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8 Haunting Horror Movie Gimmicks

In the 1950s and 1960s, horror movies were making studios huge profits on shoestring budgets. But after the market hit horror overload, directors and studios had to be extra creative to get people to flock to theaters. That's when a flood of different gimmicks were introduced at movie theaters across the country to make a film stand out from the crowd. From hypnotists to life insurance policies and free vomit bags, here's a brief history of some of the most memorable horror movie gimmicks.

1. PSYCHO-RAMA // MY WORLD DIES SCREAMING (1958)

In order to truly become a classic, a horror movie can't just work on the surface; it has to get deep inside of your head. That's what Psycho-Rama tried to achieve when it was first conceived for My World Dies Screaming, later renamed Terror in the Haunted House. Psycho-Rama introduced audiences to subliminal imagery in order to let the scares sink in more than any traditional film could.

Skulls, snakes, ghoulish faces, and the word "Death" would all appear onscreen for a fraction of a second—not long enough for an audience member to consciously notice it, but it was enough to get them uneasy. Obviously Psycho-Rama didn't really catch on with the public or the film industry, but horror directors, like William Friedkin in The Exorcist, have since gone on to use this quick imagery technique to enhance their own movies.

2. FRIGHT INSURANCE // MACABRE (1958)

Director William Castle didn't make a name for himself in the film industry by directing cinematic classics; instead, he relied on shock and shlock to help fill movie theater seats. His movies were full of what audiences craved at the time: horror, gore, terror, suspense, and a heaping helping of camp. But his true genius came from marketing—and the gimmicks he brought to every movie, which have since become legendary amongst horrorphiles.

His most famous stunt was the life insurance policy he purchased for every member of an audience that paid to see Macabre. This was a real policy backed by Lloyd's of London, so if you died of fright in your seat, your family would receive $1000. Now who wouldn't want to roll the dice on that type of deal? Of course, the policy didn't cover anyone with a preexisting medical condition or an audience member who committed suicide during the screening. Lloyd's had to draw the line somewhere, right?

3. HYPNO-VISTA // HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959)

How do you make your routine horror movie stand out from the crowd? Hypnotize your audience, of course. Thus Hypno-Vista was born. For this gimmick, James Nicholson, president of American International Pictures, suggested that a lecture by a hypnotist, Dr. Emile Franchel, should precede Horrors of the Black Museum, which had a plot focusing on a hypnotizing killer.

For 13 minutes, Dr. Franchel talked to the audience about the science behind hypnotism, before attempting to hypnotize them himself in order to feel more immersed in the story. Nowadays it comes off as overlong and dry, but it was a gimmick that got people into theaters back in 1959. Plus, writer Herman Cohen said that eventually the lecture had to be removed whenever the movie re-aired on TV because it did, in fact, hypnotize some people.

4. NO LATE ADMISSION // PSYCHO (1960)

Though this isn't the most gimmickiest of gimmicks, Alfred Hitchcock's insistence that no audience member be admitted into Psycho once the movie started got a lot of publicity at the time. The Master of Suspense's reasoning is less about drumming up publicity and more about audience satisfaction, though. Because Janet Leigh gets killed so early into the movie, he didn't want people to miss her part and feel misled by the movie's marketing.

This publicity tactic wasn't completely novel, though, as the groundbreaking French horror movie Les Diaboliques (1955) had a similar policy in place. This was at a time when people would simply stroll into movie screenings whenever they wanted, so to see a director—especially one so masterful at the art of publicity—that was adamant about showing up on time was a great way to pique some interest.

5. FRIGHT BREAK // HOMICIDAL (1961)

Another classic William Castle gimmick was the "fright break" he offered to audience members during his 1961 movie, Homicidal. Here, a timer would appear on the screen just as the film was hurtling toward its gruesome climax. Frightened audience members had 45 seconds to leave the theater and still get a full refund on their ticket. There was a catch, though.

Frightened audience members who decided to take the easy way out were shamed into the "coward's corner," which was a yellow cardboard booth supervised by some poor sap theater employee. Then, they were forced to sign a paper reading "I'm a bona-fide coward," before getting their money back. Obviously, at the risk of such humiliation, most people decided to just grit their teeth and experience the horror on the screen instead.

6. THE PUNISHMENT POLL // MR. SARDONICUS (1961)

The most interactive of William Castle's schlocky horror gimmicks put the fate of the film itself into the hands of the audience. Dubbed the "punishment poll," Castle devised a way to let viewers vote on the fate of the characters in the movie Mr. Sardonicus. Upon entering the theater, people were given a card with a picture of a thumb on it that would glow when a special light was placed on it. "Thumbs up" meant that Mr. Sardonicus would be given mercy, and "thumbs down" meant … well, you get the idea.

