10 Reasons Horror Fans Miss Video Stores

Gwendolyn Kiste

Call me a Luddite, but I harbor inherent suspicion toward all technology. Yes, I’m an online writer and I take full advantage of the wonders that computer tech afford us. However, there are some things we’ve surrendered, all for the sake of convenience. Video stores are one of those vanquished victims. You might think the end of rentals as we knew them was no big deal, but as a result of this paradigm shift, our beloved genre might have lost a little bit of sparkle (and not the nasty Twilight kind either).

So here are ten reasons every horror fan should miss video stores. While you’re at it, consider breaking that VCR out of cold storage; just don’t forget to clean the head first. (That always sounded so dirty.)

10. Having a surplus of video store jobs

If you’re at least thirty-years-old, the chances are either you or one of your pals did the obligatory stint in a video store. My childhood friend Luke was the chosen one in our group, and the rest of us took full advantage of his vocation. Rentals abounded at every party. The pay might not have always been great, but a video store job was like the original geek chic.

But it wasn’t all entry-level associates at big chains like Blockbuster. There were so-called mom-and-pop video stores too. My hometown favorites were Valley Video and Questors. These independently owned businesses employed people from the community and injected money into the neighborhood’s economy. Even some of the well-known chains were probably franchised, so video stores made quite an impact on the local level. And though I don’t want my horror editorial to turn into a PSA for job creation, the loss of video stores was more than just upgrading technology. It affected people on a broad monetary scale. While you can fairly argue that streaming and downloading movies help put celluloid-driven food on the table somewhere, can you determine exactly who’s profiting? Because it was easy to know who benefited when you walked into their establishment and they suggested the latest Friday the 13th installment. And as my former video hound pal and I recently commiserated, that quintessential video store scene in Scream won’t mean anything to younger audiences. Quite a shame when it once reflected the shared inner monologue of horror fans with an almost voyeuristic accuracy.
Scream Video Store

9. Getting advice from those video store employees

“Have you seen this one? Yeah? Any good?”

For more than two decades, this line of dialogue served as the unofficial video store script. Customers came to trust certain employees’ movie advice, and plenty of video store workers were eager to rhapsodize about their new favorite picks. Now you might counter that these days, you just garner the same recommendations from your friends. But realize that by virtue of being your pals, these individuals already share some commonality with you. Hence, the movies they’d recommend will pretty much be the same ones you’d already seek out. The fun in asking the denizen of your friendly neighborhood video store was the possibility of seeing something you would never have selected on your own. Sometimes, that went sour (screw you, Session 9); other times, it proved transcendent (I heart Nightbreed). In any case, these employees helped to broaden your horror horizons, and in this era of the post-mortem video store, you’ll never get to seek their guidance again.
Closed Blockbuster

8. Sharing horror camaraderie with fellow customers

But it wasn’t all about the employees. There was something about seeing other people in the horror section with you. Even if you never exchanged a word, it was like you were both members of a covert club where selecting a certain movie was the secret decoder ring. When someone would pick your favorite title—that one VHS that practically lived at your house—you’d feel a slight thrill knowing that person was about to fall in love with a certain machete or chainsaw or silver spikey sphere. If you’d hear someone talking smack about your favorite slasher flick, you might scowl at them, and at that moment, see someone else conveying the same reaction. Or maybe you’d warn someone that Part XXII of a certain series wasn’t the best and suggest a superior installment instead.

Though we’ve lost much of this interaction, we still seek out the same solidarity. One of the reasons I love writing for Horror-Movies.ca is the camaraderie this site fosters among fans of the genre. Still, it would be nice to keep the horror websites without discarding something else in the process.
Blockbuster Sign Overgrowth

7. Procuring fans from nearby genres

Remember what it felt like when you accidentally strayed into the adjacent section? Like, “Ew, what’s When Harry Met Sally doing in the horror—oh, sorry. I wandered too far to the left and ended up in the comedies.” It worked the other way too. Somebody with narrower tastes searched for a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan rom-com and ended up befuddled that April Fool’s Day is not a meet-cute Spring love story.

