Collector Communities & the Magnetism of Obsolete Media
The rush. There’s a rush you get when you’re rifling through boxes and crates of VHS tapes hoping to stumble upon that rare gem you’ve been looking for since high school. These boxes seem to always have a similar scent, that faintly familiar smell of a basement closet or a relative’s apartment (and that relative is always a heavy smoker.) The hunt is something I know all too well about. Since middle school I’ve obsessed over horror films and have spent (and continue to spend) hours researching, hunting for, and collecting movies on a variety of (mainly now obsolete) formats: laserdisc, betamax, VHS, and more recently DVD and blu-ray. (I also have some Video 8s tucked away.)
In my seventeen years of collecting I’ve come to realize that certain movie genres have greater appeal than others with respect to those diehard collectors: horror, exploitation, sci-fi, action and kung, and the more vague drive-in style trash/cult genres typically from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
Like many others, I wax nostalgic about being a wide-eyed kid in our local rental store (American Video) browsing the horror aisles. (Certain VHS covers are permanently burned into my brain.) Indeed, it seems as though even within a relatively small subculture of collectors there exist distinct subgroups who favor or specialize in specific areas from genre to case style (clamshell vs. slipcase, for example).
Below are some favorite hard-to-find tapes from my VHS collection. (Top, left to right: NUKIE (1987); GANJASAURUS REX (1987); WHEEZY! (asthmatic dragon video for kids, date unknown); THE BRAIN (1988, Greek version). Bottom, left to right: SLITHIS (1978, aka SPAWN OF THE SLITHIS); TREMORS (1990, screening tape with alt slipcase); TO CATCH A YETI (1995).
In her 2014 article for The A.V. Club,”Direct From Video: The Rise of the VHS Collector“, Katie Rife talks about some of the quirky particulars we collectors often experience when she says,
These fetishists fall into two broadly defined camps: the nostalgists, who are looking to relive childhood memories, and the aesthetes, who are drawn to the roughhewn beauty of low-budget horror. Both, like any group of collectors, err on the completist side—collecting every title from long- defunct distributors like Unicorn Video and Midnight Video is a common goal—and live to unearth hard-to-find or undiscovered videos that will make fellow hobbyists seethe with jealousy.
But regardless of your collecting preference, one needs outlets and venues in which to share, trade, buy, sell, collect, and get educated. Today, with so many subculture communities meeting and exchanging information via the Internet, finding these kinds of opportunities to meet fellow collectors in the physical world has become rarer and rarer.
Thankfully, however, there are people like Joe Fay at the Lyric Hall theater in New Haven, CT, who recognize that there’s not only a lingering interest in the VHS format but also a need for events and opportunities for collectors to come together to share knowledge and search for that long lost copy of something strange, or bizarre, or maybe even beautiful. So, when I learned about a VHS swap meet and screening event, Magnetic Fest, happening at the historic Lyric Hall theater (once home to regional vaudeville shows and variety acts) this past fall, I made sure I was there. After the event NEMMC caught up with Joe to talk tapes, Lyric Hall, and the increasingly fascinating world of VHS collecting.
NEMMC: How and when did the idea for Magnetic Fest originate?
Joe Fay: As soon as I started programming for Lyric Hall in October 2014, I wanted to host a VHS swap at the theater. It’s a grand old dame of a place, really a one-of-a-kind setting for watching movies, music, theater, dance, and other creative arts. But I really thought that a VHS swap and screening day would work well in the theater, to mix some old with some older, in terms of the age of the theater compared to the age of the VHS format. Somehow it made sense, to roll in what is essentially a dead format to many people, and give it new life at a place that has survived for over a century. I had attended VHS swaps in Texas, where I lived for most of my life.
Then, last year, a friend and I drove to Pennsylvania to attend SEVERED, pretty much the premier VHS swap in the country. I think it was about two weeks after SEVERED that we had MAGNETIC FEST on the schedule.