Apparently audiences never gave ol' Sardonicus the thumbs up, despite Castle's claims that the happier ending was filmed and ready to go. However, no alternative ending has ever surfaced, leaving many to doubt his claims. Chances are, there was only one way out for Mr. Sardonicus.

7. FREE VOMIT BAGS // MARK OF THE DEVIL (1970)

Horror fans are mostly masochists at heart. They don't want to be entertained—they want to be terrified. So when the folks behind 1970's Mark of the Devil gave out free vomit bags to the audience due to the film's grotesque nature, how could any self-respecting horror fan not be intrigued? It wasn't just the bags that the studio was advertising; it also claimed the film was rated V, for violence—and maybe some vomit?

8. DUO-VISION // WICKED, WICKED (1973)

Duo-Vision was hyped as the new storytelling technique in cinema—offering two times the terror for the price of one ticket. Of course Duo-Vision is just fancy marketing lingo for split-screen, meaning audiences see a film from two completely different perspectives side-by-side. In the 1973 horror film Wicked, Wicked, that meant watching the movie from the points of view of both the killer and his victims.

Seems like a perfect concept for the horror genre, right? Well, Duo-Vision wasn't just employed during the movie's most horrific moments; it was used for the movie's entire 95-minute runtime. The technique had been used sparingly in other films—most notably in Brian De Palma's much better film Sisters (1973)—but it had never been implemented to this extent. A little bit of Duo-Vision apparently goes a long way, because it fell out of favor soon after.

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Pop Culture
Why Are We So Scared of Clowns?
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Warner Bros.

With the box office-smashing success of the new adaptation of Stephen King's It, it’s safe to say that coulrophobia (fear of clowns) isn’t a fringe phenomenon. The colorful circus performers are right up there with vampires and werewolves on the list of iconic horror villains. But unlike other movie monsters, clowns were originally meant to make kids laugh, not hide under their beds in terror. So what is it about clowns that taps into our deepest fears?

According to Yale doctoral candidate Danielle Bainbridge, the unsettling clown stereotype goes back centuries. In the inaugural episode of the new PBS digital series Origin of Everything, Bainbridge explains the long history of this pervasive part of our culture.

Before clowns wore floppy shoes and threw pies at each other’s faces, early versions of the performers could be found in royal courts. The court jester wasn’t evil, but he was the only person in the kingdom who could poke fun at the monarch without fear of (literally) losing his head. The fact that fools didn’t fall within the normal social hierarchy may have contributed to the future role clowns would play as untrustworthy outsiders.

From the medieval era, clowns evolved into the harlequins of 16th-century Italian theater. Again, these weren’t bloodthirsty monsters, but they weren’t exactly kid-friendly either. The characters were often mischievous and morally bankrupt, and their strange costumes and masks only added to the creepy vibes they gave off.

Fast-forward to the 19th century, when the white-faced circus clowns we know today started gaining popularity. Unlike the jesters and harlequins that came before them, these clowns performed primarily for children and maintained a wholesome image. But as pop culture in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s showed us, that old perception we had of clowns as nefarious troublemakers never really went away. Steven King’s It, the cult classic Killer Clowns From Outer Space (1988), and that scene from Poltergeist (1982) all combined these original fears with the more modern association of clowns with children. That formula gave us one of the most frightening figures in horror media today.

If you’re not completely spooked yet, watch the full story below.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair
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fun
This Oregon-Based Nonprofit Creates Amazing Costumes for Children in Wheelchairs
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Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Ryan and Lana Weimer celebrate Halloween all year round: The couple from Keizer, Oregon, runs a nonprofit called Magic Wheelchair, which the two founded in early 2015 to build elaborate—and free—costumes for kids in wheelchairs.

The Weimers’ eldest son, Keaton, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) when he was 9 months old. The rare genetic disorder affects the control of muscle movement, so Keaton uses a wheelchair to get around. In 2008, the 3-year-old asked his parents if he could be a pirate for Halloween. It was then that Ryan had an idea: Instead of simply giving Keaton a tri-corner hat, why not build a pirate ship that fit around his wheelchair?

Weimer constructed the wooden ship, and “what happened when we went out trick-or-treating was really just a wonderful, wonderful experience for us,” Weimer tells Mental Floss. “There's this weird awkwardness around disability. People don't always look at the kid and say hi, or talk to him or look at him. Instead, they just pause, or stare … But with that [pirate ship] costume on [Keaton’s chair], his disability really seemed to disappear, and people saw him before they saw his wheelchair.”