Now this wayward horror-weary customer might sneer (or scream) and scurry back to the appropriate section. In that case, you could watch and laugh. However, every once in awhile, you might see an unwitting fellow patron suddenly notice a title that proved perfectly captivating. With surreptitious care, this individual would creep deeper into the horror recesses and examine the film in detail. Study the cover. Read the synopsis. You could stand back and watch as he or she took the treasured discovery up to the counter, possibly sheepish about the selection. If you were privy to the entire scene, you just witnessed the birth of a horror fan. Netflix’s “suggestion” feature can’t compare.
April Fools Day Poster

6. Enjoying the in-store promotional gimmicks

Back when so many video stores existed that there was full-fledged competition, each location had to vie for customers. Enter all those variant posters, cardboard pop-ups and even sweepstakes promotions for an appearance in the next installment in the series. You know, the old school sweepstakes where you’d tear off an entry form and mail it in? You actually had to write with a pen or pencil (!), and nothing on the sheet would auto-fill. Can you imagine such archaic days?

In researching video store promos (and yes, I relentlessly research every single article I write, lest I forget some finite detail), I uncovered everything from a baby bib promoting The Kindred to a cloth calendar for 1987 that added extra emphasis for every Friday the 13th (there were apparently three that year). Video store promos were huge niche businesses in the eighties, nineties, and even into the early aughties. Perhaps my favorite was Frankenhooker’s “Talking Box”. Press the button and the darling reanimated monster would inquire, “Wanna date?” Silly to the max, these little touches went a long way in making the movie browsing experience a truly fun occasion. Flash forward to today and Redbox’s biggest gimmick is a sale code. Utilitarian certainly, but the Don Drapers of horror promotions are not impressed.
Blockbuster Window Closed

5. Feeling like you were checking out something naughty

The link between horror and sex is an enduring, if not dubious, one. That’s why many of the video stores that featured a, um, curtained section positioned their forbidden area right next to the horror titles. It’s as though they were saying, “Like that stuff? Then you’ve got to see this!” But for those of us who were too young during the video craze to broach that curtain, there was plenty to titillate on the so-called decent side of the blind. I always think of The Slumber Party Massacre cover as one of the most blatant in the horror-sex department. You could tell instantly what that film was about: raw terror and female coeds in various states of undress. Whether you took a copy of the film home or just gawked at it in the store, the VHS era’s uncompromising sexuality became all too apparent.

However, even if video stores had persevered, the internet destroyed any tenuous mystique of perusing the naughty. In the new millennium, soft-core pornography is practically the white bread of the online community. You’re liable to uncover random nudity on an innocent Google search. Thus, to paraphrase my favorite F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, our count of tantalizing objects has diminished by one.
Slumber Party Massacre

4. Discovering a movie you’d never seen (or heard of)

This is probably the most practical reason to miss video stores. Gone are the days of stumbling across the weathered case of some odd movie you’d never seen. Oh, but I can hear the scream-at-your-computer argument now: we have more choices with streaming than any little boxy video store could ever hold! And that’s true. You can peruse lists on streaming sites that go on for thousands upon thousands of titles. However, there was something about seeing the physical VHS (or DVD) in the store. If you’ve never heard of a certain movie you find online, you might mindlessly scroll past it, but when you’re standing in front of the in-the-cardboard-flesh film, you probably felt more inclined to read the synopsis on the back or examine the image on the cover. Plus, in the video store days, we were a little less jaded to indie films. Nowadays, the deluge of micro-budget projects has inoculated some of us even to considering a heretofore unknown title. Choice is great, but even with the endless variety we’ve got at the flick of our carpal tunnel-ridden wrists, decades past might have made us more adventurous.
Derelict Blockbuster

3. Letting certain titles psych you out

When I was a kid, I was totally terrified of Julian Sands. Why? Because he stared at me from the cover of Warlock. Shifty-eyed and off-centered, that man-witch was one scary display for a five-year-old. Such was the power of a trip to the video store. And even if you love computer tech with a fervent passion, you’ll never get the same effect from some JPG or GIF on Amazon or Netflix. Virtual pixels lack the punch of something with eyes that will follow you up and down the horror aisle.

Even among former Blockbuster devotees, however, this silent psych-out might have been more for your kid brother or sister’s crowd. But among millennials, plenty of us remember the name of the movie that scared us most in the video store. Maybe you avoided that rack in the horror section wholeheartedly. Maybe you went straight to the creepy VHS in question and proved to yourself that you could stare it down. Either way, that’s a memory the next generation will never have.
Warlock Cropped

2. Admiring the box art

Like vinyl, superb movie covers have become something of a lost art form. While every film to hit theaters—and computers—still sports some kind of poster design, it doesn’t take a devoted art major to realize the latest incarnations lack the mastery of their predecessors. I loved the tactile sensation of picking up a movie box and squinting at the colorful and sometimes bloody details hidden therein. Under the yellowed cast of fluorescent lights, I feared what waited inside The Fly’s glowing green telepod, and I wanted to apprehend the Dream Warriors before Freddy’s leering face devoured them.

