William Castle was cinema’s Abominable Showman—the marketing genius who thought “outside the coffin” to dream up outrageous PR gimmicks like PERCEPTO! and EMERGO!
He was also the talented director of 56 feature films, from the noir When Strangers Marry and the Whistler mysteries, to Westerns, swashbucklers and — his fearsome forte — celebrated shockers such as House on Haunted Hill , Strait-Jacket , Homicidal , The Tingler , and more! In Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle , author Joe Jordan provides exhaustive scholarly analysis of each of Castle’s directorial efforts, as well as production background, little-known anecdotes, and succinct plot synopses.
Reprinted with permission from Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle by Joe Jordan, copyright © 2014. Published by BearManor Media. All illustrations by Heather Hardison, copyright © 2015. You can purchase Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle from your local bookstore or through our affiliate link with Amazon.
13 GHOSTS (1960)
In 1960, William Castle was at the pinnacle of his career. Aside from the gimmicks of EMERGO! and PERCEPTO!, the mere presence of Vincent Price had strengthened the marketability of House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler . But as the production of 13 Ghosts began, Castle had neither a clever gimmick nor a major star to accompany his project. He was more concerned about the former and was quite desperate for ideas.
This changed with a single trip to the doctor’s office. An ophthalmologist, suspecting impaired vision, tested Castle’s eyes with a series of metal frames and lenses. Eventually, the concept of ILLUSION-O! was born. Immediately prior to screenings of 13 Ghosts , theatergoers were provided with cardboard glasses in order to view an intriguing collection of apparitions, considered by many to be the true stars of the film.
Cyrus “Cy” Zorba (Donald Woods), a Los Angeles-based paleontologist, lives paycheck-to-paycheck to support his wife, Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp), an older daughter, Medea (Jo Morrow), and a younger son, Buck (Charles Herbert). On the verge of losing his house, Cy is summoned to the office of Ben Rush (Martin Milner), attorney at law. Rush represents Dr. Plato Zorba, Cy’s recently deceased uncle. Zorba’s will grants Cy full ownership of a ghost-infested mansion. The family moves to the house, despite the uncertainties. During the family’s first night in the new home, Cy encounters several ghosts, including a flaming skeleton. He discovers that the house contains a total of twelve ghosts, including Zorba’s spirit. Furthermore, Cy learns of a mysterious thirteenth ghost that has yet to take form. Zorba’s memoirs reveal that his assets were converted to cash and placed in an undisclosed location shortly before his death. Elaine Zacharides (Margaret Hamilton), Zorba’s longtime assistant and housekeeper, questions the circumstances surrounding her employer’s demise. In an attempt to communicate with Zorba’s spirit, Elaine conducts a séance. She and the family learn that somebody will die. Meanwhile, Buck accidentally discovers the missing cash to be hidden in the home. He informs Rush, who is not only revealed to be Zorba’s killer, but has also been secretly trying to frighten Cy and his family away from the house in order to steal the money. Rush attempts to murder Buck. But Zorba’s ghost interferes, killing Rush and converting him into the thirteenth ghost.
During the months leading up to the premiere of 13 Ghosts , Castle struggled with the film’s apparitions. He faced the technological challenge of getting his ghosts to appear and disappear before the eyes of his audience. Much had been invested, and after approximately forty failed tests, Castle was beginning to lose hope. ILLUSION-O! was nearly abandoned altogether, but plastic lenses “of just the right density” were eventually devised by a team of experts. Cardboard glasses were produced at a high volume and sent to theaters nationwide. Fortunately, ILLUSION-O! was not discarded for some other gimmick, because it ultimately strengthened the film’s narrative. Castle, in portraying the human world as dreary, establishes a fine line to separate it from the supernatural world. Some are unhappily earthbound, but the ghost viewer (and cardboard glasses), in addition to the portrait of Plato Zorba, foster hope by working to unite both realms together. (In order to avoid confusion, the words “ghost viewer” will henceforth refer to the instrument used by the narrative’s characters, whereas the words “cardboard glasses” will refer to the special eyewear of the audience.)
