The Yale University library has acquired a collection of about 2,700 VHS tapes – mostly horror and exploitation films.
The tapes are part of a new archive – the first of its kind at an academic institution – that preserves VHS tapes not only for the movies on them, but also for their boxes’ artwork and copy, the trailers at the beginning and other release-specific content.
The archive is the brainchild of Aaron Pratt, a Ph.D. student at Yale, and David Gary, a Yale librarian.
Pratt and Gary tell Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson about what inspired them to collect the VHS tapes and why they’re important cultural and historical artifacts.
On the significance of VHS
David: “When you’re talking about early VHS from 1978 to 1985, we’re talking about movies costing $80 to $90 when those VHS tapes first came out. So it was very difficult for average people to just go out in the street and buy VHS. So it created this whole video store culture, and there was a huge demand for this. This was the first time that you could actually watch movies in the home.”
Aaron: “…VHS was a technology that made it possible for a lot of movies to get made that wouldn’t have been made otherwise.”
David on the role of a VHS archive in academics
“This was the first time that you could actually watch movies in the home.”
“So, Aaron and I are both historians of the book… so we care about the book as a physical object through time and we can easily make the argument that VHS is just another extension of that. What we really care about with this collection is looking at VHS as a material object, as a piece of material culture… so, when you have a book you talk about the table of contents, the acknowledgment page, the preface that sort of leads you into the text and helps you understand it. The same sort of thing is going on here with VHS. You have trailers and previews, you have labels, you have blurbs and you have this really excellent box art.”
Aaron on why they are focusing on horror films
“One of the kinds of films that have traditionally had difficulty accessing traditional exhibitions venues like the movie theaters are genre movies. On the one hand they were cheap to make and so they could often fill a theater… but horror was one of the genres, along with action and, of course, something like pornography, were some of the first types of movies to really take advantage of the affordances of VHS. If you could make a movie without ever having to plan to do a theatrical distribution, which would involve printing large numbers of 35 millimeter prints, having a marketing campaign that would target the radio or the TV, without all of that, it would be much easier to get movies into the hands of the consumer and it seems as though horror movies and action movies were some of the first to take this up.”
- David Gary, Kaplanoff Librarian for American History at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. He tweets @davidjgary.
- Aaron Pratt, Ph.D. candidate in English at Yale University and VHS aficionado. He tweets @aarontpratt.