Kids swarmed around Keaton as they admired his ship, and he even wound up getting his picture published on the front page of the local newspaper. An annual tradition was born: Not wanting to rest on his laurels, Weimer continued building Keaton elaborate, wheelchair-friendly Halloween costumes each year. When his younger son Bryce—who was also diagnosed with SMA—was born in 2011, he included him in the fun, too. The positive reactions they received, Weimer says, inspired him and Lana to eventually “create a nonprofit to duplicate the experience we had for other kiddos and other families.”

A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
A custom pirate ship Halloween costume, created by Magic Wheelchair founder Ryan Weimer for his son, Keaton.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Magic Wheelchair—which is funded by individual and corporate donors—relies on teams of local volunteers around the country, who work together to build costumes for children in their communities. To be considered for a costume, families fill out an online application, which provides the nonprofit with a kid's biography and a description of their desired ensemble.

After receiving automatic email confirmation that Magic Wheelchair has received their materials, recipients are selected on a first-come, first-serve basis, although kids with life-threatening conditions do get priority. The rest are placed on a waitlist until a local volunteer team is able to complete their build. This process can take a few months or a few years, depending on whether there's an available team in the region.

Once kids make it off the waitlist, they meet with volunteers to discuss their vision. After that, the teams work anywhere from 100 to 500 hours, from start to finish, to construct the commissioned costume. The final product is kept under wraps so Magic Wheelchair can surprise the lucky recipient at a grand unveiling.

One of these kids was 13-year-old Cassie Hudson, a fan of comic books who hails from North Plains, Oregon. Cassie, who has spina bifida and other related health issues, first heard about Magic Wheelchair in 2015 when she noticed a flyer for the nonprofit hanging in the lobby of Shriners Hospitals for Children.

The non-profit was new at the time, so Cassie and her mother, Tess Hudson, figured they wouldn’t have the resources to provide the teen with her dream Halloween costume. But in 2016, Magic Wheelchair approached a physical therapist at Shriners and asked if they knew anyone at the hospital who would be interested in receiving one of their custom creations through a big reveal at the upcoming Rose City Comic-Con. “She was like, oh my goodness, I know exactly the kid!” Tess tells Mental Floss.

Cassie’s favorite fictional superhero is Green Arrow, who appears in comic books published by DC Comics. “I just think he’s super cool—he’s one of those superheroes that doesn’t have any powers and just wants to help people because he feels the need to,” Cassie says. She wanted Magic Wheelchair to transform her chair into his motorcycle. The costume the volunteers built lights up, makes noises, and looks so much like an actual motorcycle that at one comic-con Cassie attended, security teams initially said she couldn't bring it into the building.

A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
A custom Halloween costume created by Magic Wheelchair for 'Star Wars' fan Bryce Amiel.
Courtesy of Magic Wheelchair

Designing custom costumes for wheelchairs does pose a unique set of challenges: For one, "these kids need their chairs," Weimer says. "Our volunteer teams don't have the chair to build on, so they take measurements and pictures and build off of those."

Also, Weimer says, "you definitely have to consider what the kiddo is capable of, where [the costume] is going to be stored, and where it's going to be transported—because they're big." Costumes, which wrap around the wheelchairs, range anywhere from 2.5 feet by 4 feet to 5 feet by 8 feet and are sometimes constructed in pieces, which makes moving them around much easier. Like pieces of a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, these parts fit together on the wheelchair's base and are secured in place with brackets, plastic and metal pipes, zip ties, duct tape, and specially designed metal mounts.

These obstacles don't interfere with Magic Wheelchair's goal to build what Weimer calls the "biggest, baddest costumes" imaginable for kids. "The sky's the limit," he says. "The only limitations are what's OK with the family and the kiddo." One particularly ambitious recent build was for an Atlanta resident named Anthony. "He loves cooking, and so [the volunteers] built him this chef's kitchen around his wheelchair, with a stove," Weimer says. "There was even food—a turkey, and different dishes on the stovetop."

In just a few short years, Magic Wheelchair has grown from six volunteer teams, with anywhere from one to 10 members, to around 50 teams. This Halloween season, they plan on constructing around 50 costumes—a far cry from the seven or eight ensembles the nonprofit first produced in 2015. And it's poised to become just as big and bad as the costumes it creates. “We have a complete board of directors now,” Weimer says. “We were also able to get to the point where we have hired a fundraiser and some part-time staff. This just help us to keep on growing.”

For more information on volunteering with Magic Wheelchair, or to make a donation, visit their website.

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