More often than not, the supporting characters of Castle’s films are skeptical of the world in which they find themselves. Significant examples include Watson Pritchard of House on Haunted Hill and Ollie Higgins of The Tingler . The trend does not change with 13 Ghosts . Mr. Van Allen (John Van Dreelen), Cy’s boss and curator of the Los Angeles County Museum, appears cynical of the world. But the ghosts and Buck share similar emotions.
As Van Allen makes his first appearance of the film, Castle begins his depiction of a dreary world in which some have given up hope. At the museum, Cy lectures to a group of students, but becomes sidetracked when approached by his boss:
CY: What’s the trouble, Mr. Van Allen?
VAN ALLEN: Your wife’s on the phone.
CY (gesturing to the students): But, I’m lecturing.
VAN ALLEN: I told her that.
CY: Will you take over for me then?
VAN ALLEN: Of course.
Van Allen starts in the direction of the students and then pauses to address Cy.
VAN ALLEN: Oh, Cy. Where are you?
CY: Explaining how man survived the Pleistocene Age.
Cy departs as Van Allen appears to process the instructions.
VAN ALLEN (to himself): How did he…and why?
Van Allen is not at all pleased with the world in which he finds himself. His reasoning, perhaps, is that humans went to great lengths to survive the icy conditions of the past only to find themselves in a situation that is not much better. Economic hardships appear to have befallen a select group of people, namely the museum employees who work to preserve their own history. Van Allen, supporting three children as opposed to Cy’s two, earns little more than his underling. Throughout the film, the introverted curator rarely smiles and appears to be generally uninterested in the meaning of life. He is a skeptic in the truest sense of the word and does not appear motivated about anything, except when it comes to the translation of Zorba’s diary.
The diary reveals that the ghosts, considered by many to be the main characters of the film, are frequenting a human world that is not to their liking. Zorba’s notes provide a chilling explanation. Crimes are committed not by ghosts, but by “unscrupulous men” who must be stopped. Rush, succumbing to greed, has murdered Zorba. The ghosts cannot be released from holding the Earth until revenge is theirs. The perfect opportunity arises when Rush plans an elaborate death for Buck. Although the youngest Zorba escapes with the help of the ghosts, some might wonder how he would have acclimated to a different dimension had he, in fact, joined his uncle on the other side.
Throughout the narrative, Buck appears to lose hope in the human world, frequently yearning to discover the mysteries of the supernatural. His conversation with Elaine during the film’s closing scene simply reinforces the feelings he has harbored since first being introduced to the audience:
BUCK: [The ghosts] haven’t really gone, have they?
ELAINE: They’ll be back. They’ll be back.
BUCK (smiling): Real soon I hope.
Despite everything that has happened, Buck appears nostalgic. It is evident he was happier when the ghosts were lurking about the house, as they brought significance and meaning to his life. Castle’s introduction of Buck to the audience reveals a young boy to be entering a house that is devoid of furniture. He lives a life that is lacking in substance and excitement. It is not until Buck receives the book of ghost stories that his demeanor changes for the better. The Zorbas eventually inherit the ghost-infested house, concealed items are discovered, and Elaine gives a rudimentary lesson on the ghosts’ history. Step by step, Buck’s fantasies and desires are gradually fulfilled, but it is the ghost viewer that ultimately brings him within reach of the supernatural world.
By providing cardboard glasses in order for his audience to experience the full effects of ILLUSION-O!, Castle put theatergoers into the shoes of the film’s characters by bringing them as close to the action as possible. Within the narrative of 13 Ghosts , Zorba’s unique ghost viewer establishes similar connections, thus creating a fine line between Buck’s world and that of the ghosts. Buck’s encounter with Shadrack the Great, Rush’s visit to Medea’s bedroom, and the initial appearance of Zorba’s ghosts suggest that the mere presence of a viewing apparatus, or lack thereof, reveals more to the narrative than one might expect.
