“Saving the Scream Queens”: Yale university just bought 3000 VHS tapes for their collection

By on August 24, 2015

We recently came across this rather astute, academic article (“Saving the Scream Queens: Why Yale University Library decided to preserve nearly 3,000 horror and exploitation movies on VHS”) in The Atlantic by David Gary, the Kaplanoff Librarian for American History at Yale University, and there’s so much good info about things we love here at Night Flight (psychotronic films, VHS tapes box art, etc.) that we’re sharing a few excerpts.

By the way, that trailer for Slumber Party Massacre above is NSFW for nudity!

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Here’s the gist: The Yale University Library, which has been around since 1718, has recently purchased a huge collection of VHS tapes to its collection with, according to Gary, titles like Naughty Roommates, Sorority Babes in the Dance-a-Thon of Death, and What the Swedish Butler Saw.

This recent addition of mostly horror and exploitation movies continues to expand a collection on the often-maligned VHS magnetic tape format, which the library hopes will allow researchers, in Gary’s words, “to explore the home-video revolution of the time, as well as the cultural mores and politics of the Reagan era they emerged in.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“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.”

Gary goes into considerable detail to outline how VHS “broke into the popular consciousness in the early ’80s,” and describes how “distribution companies like Wizard Video, Thriller Video, and Media Home Entertainment commissioned box art containing shocking, lurid, and gory imagery of sex and violence.”

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Another excerpt:

“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.”

TRICK OR TREAT, Gene Simmons, 1986. ©De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/courtesy Everett Collection

Gene Simmons in Trick or Treat

More:

“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.”

The 1986 horror film Trick or Treat probably deserves its own Night Flight post, but for now let’s just say that it’s one of our favorites, mainly because Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons of KISS both had minor parts (Ozzy is in the movie for just ninety seconds, though). It was directed by Charles Martin Smith, who first came to our attention for his role as “Toad” in George Lucas’s 1973 movie American Graffiti.

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Gary’s article goes on to describe how the “golden era of VHS ended when studios realized they could make more money from video than from theatrical releases.”

More:

“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.”

Be sure to read the entire piece, article (“Saving the Scream Queens: Why Yale University Library decided to preserve nearly 3,000 horror and exploitation movies on VHS”), it’s chock full of good info.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.