The Horrifying World of VHS Collectors
In an era of digital downloads, streaming and blu-ray, most of the video content we as consumers’ process is digital. The so-called ‘information age’ has borne dozens of streaming oligarchs disguised as ‘entertainment companies’ — look no further than video service behemoths such as Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu — where thousands of hours of digital content can be streamed at the click of a ‘subscription’ button. Despite this phenomenon, Jacob Waite discovers a hidden network of video tape enthusiasts, hidden within the echo chamber of social media…
Netflix had more than 44 million international subscribers at the end of 2016. In spite of the digital streaming surge, there does seem to be somewhat of a revolution in the way some consumers value to the traditional platforms of our forefathers. For example, the heavily publicised ‘vinyl revival’, or the evolution of the cassette tape. These rebirths signify cultural movements in an era of digital. In 2015, there were whispers of a VHS comeback, but those whispers turned to what dictionary.com defines as shout: 1. noun ‘a loud cry expressing a strong emotion or calling attention’. As such, while trawling the endless void of my Facebook news feed, I stumbled across a network of VHS collectors, disguised in closed group communities, nevertheless passionate about the artistry of the dusty, old video home system.
I decided to investigate further, and after a quick peruse of the internet, I discovered certain video tapes were so highly sought-after among collectors, that they are now worth thousands. In 2017, one VHS fan built an ‘80s-inspired video rental store in his basement.
By means of SurveyMonkey, an online survey development website, I put the so-called ‘VHS revival’ theory to the test. Quite simply, I asked 40 of my Facebook friends whether they had watched VHS tapes during their lifetime — almost all respondents (97.50%) said yes, while a solitary person (2.50%) said no.
I also questioned whether they currently watch, or own VHS tapes — 17 of my friends (42.50%) said yes, to while a large percentage (57.50%) said no. In addition, I asked if VHS tapes were to become as accessible as other video formats. For example, DVD, digital downloads, or blu-ray, would my friends watch them, 27 (67.50%) said yes, whereas the other 13 (32.50%) disagreed.
While I understand that a percentage of my online friends are unaccountable for an accurate representation of the universal world-view of VHS tapes, and Facebook is often considered somewhat of an echo-chamber, the survey certainly raised some unanswered questions.
“I have about 3,000 VHS tapes in my personal collection and about that many doubles and other tapes, which I pick up at thrift shops, garage sales, and flea markets for trading or selling… I grew up watching movies and there is something natural and comforting about watching VHS tapes, even with the audio and video imperfections. I have always felt that the diminished quality adds something to the viewing experience. I will always personally prefer watching a movie from that video store era on VHS,” says Joshua Olmsted, a VHS tape collector from Rockford, Illinois.
The video tape enthusiast assures me that he once had a ‘modest’ video collection but gradually began buying more and more tapes while attending college in Portland, Oregon. His local video store at the time, Video Underground, announced its abrupt closure with their entire collection of tapes up for grabs, recalls Joshua.
“I literally jumped off the bus and ran inside to see what was still available and the horror and cult sections were untouched. I bought over 100 tapes that day and many are still in my collection. There are some really great tapes like Cannibal Hookers (1987), Nekromantik (1987), and so many others for $5 each…that motivated me to start actively looking for tapes and the rest, as they say, is history.”
As a serial VHS tape collector, he expresses his desire to accumulate the highly-sought after Imperial Entertainment foil cover ninja video tapes and complete his ongoing Mogul Communications catalogue, which includes rare ‘offshoots’ such as All American and Mega.
Despite Joshua’s ongoing search taking over six years, he swears that he is ‘only missing a handful of tapes’ which will eventually complete his more-than impressive video collection. “Honestly, there are still so many tapes that I would love to own but you must pick your battles. Otherwise, it becomes a more of a horde instead of a collection.”
In addition to building his ever-expanding video collection, Joshua is member of several Facebook groups focused on the art of sharing, selling, and preserving video tape culture. “I think it’s an extension of the video store atmosphere, modified for the digital, Facebook age. Many of us who collect [tapes] remember video stores fondly and miss that interaction of talking to employees about movie recommendations and what’s new, or worth watching. The Facebook groups serve that purpose for me and I almost daily see a tape I’ve never seen before and immediately add it to my want list.”
Arex Dickey, a self-confessed VHS enthusiast from Joplin, Missouri, tells me that members of Facebook groups often collect video tapes for a myriad of ‘different reasons’.
“Many people collect for nostalgia, some [collectors] search for things not released on any other format, or for aesthetic reasons, while others are strictly after rare and hard to find tapes. There are still a few independent companies releasing things on tape but that is mainly for conventions, or are very limited in quantity. So long as these ridiculous things are out, there are going to be collectors, for sure.”
On top of collecting video tapes, Arex is an administrator of the ‘VHS MISFITS ~ IRON FIST VHS BLISS’, one of the most popular Facebook groups dedicated to video tape culture, boasting almost 5,000 members.
