Why Classic Horror Film Advertising Kicked Ass, Part 3: Showmanship
Note — Catch up with previous entries in this series at the following links:
To round out this week’s short series in reverence of classic horror film advertising, we’re going to look at some specific examples of one of this bygone era’s magic ingredients:
And there were few better at it than the legendary William Castle.
Director, producer and marketer, Castle dove headfirst into the horror genre from the late ’50s onwards, generating classics such as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and 13 Ghosts alongside less well recognised entries like Homicidal, Macabre and The Night Walker.
Now, I don’t think anyone would argue that Castle’s filmography is an artistic goldmine — the truth is far from it, with the output of fellow horror devotee Roger Corman being far superior — but to those historically versed in the genre, he’s a household name.
The reason for that? Sheer. Marketing. Genius.
Honestly… if the cigar doesn’t give it away, I don’t know what does.
Anyway, despite the lack of quality in many of his productions (and, in fact, likely because of that lack), Castle’s productions drew the crowds through little more than curiosity over which crazy gimmick he’d introduced this time.
Things like these, to be exact:
Emergo! A plastic skeleton on a wire flies over your head during House on Haunted Hill!
Percepto! Motors built into the seats make you feel the touch of the titular tormentor in The Tingler!
Illusion-O! A free(!) pair of stereoscopic glasses let you close one eye to wipe away the horrors of 13 Ghosts!
Coupled the likes of life insurance guarantees should you die of fright, Castle boosted the value of his entertainment proposition by including a variety of novel gimmicks (with their own individual names!) that made the experience of his screenings more involving — more tactile — for the audience than his competition did.
Even if that involvement was mainly throwing popcorn at a goofy fake skeleton floating around the auditorium, people were having fun and paying customers were in seats.
It was no longer just a movie screening — it was a group event.
And just look at that copy. Look at it. The excitement, the thrilling promises, the energy and the challenge.
“Yeah, but that’s a lot of dumb fluff” you might say — and you’re right, it is… in a way.
But marketing stunts get around. Branded barf bags handed out at screenings. Planted news of people passing out in the aisles or needing medical assistance for heart palpitations… these still happen today, and amongst devotees of the horror genre, word spreads fast and reputations grow quickly.
If you can get your customers involved with your product, enthralled in your presentation and feeling like this is truly something special, something beyond the norm…
You can break through objections much more easily and land the sale. This translates to something as simple as energetic or evocative product descriptions.
Still, nobody does it like William Castle did. He showed us that the product doesn’t have to be exceptional as long as you put the effort into its marketing.
Find an angle, and slam it with a hook.
The resurgence of “event screenings” like we see with London’s Secret Cinema is a step toward this Castle-fuelled past — an attempt to make cinemagoers once again feel like part of the movie experience, and yet it feels novel.
Perhaps that’s a solid reflection of the overly stagnant, paint-by-numbers nature of much of filmdom’s marketing (excluding, of course, grand PR stunts), which seems disinterested in making consumers truly excited about the product… but it appears as though those tactile days are set to further return with the imminent arrival of 4DX to cinemas — featuring moving seats and effects like wind, fog, rain, scent and lightning.
Maybe, alongside it, horror will find its own fire once more — and we can all enjoy having our buttons pushed, our egos challenged and our expectation of thrills heightened before we’ve even landed in the seat.
Hopefully those behind 4DX’s effects will ease up on the rotting corpse scent, though.
What do you think? William Castle — mad marketing genius or movie mogul moron? Are you looking forward to some 4DX horror? Sound off in the comments below and let’s hear it!