Pathologist Doctor Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) discovers that the spine-tingle accompanying fear is due to the growth of a creature inside every human being that he calls a Tingler. It curls up around our spine, feeds on fear, and grows more powerful every time its host is afraid, and can in the end crush the host’s spine. The only thing that can relieve the effect is to scream.
The Doctor becomes quite obsessed. He fires a blank cartridge at his cheating wife Isabelle (Patricia Cutts) to scare her sufficiently to X-ray the Tingler in her body. He takes LSD to scare himself sufficiently to find the Tingler inside himself.
Movie theater owner Oliver Higgins (Philip Coolidge), who shows silent films, is Doctor Chapin’s friend. His wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn) is a deaf-mute and cannot scream. Some weird events take place in her room and she dies of fright. In the autopsy, Chapin removes the centipede-like Tingler from her body. He brings it home and his wife drugs him and tries to kill him with it, but his daughter Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) comes home and her screams save him.
It turns out that Higgins killed his wife. Knowing that she could not scream, he arranged for the fake supernatural events in her room. The Tingler breaks out of its confinement and is released in Higgins’ theater. It grabs a woman’s leg and will not let go until she screams. Doctor Chapin takes control. He shuts off the lights and tells everyone to scream. Afterwards, they capture the Tingler in the projection room. Chapin believes that the only way to neutralize the Tingler is to reinsert it in Martha’s body. After he leaves, Higgins is alone in the room. The door slams shut and the window closes just as happened when Martha died. He is so terrified he cannot scream. The screen fades and the audience hears Vincent Price’s voice: “Ladies and gentlemen...if any of you are not convinced that you have a Tingler of your own, the next time you are frightened, do not scream.”
The film was produced and directed by William Castle. This was the third of five films written by Robb White. It received mixed reviews but became a sensation and is now a cult film. White was inspired by an encounter with a centipede in the Virgin Islands. He had also experimented with LSD at UCLA and put it in the script, the first time the drug appeared in a major motion picture. The LSD trip causes Doctor Chapin to scream. The terrified mute woman was probably inspired by The Spiral Staircase (1946). The red blood on the black-and-white screen was created by inserting a clip of colored film in which everything in the room but the red blood was actually black and white, the bit spliced in by hand.
Some seats in the theater were wired to give the patrons a sensation like an electric shock at certain moments. Producer William Castle, famous for his gimmicks, began the film with a warning (stealing the idea from Universal’s Frankenstein) telling the audience that they can reduce the tingling sensation by screaming. The buzzers in the seats were surplus wing-de-icing motors left over from World War II. They added a quarter million dollars to the movie’s budget but were apparently money well spent. Sometimes a woman planted in the theater fainted and was taken out on a stretcher. Nurses were in the lobby for this purpose. The lights would go out and the chilling voice of Vincent Price said, “Scream for your life! The Tingler is loose in the theater!” At which point, the projectionist triggered the wired seats.
There was an alternate version for drive-ins in which patrons were warned that the Tingler was loose in the drive-in, though I doubt if they were able to buzz people in their car-seats. Darryl Hickman at five-foot-ten had to wear lifts in scenes with six-foot-four Vincent Price. The Tingler’s design was actually based on Peripatus Onychophora. Castle claimed that he buzzed twenty million bums. The movie had a special place among the 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies List in the Official Razzies Movie Guide. There is a story, possibly true though one cannot be sure with a Castle film, that a theater installed with Tingler buzzers accidentally buzzed the audience during a showing of The Nun’s Story.