In the heyday of video stores, even catchphrases seemed to mean more. I remember the Night of the Demons mantra almost by heart: “Angela is having a party, Jason and Freddy are too scared to come…. But you’ll have a hell of a time.” At seven or eight, I used to read those twenty-one words over and over again like I was performing a spell to neutralize their power. If you were a video store regular, you’d inadvertently memorize every detail of the box art, and you’d know when a case moved to make room for new stock. These images imprinted on your psyche, something very few posters of the last decade can claim. Yet one more thing we lost without even realizing it.
Night of the Demons

1. Experiencing a rush just standing in the horror section

For those of you who never frequented the video store circuit, this number one reason must sound bizarre. Why feel a rush just walking into some business that reeked of musty cardboard? Honestly, it doesn’t make sense. It can’t be quantified. It can’t even entirely be explained. But for us horror fans who loved the genre back before Blockbuster went bankrupt, it’s an inexplicable feeling we share, albeit wistfully now. Save for Family Video where the purveyors are fighting the good fight (and thus far winning—the chain is still expanding), we’ve relinquished something we can never retrieve. And while convenience is nice, nostalgia is better.

Looking back now at my childhood, I realize I grew up in the hallowed aisles of the video store. Thus, in a way, all my hopes and fears intertwined somewhere between An American Werewolf in London and Zombi 2. Even if that era is irretrievably over, I’m glad I got to experience it. Some of you never did.

Do you miss video stores? Think they’re way too vintage? Let me know in the comments below!


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      1. bob101010 June 7, 2014 at 4:33 pm

        Stores I grew up with always categorized movies on alphabetical order (family video, blockbuster, Hollywood video, and a few mom n pop stores). So I can’t relate to a lot of these.

        I use Redbox for newer horror movies that I really want to see and Netflix for older ones or ones that I have low expectations for (which sometimes are the best).

      2. Caffeinated Joe June 7, 2014 at 9:29 pm

        Sad now that I took them for granted. Loved all of what you wrote here and it struck home. I remember one box that had some movie about two sisters, I think. Thought it was taboo and strange and always avoided it. When I was about 19 I think I finally rented it and was nervous the whole time. Don’t get situations like that scrolling through Netflix!

        Great post!

      3. Fido June 7, 2014 at 9:50 pm

        Everything you said here was spot on. The browsing and subsequent discovery is something that is now missing that high streets are shrinking. :( Can we go back 20-30 years?

      4. pizzainacup June 8, 2014 at 1:26 pm

        Of these, the one that pertains to me is the box art. Who can forget the original box art for the A Nightmare On Elm Street films parts one through five? Hence, it bothers me when they do new cover art for Horror films from The Eighties on Ble-ray. Those in marketing will seldom recapture the nostalgia.

        Personally, I miss the VHS format. Not to mention, I miss film soundtracks on audio cassettes too. There’s almost no reason to go out and purchase stuff anymore because you can simply download the films and the music that you like to watch and listen to. That’s what I truly miss… I mean, the same thing can be said about video games.

      5. Sunshine June 8, 2014 at 2:39 pm

        You forgot the section about all the “Wonderful Fees.” I have great memories of standing in the horror section at my blockbuster as a kid, but I don’t prefer it over the technology I have today.

      6. Mieleoffski June 9, 2014 at 12:28 pm

        Do I miss the old video stores? Are you kidding? I miss them just about every week! Walking into the store, it felt special, you felt special, the air was different in there. Standing around, waiting for someone to make a comment about some movie or other & then, we’d all join in. (I lived in a small town). There is nothing about our slick technology in 2014 that can ever replace the magic of standing in those aisles, staring at those VHS boxes.

      7. jerichajade June 10, 2014 at 1:43 am

        I do miss it. I would walk up and down the aisles trying to find the right movie for the weekend. Could have spent hours if mom hadn’t grown impatient with me. I miss the thrill of walking into my movie world and knowing a new chill was waiting to go down my spine.

      8. Jonathan Morken June 10, 2014 at 8:31 am

        Another reason to miss the video store is that for small indie distributors this was a main revenue source. If a chain or a bunch on Mom-N-Pop video stores bought just one or two copies of your release per store, you could sell tens of thousand of units on a one-way sale (no returns). This was a sound business model and got a lot of little weird movies in front of a lot of people. Now you have Redbox, which only has maybe 100 titles at a time, not a lot of room for small horror titles. Look back at your old video store, it probably had 100’s of horror titles alone. Digital sales are starting to catch up, but they’ve got a long way to go. I’ve been in the distribution business for nearly a decade and lately I’ve seen many labels go under. Here’s hoping for “what’s old in new again!”

