Monday, October 3, 2016

William Castle Asks If You Believe in Ghosts--13 of Them!

Illusion-O...a nifty gmmick!
I first saw 13 Ghosts on television as a youth. It was my introduction to producer-director William Castle. And even though Castle's famous Illusion-O gimmick was lost on my family's black-and-white TV, I still have fond memories of this ghostly variation of a wholesome family picture.

The Zorba's are your typical sitcom family--except for the fact that they're broke. It's so bad that Hilda Zorba calls her husband at work to complain: "The moving men are here...taking away the furniture again." Apparently, Cyrus doesn't earn much as a tour guide in the paleontology department at the Los Angeles Museum. Their kids, college-age Madea and youngster Buck, don't seem to mind. However, when Buck blows out his birthday candles that night, he wishes for "a house with furniture that no one can take away from us."

Charles Herbert as Buck.
Almost on cue, Cyrus receives a mysterious telegram from attorney Benjamin Rush. It turns out that Cyrus' Uncle Plato has left him a haunted--but furnished--house, complete with ghosts and a housekeeper that doubles as a medium. Their financial situation compels the family to move into the old house. The apparitions are a nuisance, especially the former chef that periodically empties out the kitchen cabinets onto the floor. However, there is also something evil afoot--and that spells trouble for the Zorba family.

As stated previously, 13 Ghosts is a pleasant little picture that didn't need a gimmick. Still, Castle came up with one of his best: a cardboard viewer with blue and red filters that allowed the audience to see the ghosts. At various points during the film, text appeared on screen telling the audience to "Use Viewer." The screen then turned blue and the ghosts appeared in red. If you wanted to "see" the ghosts, you looked through the red filter on your cardboard viewer. However, if you were afraid of ghosts, you could look through the blue filter and see all images on screen except for the ghosts. Castle, in one of his most entertaining introductory scenes, explained all this to the audience.
Audience members were prompted when to use their ghostly viewers.

This is what you saw if looking through the red filter.

When the ghosts departed, you didn't need to use your viewer!

Surprisingly, the top-billed member of the cast was Charles Herbert, who played Buck. Herbert was a busy child actor who appeared previously in Houseboat, The Fly, and The Boy and the Pirates. 13 Ghosts marked his final film role, but he remain in demand on television in the 1960s. He died last year on Halloween.

Margaret Hamilton look like Miss Gulch.
Other cast members included Martin Milner, Jo Swerling, and Margaret Hamilton. Milner started his four-year stint as the Corvette-driving Tod Stiles in Route 66 shortly after 13 Ghosts. Margaret Hamilton has little to do as the creepy housekeeper, but I was struck by her appearance. Her face looked the same as it did 21 years earlier in The Wizard of Oz (only it wasn't green). Pretty Jo Swerling retired from full-time acting in 1964 to raise her deaf daughter. She still remains popular enough to appear at nostalgia conventions.

13 Ghosts was remade as the R-rated Thir13en Ghosts in 2001 with Tony Shalhoub as the head of a family that inherits a haunted house. As you can imagine, the tone is quite different--and there's no Illusion-O.


  1. I love the William Castle gimmicks, and I'm kind of sad I don't have this special viewer + film to show at my next party.

  2. What a fun film to introduce the month of Halloween! William Castle had a great time with gimmicks. I appreciated you including the picture showing what the viewer saw when looking through the red filter of the glasses.

  3. I got a kick out of this picture. It didn't really require anything out of me and I liked that. I tried to watch the remake once, but it just - well, it was just too much. I know what I like and that wasn't it.

  4. I saw this movie on first release when I was 9 years old. At that age, I generally avoided scary movies, but the promotion for this one made it seem like something I couldn't miss. I kept the Illusion-O viewer for awhile, but never used it again, being afraid of seeing ghosts in our house!

    1. I wonder if one can purchase an original Illusion-O viewer these days?

  5. Love this movie, great one to highlight. Apparently, Martin Milner and Charles Herbert did not hit it off. So Charles was actually afraid of Milner in the climax.

    1. After seeing Martin Milner in so many "nice guy" roles, I was impressed with his villain.