Buck’s use of the ghost viewer brings him within arm’s length of Shadrack and his feline sidekick. Shadrack’s acknowledgement of the youngest Zorba reveals a mutual degree of trust and admiration, and Castle’s depiction of the scene sets it apart from the remainder of the film. As Buck opens Shadrack’s oversized trunk, Von Dexter’s score departs from its ominous overtones and transitions to a cheerful, circus-like tune, thereby lightening the mood of the scene. Buck playfully experiments with a bullwhip. Shortly thereafter, and with the help of the ghost viewer, he comes face-to-face with Shadrack, who then gestures for his amazed spectator to come closer. Buck does not hesitate as he immediately approaches the ghostly magician. During the following scene, however, Buck will display almost the opposite approach with Rush. When the latter offers his hand in acknowledgement, the former is hesitant to accept. With Shadrack, the trust is immediate. With Rush, however, Buck is unsure of how to approach the situation. Although he is unaware of the circumstances behind the events of the previous evening, his hesitation is justified.
When Rush, disguised as a hideous ghoul, frightens Medea, a significant clue is presented to the audience, as Castle does not instruct us to use the cardboard glasses at any time during the scene. Rush’s ghostly attire of cobwebs and old clothes, although convincing to some, differs from what we have seen up to this point of the film. By the time he accosts Medea, theatergoers have used the cardboard glasses on a frequent, steady basis. Perhaps, when looking at Rush, some in the audience might believe they are seeing a ghost despite an absence of the words “USE VIEWER” at the bottom of the screen (the process of retrieving and using the cardboard glasses has almost become habitual to theatergoers at this point of the film). Furthermore, the official trailer for 13 Ghosts refers to a disguised Rush as “the evil ghost in the bedroom.” Despite several indications that the mysterious figure in Medea’s bedroom could be a ghost, there are some in the audience who will not be fooled, as Rush’s costume does not appear genuine. In addition, his figure lacks the glowing, reddish color that comes to be associated with the true ghosts of the film. Later, when Cy informs Rush of the incident, the latter ironically questions if Medea was “wearing those glasses Zorba made” at the time of the attack. Had a real ghost been responsible, Medea would have been unable to see her attacker, as she was not in possession of the ghost viewer.
The cardboard glasses, in displaying the first appearance of the ghosts following the family’s arrival, focus on the most significant adornment of the house. The oil painting of Zorba is the key link between the human and supernatural worlds. The first time “USE VIEWER” appears onscreen, we find ourselves facing Zorba’s portrait as two of his ghosts gradually appear. A hanging woman flies up to the ceiling, scaling the very painting that defines her confinement to the house. An executioner then severs his already decapitated head with the graceful swing of an axe. It is an exciting moment of the narrative. Following a twenty-five minute wait, and barring Castle’s introduction of his motion picture, theatergoers were finally allowed to make use of their cardboard glasses for the first time during the film. But despite the debut of the ghosts, one must not underestimate the attention given to the portrait.
Ancestral paintings, a major motif, appear in a selection of Castle’s films, including Duel on the Mississippi and The Old Dark House . During 13 Ghosts , however, the motif constantly recurs from beginning to end. Halfway through the film, Buck, thinking he is alone, slides down the banister. The first traces of the hidden cash come to light. However, instead of noticing the money, Buck spots the ghost viewer lying on a nearby table. While examining it, he looks up, only to discover his late uncle staring down at him. The boy offers a polite “good morning,” and then promptly leaves the room. Zorba appears to be watching when people least expect it. The portrait, which establishes a connection between the human and supernatural worlds, sustains an extraordinary source of energy not only through the power of observation, but also through reflection and physical force.
