13 Ghosts: A haunted house that's worth a visit

William Castle packs in the fright and the fun!

For initiates, 13 Ghosts (1960) is a near-perfect introduction to macabre maestro William Castle. Castle was a particularly prolific filmmaker, even by mid-century horror standards. Between the years of 1943 and 1974, Castle directed some 58 movies, most of them genre offerings. But his signature, what separated his films from the glut of horror movies around this same time period, was his utilization of super-unique gimmicks.

More than anything, William Castle was a marketing mastermind. He saw a saturated market and came up with impressive ways to separate his films from all the others in cinemas around that time period. In 1959 alone, Castle released two pictures, House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, both of which made use of hyper-specific promotion techniques. These much-publicized “gimmicks” became a signature of Castle’s movies, and drove interest and ticket revenues, cementing the filmmaker as a horror legend.

The first, House on Haunted Hill starred Vincent Price at arguably the height of his popularity. But William Castle wasn’t going to just rest on the laurels of Price’s magnetic star power. Instead, he invented and employed a gimmick he called “Emergo,” and it made Haunted Hill a box office smash. At a key point in the movie’s climax, the onscreen action featured a skeleton emerging from a vat of acid. At that very moment, a real-life, in-theater plastic skeleton “Emergo”-ed from the corner of the room and raced over theater patrons’ heads. House on Haunted Hill came a few years too late to capitalize on the original 3D boom, but Castle’s innovation made it so at least part of the movie was enjoyed in three actual dimensions!

Castle’s next move was perhaps the magnum opus of horror movie gimmickry, as that same year saw the release of The Tingler. The word-of-mouth phenomenon of Haunted Hill’s “Emergo” proved to Castle that he was right. Slap a gimmick on a movie, and you can drive an audience rabid for more! And so with The Tingler, Castle created another marketing frenzy with his new invention, which he coined “Percepto.” Again starring Vincent Price, The Tingler featured the titular monster, a parasite that attached itself to human vertebrae and could only be vanquished through screaming. But the true draw was Castle’s new “Percepto” technology. He and his crew devised and installed under-seat buzzers that would vibrate during key moments in the movie’s plot, scaring audiences and again driving revenues way up.

One year later, Castle released 13 Ghosts, a well-executed (if straightforward) spin on the haunted house subgenre. This time, instead of Vincent Price, Castle cast Price’s much younger co-star from The Fly, Charles Herbert, along with Rosemary DeCamp, Donald Woods, and Martin Milner (of future Adam-12 fame).

This time, without the attraction of a star like Vincent Price, Castle relied instead on a solid story, this time by re-enlisting Haunted Hill scribe Robb White. White, like Castle, was incredibly prolific in his field; the author eventually wrote around 27 paperback novels. Here, White uses his skills to illustrate a frank and believable depiction of a lower-middle-class family in dire straits. The Zorba family, freshly de-furnished by a repo company, come into possession of a beautiful old mansion after a little-remembered uncle leaves it to them in his will. If the construct seems familiar, that’s because it should. The story of a poor family coming into an above-their-means house filled with scares is a well-worn horror trope. The money situation in all these stories creates desperation in our characters. These people can’t simply leave their spooky new abode; this is their only shot at keeping a roof over the family’s head,

Charles Herbert, the young Buck Zorba, is such a charming lil’ scamp that you totally feel for him when the action puts the family in peril. You empathize with the rest of the Zorba family. Rosemary DeCamp plays Hilda, the skeptical matriarch of the family, quick to rationalize all the things that go bump in the night. Her husband, Benjamin, is played by Donald Woods, and so very convincingly conveys a sense of distress at his family’s financial situation. Here’s a guy who will do anything to better his family’s situation, even if it means putting them in a haunted old mansion!

Along with the mansion, Benjamin is bequeathed what he discovers to be a device that allows him to perceive the 13 ghosts that inhabit his new homestead. And herein lies the new Castle gimmick! Every time one of the characters uses this device, the audience in turn activates their state-of-the-art “Illusion-o” ghost viewer. This time, the new gimmick recycles pre-existing technology, utilizing standard old-fashioned 3D red and blue cellophane to emphasize AND understate the paranormal scares.

The audience, equipped with their “Illusion-o” viewer, could choose the lens with which to view the macabre goings-on. Looking through the red filter at the right time would help the audience magically see the ghosts haunting the Zorba family. But for the faint of heart, viewers need only look through the blue cellophane to make the ghosts disappear.

Now today, it might be a little more difficult to track down a set of “Illusion-O” viewers, and equally difficult to find a print of the movie equipped for the device. Instead, horror fans may be left to see the movie in its more standard form; the ghosts appear with no escape for the timid!

So, stripped of its gimmick, is 13 Ghosts still worthwhile? Absolutely it is! The film is a fun rollercoaster romp with some genuinely great jumpscares that still hold up. Best of all, look out for the family’s new witch of a housekeeper, played by none other than the Wicked Witch herself, Margaret Hamilton! The fact that Hamilton delivers some of her lines broom-in-hand is just one of many tongue-in-cheek details that make 13 Ghosts such a fun viewing experience more than 60 years after its initial release!

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Helloeverybody 2 months ago
I think the real monster is mom, she’s a piece of work.
Beavis 2 months ago
Please, I beg of you, please bring back Sventoonie! I bought the merch...ill buy more merch!
tootsieg 2 months ago
Going to watch 13 Ghosts tonight.
SalIanni 2 months ago
I would rather watch "The 13 Ghosts Of Scooby Doo". Vincent Price was in that one too!
MrsPhilHarris 2 months ago
I like 13 Ghosts. I like the maid or whatever she is.
Runeshaper 2 months ago
I didn't know who William Castle was before I read this article, but now I know that he ROCKED! Thanks for sharing, MeTV (-:
Stoney Runeshaper 2 months ago
I highly recommend Castle's movies. With or without the gimmicks, his films are very entertaining!
Runeshaper Stoney 2 months ago
I def want to check them out, thanks!
Stoney Runeshaper 2 months ago
My personal favorites are "The Night Walker" and "The Tingler," but they're all enjoyable.
Rick 2 months ago
In "Leave it to Beaver," during the 1960-61 season, Wally once talked about taking Mary Ellen Rogers to a movie about "this house that had about 15 ghosts runnin' around in it scaring people." In my opinion, that's one of the funniest references in the history of television.
tootsieg Rick 2 months ago
That is so cool.
justjeff 2 months ago
It's funny, but as a child in Brooklyn, NY in 1960, my folks took me too see "13 Ghosts" at the long-defuct Linden Theater on Linden Avenue.

All I remember about the film [as a 8-year-old] was flipping my 3D glasses up and down to make the ghosts appear and disappear.

If it wasn't for the sypnosis printed here I would *still* be clueless 64 years later, as this was not a film I'd ever endeavored to read up on...
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