Since the dawn of cinematic history, movies have had one constant need: to get the word about themselves, to advertise and promote and attract an audience. That means even the earliest black and white horror movies received promotional items, clever goodies cooked up by the marketing departments to help their movies stand out from the crowd.
Marketing The Monsters
One of the most famous and diverse casts of characters in cinematic history, the Universal Monsters are the stars of some of the earliest horror movies. The most famous members of the group include The Wolfman, Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, The Invisible Man, the Mummy, and The Phantom of the Opera. Having starred in their own films as well as numerous sequels, crossovers, and remakes throughout the years, the Monsters have left and continue to leave an impression on viewers.
To promote the original theatrical releases, Universal Pictures relied mostly on paper promotional goodies to attract audiences. These rare items have appeared for sale in Heritage Auctions. For Dracula, the 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel starring Bela Lugosi, filmgoers were handed paper cards representing wolfsbane, a poisonous plant said to ward off vampires and werewolves. They were advised to keep it under their pillow to keep Dracula away.
Later that year when the film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein arrived, calling cards from the star himself were given away, advising recipients to return his call – by phoning the year 1768. And in 1933, paper masks of star Gloria Stuart were used to entice audiences to see The Invisible Man in theaters for themselves.
Psyho Promotions, Courtesy of The Bates Motel
Alfred Hitchcock actually could have shot 1960’s Psycho in color, but he decided to keep it in black and white both for budgetary reasons and out of fear’s that the infamous shower scene would be too gory for audiences to handle if shown in full color. Starring Janet Leigh as Marion Crane, who finds herself spending the night at the lonely Bates Motel, run by Anthony Perkins’ kindly, if not a bit strange, Norman Bates. What happens next is well known now, but was so shocking at the time that Hitchcock bought up copies of the book on which the movie is based in an attempt to keep the plot a secret (although a movie tie-in paperback of the book by Robert Block was released).
He also created an elaborate marketing campaign for the thriller, instructing theater owners not to let anyone in after the start of the film, lest they get lost in the movie’s horrifying twist and turns. Cardboard cutouts of Alfred Hitchcock himself were sent to theaters to remind audiences to enter the auditoriums on time, so as not to miss a moment of the terror. As a nod to the film’s most famous scene, the shower murder, promotional bars of soap were created to advertise the movie. Universal Studios, where the Bates Motel and house were built on the backlot and remain a popular attraction today, also got in on the action with promotional ashtrays from the infamous motel itself.
An Axe To Grind
When Bette Davis and Joan Crawford starred in 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, a slew of similar campy movies starring glamorous movie stars as dangerously unhinged characters were unleashed to terrorize and delight audiences. Two years later, Joan Crawford starred in another “psycho-biddy” movie, Strait-Jacket. She played one half of a mother-daughter axe-murdering duo, which took center stage in the movie’s promotional campaign.
Strait-Jacket was directed by William Castle, who was famous for his theater gimmicks: 1959’s House on Haunted Hill featured a plastic skeleton rigged to fly out over the audience, and the same year, he convinced theaters to rig certain seats to literally shock viewers during showings of The Tingler. To promote Strait-Jacket, small cardboard axes were handed out to viewers when they arrived at the theater. Joan Crawford herself even made appearances at some showings, wielding an axe and running through the theater aisles. The gimmicks worked; Strait-Jacket was another box office success for the “hagsploitation” genre.
The Lighthouse Makes Waves
Modern black and white horror movies are pretty rare, although there are some notable examples: special editions of The Mist and Mad Max: Fury Road, and 2016’s The Eyes of My Mother. 2019 saw the release of The Lighthouse, director Robert Eggers’ second feature film released in striking black and white. It stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as workers stranded on a remote lighthouse during a bad storm. As the weather rages outside, terrifying sights cause the two men to question their sanity.
The Lighthouse was released by A24, an independent studio who spares no expense on cool promotional items: Robert Eggers’ previous movie The Witch, also released by A24, received gift baskets from star Black Phillip himself. To promote The Lighthouse, “Warsh Up” goodie bags. They contained a small container of scented beard oil called Wickie Oil, and Seaman’s Helper, a bar of soap in the shape of a mermaid – one of the frightening sights witnessed outside the lighthouse by the stranded workers in the movie. (Writer’s note: I did not intentionally pick out movies with promotional bars of soap for this article.)
Bonus: The Grudge (2020)
Okay, okay, The Grudge isn’t black and white, but with the latest installment having just hit theaters and with main villain Kayako’s deathly pale skin and ink-black hair, it just feels right to include in this installment. Even better: the promotional item in question is also black and white. These stress balls have been spotted in contests and giveaways from various movie theaters, so keep your eye out! You might just get lucky.
Do you have any promotional items in your horror collection, black and white or otherwise? If so, share them with us on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, and your collection could make an appearance in the Collector’s Crypt!