“I wasn’t added into the admin roster until a few months after the group started to gain a little bit of steam in terms of popularity, I just want to make sure the group is the number one best VHS collector group out there.”
The notorious group, which does not operate with a traditional hierarchical structure, is often referred by its administrators as a ‘VCR Tape Collective’. Arex tells me the reason for this is the communities’ turbulent history.
“The group was re-branded from a previously existing group called ‘VHS SICKNESS’, which existed solely as a parody of another VHS group. The original Misfits was ruined by over-policing admins who would outright block people who they did not like, or those associated with people they did not like. The group started out in opposition, which slowly and surprisingly became much more than just another parody group. Enough so, the original Misfits group shut its doors and was deleted,” he adds.
While investigating the underground community of VHS tape enthusiasts and collectors, which congregate in closed groups, I began to see a common theme among its members, by in large, many of them shared a devout interest for the film genre, horror.
“Personally, I consider horror to be the most popular form of genre film. For those who collect through the mean of nostalgia, horror films and the cover art associated with VHS tapes is what we remember vividly about old video rental stores. At least for me, horror was taboo when I was a kid, it is attractive and thrilling. It is by far not my favourite form of exploitation now though. Horror is the best gateway drug into the deeper world of obscure cinema and VHS / BETA is a very handy format to have around still to help with that,” Arex informs me.
Joshua agrees, stating his interest for the genre is a result of its ‘forbidden fruit’ aspect.
“I vividly remember asking my parents to let me rent movies like Rawhead Rex (1986) and Seven Doors of Death (1944) but they weren’t having it. I think the ability to own those tapes now that I am an adult brings me back to those times, and 12-year-old me would be amazed at all the crazy movies which I now own. There is also a large part of the collecting community that goes after ninja, obscure, creepy kids’, or adult tapes, etcetera… so it varies from person-to-person.”
Kyle Graham, a fellow tape collector, is the founder of ‘Planet VHS Horror’, a closed dedicated to preserving, sharing and selling VHS / VCR horror tapes and memorabilia.
“I created the planet because I wanted a group where collectors, new and old, could come and share and build their collection. The most important part for me, in creating the group, was having a place where new collectors could feel comfortable to come and ask questions and learn about the hobby. I wanted to be a helping hand in popularising the hobby. I want Planet VHS Horror! to be a starting ground for people who may have overlooked VHS, or just think it looks cool. The more we build up the hobby, the more it will grow.”
Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, Kyle had a simple ‘top loading’ VCR, which he bought from a garage sale for $1 in 1996. The first VHS tape he owned was Halloween (1978), which he watched at the age of 8–9 years old. It was this film, he recollects, which fuelled his hobby of ‘horror tape collecting’.
“Horror is by far the most collectable genre among VHS collectors, for two reasons. The first, is there are so many [VHS tapes] that aren’t available on any other format. That is a huge reason for collecting these tapes [because] it feels like we are preserving art. We must make sure it’s not going to be forgotten. It still shocks me that so many tapes aren’t available on newer formats. The second reason is the cover art. [VHS tape] covers are amazing, even if the movie was downright awful, the cover art is what pulls you in. The film distribution companies sure knew what they were doing when they made these unbelievable covers.”
‘Planet VHS Horror!’ was created so collectors have a digital community where they can ‘discuss, share, buy, sell and trade’ their ‘favourite things on the planet’, which of course, are VHS tapes, he assures me. The closed Facebook group currently has nearly 4,000 members.
As the founder, he thinks the growing popularity of the group is because of its purpose as an ‘escape’ for all of us who ‘love nostalgia’. Kyle also has faith in the platform, assuring VHS tapes are a thing not of the past, but of our future, which will gradually become more and more accessible.
“I believe that tapes will continue to grow and become more popular because there are still so many VHS that aren’t on DVD or blu-ray. If there are movies that aren’t on any other format, there will always be a market for them. I expect the format to continue to blow up. No doubt about it.”
Kyle’s optimism for the platform is something which, during our conversation, remains unfettered. He tells me that despite the last videocassette recorder (VCR) produced in Japan was last year, he hopes that a fellow collector will one day create a homage to VHS / VCR, in particular the artwork, by opening a ‘museum filled with horror cover sleeves’.
And for all its faults, during this exhibition of the somewhat admirable and equally horrifying world of video tape connoisseurs. It is the humble video home system which has brought together thousands like-minded individuals who share a passion for preserving its gritty visual quality and its artistry. And while we may never understand it, or stand firmly with the naysayers, it is these underground subcultures which connect this generation with its forefathers. After all, a world without VHS is a world without archives.
I am a non-for-profit freelance writer and journalist who enjoys writing words about the subcultures surrounding retro platforms. If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment, share on social media, or on Medium — where you can also follow me, or my instagram account @waiteski, figuratively, of course.