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Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube
Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube

8 Movie Theater Gimmicks That Flopped

Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube
Movieclips Trailer Vault via YouTube

Before the advent of IMAX, virtual reality, and immersive theme park attractions, Hollywood was trying its best to pry audiences from the warm glow of their televisions and into theaters. The wide, panoramic aspect ratios used in almost all films today were the result of studios hoping to provide a more immersive experience.

That obviously worked. Most of their other gimmicks didn’t. Take a look at some of the more inventive ways theaters and producers have tried to boost ticket sales over the years.

1. LIFE INSURANCE POLICIES

William Castle (R) with two friends. Getty

The P.T. Barnum of movie salesmanship was undoubtedly William Castle, who bounced from one gimmick to another in the 1950s and 1960s to bolster awareness for his series of B-minus horror pictures. For the 1958 film Macabre, Castle told audiences that their theater tickets would be redeemable for a $1000 Lloyds of London life insurance policy in the event they died of fright. Castle also parked hearses outside theaters and hired women to dress as nurses to roam the aisles. In trade ads in Variety, there were only minimal stipulations: “Not valid for people with known heart conditions or for suicide.”

No one appeared to have died during a screening, a fact that Castle may have considered bittersweet: It would have made for unprecedented publicity.

2. AROMARAMA

dbellis54 via CinemaTreasures // CC BY 3.0

Fun to say, not so much fun to experience. Preceding such gimmicks as Smell-O-Vision and Odorama, AromaRama introduced an additional sensory stimulant to moviegoers via their nostrils. As opposed to scratch-and-sniff cards, the 1959 innovation promised to “suffuse a theater’s air with recognizable smells … on cue, and clear the air of one odor and substitute another every 90 seconds.”

Curiously, AromaRama debuted with a rather dry documentary about China, Behind the Great Wall, at New York’s DeMille Theater. The New York Times found the experience to have only “capricious” odors working in harmony with the visuals and labeled the entire thing a stunt. With expenses running up to $7500 to install the pungent scents and a slightly nauseating deodorant into an air system, few have had the experience of smelling a great film.

3. SENSURROUND

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How high was the movie industry on Sensurround, a soundtrack that could produce bass so deep that theater seats rattled? In 1974, Universal was bestowed with a Scientific and Engineering Academy Award for their work in getting the technology up and running. Roughly 17 theaters across the country were equipped with the necessary woofers and amplifiers for Earthquake, a star-studded disaster movie.

That kind of sensory assault came at a price: At Mann’s Chinese Theater, the effect was so profound that it literally shook the plaster from the walls, forcing managers to install a safety net over the audience; auditoriums with massive chandeliers and other light fixtures kept their distance, fearing the vibrations could cause a real-life disaster; the vibrations bled into neighboring screening rooms; projectionists popped aspirin because they were subjected to the thudding soundtracks all day long. Sensurround wasn’t a bad idea—it was just too effective for its own good.

4. DUO-VISION

“See the hunter, see the hunted, both at the same time!” Long before picture-in-picture was ever implemented in televisions, MGM had the novel idea to offer audiences more than one visual feed with 1973’s Wicked, Wicked, a trope-filled serial killer thriller. For its entire running time, viewers were subjected to dual frames, with the figures on the left (the victims) oblivious to what was happening on the right (a murderer lurking in the curtains). Only occasionally did the film use the technique to add depth to the story, as in the case of one frame flashing back to a character’s tumultuous past.

Director Richard Bare allegedly got the idea from driving down a highway and becoming intrigued by the dividing line in the road; MGM had originally intended to require theaters to run two 35mm projectors at once before realizing they could just strike both frames on the same print. While other filmmakers have experimented with the technique, split-screen never caught on.

5. PERCEPTO

Living down to his reputation as a carnival producer, William Castle continued to stir up publicity for his films by installing theater equipment that he dubbed Percepto for 1959’s The Tingler starring Vincent Price. In what must have been one of the earliest examples of interactive entertainment, a select number of seats were equipped to deliver a vibration when the spine-hugging “tingler” creature invaded a theater onscreen. (The boxes were actually airplane de-icing machines Castle bought at a military surplus.) The only way to fight the parasitic monster was to scream, which the audience did, no doubt egged on by the strange and uninvited motor humming beneath their buttocks.

At a theater in Philadelphia, a truck driver became so incensed by the gimmick that he rose and angrily tore the seat from the floor. Castle never brought Percepto out for an encore.

6. AUDIENCE VOTING

The CD-ROM gaming craze of the 1990s didn’t go ignored by Hollywood, which began to anticipate that audiences would want to exert more control over their entertainment. What if they could choose whether Rocky won or lost a bout, or whether Dorothy stayed in Oz? To test the waters, a production company called Interfilm released the revenge action-comedy Mr. Payback, written and directed by Bob Gale (Back to the Future), in 1995. In 44 theaters, attendees could choose a course of action onscreen by “voting” with colored joystick buttons installed in their armrests. Laserdisc players running in concert would then broadcast their selection with no noticeable delay.

It was not the revelatory experience they had hoped for. Roger Ebert labeled the 20-minute film “offensive and yokel-brained” for being preoccupied with toilet humor. He did not specify which color button he used to later vote it the year’s worst film.

7. ALTERNATE ENDINGS

John Lambert Pearson via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The real secret to huge box office is to convince audiences to see films more than once. That kind of repeat business helped films like Star Wars, Avatar, and Titanic to record grosses. Paramount attempted to cheat the system a bit with 1985’s Clue, a murder mystery based on the board game. Theaters screening the movie would get one of four endings that would reveal a different killer, with the hope being that fans would then see the movie over and over to catch the alternate finales. (After dropping one ending during production, the studio used a letters system—A, B, C,—in newspaper listings so people could keep track of the remaining three.) Unfortunately, most didn’t want to see it even once: it was pummeled by Rocky IV in its opening weekend, ultimately grossing just $14 million.

8. HYPNOSIS

At the height of the gimmick craze of the late 1950s, Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) made the most audacious attempt to date to please audiences by offering—or threatening—to hypnotize them. Dubbed Hypno-Vista, the conceit consisted of nothing more than a prolonged introduction by hypnotist Emile Franchel before the British-produced movie—about a writer hypnotized to become a killer—begins. Producer Herman Cohen later insisted the introduction was taken out of prints sent for television broadcast because it actually did put viewers under Franchel’s influence. Watch a portion of it above, if you dare.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Cost Plus World Market

Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

Buy on ThinkGeek.

4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

Buy at Cost Plus World Market.

8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy chomping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

Buy on Amazon.

17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

Buy on Live Infused.

18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

Buy on Amazon.

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