< Horror Film History — The Tingler (1959)
The Tingler (1959) key art


The Tingler (1959)

William Castle
Vincent Price,
Judith Evelyn,
Darryl Hickman

Grossing over $2million off a $400,000 budget, The Tingler was another success for Castle, and is an object lesson in marketing hype. The story is, in the main, misogynistic melodrama, and the solitary monster is just over a foot long. However, Castle's showmanship and Vincent Price's performance bring it to another level, and it's an entertaining classic of its kind.

In the second of two movies Price made with Castle that year, he plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a gentleman-scientist fascinated by the concept of fear. While autopsying the bodies of executed prisoners he has observed that the vertebrae crack at the moment of execution, as though under some immense pressure which has nothing to do with the electrocution. He believes that there is some kind of fear-generated force which occupies a space at the base of the human spine, and becomes obsessed with proving its physical existence. He dubs that force 'the Tingler'.

Dr Chapin is a mad scientist in the classic sense of the word. Apart from his work in the prison morgue, he has a home laboratory (paid for by his alcoholic, unfaithful wife, Isabel) where he and his young apprentice, David, conduct experiments on fear in living things. Chapin needs human subjects, however, as the cats David kidnaps from alleys aren't cutting it any more. He conducts a cruel experiment on Isabel, deliberately terrifying her by threatening her and shooting her with a blank bullet. He X-rays her while she's unconscious and discovers a suspicious mass at the base of her spine— proof he is on the right track.

Self Medication

Chapin then experiments on himself. He declares that he is too logical and sensible to feel fear under normal circumstances, so, in an extremely bizarre sequence for 1959, he doses himself with LSD (it was still legal to do so at the time) and records his reaction to the subsequent hallucinations. This marks LSD's first screen appearance — the screenwriter Robb White heard about it from Aldous Huxley and went to UCLA to try it for himself. Chapin thrashes round in his lab, fearing the walls are closing in on him (eyebrows akimbo, Price is given free rein to chew whatever scenery comes to hand), but, unfortunately, gives in to an almighty scream before the fear reaches its peak.

The Tingler (1959)

Thwarted, Price vows to find a test subject who will allow the Tingler to reach its fullest physical manifestation without dissipating its energy with a scream. His eyes light on the wife of Ollie, a rather odd individual who runs the local silent movie theatre, and who likes hanging out with Dr Chapin at the autopsy table. Mrs Higgins is a deaf mute, physically unable to scream, who loses consciousness at the climax of fear, when it all becomes too much for her. Dr Chapin pays her a visit, discovers she is feeling unwell and gives her a shot that looks suspiciously similar to the LSD he dosed himself with earlier. When she comes round she is threatened by slamming doors, prowling ghouls, and, when she flees to the bathroom for safety, a tub full of lurid red blood — unnerving, in the middle of a black and white film.

Unsurprisingly, she drops dead of terror, and her willing husband brings the corpse up to the friendly neighborhood pathologist, Dr Chapin. In order to investigate the cause of death he draws screens around his examining table, and in dramatic, full effect silhouette, extracts a monstrous looking shadow from the unfortunate deceased's spine.

This, when Dr Chapin brings it from behind the curtain, turns out to be a revolting rubber creature, bastard child of an earwig and a slug. Castle was as tight-fisted as they come when allocating SFX (or any category) budgets, and the Tingler is a crude effect indeed. You can see the wires that pull it around in a number of shots. However, it is surprisingly effective in all its rubber repulsiveness, especially when it attacks Dr Chapin with its pincers. It's ugly and phallic enough to inspire nightmares of a most nasty sort.

Playing God

Chapin, unusually for a mad scientist, realises he has made a mistake — after trying unsuccessfully to destroy the Tingler with a blowtorch. He intones his regret to his young apprentice:

“To break the laws of nature is always a dangerous thing. We've not only broken laws, we've violated some basic principles. We had to, but now we're going to stop.”

This statement sounds reasonable, even plausible, when rolled round Vincent Price's sonorous tones; his deft interpretation of this kind of material is a mark of his consummate skill as an actor and explains why he was so beloved by the B-movie set. Chapin vows to reunited Mrs Higgins and her Tingler, as this is the only way to kill it. Unfortunately, Ollie isn't answering his phone, and there appear to be some irregularities about his wife's death. Ollie is seen in possession of a rubber ghoul mask and a quantity of fake blood. It seems Chapin isn't the only one willing to sacrifice his wife for the cause.

Chapin arrives at the Higgin's home with the boxed Tingler, looking for Mrs Higgins' corpse. While he argues with Ollie about how the dead woman met her fate, the Tingler escapes and makes its way down into the theatre through a convenient gap in the floorboards. We're all set for a showdown.

Join In The Fun

The final reel of The Tingler is a remarkable piece of audience participation. Castle blurs the boundaries between the movie audience and the movie-audience-within-the-movie with panache. He primes prospective cinemagoers in the trailer, promising them

"For the first time in motion picture history, members of the audience, including you, will actually play a part in the picture. You will feel some of the physical reactions, the shocking sensations experienced by the actors on the screen."

It's 1959, and he can't resist adding a cold war coda to his promise, jamming in as many buzz words as he can:

“Don't be alarmed, you can protect yourself. When you see the picture, you will be told, and remember the instructions, how you can guard yourself from attack from... The Tingler.”

Well versed in 'Protect and Survive' techniques, the obedient audience are only too ready to do as they are told. As the Tingler creeps into the auditorium and starts crawling up a girl's leg, Chapin pulls the lights and plunges them (and us) into pitch darkness. Deprived of sensory input apart from the screams on the soundtrack and Chapin's fake reassurances that there is no cause for alarm, it's time to indulge your fear. It's also time for your date to put his/her hand anywhere that might convince you there's a Tingler invading your space! This is also when the much publicised "Percepto" device came into play. Roughly every tenth chair in the auditorium was rigged with a vibrator, set to go off randomly during this sequence, adding to the startled shrieks and yells.

The Tingler (1959)

More terror is to come as the Tingler crawls into the booth and breaks the film print off the projector. Both screens, our own and the movie-theatre-within-a-movie, display the grotesque, magnified shadow of the Tingler. Once again, everyone is plunged into darkness, as Chapin announces

"Ladies and Gentlemen, please don't panic, but SCREAM. Scream for your lives. The Tingler is loose in this theatre. If you don't scream, it will kill you."

You bet everyone screams – a good scream is as effective a release as a good laugh, one of the reasons audiences enjoy horror movies so much. There are few other socially acceptably opportunities to scream your lungs out. And screaming is the only way to paralyse the Tingler.

Threat removed, game over, the audience can go home happy and relieved.