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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!