Dr Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) is a pathologist who regularly conducts autopsies on executed prisoners at the State prison. He has a theory that fear is the result of a creature that lives at the base of the spine inside all of us. His theory is that the creature – which Chapin has called “the Tingler” – is rendered harmless by our ability to scream when fear strikes us.
Chapin has a home laboratory – paid for by his unfaithful alcoholic wife, Isabel (Patricia Cutts) – where he and his young apprentice, David (Darryl Hickman) conduct experiments on fear in living things. Chapin needs human subjects, however, as the cats David kidnaps from alleys aren’t cutting it anymore.
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 – further proof he is on the right track.
Using LSD to induce nightmares, he begins to experiment on himself but gives in to an almighty scream and thwarts the Tingler.
He gets the perfect chance to fully test his theory when he meets Ollie (Philip Coolidge) and Martha Higgins (Judith Evelyn), who own and operate a cinema that screens silent movies. Martha is deaf and mute and as she is physically unable to scream, extreme fear should make the Tingler grow to reach its fullest physical manifestation within her.
To create the footage of the bright red blood flowing (in a black and white film) a bathroom set was built in shades of black and white so when filmed on colour film it would appear as though it had been shot on black and white stock. The colour footage had to be manually spliced into the black and white release prints.
The film was marketed in some cinemas in the US using a gimmick called “Percepto”, whereby buzzers hidden in some of the cinema seats vibrated as the voice of Vincent Price advised the audience, “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.”
Dr Warren Chapin
Oliver ‘Ollie’ Higgins
Mrs Martha Ryerson Higgins
Isabel Stevens Chapin