Saving the Scream Queens

Why Yale University Library decided to preserve nearly 3,000 horror and exploitation movies on VHS

Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

Yale University Library has long been familiar with controversy, even several centuries before it decided to make thousands of VHS tapes with titles like Naughty Roommates, Sorority Babes in the Dance-a-Thon of Death, and What the Swedish Butler Saw part of its collection. The library’s origins date back to 1718, when, after much cantankerous debate over the school’s prospective location, New Haven beat out two rival towns in its bid to host the institution. During the transfer of the school’s books to their new home by wagon train, the residents of Saybrook, Yale’s former home, expressed their frustrations by attacking the train and stealing nearly 250 volumes.

Almost 300 years later, another shipment of material arrived in New Haven: 2,700 VHS tapes from the 1970s and ’80s, making Yale the only U.S. institution that deliberately collects these horror and exploitation movies in magnetic tape format. While these movies obviously aren’t equivalent to the work of Francis Bacon or Isaac Newton, they do carry their own cultural weight, and will hopefully allow researchers to explore the home-video revolution of the time, as well as the cultural mores and politics of the Reagan era they emerged in.

VHS is a maligned medium. Libraries are rapidly culling it from their collections, a project in Ontario, Canada, wants to recycle the province’s 2.26 billion tapes, and the rise of digital streaming has made it mostly irrelevant to the general public. It’s often described as obsolete, even by those charged with preserving America’s cultural heritage. One reason Yale bought this video collection was to preserve rare titles—it’s been estimated that about 40 to 45 percent of content distributed on VHS never made its way into any subsequent digital format. But the primary focus of this collection effort was the physical nature of the medium and the cultures it changed and created.

While not as convenient as a digital format, the physical qualities of VHS offer much more than the 0s and 1s carried on an electron stream directly to televisions. Much like a book’s physical features (paper, binding, dust jackets, the bite of the metal type into the page), and the seemingly secondary aspects of the text (the preface, acknowledgement page, table of contents, index), VHS tapes have tangible qualities that have defined the medium’s uniqueness and its legacy.

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When VHS broke into the popular consciousness in the early ’80s, the demand for it was immediate. To set tapes apart and guarantee profitability, distribution companies like Wizard Video, Thriller Video, and Media Home Entertainment commissioned box art containing shocking, lurid, and gory imagery of sex and violence. Big boxes were quickly introduced, adding several inches of real estate to the original slip covers in order to entice viewers. Not to mention the gimmicky boxes introduced by companies like Imperial Entertainment, who created 3-D molded covers that also featured light and sound effects.

David Gary

Beyond grabby images, boxes offered blurbs (“Written, directed, and produced by women, SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE will scare you right down to the core”) and witty tag lines (Nail Gun Massacre: “It’s Cheaper Than A Chainsaw!”). The first and last few feet of tape often carried trailers that helped viewers place the movie in a particular genre and learn about other titles they might be interested in. These trailers, which could be quite long and involved, offer evidence of how distribution companies were figuring out the best way to communicate with audiences.

Today, a variety of video content is readily available via YouTube, streaming services, and BitTorrent downloads, but in the late ’70s and ’80s, the idea that someone could control what they watched was revolutionary. Studios tightly managed their content and essentially charged for every viewing. The VCR, however, tapped into a popular desire to consume culture at will. In response to huge demand, distribution companies dug deep into their inventories to fill shelves in rental stores, and amateur moviemakers emerged to satisfy the market. “Shot on video” movies like Sledgehammer, Video Violence, and Blood Cult could be produced on low budgets with relative ease thanks to camcorder technology, and could still find shelf space next to Hollywood blockbusters. Like the steam presses that produced the dime novels and yellow journalism of the late-19th century, videotape allowed a popular culture to emerge.

The cheap print of the 19th century required its own distribution networks, including small stands on railway platforms, traveling salesmen who crossed the nation, and retail shops. Similarly, so-called mom-and-pop video stores emerged in the early 1980s to fill a distribution need, as Daniel Herbert explains in his new book, Videoland. With tapes costing a staggering $60-$100 in the early ’80s, the average person couldn’t build a personal video library. Instead people paid a flat membership fee to join a store and spend a few dollars every week to rent a tape. This meant choosing wisely, and often chatting with the clerk for advice or picking up a tape with engaging box art. A large contingent of young people who loved movies became nodes in a social network that brought the local community into the video store out of economic necessity. In this way, the video-rental store brought some movies back to life by creating new audiences for them—a novel phenomenon that contributed to the creation of some “cult classics.” Box art, recommendations, and repeat viewing of tapes offered audiences the ability to judge movies under new circumstances, allowing theatrical flops like The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, and Clue to eventually take off.

