Follow Me to the Coward's Corner: The Top 10 Horror Movie Gimmicks

From vomit bags to eye protectors, a collection of some of the zaniest marketing gimmicks in horror movie history.

By Justin Lockwood · @HeyLockwood · January 1, 2022, 6:00 AM PST
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I DISMEMBER MAMA Promo (1972)

WARNING: The following article contains descriptions of harrowing and mind-melting terror. If at any time it becomes more than you can stand, click here.

There was a time when seemingly every other horror movie came with a gimmick to lure in audiences-- namely the 1950s when the popularity of television was seriously threatening the movie theater business. Filmmakers dreamed up all sorts of outlandish ways to tear people away from their sets, from vomit bags to vibrating seats. Here are ten of the best from that golden age— with occasional forays into the 1970s and beyond. You'll see quite a bit of William Castle on this list; as Mental Floss's Jay Serafino wrote in 2018, "William Castle didn't make a name for himself in the film industry by directing cinematic classics; instead, he relied on shock and schlock to help fill movie theater seats.. . . His true genius came from marketing-- and the gimmicks he brought to every movie, which have since become legendary among horrorphiles."

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10. "You Must See Psycho From the Beginning!" (1960)

William Castle and all the low-budget horror directors making a killing at the box office in the late '50s motivated Hitchcock's own shocker. Although his film was infinitely superior to such drive-in fare, he did employ a gimmick of his own by insisting that "No one… BUT NO ONE!... will be admitted to the theater after the start of each performance of Psycho." Hitch was genuinely concerned that moviegoers, used to dropping into a film at any time, would be confused if they didn't see star Janet Leigh after her shocking onscreen murder. But Hitchcock got real publicity mileage out of the policy. As detailed in Stephen Rebello's excellent book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the publicity kit included suggestions like hiring security guards to enforce the restriction. When an agitated Chicago theater manager called the studio asking what to do about unhappy customers standing in the pouring rain and threatening violence if he didn't let them inside, Hitchcock replied, "Buy them umbrellas." The manager did, and the stunt made front-page headlines. Ultimately, Psycho's success normalized watching movies from the start— just one in a long list of ways that it changed film forever,

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9. "Hallucinogenic Hypnovision," The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1965)

Besides sporting maybe the zaniest exploitation movie title of all, The Incredibly Strange Creatures boasted a fairly unique gimmick. The ads promised, "You Are Surrounded by Monsters! Not 3-D but real FLESH-and-BLOOD monsters ALIVE! NOT FOR SISSIES! DON'T COME IF YOU'RE CHICKEN!" In practice, what it actually meant was that, at certain moments when a "spiraling hypnotic wheel" appeared onscreen, ushers would "run up and down the aisles, wearing bloody, phosphorescent masks that made them resemble the film's star while waving cardboard axes at the 'terrified' audience," according to Harry and Michael Medved in their book The Golden Turkey Awards (1980). Something tells me ushers in 1965 weren't paid nearly enough for that sort of thing.

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8. Vomit Bag, Mark of the Devil (1970); Up-Chuck Cup, I Dismember Mama (1972)

The creators of the witch hunt saga Mark of the Devil offered a red and white paper vomit bag, in addition to touting that theirs was "The First Movie Rated 'V' for Violence". A couple of years later, the makers of I Dismember Mama followed suit with a vomit cup. The latter was printed with "UP-CHUCK CUP: KEEP IT HANDY-- It may be required on short notice during the showing of I Dismember Mama." Two pages of the press book were devoted to the cups, gushing "You Gotta Believe the Up-Chuck Cup Will Upsurge Your Boxoffice!" In Son of Golden Turkey Awards: The Best of the Worst from Hollywood (1986), the Medveds detailed another promotional innovation for the film, a trailer featuring "stunned patrons staggering out of a Manhattan movie house, clutching their clearly labeled cups and telling a 'roving reporter' that the paper goblets proved to be a much-needed accessory for the film." The director of the bit? None other than Black Christmas director Bob Clark.

