Brain-branding Marketing Gimmicks for Horror Stories
By Matthew Weber
Read Matthew Weber’s terrifying new novel in Scream-O-Vision!
Make it to the last page and get an official “Certificate of Survival” from Pint Bottle Press!
I do hope my latest book Bobcats makes you scream, but I never actually printed those survival certificates. I did consider producing some, then reflected on the giant cardboard box packed with hundreds of vomit bags already stacked in my garage, leftover from one of my previous book-marketing campaigns. Our house is running low on storage space, so this time I decided to give my wife a break and skip the gimmick.
But I LOVE a great marketing gimmick! I’m even the proud owner of an original souvenir “sick bag” from the 1970 theatrical run of Mark of the Devil, a West German horror film known for its US marketing slogans that included “Positively the most horrifying film ever made” and “Rated V for Violence,” while the barf bags were given free to the audience upon admission.
The most famous marketeer in the horror industry is probably William Castle, who began his streak of genius in 1958 by guaranteeing $1,000 in compensation to any audience member who died of fright while viewing his film Macabre. He posted mock insurance policies in newspaper ads and marquees while staging hearses and fake paramedics outside theaters to add to the intrigue. Audiences flocked to the theater to see if anyone would die!
Castle offered a “fright break” before the climax of his 1961 film, Homicidal, allowing time for terrified theatergoers to go wait in a “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby, where they’d have to sign a certificate stating “I am a bonafide coward” to get a refund.
Castle invented “Illusion-O” vision for his movie Thirteen Ghosts, allowing viewers to make “ghosts” appear by using eyeglasses lensed with colored cellophane. His most famous gimmick might be the electric buzzers he had rigged to certain theater seats when showing his 1959 film The Tingler, starring Vincent Price.
Some people turn their nose up at such gimmicks, but those people are boring and don’t understand salesmanship. A good gimmick will make a product stand out in the crowd, and with so many of today’s entertainment options, those that don’t stand out get ignored. It’s tough to get noticed—much less, sell anything—in the fractured modern culture which has a zillion diversionary options just one click away. You need fireworks, or a theme song, or a water-skiing squirrel!
The world of horror fiction is no stranger to inventive marketing, and here are a few highlights of clever gimmicks that helped put the following titles on the map.
Horrorstör – Ever read Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix? I have not, but it leapt to the top of my mind when composing this article due solely to its marketing push. The book is reportedly about a haunted IKEA. The gimmick: The book’s layout mimics an IKEA catalog. As Publishers Weekly explains, “The book’s packaging as a catalog—complete with illustrations of increasingly sinister-looking furniture with faux Scandinavian names—gives it a charmingly oddball allure.”
Whether or not you want to read a novel in catalog format is beside the point. Around the time of its release, I distinctly remember seeing various mentions, notes, reviews, etc. across the media landscape that remarked specifically on the book’s funky layout, and if the gimmick is getting folks to talk about the book, then the gimmick is working.
House of Leaves – Speaking of funky layouts, House of Leaves, the debut novel from Mark Z. Danielewski, was using that playbook back in 2000. Wikipedia describes its unconventional format and structure: “It contains copious footnotes, many of which contain footnotes themselves, including references to fictional books, films or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. At points, the book must be rotated to be read.”
To be honest, when I saw this book displayed in a store, the messy aesthetic of the story organization always turned me away. The novel seemed like it would be difficult to engage and a headache to navigate. But a lot of other people disagreed, and House of Leaves was a hit. The labyrinthine nature of the book got people’s attention, which meant the gimmick was gold.
Fahrenheit 451 – I like to think Ray Bradbury himself came up with this gimmick. In 1953, Ballantine released a limited edition run of his book-burning novel that might endure a visit from his “firemen” who were charged with torching the written word. Two hundred numbered and signed copies of the book were bound in Johns-Manville Quinterra, a fire-resistant chrysolite asbestos material. The asbestos-bound books are now collector’s items, and Stephen King is said to have owned 26 copies.
Hannibal – Thomas Harris knew how to launch a book. The follow-up to Silence of the Lambs was one of the most anticipated sequels in publishing history. A London book shop that specialized in crime novels was the first store in the world that got to sell it. The first 60 customers through the door on Hannibal day were served fava beans and a glass of Chianti… Meanwhile, at a major London train station, actors hired by Hannibal‘s publisher dressed as FBI agents and handed out bacon sandwiches—a nod to the book’s psychotic meatpacker Mason Verger.
Haunted – While on a 2003 book tour, Chuck Palahniuk read to his audiences a short story titled “Guts” which appears in his horror collection, Haunted. The story begins with Palahniuk telling his listeners to inhale deeply and that “this story should last about as long as you can hold your breath.” Reportedly, forty people fainted listening while holding their breath. In the fall of 2004, he began promoting Haunted and continued to read “Guts,” noting that his number of fainters was up to 67. On May 28, 2007, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, five people fainted, one of whom fell and hit his head on the door while trying to leave the auditorium. Since then, recordings of his readings of the story have been circulated on the Internet. Palahniuk has said the tally of fainting events is up to 73.
A truly visceral reaction from the audience is not a gimmick, but splashing videos around the Internet of folks passing out certainly worked as one. I, for one, was intrigued when all the clips began springing up online, purporting to show the real human trauma caused by this man’s short story. Were these people fainting because they were dumb enough to hold their breath to the point of blacking out? Or were they so overwhelmed by the horrific power of Palahniuk’s writing?
I had to know! I bought the book to find out, and decided that folks might have been fainting from the story, not the breath-holding.
…And you might faint, too, from the sheer terror and excitement found in the pages of my new coming-of-age horror novel, BOBCATS! The story is so gripping, you won’t be able to put it down, and your hair will shine, and your skin will glow! Order now for better health, fresher breath, and improved personality!
Growing up is hard to do, when people try to kill you.
Thirteen-year-old Joey Kilgore learns this lesson the hard way, as he and his friends, who’ve dubbed themselves “The Bobcats,” embark on a weekend hiking trip across the ridge of Black Oak Mountain.
Completing the hike along The Gauntlet is a local rite of passage that separates the men from the boys, but when the gang happens upon a pair of cold-blooded killers disposing of fresh corpses, it leads to a nightmarish chase through a storm-ravaged forest that will test their mettle like they never expected.
Matthew Weber, owner of Pint Bottle Press, is author of the books Bobcats, Teeth Marks, A Dark & Winding Road, Seven Feet Under and The Bull. He is editor of the Double Barrel Horror anthology series and also wrote and illustrated the children’s books, Attack of the Giant Mutant Worms and I Want Be a Monster When I Grow Up. He is co-owner and editor of Home Improvement and Repairs magazine and is author of the non-fiction book, The Quick & Easy Home DIY Manual (Weldon Owen Publishing). He lives just north of Birmingham, Alabama, with his wife and three children.
Email Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org