David Gary

The movies in the Yale collection offer scholars of the Reagan era a window into the culture of the period. Class of 1984, a Canadian film about a music teacher at a troubled high school, mirrors some of the anxieties of the time (notably juvenile delinquency and drug use), while other movies go to even greater extremes to examine the age. Deathdream, Cannibal Apocalypse, and Combat Shock appeared on VHS during the ’80s, and comment on the tortured minds of returning Vietnam War veterans, who lash out at a society that’s seemingly forgotten them.

Conservative concern over the decay of family values, which in many respects sparked the Republican Party’s resurgence from the 1960s through the 1980s, led to a number of movies addressing such fears, including Trick or Treat and Black Roses. In both, visiting musicians take over the minds of teenagers through subliminal messages. These works reveal the unsettled feelings many white, Christian, suburban parents had as they witnessed a punk-infused nihilistic attitude catch on amid the youth of the time. Trick or Treat blatantly mocks this reaction by casting Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne in bit parts and satirizing the 1985 Tipper Gore-inspired Senate hearings where Frank Zappa and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister defended their music against their straight-laced critics.

Similar struggles with morality are present in the “shot-on-video” classic Black Devil Doll From Hell, one of the rare horror-exploitation movies written, directed, and produced by an African American, Chester N. Turner. In Black Devil Doll, a sexually repressed Christian woman purchases a doll that comes to life, rapes her, and leaves her with carnal desires she had never previously imagined.

Beyond the downfall of the individual in the face of sudden change, the low-rent slasher film City in Panic depicts what some felt to be the crumbling of society’s moral core. Originally titled The AIDS Murders, City in Panic was released on VHS by Trans World Entertainment in the midst of the HIV epidemic in 1986. The movie depicts the brutal killing of gay men—who are eventually revealed to be on a list of AIDS patients—during sexual acts. The picture uses the AIDS crisis as a cheap plot device, ignoring the complexities of the disease as it struck many American communities. It reflects the religious right’s fear at that time of the seemingly impulsive sexuality of outsider groups.

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In addition to exposing the cultural anxieties and preoccupations of their time, the items in Yale’s VHS collection tell the story of a particularly significant gap between the old Hollywood model of the ’50s and ’60s and the corporate mergers of the ’80s that created today’s modern media behemoths. In the era of video tapes, independent producers and distributors could reach a mass audience using cheap technology and local stores, both of which lowered the profit threshold for moviemakers.

The golden era of VHS ended when studios realized they could make more money from video than from theatrical releases. By 1987, revenues from home video eclipsed theatrical receipts, and after that they grew wildly. Studios used the newfound financial stability video gave them to consolidate the industry and push out the independent producers, distributors, and rental shops. Blockbuster Video’s tagline, “Wow! What a Difference,” captured the transformation. No longer would there be dingy, poorly lit shops offering offbeat movies and pornography; instead there were bright, clean, and inoffensive stores suitable for everyone in the family. The video culture of the 1980s, driven in large part by horror and exploitation films, was a victim of its own success.

David Gary

Video stores continued to exist in a more anodyne form, but with the rise of the DVD in the late ’90s, the independently distributed tapes and their brash packaging were discarded. Luckily, there were a number of die-hard collectors eager to preserve their legacy. In two recent documentaries, Adjust Your Tracking and Rewind This!, amateur preservationists discuss how they kept tapes in order for future generations to have their own discussions about the material.

VHS collecting follows an arc that can be seen in other attempts to preserve items of wide cultural significance. Initially, vast popularity leads to mass circulation, followed by a general decline in interest, and then an upswing spearheaded by nostalgic adults who experienced the emergence of the trend in their formative years. This is often followed by academic interest, and marks the point where archivists, curators, and librarians start looking for new collections.

Both Harvard and Cornell Universities capitalized on this approach when they founded their respective hip-hop archives. Similarly, in 2010, New York University acquired its Riot Grrrl Collection, which documents the rise of underground feminist punk in the early 1990s. The Library of Congress’s modification of copyright deposit rules in 2006 is another example of riding the nostalgia wave. Now the library acquires physical copies of games instead of just a printed copy of part of the coding and a video example of the final product. Yale acquired its VHS collection under the same philosophy of providing a home for material that was once ubiquitous, but has since lost respect.

No doubt, the value of this collection will be challenged by some, including those who believe that viewing celluloid film on a large screen in a dark theater is the “right” way to watch movies. The notion that film, as the original format of many motion pictures, is superior to videotape is an entrenched belief. But critics and scholars who compare film to lower-quality VHS tapes don’t take into account the cultural impact of home video.

This is changing, with a new generation of scholarship like Joshua Greenberg’s From Betamax to Blockbuster (2008), Caetlin Benson-Allott's Killer Tapes and Shattered Screens (2013), and Michael Z. Newman's Video Revolutions (2014). Yale gathered its collection of early VHS, in part, to support this emerging trend. While the early-18th-century trustees of the university feared the change new materials could bring, the understanding now is that all forms of art—however  trashy or out-of-date—offer valuable insight into the cultures they came from.