Immersion in Movies

With things like virtual reality video games and 3D movies, immersion has been a hot topic in the entertainment industry over the last couple of years. While I couldn’t care less about either of those immersion has been seen throughout the history of movies. Ever since that train came barreling into the station in “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896), and the audience screamed and ran from the theater afraid of being mown down, immersion has been a key player in movies.


Speaking of L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat a slightly less well-known fact is that the Lumiere Brothers were working on early 3D and that extreme reaction from the audience possibly came from a showing of the 3D version. 3D didn’t take off however and 2D cinema became the norm. This just goes to show that Immersion was at the forefront of the minds of these early creators and it was successful even if it wasn’t popular.

The movie goers interest in 3D has waxed and waned since then with notable resurgences of 3D. in the early 80s when movies like Jaws 3D, Friday the 13th: Part 3 (with an awesome poster of Jason stabbing a knife through the poster) made use of the feature along with Parasites  (1982) and a 3D version of Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. since the early 2000’s the 3D industry has grown with various titles getting a 3D movie, Saw and Final Destination being a couple of examples. Now, most blockbuster movies are getting a 3D release, with some being made with 3D in mind and some being post-processed into 3D.

I myself have never been a fan of 3D movies and while I admire the technical achievement of the medium, especially when you consider what it would have been like for audiences in the past. I find it adds nothing to the film other than having shots obviously made to take advantage of 3D with things flying towards the camera.

One much less successful attempt at movie immersion came in 1960 in the for of Smell-O-vision. Smell-O-vision saw a release in only one film, Scent of Mystery. The theater was filled with a range of 30 different smells. Smell-O-visions was a disaster with audiences complaining that the noises when the smells were released were distracting and the timing of the smells was not on time in various areas of the theater. It was canned and even rated on a list of 100 worst ideas.


It was a stinker (I’m sorry)


William Castle is a name you may have heard. if not he was a pioneer of sorts for the use of immersive gimmicks in films. while most of it was done to put people in seats it is still interesting to take a look at some of the lengths he went to create a new experience for the audience. I must preface this with a confession I have not actually seen any of his movies, so I can’t comment on their quality but as the gimmicks he used would have only been experienced by moviegoers of the time I feel I can talk about what he is recorded to have done. Castle was releasing movies at the same time as Hitchcock and engaged in a friendly rivalry with the famed director.

His first gimmick was thought up for his 1958 chiller Macabre. he took at a $1000 life insurance policy which was given out to each audience member in case they should die of fright from the movie and through word of mouth it gathered large audiences. He went on to create gimmicks for many of his films, for the 1959 film House on Haunted Hill a fake skeleton called Emergo was installed in theaters and would swoop down across the audience on wires. For The Tingler buzzers were installed in the seats of theatres showing the movie and when in the movie the parasite escapes into a movie theatre the buzzers were set off in an attempt to make the audience believe that the parasite had attached to them, this along with Vincent Price’s tingler_postervoice telling the audience to scream must have caused quite a reaction from the audience, in fact, one Philidelphia Trucker was so incensed by this that he tore his seat from the floor and threw it at the screen.
Castle had many other gimmicks in his resume, there was a ghost viewer for 13 Ghosts, a fright break in Homicidal where audiences could get their money back and leave if they didn’t want to continue and a rigged audience vote for the ending of Mr. Sardonicus which featured Castle himself, in fact in this movie Castle was so sure which ending the Audience would pick he never bothered to film the second ending and he never had to as they voted the way he predicted every time.


William Castle turns up in Mr. Sardonicus to count the vote


I am a much bigger fan of Castles ideas than of 3D, these gimmicks add a little extra to the movie goers experience an actual fright or feeling like they are impacting the outcome of the movie (even if it’s rigged). I don’t know how well these sorts of things would be received these days as modern movie goers seem to want to get in and get out of the movie, to sit and watch and then be done, but maybe it would be just different enough to pique some people’s interests although they would have to make some better than Emergo, that thing looked awful.


Emergo, he didn’t look great


. One movie that really stands out to me as bringing in aspects of audience emersion is The Ring . The video that the victims watch in the ring is also viewed by the audience. the legend of the movie says that if you see the video then you will be killed by Samara in seven days after a phone call telling you as such. The audience is, therefore, potentially part of the curse. I couldn’t tell you the number of people I knew who watched this movie then freaked out the next time the phone rang. This is audience immersion, the viewer takes the movie away with they are almost still living the movie, still living the fear, as they leave the theater or turn off the DVD.


Samara, no filter


Finally, I’m going to look at the more subtle aspects of audience emersion as well as the being up against the fourth wall (not breaking it)Fourth wall breaking, lots of people are doing it and I was debating whether to put it in the article. It has the potential to take you out of the movie, to sit you down and say “you are watching a movie!”. I raised this point to a friend, his take on breaking the fourth wall was that it removes the barrier of the screen, the theater now becomes part of the movie as you are being directly spoken to as if you were there.

I am in two minds about whether I like fourth wall breaking, I think if I lean more towards the Meta humor of movies like Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) where the audience is never directly addressed but the movie plays up the cliches and tropes of the American Slasher movie. This serves to allow the audience to be in on the jokes and immerse the audience.


So this has been a look at the use of some immersion techniques in the movie industry, some I like some I don’t but it is a very interesting aspect of the industry. I hope it’s been fun and that you may have learned something new. Thanks for reading as always why not leave a comment to tell me about a movie that fits some of these criteria or hit me up on twitter @MCMoovies and I will see you next time.

The Cow


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