Many of the VHS movies in the basement of Sterling Memorial Library are gory, scary, creepy, lurid and — in the view of the librarian who bought them — not even all that good.
It’s hard to imagine, in fact, that with names like “Devilfish,” “Black Devil Doll from Hell,” “Driller Killer,” “Make Them Die Slowly,” “Slumber Party Massacre,” and “Microwave Massacre,” these movies are actually a highly prized new asset in the library collection.
But David Gary, the Kaplanoff Librarian for American History, believes that the nearly 3,000 horror and exploitation movies on VHS that he purchased earlier this year are gems in their own right, and would continue to be even if the VHS tapes stopped working.
“In and of themselves, these movies have value just as cultural and historical artifacts,” says Gary. “The box covers alone are wonderful. A lot of these are low-budget movies that are not that great, and to sell them, you needed really good cover art. That’s what drew people in, and often what pushed them off the shelf for a teenager to rent.”
This year, Yale became the first university to actively collect VHS horror and exploitation tapes from the early period of VHS (approximately 1978 to 1985). One of the reasons that Gary became interested in having them in the Sterling Library’s collection is because “no one else does.”
“There is a lot of academic value to these tapes, both in terms of their physicality and for what they may tell us about our own history or culture,” the librarian says. “You can tell the entire history of the 1980s through these movies in a certain way. Some of our cultural anxieties or fears are reflected in a serious way in some of these films.”
For example, Gary points to a movie called “Class of 1984,” about a naïve, newly arrived teacher who envisions himself turning around the lives of his students. Instead, he finds himself confronting serious juvenile delinquency and drug abuse during the “War on Drugs” era.
Another movie, “Toxic Zombies,” written and directed by 1972 Yale Law School graduate Charles McCrann, depicts the government spraying chemicals on the farms of marijuana-growing hippies, turning them into zombies.
“This is not a movie that you might sit down to watch and say ‘This is great,’” says Gary. “But it speaks to the post-Nixon fear of government overreach as well as to concerns about the environment.”
Sometimes, in fact, issues of the day were explored with more candor in these low-budget films than they would be in a Hollywood blockbuster, Gary notes. “Hollywood film producers don’t want to offend anybody, because they have to recoup the millions and millions of dollars that have been spent on the film,” he explains.
How it came about: Gary, who earned his doctorate in American history at City University of New York and is a specialist on the history of the book and 18th- and 19th-century politics, had not watched too many horror films growing up, and originally had no particular interest in the genre. Then graduate student Aaron Pratt ’16, who shares an interest in the history of the book, invited Gary to a home movie night.
“After talking to Aaron [a VHS aficionado], I was blown away by how much weird stuff is out there, and saw there was a whole culture I never thought about,” says the librarian. “In my library work in history and American studies, I have a lot of student requests for audio-visual material, and I began to see that there is a gap that we could fill here.”
He and Pratt put out queries to collectors on Facebook and, a couple of months later, heard from a man in Dayton, Ohio who was interested in selling his large collection — which now makes up the bulk of the VHS tapes Gary has acquired for the library.
“He is a guy who grew up watching, enjoying, and collecting these movies, and his collection met our requirements of being in good condition and in their original boxes, which also had to be in good condition,” Gary says.
Scholars to come: Gary and Pratt see their interest in VHS as an extension of their interest in the history of the book: Like the table of contents and a preface and text, the VHS movies have trailers and previews, and cover blurbs and art.
Gary says that students and scholars could explore diverse topics through the collection, including teenage culture, the culture of video, the history of advertising, the distribution of VHS during its heyday, and even the analysis of the VHS tape stock used by different companies.
“Part of the reason I collected these films was in order to answer questions that I can’t even imagine right now,” Gary says. “The videos are really very valuable cultural tools that you can use to write really important academic works on a whole range of topics. We have a lot of people now writing about the emerging field of video studies, where they study the history and culture of video, and we can now be an important resource for information. So while the content is important, I think in the future we’re also going to want to understand the materiality of the VHS.”
A new way of seeing: VHS movies, Gary points out, revolutionized the way that people could experience films — making it possible for the first time to have total control over what was viewed and when.
In the same way that audiotapes and then CDs became a more popular format than vinyl records, DVDs have now replaced VHS in format. However, just as some people prefer the quality of vinyl records, some prefer VHS over DVD.
Many of the horror and exploitation films that Gary purchased now sit in basement boxes as they await processing and, eventually, digitizing. In the meantime, Gary has been offering the campus community a chance to see some of the films during public screenings. His series of horror movie screenings shown in VHS format, “Zombies, Maniacs, and Monsters,” began last month and will continue through the spring. The next showing, “Invasion of the Bee Girls” (1973) will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 17, at 8 p.m. in Bass Library, 110 Wall St.
In May 2016, Sterling Library will host the conference “Terror on Tape: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Horror on Home Video,” organized by Gary, which will mark the opening of the VHS collection to the public. The event will include talks by scholars from Yale and beyond. Once the collection is processed, students and scholars will be allowed to view films in the collection in the Manuscripts & Archives Department.
“The conference is our chance to say, ‘Hey world, this collection is available to you! We want to make a big splash in an academic setting, and to show folks at Yale and beyond that these films aren’t just weird pieces of culture, they are actually very valuable cultural tools,” says Gary.
Guts and gore: Since purchasing the collection, Gary says he has watched about 200 horror movies, and has become a fan of the genre himself. Some of his favorites include the slasher “Pieces,” the revenge movie “Ms. 45” and the shot-on-video classic “Night Vision,” which features a demon-possessed VHS tape as part of the plot.
Gary says his theories on why people enjoy horror films are just wild guesses, but he’d like to be able to fulfill the needs of those who wish to study the genre.
“There is a lot of cultural anxiety that we all try to grapple with, and all sorts of things we deal with in our personal lives,” the librarian says. “These movies, I think, are a way to deal with that or work our issues or conflicts out in a safe space in our home. While some people say horror movies are bloody, gory, and crazy, in some ways maybe that’s the attraction: We are all just dealing with the demons inside of us, and maybe these movies offer a way to manage that.”