People often ask me if I’ve ever walked out of a movie. Fortunately, I seem to have an endless tolerance and sometimes even affection for bad movies. But just once, I did insist on leaving the theater, and a delightful tribute to William Castle’s horror movies on Turner Classic Movies reminded me of the film that did drive me from the theater. It was Castle’s 13 Ghosts.
While William Castle worked with legendary Hollywood artists like George Stevens and Orson Welles, he is best remembered for his cheesy horror films, produced on micro-budgets but marketed with magna-artistry. Indeed, his marketing campaigns were far more creative than his films with fantastic gimmicks like a life insurance policy for anyone who died of fright during the film and a plastic skeleton that flew out into the audience from a wire above the screen. He even wired seats in the theater to give the audience an electric shock for The Tingler.
As often happens in thrillers, there comes a point near the climax when a character is warned not to go into a dark, menacing house. Of course, she goes anyway, but before she does, the movie gives us a “fright break.” A stopwatch on screen counts down 45 seconds to give those who are too terrified to find out what is inside that house to leave and get their money back. According to director John Waters, a Castle fan, when people actually took advantage of this offer,
William Castle simply went nuts. He came up with “Coward’s Corner,” a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn’t take it any more, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward’s Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: “Cowards Keep Walking.” You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?…I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, “Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner!” As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity — at Coward’s Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, “I am a bona fide coward.’“ Very, very few were masochistic enough to endure this. The one percent refund dribbled away to a zero percent, and I’m sure that in many cities a plant had to be paid to go through this torture.
I hope not many got their money back. The surprise in the house is pretty wild!
In “13 Ghosts,” a family moves into a spooky house. The gimmick is explained by Castle himself at the beginning of the film. I was so sure that the ghosts were real that I insisted my mother take me out of the theater. But now, I own the DVD, which of course came with its own ghost viewer.