VHS horror history finds a home at Yale University

(PDF of original post at Rue Morgue Magazine on April 1, 2015 Rue Morgue | VHS horror history finds a home at Yale University)

 An archive of screams: a VHS horror movie collection has found a home at Yale University, courtesy of  Librarian David Gary and Ph.D. student Aaron Pratt, who started the collection to preserve VHS as cultural and historical artifacts. The 2,700-tape archive – which contains an unusually high number of horror films – is being digitized and the cover art is also being preserved, ensuring future generations won’t miss out on the medium we know and love.

From the Yale Daily News:

Roughly 2,700 VHS tapes featuring titles like “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” “Toxic Zombies” and “Buried Alive” arrived at Sterling Memorial Library last week.

Yale has become the first institution in the country to actively collect VHS tapes, thanks to the initiative of Kaplanoff Librarian for American History David Gary and Aaron Pratt GRD ’16. Although the collection, which arrived late last week, is wide-ranging, a large portion consists of horror-genre movies, and most of the movies are from the 1970s and 80s.

According to Gary, VHS is a complicated technology — there are issues of preservation, cataloging, copyright and access. To acquire the tapes, Gary had to convince other University librarians to be willing to put in the effort to maintain and catalogue the thousands of tapes. Because VHS degrades easily, many of the tapes will likely be digitized, though copyright laws may prove to be an obstacle.

“VHS has been a major film format in the last quarter of the 20th century, and no one is taking it seriously as a medium [in academia],” Pratt said. “We got to talking about why this gap in film exists and how we could remedy it.”

Although some may think of the VHS as obsolete, it was revolutionary at the time that it was introduced, Pratt said. He explained that the social dynamics surrounding movies changed as film entered the home in a more private setting. Films became more available to adolescents — including films their parents were not keen on them watching — which led to a new era in targeted marketing from the movie industry.

The creation of the VHS also led to an explosion of the low-budget film, which could make large profits off rentals but not in theaters, Pratt said. Horror movies, in particular, thrived in this format. Not feeling compelled to meet the expectations of blockbusters, directors were able to showcase their artistic and often “weird,” creativity, he added.

Pratt and Gary found the VHSs by searching online collector Facebook groups. After receiving a response on one of their posts, the 2,700 tapes were purchased from a single collector in Dayton, Ohio.

VHS, unlike older 35 mm film, is not yet seen as a historical relic or used in mass circulation like the DVD, Pratt said. But in recent years, nostalgia for the medium has created a huge fan market, Gary said. With Yale now at the forefront of VHS collecting, the University is poised to capitalize on the market before the tapes become too expensive and impossible to find, he added.

Pratt, who taught a section of English 115 — “Literature Seminars” — in spring 2014 called “Terror and Horror in the Literary Imagination” said he found many of his students incorporating online VHS graphics and cover text into their papers to talk about marketing of the horror genre. He added that all Yale students will be able to take advantage of the primary sources in the new collection, though they will not be able to check them out of the library because they are considered rare materials and will need to be viewed in Manuscripts and Archives. Gary added that history and American Studies majors may be especially keen on looking at movies from the Reagan era, a period that is currently a hot topic of study for many historians.

Film and Media Studies major Emily Murphy ’17, who first became interested in film after watching VHS tapes of the Lion King, said she was not surprised to hear about Yale’s acquisition of the VHS collection.

“Yale has been committed to purchasing really obscure-ish films on 35 mm and DVDs,” she said. “We should apply the same standard to VHS tapes. This commitment to finding media services that you can’t get in other forms is important.”

Gary declined to comment on how expensive the collection is, although he said the offer was “altruistic” and much less expensive than buying each tape off Craigslist.

VHS research assistant Travis Brady ’18 said he has found a new appreciation for the VHS while working with Pratt and Gary. Although he said he barely remembers growing up with VHS tapes, he has found it rewarding to look through the piles of VHS boxes, many of which have “really cheesy” graphics and titles.

Gary added that it will take time to process all of the VHS material, and it may take a year until they are available for academic use by Yale affiliates. He added that, in the future, he hopes to find a donor or make a fellowship to continue the VHS collection.

The first VCR to use VHS was produced in 1976.

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