Orphaned at 11, Castle dropped out of high school at 15 to work in the theater. He came to the attention of Columbia Pictures for his talent for promotion, and was hired. He learned the trade of filmmaking and became a director, acquiring a reputation for the ability to churn out competent B-movies quickly and on budget. He eventually struck out on his own, producing and directing thrillers which, despite their low budgets, were effectively promoted with gimmicks, a trademark for which he is best known. He was also the producer for Rosemary's Baby.
Castle was born William Schloss, Jr. in New York City, the son of Saidie (Snellenberg) and William Schloss. His family was Jewish. ("Schloss" is German for "castle", and Castle later translated his surname into English as his pseudonym.) His mother died when he was nine. When his father followed a year later, he was left an orphan at the age of 11. He then lived with his older sister.
Castle married Ellen Falck, with whom he had two children.
At 13, he went to see the play Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, and was entranced. He watched performance after performance, eventually managing to meet Lugosi himself. He wrote in his autobiography Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants off America, "I knew then what I wanted to do with my life – I wanted to scare the pants off audiences." Lugosi recommended him for the position of assistant stage manager for the road company tour of the play. The 15-year-old dropped out of high school to take the job. He spent his teenage years working on Broadway in jobs ranging from set building to acting. This proved good training for the future filmmaker.
He obtained Orson Welles' telephone number and persuaded Welles to lease him the Stony Creek Theatre in Connecticut. (Welles was leaving to begin filming Citizen Kane.) He hired German actress Ellen Schwanneke; upon learning that, under then-current theater guild regulations, German-born actors could only appear in plays originally performed in Germany, Castle claimed he had hired her for the non-existent play Das ist nicht für Kinder (Not for Children); Castle spent the following weekend writing the play and having it translated into German. When Nazi Germany sent Schwanneke an invitation to a Munich performance, Castle seized the opportunity for an outrageous publicity stunt. He released to the newspapers what he claimed was a telegram he had sent turning down the request, portraying his star as "the girl who said no to Hitler". To add to the sensationalism, he secretly vandalized the theatre and painted swastikas on the exterior. It worked. The resulting publicity ensured the success of the play (which he had written in 48 hours).
He left for Hollywood at 23, to work for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures. In the 2007 documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, his daughter states he had a dynamic, outgoing personality that attracted others. He was one of the few people Cohn liked. He learned the film business, and graduated to directing inexpensive B-movies, the first being the appropriately named The Chance of a Lifetime, released in 1943. He directed four movies in The Whistler series. Castle gained a reputation for being able to make films under budget and quickly. In addition, he worked as an associate producer on Orson Welles's film noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947), doing much second unit location work.
Ambitions unsatisfied, Castle began to make films independently. The inspiration of the 1955 French psychological thriller Les Diaboliques set the genre he would choose. He financed his first movie, Macabre (1958), by mortgaging his house. He came up with the idea to give every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies with hearses parked outside the theaters. Macabre was a hit.
Other films (and gimmicks) followed:House on Haunted Hill (1959), filmed in "Emergo". A skeleton with red lighted eye sockets attached to wire floated over the audience in the final moments of some showings of the film to parallel the action on screen when a skeleton rises from a vat of acid and pursues the villainous wife of Vincent Price's character. Once word spread about the skeleton, kids enjoyed trying to knock it down with candy boxes, soda cups, or any other objects at hand.
The Tingler (1959), filmed in "Percepto". The title character is a creature that attaches itself to the human spinal cord. It is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. Castle purchased military surplus air-plane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) and had a crew travel from theatre to theatre attaching them to the underside of some of the seats (in that era, a movie did not necessarily open on the same night nationwide). In the finale, one of the creatures supposedly gets loose in the movie theatre itself. The buzzers were activated as the film's star, Vincent Price, warned the audience to "scream – scream for your lives!" Some sources incorrectly state the seats were wired to give electrical jolts. Filmmaker and Castle fan John Waters recounted in Spine Tingler! how, as a youngster, he would search for a seat that had been wired in order to enjoy the full effect.
13 Ghosts (1960), filmed in "Illusion-O". Each patron received a handheld ghost viewer/remover. During certain segments of the film, a person could see the ghosts by looking through the red cellophane, or hide them by looking through the blue. Without the viewer, the ghosts were somewhat visible. The DVD release included red/blue glasses (not 3D glasses, as sometimes reported) to replicate the effect.