Zorba’s observing spirit, a constant presence throughout the film, is paramount at the time of the séance. Castle’s use of lighting develops the scene by shifting the focus towards a particular area of the house. In order to conduct the séance, Cy obliges Elaine’s request by turning out all of the lights. Once completed, the portrait remains lit with a diagonal streak of light. The audience cannot help but notice Zorba, in the background, preparing to watch over the ceremony. Castle’s frame of reference contains all of the necessary elements, because Zorba’s ghost will soon emerge from the portrait in order to connect with Cy. At the time of the spirit’s release, Rush initiates his plan to kill Buck. But Elaine can sense that “the ghosts are restless, angry.” The energy has been building, and Zorba is on the verge of revenge, as he has known of Rush’s betrayal since long ago.
Early in the film, a reflection of Rush within the portrait foreshadows his own demise at the hands of Zorba. The position of Castle’s camera is noteworthy. Zorba’s arms appear to wrap around Rush’s upper torso, while Medea, who is free from her uncle’s grasp, innocently gazes at the portrait. Rush botches the details of his employer’s death, claiming the ghosts left Zorba with his “back broken, face torn to shreds, [and his] lips ripped away.” The reflection is symbolic of Zorba’s astute nature. Despite Rush’s attempt to cover up the truth with a story of his own, he is ultimately unable to fool his own victim. Zorba has the murderer in his clutches and will deal with him at the appropriate time. Consequently, later that evening, a stern proclamation is issued after Rush dines with the Zorbas.
The portrait exhibits Zorba’s supernatural powers, and also foreshadows Rush’s annihilation, with a sudden display of physical force. As Buck and Medea experiment with the ouija board, it makes bold predictions, but when the game is no longer able to answer for itself, an unexpected jolt of William Castle startles us when we least expect it. Through her interrogation, Medea learns that somebody is going to be hurt, but she commands Buck to present the ultimate question without touching the board. He asks, “Are [the ghosts] gonna kill any of us?” For the first and only time of the film, the portrait moves from its location on the wall, crashing down on the nearby coffee table. Buck is almost hit, but it eventually becomes clear that he is not the intended target. Zorba’s determination to address Rush is best fulfilled through the portrait. The fact that neither Buck nor Medea is touching the ouija board is irrelevant, because seconds later, Zorba easily takes control of the planchette in an attempt to warn his niece. The rapid downfall of the portrait is symbolic because Zorba is descending upon Rush, thus continuing a process of bringing the beleaguered attorney to justice before the latter is consciously aware of it. At the beginning of 13 Ghosts, Castle addresses his audience with the burning question, “Do you believe in ghosts?” It is evident that Rush does not, and his ignorance ultimately leads to his demise.
13 Ghosts was released in July of 1960. In its simplest form, the film is a classic rags-to-riches tale that keeps its audience intrigued from beginning to end. Furthermore, the narrative includes a selection of scenes with little or no dialogue, but the film continues to progress at a steady pace. Castle was on hand to attend the premiere of 13 Ghosts at the RKO Pan Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Days before the momentous event was to take place, he crossed paths with Cedric Adams, a local radio personality and newspaper columnist. Since the 1930s, both Castle and Adams had worked tirelessly to succeed in their chosen professions.
Prior to the release of 13 Ghosts, Castle devised a plan to promote his film by conducting a séance with Adams and several others. A local pastor was summoned to serve as the medium. Castle was eager to know if 13 Ghosts would enjoy a successful run. According to Adams’s column, it was predicted that the film “would do better in the east and west than in [Minnesota].” But spiritualistic messages sometimes need to be taken with a grain of salt. Because the séance also predicted that Adlai Stevenson would become the next president of the United States when, in fact, John F. Kennedy would be elected only a few months later. Contrary to some reports, Castle went on to enjoy a successful run in Minneapolis. And a multitude of teenagers, serving as proud members of the National William Castle Fan Club, turned out for the chance of a lifetime to meet their idol.