NEMMC: There were some special events scheduled throughout the Fest. Can you tell us about whom you asked to curate these events and why they were asked?
JF: We had three screenings during the festival: RUN COYOTE RUN (1987), NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR (1985), and FRANKENSTEIN (I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER’S EYES) (1983). As it turns out, all three came about as the result of friendly relationships I had built with each of the releasing companies. The first movie, RUN COYOTE RUN, was distributed by Bleeding Skull Video (distributed by Mondo) in Austin, Texas, and I’m friends with one of the two guys who runs Bleeding Skull.
NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR was distributed by Vinegar Syndrome, based in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut. I had met some of the fine folks who run Vinegar Syndrome at Connecticut HorrorFest, then worked with them at Lyric Hall on some screenings, including the amazing RAW FORCE (1982)!
They’ve been amazing partners, and hopefully we’ll continue to see the partnership between Vinegar Syndrome and Lyric Hall blossom. The third film was released through LUNCHMEAT Magazine, whose owner, Josh Schafer is just the best we have going in the world of VHS. Josh is one of a handful of people who truly lives the life of VHS, and he’s a wonderful champion of the format. When I was trying to fill out the screening schedule for Magnetic Fest, I needed a third screening. I actually announced the festival without a third screening. I billed it as “COMING SOON” or something like that, and was confident that I would find somebody to screen something in the meantime.
No more than fifteen minutes after I posted the initial rundown of Magnetic Fest, Josh contacted me to see if I wanted to run a movie as a SECRET SCREENING because the movie was about to be released on VHS as a surprise offering, and it was too early to announce the title of the movie. I jumped at the chance to show the movie, and of course did so sight-unseen. If it was good enough for Lunchmeat, it was good enough for me. We were able to tell people a day or two before the festival, and it turns out that the movie, FRANKENSTEIN (I SWEAR ON MY MOTHER’S EYES) had its world theatrical premiere at Magnetic Fest in little ole New Haven. Subsequently, the movie was released on VHS by Lunchmeat.
NEMMC: How did you solicit vendor involvement for Magnetic Fest? Who were some of the vendors that participated?
JF: Vendor involvement was all solicited through the Lyric Hall website and social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter. I personally emailed several prominent VHS collectors in the New York area, but not one of them was able to come. The lion’s share of vendors were local, which pleased me to no end.
We had one vendor from Massachusetts and a late entry from Long Island, but the rest of the vendors, including me, were from the New Haven area. Interestingly, one of the vendors from the New Haven area just happened to come to one of our weekly exploitation movie screenings, and saw the poster for the event in our lobby. Turns out she worked for CBS Fox video in the ’80s, and she brought original production pieces and other marketing materials from RAISING ARIZONA.
NEMMC: What (if any) sort of feedback did you receive about the Fest?
JF: I’ve heard nothing but positive reviews about the event. If we do it again, I will tweak the amount of time we keep the vendor’s room open, because I think seven hours was too long. Also, we’re toying with the idea of opening the vendor’s room for free, and charging for the screenings. But, we’ll play around with it if we decide to do it again. I’m assured that everybody who came had something good to say about the affair, so keep an eye on the Lyric Hall calendar.
NEMMC: Lyric Hall is clearly a historic space and therefore a fitting venue for those interested in VHS and obsolete media to congregate. In the past it served as a vaudeville outlet and silent movie auditorium for those in the New Haven, CT area. Can you tell us about the history of Lyric Hall and how you became involved with it?
JF: Lyric Hall opened as a silent movie theater in 1913, and later served the vaudeville crowds until, I think, the ’30s. At some point, the theater fell into disrepair, then served as an antiques shop for awhile before John Cavaliere bought it about eleven years ago now. John has lovingly restored the Hall to its present glory, and continues to tweak its look and feel.