Homicidal (1961). There was a "fright break" with a timer overlaid on the film's climax, as the heroine approaches a house harboring a sadistic killer. The audience had 45 seconds to leave and get a full refund if they were too frightened to see the remainder of the film. In an early showing, wily patrons simply sat through the movie a second time and left at the break to get their money back; to prevent this in future, Castle had different color tickets printed for each showing. About 1% of patrons still demanded refunds. John Waters described Castle's response:
William Castle simply went nuts. He came up with "Coward's Corner," a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn't take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward's Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: "Cowards Keep Walking." You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?...I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, "Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward's Corner!" As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity – at Coward's Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, "I am a bona fide coward."
In a trailer for the film, Castle explained the use of the Coward's Certificate and admonished the viewer to not reveal the ending to friends "or they will kill you. If they don't, I will."Mr. Sardonicus (1961). The audience could vote on the villain's fate in a "punishment poll" during the climax – Castle appeared on screen to explain two options. Each member of the audience was given a card with a glow-in-the-dark thumb they could hold up or down to decide if Mr. Sardonicus would be cured or died. Supposedly no audience ever chose mercy, so the alternate ending was never screened. Though Castle claimed in his autobiography that the merciful version was shot and shown occasionally, many suspect otherwise. In the drive-in version, drivers were asked to flash their car headlights to choose.
Zotz! (1962). Each patron was given a "Magic" (gold colored, plastic, glow-in-the-dark) coin.
13 Frightened Girls (1963). Castle launched a publicized worldwide casting hunt for the prettiest girls from 13 different countries. He filmed slightly different versions, highlighting each girl for the release in her country.
Strait-Jacket (1964). Advised by his financial backers to eliminate gimmicks, Castle hired Joan Crawford to star and sent her on a promotional tour to select theatres. At the last minute, Castle had cardboard axes printed that were handed out to patrons.
I Saw What You Did (1965). Another Joan Crawford vehicle, this film was initially promoted using giant plastic telephones, but after a rash of prank phone calls and complaints, the Bell Telephone Company monopoly refused Castle permission to use them or mention telephones. So he turned the back rows of theatres into "Shock Sections". Seat belts were installed to keep patrons from being jolted from their chairs in fright.
Bug (1975). Castle advertised a million-dollar life insurance policy for the film's star, "Hercules" the cockroach.
At the height of his popularity, Castle had a fan club with 250,000 members.
According to Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, he mortgaged his home (again) and obtained the movie rights to the Ira Levin novel before it was published, hoping to finally direct a prestigious A movie himself. He made a deal with Paramount Pictures which, however, insisted on hiring director Roman Polanski. Castle had to settle for producing the film. He had a cameo, playing the grey-haired man standing outside the phone booth where Rosemary, played by Mia Farrow, is attempting to get in touch with the obstetrician.
Castle was unable to build on the film's success. He suffered kidney failure soon after its release. By the time he recovered, all momentum was lost, and he went back to making B movies. His most significant acting role was also his last—as the director of the doomed "Waterloo" epic in The Day of the Locust in 1975.
Castle died on May 31, 1977 in Los Angeles, California, of a heart attack. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Among his admirers is filmmaker John Waters, who wrote, "William Castle was my idol. His films made me want to make films ... William Castle was God." He is Robert Zemeckis' "favorite filmmaker". Zemeckis co-founded Dark Castle Entertainment, which was intended to remake Castle's films.
Two of his films were remade by his daughter Terry Ann Castle, who co-produced House on Haunted Hill in 1999, and Thirteen Ghosts in 2001 (the latter retitled Thir13en Ghosts).
Alfred Hitchcock decided to make Psycho after noting the financial success of 1950s B movies by Castle and Roger Corman.
A documentary focusing on Castle's life, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, premiered at AFI Fest 2007 in Los Angeles on November 8, 2007. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary.
The protagonist in the 1993 film Matinee, played by John Goodman, is based on him.
John Waters portrays Castle in the episode "Hagsploitation" in the first season, Bette and Joan, of the FX television anthology series Feud, depicting the notorious rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford through the production and aftermath of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Waters as Castle appears onstage at an Oklahoma theater in 1964, exuberantly introducing a screening of Strait-Jacket, while Jessica Lange as Crawford in a blood red evening gown proceeds down the aisle, wincing and wielding an axe past hooting teenagers, before pursuing Castle behind a backlit scrim to "decapitate" him in silhouette.North to the Klondike (1942, story)
Dillinger (1945, uncredited)
Voice of the Whistler (1945)
The Lady From Shanghai (1947, uncredited)
It's a Small World (1950)
The Plot Thickens (1963 TV movie)