13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS! (1963)
For his next gimmick, William Castle decided on an international contest of sorts, pitting some of the world’s most beautiful girls against each other in a well-advertised competition. There were to be multiple winners, each hailing from a separate country. Those fortunate enough to be victorious were rewarded with a role in The Candy Web , Castle’s film of murder and espionage. Its opening sequence was shot at least thirteen separate times. Each winner, playing the part of a “teenage diplomat,” was given the opportunity to introduce the film in her native language. Castle essentially created a different version for each represented nation. In the United States, Kathy Dunn, a young actress appearing as the primary character of the story, introduced the film in English. Furthermore, in an attempt to better market his motion picture to American audiences, Castle changed its title to 13 Frightened Girls!
Candace “Candy” Hull (Dunn), on vacation from boarding school, travels to London with her fellow classmates. Their fathers serve as diplomats at the city’s embassies. Candy is infatuated with Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton), an attaché of the U.S. Embassy. Kagenescu (Walter Rode), the representative of a small country, is under surveillance, as he may seek an alliance with the East. His elusive nature flusters Sanders. But Candy spots Kagenescu at the home of Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon), her friend “from Red China.” Kagenescu’s meeting with Kang (Khigh Dhiegh), Mai-Ling’s uncle, unexpectedly concludes with the former’s murder. Candy discovers the corpse. The murder weapon, a letter opener engraved with an American seal, is deliberately used as a means to frame the West. Using the pseudonym of Kitten, she sends the opener to Sanders and begins a stint in “the art of espionage.” Through her classmates, she gains access to foreign embassies, thus implementing a strategy of eavesdropping on conversations, seducing men, and more. But Soldier (Joyce Taylor), Sanders’s girlfriend, is later kidnapped. Kang is responsible and will only release his hostage upon acquiring Kitten. Candy seeks Mai-Ling’s help, but is also taken prisoner. She exposes herself as Kitten. Sanders comes to the rescue, informing Kang that Candy/Kitten was not under orders from the U.S. government. School resumes. Kang sends Spider, his secret enforcer, to eliminate Candy, as she is unknowingly in possession of a confidential microfilm. Mike (Charlie Briggs), the personal chauffeur for Candy’s father, reveals himself as Spider. Again, Sanders comes to the rescue, shooting Mike/Spider dead before the latter can fulfill his objective.
Castle’s motif of the number thirteen is ever-present within 13 Frightened Girls! Yet, with the inclusion of Candy and Mai-Ling into the story, the number of girls increases to fifteen. It is not until the closing seconds of the film that Castle presents the thirteen winning “diplomats” (and no other character) together in the same shot. The girls bid farewell to Candy and Mai-Ling, who prepare for the next chapter of their lives. The two have endured trying times. But for Candy, her recent adventures in espionage have been life-changing. 13 Frightened Girls! exhibits a growing maturity within its lead character, as Castle’s protagonist comes of age under the most unusual of circumstances. Candy’s newfound confidence is the contributing factor to her overall success. It does not waver as she withstands constant rejection from Sanders. Furthermore, Candy’s increased self-esteem is what ultimately enables her to evade a tragic death and boldly confront the enemy.
Candy’s advances towards Sanders, a man many years her senior, are undeterred despite being met with constant rejection. Soldier understands the situation from a female perspective and deems it necessary to explain such curious behavior to her longtime boyfriend. Shortly after Candy slips out of Sanders’s office to begin work on the “South America” operation, he casually refers to her as a “funny kid.” Soldier seizes the opportunity to present him with what is perceived by many as a foregone conclusion:
SOLDIER: That funny kid is almost a woman…and a woman in love.
