What leaders can learn from William Castle’s genius gimmicks

Oct 30, 2017

Last week, we shared a story about a clever horror movie marketing campaign. With Halloween tomorrow, we want to introduce you to the king of horror movie promotion.

William Castle was a prolific mid-20th century director and producer, most famous for producing “Rosemary’s Baby,” and directing a slew of B-movie thrillers.

His real brilliance, however, wasn’t on the screen – it was in crafting the whole moviegoing experience.

His first film, 1958’s “Macabre,” was nothing special, but it was a huge hit because of Castle’s ingenious gimmicks.

He first claimed to have taken out a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London for every moviegoer “in case of death by fright.” He then printed policies in every newspaper ad. When the movie opened, he had hearses park outside theaters, and fake uniformed nurses stand in the lobbies.

Note the mention of the insurance policy in the lower left. The asterisk reads “Except people with a known heart or nervous condition.”

Audiences ate it up. Almost all of Castle’s films after that featured some kind of extra-cinematic attraction.

For his next movie, “House on Haunted Hill,” he had theaters install plastic skeletons that would fly over the audience during a particular scene.

For “The Tingler,” he had airplane wing de-icers installed under random seats, which would vibrate to scare moviegoers. (In Philadelphia, this allegedly led an infuriated truck driver to destroy his seat.)

And for 1961’s “Homicidal,” patrons were permitted a refund if they were too scared … but they had to walk out in front of the whole audience, and sign a document reading, “I am a bona fide coward.”

A documentary about Castle came out in 2007.

“Without a doubt, the greatest showman of our time was William Castle,” director John Waters once wrote.

Long story short: William Castle’s legendary because he didn’t feel bound by traditional forms of promotion. His movies succeeded because he wasn’t afraid to try something different, and that’s something all business leaders can learn from.


This article was written by Lee Procida. It first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short.

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