrences after seeing The Conjuring. Supposedly for the well-being of new moviegoers, they employed a real-life Priest to be on site to provide "spiritual support" to anyone who felt victimized by the film's evil spirits.

I gotta say, I wish more marketing campaigns ended up with such a special approach to seeing a scary movie. It may take a little extra money, but if done right, these things can get people talking.

Some may call these gimmicks, but I'll take anything that enhances my level of fear when watching a horror movie. With the utmost respect to these typically bemoaned techniques, here's a list of my favorite horror "gimmicks" of all time.

Macabre (1958)

Producer/Director William Castle pioneered the art of the promotional gimmick, and the inventive showman attached a provocative event to almost every one of his horror films.

Macabre featured one of Castle's first attempts at this strategy. He promised every customer a $1,000 insurance policy should they die of fright during the screening. Some theaters also featured ushers dressed in surgical scrubs and and ambulance parked in front.

The extra bit of marketing ultimately paid off for Castle, who had to mortgage his house to make the movie. Macabre made $5 million at the box office and helped usher in an era of in-theater gags and thrills.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Another Castle classic, House on Haunted Hill came out one year after Macabre, and the director decided to ramp up his gimmick game. The movie was a pretty simple haunted house story with five people trapped inside in a contest to see who could outlast the rest. This time around, he employed a famous trick he called "Emergo." Theaters rigged a complex pulley system in some theaters that sent a plastic skeleton flying directly over the audience at a climactic point.

Funnily enough, when teenage boys caught wind of this stunt, they started bringing in their slingshots to pelt the fake skeleton with rocks and marbles. As a result, the prop was ultimately removed from many theaters, but not before the movie raked in $4 million on a paltry $200,000 budget.

The Tingler (1959)

This last mention of William Castle is also his most well-known and inventive. The guy loved coming up with a quintessentially 50s name for all of his gimmicks, and for The Tingler he landed on "Percepto."

Unlike many other gimmicks, Percepto actually fits very nicely within the movie's narrative. The Tingler is about a parasite that exists inside the body and thrives on human fear, causing a spine-tingling sensation when its host gets scared. For Percepto, Castle wanted the audiences to experience the same kind of tingling sensation as the onscreen victims, so he had some theater seats wired with electrical buzzers to make them vibrate. At the climax, the monster appears to be let loose in the theater, and the audience receives a jolt along with a message telling them that screaming is the only way to save their lives.

To really make this gimmick work, Castle even hired actors to be screamers and fainters in the audience, who would be carried out on a stretch only to return for the next showing. I know most people found this to be a campy gimmick, but I must say that I would love to see things like this in more movies today.

Psycho (1960)

For a bit of historical context, Psycho came out during a time when moviegoers would come and go as they please, flitting into movies halfway through or only catching bits and pieces. To drum up awareness of his low-budget and unconventional masterpiece, Alfred Hitchcock employed a marketing campaign that required people to be in their seats for the start of the movie. Theaters featured a life-size Hitch gesturing toward his watch, effectively changing the way that audiences would have typically viewed the film. While the theaters originally worried that they would lose money, they ended up with lines of people waiting for the movie, only causing more of a buzz.

The Human Centipede 2 (2011)

Via ScreenJunkies
Via ScreenJunkies

The popularity of theater gimmicks has certainly slowed down since its heyday in the 1950s, but some movies are still using the lived experience as a way to draw people (who could just wait to watch at home) into the theaters.

Like The Conjuring, The Human Centipede 2 also chose to include some staged events at one of their premieres. IFC Films, the movie's distributor, gleefully doled out complimentary barf bags at the Fantastic Fest premiere in Austin, TX. They also jokingly placed an ambulance in front in case anyone needed EMT assistance after sitting through the extreme scenes of gore.

Ironically, one woman in the audience actually DID become so sick while watching the movie that medical personnel had to swoop in and help her. Apparently, she filled up two of the complimentary barf bags before getting assistance. They ended up bringing another ambulance to the scene after the first one whisked the poor gal away.

Would you like to see updated versions of these old-fashioned gimmicks in contemporary horror movies? Do you think they enhance or detract from the fear-inducing experience?


Should more horror movies feature in-house 'gimmicks'?


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