My involvement with Lyric Hall started with THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL in August 2014. I had just moved to New Haven from Texas, and was looking for a movie theater to get involved with, to do some, any kind of programming. I saw a listing for a screening of THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL that I had just missed that previous weekend at the Hall. I called up and talked to John, explaining that I wanted to schedule and host movie screenings, something that I had done in my backyard in Texas, and always wanted to do in a more formal way. From the start, we were a match made in heaven. He pretty much left me free to schedule whatever I wanted. We did a month of Vincent Price movies
around Halloween, a month of rock musicals of the ’70s, a special screening of the New Haven movie DEATH COLLECTOR with the director, Tom Garrett, LIVE in person, and a bunch of other cool movies. Magnetic Fest was a logical extension of the movie programming, and fit alongside it just perfectly.
NEMMC: There seems to be a small yet passionate subculture of VHS enthusiasts who live and breathe collecting and trading. In your opinion, why do you think interest in the format has persisted well after its heyday?
JF: It’s one part nostalgia, one part preservation, one part community, and two parts fun. Nostalgia: most people who collect VHS want to remember the thrill of the video store. Preservation: there are hundreds, even thousands of movies on VHS that have not graduated to later formats, so it is absolutely vital that we have collectors out there sourcing and preserving these movies. Community: serious genre movie nerds feel very comfortable with their own kind. It’s just like any other subculture, where people find meaning, identification, and self-worth in knowing that there are like-minded people out there pursuing the same “dead” technology that they love.
I don’t think this current trend for VHS will last long. In fact, it’s already on the decline, if you ask me. What will be left is what is always left after a trend goes away: the truly serious collectors. And thank God for them.
NEMMC: Jumping off the last question, what do you think are the primary drivers for VHS collectors? It’s certainly not for the superior visual quality!
JF: See above for most of the answer here, but the question of quality is a good one. I don’t understand people who, given the choice between a high definition, widescreen version of ALIEN or the pan-and-scan VHS of ALIEN will pop in the VHS of ALIEN. I don’t get that. Have you SEEN the blu-ray of ALIEN!? It’s AMAZING! To watch ALIEN on VHS today seems to me to be nostalgia just for nostalgia’s sake, and that doesn’t interest me. In the recent Noah Baumbach movie, WHILE WE’RE YOUNG, there’s a scene where a Brooklyn hipster played by Adam Driver pops in a tape of THE HOWLING. This character is really into vinyl, VHS, and other retro stuff, and so naturally he enjoys THE HOWLING on VHS. But why? Shout Factory just released an amazing blu-ray of THE HOWLING, and it’s GORGEOUS! Yet, this chump still finds value in watching this great movie on VHS. To each his own, I guess, but that’s not for me. Give me the better picture quality and sound, and leave nostalgia at the door for movies like ALIEN and THE HOWLING.
Now, I would think differently about watching something like NIGHT VISION (1987) on VHS. The movie itself was SHOT ON VIDEO, so it’s natural to watch it on its original format. As my friend Zack Carlson is fond of saying, “Why would you want to watch a movie shot on a camcorder, on blu-ray?” And he’s absolutely right.
There is also one other issue to me that helps me forgive people watching sweeping epics on VHS, and that concerns access to and availability of titles on home video. Many, many people have built large collections of movies on VHS $1 at a time by shopping at Goodwill and other thrift stores where VHS is cheap. You can certainly amass movies much faster this way than buying blu-rays at $20 or $25 each. And that is certainly understandable as a way to enjoy movies on home video. You just have to stop caring about presentation, which isn’t such a big deal to most people, sadly.
NEMMC: Are you a VHS collector yourself or do you merely admire from a distance?
JF: Yes, I am certainly a collector of a sort.I’ve always had some sort of video collection, going back to my dad buying two VCRs and dubbing movies in the ’80s. Just because ofmy age, I started collecting movies mainly when DVD hit, so most of my collection is composed of DVD.
I was one of those format snobs who left VHS behind for the greener pastures and correct aspect ratios of DVD. I wish I had tempered that transition more. At the present time, my focus on VHS collecting lies in two main areas: shot-on-video movies and movies not available in any other format. In that direction lies salvation.