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7. "A Live Rat for Your Mother-in-Law," The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here!" (1972)

If that priceless title wasn't enough to lure in viewers, attendees might have been enticed by the possibility of a free rodent. A seemingly economical way to dispose of the scores of rats director Andy Milligan (The Bloodthirsty Butchers) bought for use in the movie. "At major showings of the film, theater managers drew ticket stubs to select lucky winners who could take home the squirmy little vermin to delight their families," the Medveds explained. One can only imagine how this stunt went over in New York City.

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6. "Free Psychiatric Care," Fangs of the Living Dead (1968)

The studio publicists devised an innovative hook for "A Triple Avalanche of Grisly Horror!" featuring this movie and the similarly named Revenge of the Living Dead and Curse of the Living Dead. I'll let the ad copy, printed beside a scruffy looking man's face, explain: "WARNING: This is John Austin Frazier. It has been reported that he now resides at a Mental Hospital, the result of attending our triple horror program. Because of this tragic event, we, the producers, have secured an insurance policy insuring the sanity of each and every patron. If you lose your mind as a result of viewing this explosion of terror, you will receive free psychiatric care or be placed at our expense in an asylum for the rest of your life!"

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5. "Free Ghost viewer," 13 Ghosts (1960)

This souvenir worked in concert with "Illusiono," just a fancy word for the effect of blue-tinted sequences featuring red projected ghosts. The red and blue, 3D glasses style viewers would reveal or hide the ghosts depending on which one you looked through. 1965's cheapie Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster provided its own glasses: "FREE Space Shield Eye Protectors to prevent your abduction into outer space!!"

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4. "Fright Break," Homicidal (1961)

Near the climax of Homicidal, a clock appeared on screen, giving audience members 45 seconds to evacuate the theater before things got truly scary with an opportunity to receive a full refund. But there was an ingenious caveat: "Frightened audience members who took the easy way out were shamed into the 'coward's corner,' which was a yellow cardboard booth supervised by some poor sap theater employee," wrote Serafino. "Then, they were forced to sign a paper reading 'I'm a bona-fide coward,' before getting their money back." Presumably this cut down on the number of refunds issued, although I'd kill to have one of those coward certificates now.

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3. "The Punishment Poll," Mister Sardonicus (1961)

Years before video games or Black Mirror's interactive "Bandersnatch" episode, Castle gave audiences a choose-your-own-adventure story of his own. Would Mister Sardonicus, the titular villain with the deformed face, live or die? Near the film's end, the narrative paused for a "punishment poll": by holding a special thumb card up or down-- a special light made it glow in the dark-- the audience could determine Sardonicus' fate. "Naturally the eager crowds always yelled for blood and Sardonicus perished every time," the Medveds wrote. "That was a good thing, too, since showman Castle, supremely confident in his understanding of human nature, never actually prepared the alternate conclusion he had promised."

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2. "Emergo," House on Haunted Hill (1959)

This is one of the all-time great horror gimmicks in spite of— or maybe because of!— it's supreme silliness. In the classic film, Vincent Price is a wealthy eccentric who invites a group of people to a notorious haunted house with the promise of $10,000 if they can survive the night. But really, the whole thing is an excuse for him and his adulterous, gold-digging wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart) to try and bump each other off. Price ultimately succeeds with the help of a prop skeleton. During the climactic scene, a plastic, inflatable replica whizzed over the audience's heads on a wire (1,000 were made at a cost of $150 each). The ridiculous effect was more goofy than scary, and according to the Saturday Evening Post, "Breakage has been high, for as the balloonlike skeletons wing overhead they present irresistibly attractive targets to small boys with slingshots."

Too Chicken to Read Further? Click here! All others, prepare to brave the most shocking gimmick of them all…

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1." Percepto!" The Tingler (1959)

1959 was a banner year for both William Castle movies and gimmicks with "o" at the end. Price stars again, this time as a scientist who discovers the titular creature feeds off human fear and can only be killed by screaming. In an unabashedly meta set-piece, the critter gets loose in a movie theater, and a voice warns the audience— both onscreen and in real life— "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But scream! Scream for your lives!" In fact, the Tingler really would "get" some of them— because select seats had been wired with a buzzer. It was the most triumphantly goofy gimmick in Castle's whole storied career.