        – Jonathan
        Apprehensive Films

      9. Idle Primate June 28, 2014 at 12:18 pm

        somehow, getting up and going out to a videostore to select a movie, made it more of an event too, in ways that scrolling and clicking just can’t touch.

        I do wonder, however, to what degree, our memories of the videostore are also age of discovery/coming of age memories that are so poignant. In twenty years will 35 year olds reminisce about sitting with friends and scrolling through netflix and finding unknown films, or films they weren’t old enough to see in theatre, or cruising review sites looking for new finds or hints about obscure titles.

        Either way, I really miss videostores. I also miss when it seemed so much easier and simpler to get together with buddies on a friday night, stock up on junkfood and rent a bunch of videos for a late night.

        Incidentally, I really missed videostores when i didn’t have the internet for nearly two years. That was actually how I realised the videostore had truly died. I no longer had access to any movies. without cable or internet, there were simply no other options

      10. Idle Primate June 28, 2014 at 12:23 pm

        Also, (and i wanted to separate my nostalgia comment from my little rant)I feel every item on this list except for #2, box/poster art. One of the grand laughs we used to have, especially for horror films was how really superb artwork could bamboozle you into renting the worst badly acted, low budget, no effects, filmed in pitch black dreck. I am no longer so patient, and I find the bait and switch of cover art has hit whole new levels with beautiful and creepy artwork adorning truly awful microbudget movies, i.e. films that aren’t even made by professionals who have proven to someone with money that they can actually make a film. In the old days, some of those groaners became classic bad movies that were fun to revisit. This new generation of bad are things you are angry you were fooled into getting, stuff you turn off less than halfway through.

        In horror, like no other genre, there is such a mountain of garbage–and I don’t mean so bad it’s good, or cheesy fun, or quaint rubber monsters. I mean movies that make those bygone bottom of the barrel films seem like oscar winners. Movies that make porn dialogue and delivery look good. movies shot on a camcorder, or iphone that just take place in someone’s home with 5 pensive people worrying about something that never happens, or happens offscreen between scenes but we have to listen to exposition on to pretend someone actually made a movie. This garbage has jaded me to anything that doesn’t display a recognised actor or director or demonstrate that it had some actual budget–like even a million bucks.

        These are movies with no content or value, but quick buck scams by people who can make a great “poster” and write an intriguing sounding 50 word blurb. These are movies made by non-movie people who got high and realised they had a digital camera and thought that’s all it takes. And the “posters” or “box art” are better than ever

      11. DK September 3, 2014 at 9:30 pm

        Reasons #4 (discovery), #8 (shared camaraderie), and #9 (chatting wtih the employees) resonate with me.

        Reason #10 if only because so many technological, political, and economic changes over the last 20 years seem to have left so few jobs in their wake – including the kinds of jobs that teenagers “traditionally” used to get.

        Reason #2 (box art) rings true as well. I really miss record stores for the same reason. One used to be able to browse trippy album cover art for hours. CDs brought about a smaller scale but also millions of re-releases that previously would have been hard to find. Now one can’t really browse either except for used book and media stores.

      12. Becca May 20, 2016 at 10:40 pm

        Number four is the big reason I miss rental stores. Now I have to try and get that same rush from “previously owned” stores like 2nd and Charles and Tradesmart (those are the local ones for me).

        This article took me on a trip down memory lane, long before I actually got into horror. There was a local video rental store somewhere in my hometown of Las Vegas that looked much like any other video rental store. However, what really set it apart (and what has stuck with me through the years) was their horror section. The horror section was actually something like an alcove or a separate room with only three walls. You had to walk up two steps that were rickety wooden steps that creaked underneath your feet; the kind that you might find on the patio to some house in a swamp or bayou. The horror section had shelves of horror movies lining the three existing walls and one “island” shelving unit down the middle. Clips of horror movies (appropriate parts, without too much blood and gore because this room wasn’t completely closed off from the rest of the store) played on a TV hanging in the corner. Creepy music like you’d hear at Halloween was playing over speakers in the room. Spiderwebs covered the ceiling. There were also a few cardboard cutouts of some of the popular horror figures lurking in the corners. And, unless I’m mistaken, I’m pretty sure there were fog machines pumping out fog along the wooden floor. Doesn’t that sound like the coolest horror section ever? I remember the thrill I would get as I snuck up there, making sure my mother didn’t see me. Oh, memories…