“The ghosts are moving tonight, restless, hungry. May I introduce myself? Im Watson Pritchett. In just a minute, Ill show you the only really haunted house in the world. Since it was built a century ago, seven people including my brother have been murdered in it. Since then, Ive owned the house. Ive only spent one night there and when they found me in the morning I...I was almost dead.”
Leave it to William Castle, director of such “horror” films as 13 Ghosts, The Tingler with Vincent Price, The Night Walker and Strait-Jacket with Joan Crawford, to open a film with a monologue by none other than Elisha Cook, Jr. who warns us that the spirits in House on Haunted Hill are extremely eager to include us in their collection of tormented souls. It has been said that blackness is the ultimate representation of terror; this is not trueit is whiteness, the empty void of nothingness, for when we gaze into the dark, we sense the presence of something unknown, but with whiteness, there is nothing but sheer anticipation, except when the projectionist flicks the switch and throws an image on the big screen. And then, my ghoulish friends, the reel terror begins and forces us to confront the dreamscapes of the creator.
As an eight-year-old boy in the late 1950s in Garden City, Michigan, when the world was much different and more easily understood than it is today, I would often take my Rollfast bicycle (always on Saturday afternoons) from the garage and pedal down to the Schaffer Theater, a local movie house some six blocks away near the corner of Ford and Middlebelt. As soon as my innocent eyes beheld the brightly-lit marquee advertising the fare of the day, usually some much ballyhooed B-movie, I could sense that the afternoon was going to be filled with delicious horrors beyond my naive imagination, such as those in Black Sunday, starring the gorgeous Barbara Steele as a satanic witch burned at the stake who later is reincarnated and flashes the audience a view of her decayed body beneath a black cloak; The Blob, starring Steve McQueen, with a weird, gelatinous creature from outer space that consumes (Egads!!) an unsuspecting movie theater audience, or even Horrors of the Black Museum, lauded over by Michael Gough who conveniently dips his enemies in a vat of acid and gleefully allows a woman to impale her eyes with spikes from a pair of binoculars. These films are only a few examples that produced intense nightmares for weeks on end, but I kept going back to the source of my nocturnal digressions, for it was a world outside of reality, a place in which I felt I was part of, due to an innate, genetic appreciation for the macabre and the perversions of humankind.
But of all the movies presented on the whiteness of the screen at the Schaffer Theater, none were as relished as those of William Castle, the master of ballyhoo, the shlockmeister of cheap thrills and the progenitor of childhood nightmares that forced a frightened boy to latch his windows and check under his bed before falling into a fitful sleep. Two films in particular come to mindHouse on Haunted Hill, as described by Watson Pritchett, and The Tingler, both with Vincent Price, who later came into “horror” prominence in Roger Cormans adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the early 1960s in such features as The Tomb of Ligeia, The Pit and the Pendulum and my personal favorite The Premature Burial with Ray Milland and Hazel Court.
I believe it was about a year or so after the release of House on Haunted Hill in 1959 that I first witnessed the terrors of William Castle. I recall entering the theater with my heart pounding like Poes eternal, beating monster and gazing upon the face of a tall, gaunt man, looking much like a funeral director and smelling like formaldehyde, taking tickets near the refreshment stand. He smiled coyly and with a wave of his aged hand allowed entrance into the darkness of the theater. I also remember seeing a big sign on the wall near the doorway that read something like “Beware! The movie you are about to see is so horrible that we have issued an insurance policy to this theater in case someone in the audience dies from fright!” This, however, did not affect me, and I ran straight to the front row about thirty feet from the screen in the seats where you had to crane your neck in order to see the movie. As the lights dimmed, a disclaimer came on the screen warning the audience that the ghosts of House on Haunted Hill would be in the theater. Once again, I was unaffected and eagerly watched the opening credits as I savored a huge, ten cent bag of buttered popcorn (the price for admittance was only thirty-five cents!) and a cup of ice-cold Coca-Cola.
As the movie neared its conclusion, a number of people in the audience began to scream as if someone had attacked them with a butcher knife. I looked up, and there it wasa skeleton, white and menacing as it flew through the air, seemingly coming from nowhere. Several teenaged kids just laughed and threw whatever was at hand at the skeleton, often missing it by a few inches. I, however, was in complete awe; William Castle had succeeded in drawing me right into all the wonderful ballyhoo! I had nightmares for days, imagining that the same skeleton was floating from my bedroom closet to wrap its bony fingers around my tender throat.
This scenario was repeated not long after when The Tingler was presented on that same white, terrifying screen at the old Schaffer Theater. As with House on Haunted Hill, a sign just within the doorway warned everyone that “The movie you are about to see will be felt by those in the audience. The Tingler is hereyou will feel it crawling up your legs and right into your lap!” This, however, bothered me greatly only because I knew it was coming. It appeared that someone connected with the theater (by instruction of Castle himself?) had wired up certain seats with a vibrating device that was set on cue to go off, thus creating the illusion that the Tingler was slithering up to strangle you in its creepy grasp. The scene where Vincent Price first discovers the unknown thing in the spine of a dead woman who died from fright was all it tookseveral young ladies screamed like panthers in a leg trap as the imagined Tingler groped its way to parts unknown. Their screams were so overwhelming that I stood up and ran from the theaterbut I paused just long enough in the double doors leading to the refreshment stand to gawk back at Vincent Price as he yanked the Tingler from the spine of the dead woman and pondered its unearthly genesis.
It is difficult to say how much of an influence these cinematic experiences with William Casle and his fellow filmmakers have had on my life, but I do know one thingWatson Pritchett, the eerie narrator for the opening scene of House of Haunted Hill was right; the ghouls of the cinema are here to stay, despite the passge of more than forty years and the mellowing of these memories in a brain congested with the mediocrities of the modern age. “Therell be more, many more,” warns Mr. Pritchett. “Theyre coming for me now...and then theyll come for you!”