She sympathizes with Candy because she, too, was once a sixteen-year-old girl. It is common knowledge that women mature quicker than men and, therefore, are more likely to approach life with the mindset of an adult despite not yet completing adolescence. Candy has discovered a growing maturity within herself, gaining the confidence necessary to confront the many obstacles of life. Soldier is not privy to Candy’s private life, but she understands the feelings of a “woman” at sixteen years of age. Sanders, however, is one of several men who underestimates the determination of the film’s heroine.
Due to her resolute spirit, Candy evades a tragic death at the hands of Peter Van Hagen (Garth Benton), leader of the Soviet Student Party. In more ways than one, she makes it clear to him that he is not dealing with an inexperienced adolescent. Van Hagen attempts to explain why Candy should not accompany him to his supposed home country of Holland, citing her age as a factor:
VAN HAGEN: You are only sixteen.
CANDY: I’m a woman.
Candy abruptly turns her back on Van Hagen and moves away from him. He slowly approaches, placing his hands on her shoulders.
VAN HAGEN: That’s true. Yes, that’s very true.
Van Hagen kisses Candy’s neck, but she rejects his further advances, instead asking for a glass of ginger ale. One thing leads to another, and the action shifts outside to the balcony of his hotel room. Candy does everything in her power to withstand the effects of the chemicals Van Hagen has placed in her drink. But he suddenly decides that scotch, an adult libation, is more suitable for the occasion. Van Hagen forces her to drink, but Candy resists. If she is to be successful in her transition to womanhood, it will be done on her terms, not his. Hence, Van Hagen falls to his death, leaving Candy to face yet another individual who dares to doubt the drive and determination behind her fighting prowess.
Candy’s confrontation of the malevolent Kang marks the beginning of a new era in the sixteen-year-old’s life. Her undying confidence is apparent, and Castle symbolizes such confidence through a detailed montage. The height of Candy’s success is depicted with a blending of various images. Castle begins his montage with a geographical globe rotating against a cloudy blue sky. A white kitten gradually fades into view. It appears to traverse across the spinning globe, constantly meowing as Castle inserts images of the Eiffel Tower, the United States Capitol, and more. Kitten, in essence, is successfully making the rounds in her relentless quest for growth. Later, at Kang’s residential palace, Candy stands proud despite her capture:
KANG: So you are the little American kitten, with two feet and the wings of an eagle. It is difficult for me to believe. You are only a child.
CANDY: I’m a woman!
Kang is taken aback by Candy’s brash demeanor. She does not falter. Her confidence is displayed at the highest level, causing Kang to retort with an imperfect analogy:
KANG: Once the American government agent was Tiger…feared in all the jungle.
Kang walks over to Candy and grabs her chin.
KANG: Now, she is just a little pussycat.
His underestimation of Candy is apparent, as it ultimately leads to an American victory. Kang’s analogy, albeit a false one, represents the exact opposite of what Castle’s montage conveys to viewers. As the succession of images concludes, the meowing of the kitten suddenly becomes the growling of a large feline mammal, similar to that of a tiger.
In order to promote 13 Frightened Girls! to the general public, Castle attended the film’s premiere in every represented nation, personally introducing each “teenage diplomat” to her home crowd. In addition to his overseas escapades, Castle appeared onscreen in select cities to present yet another gimmick to theatergoers. Patrons were provided with a small item known as The Danger Card. It read, “DON’T GET CAUGHT IN THE CANDY WEB.” Castle heeded his audience to guard the item carefully, as he would return upon the conclusion of the picture to disclose the details of the card’s significance. After the film, theatergoers were instructed to moisten the “printed” side of the card. Those whose cards revealed the word “DANGER” were awarded a prize from the theater manager. Castle essentially relished the theatrical release of 13 Frightened Girls! , later referring to the film’s success as “an international holiday.”
Joe Jordan is a film historian who has been writing about motion pictures for several years. In addition to being the author of Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle , he has taught film appreciation courses to young adults. Joe lives in Occidental, California, with his wife, Jennifer, and two children, Jocelyn and Justin.