A VHS Conversation

During our time in quarantine, Nick and I started organizing our stuff. Similar to a lot of people during this time, it was a way to clean and consolidate our apartment because we finally had the time. We decided to go through his incredible tape collection. I’ve loved VHS my whole life and had a small collection of my own with my trusty VCR/DVD combo when we first met. But Nicky has been a collector of VHS tapes for over 18 years, and we both have been adding steadily to the collection. While we sat on our living room floor and sorted through it all, I seized the opportunity to have a conversation with him about it. He told me about the reasons behind his fascination, the charm in analog culture, the ugly side of collecting, and what truly matters most.

Grace: Now that we see everything out, how many tapes do you think you have total?

Nick: Probably 300?

G: Yeah, I would say, maybe a little bit closer to four…

N: Yeah, over three.

G: When did you start collecting tapes?

N: I remember the first time I ever made a list of the ones I had, I was 19 years old. That was 18 years ago.

G: What made you start?

N: I started because they were cheap. Slowly they were getting faded out, and DVDs were getting more popular. That’s the only reason I started collecting tapes in the first place, there were all these movies I loved and it felt like they were all going extinct. That’s the short version.

G: Okay, what’s the long version?

N: The long version is that I loved the feeling of movie stores so much. The feeling of finding something on a shelf that felt like you were the only person in the universe that knew what it was. Back when movie stores existed, it was like you found some buried treasure that was just sitting there.

G: So, tell me about your desire for owning the “bad” movies that you collect.

N: I guess it’s not just bad movies, it’s kind of an umbrella term for ‘weird.’ I buy family home videos, weird instructional videos, cheap knockoff things, stock footage or police footage. Most of them would have never been released. Up until the last 10 years, they weren’t rereleasing any of this. The only way you could get it was by going to a movie store that was closing and for two bucks a piece you could clean up on all this stuff. You thought there was never going to be a way that you were going to see it ever again.

G: I guess there aren’t a lot of the movies that you have on tape that have been released on DVD.

N: Yeah, it’s like the small tape companies that released movies or instructional videos. There’s no way anyone’s going to re-release Country Line Dancing, or Nude Aerobics on DVD. So it’s almost just like collecting a dying species is what it felt like.

G: Like digging for fossils.

N: Yeah. I didn’t necessarily care that it’s on VHS, but it’s just the only way I could get it. For a long time, nobody cared. You would find the most insane weird stuff you’ve ever heard of for $1. Within the last 10 years the collector’s market started and it’s just kind of ruined it because it’s all about showing off that you have a stack of the rarest stuff. I just want to see this stuff. So in a way it’s dying for me too now. At least I have Monster Truck Bloopers III.

G: Being a tape collector in 2020 invites a niche audience it seems. It might get harder and harder to find certain things but some of the audience is what you’re talking about, the ones who want to brag about what they have instead of sharing weird stuff.

N: Yeah. It’s less of a love for movies, and more of a love for analog culture, which is cool. To me, the point is these are little pieces of history. Each one is a piece of somebody’s life, that’s what is interesting to me. Also, watching them in this way, feels like I did when I was 16 years old in the garage, freezing, seeing a snippet of somebody else’s life, and it was so incredibly weird. You can’t believe that you’re watching it, you know?

G: Yeah, I know what you mean. So, analog culture, explain that?

N: Well, I don’t know how to explain it without sounding like an old man.

G: Haha, that’s okay.

N: I’ll explain it and sound like an old man. A lot of young people missed out on this type of stuff and they’re trying to reclaim it, bring it back or be a part of it. I think a lot of people are excited about the fact that it’s just cool or like old or retro, which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with thinking that but the point isn’t that it’s just on VHS and looks like shit. To me, that’s not the point. The point is that it’s like the only way you can get it.

G: So it’s actually a piece of history is what you’re saying. It’s like someone’s work.

N: Yeah, that’s what is interesting to me because that’s someone’s life to them, maybe they were trying, you know? I’ll watch these movies and see these actors that suck, the boom-mic will fall into the frame, or bad editing, and I think that’s hilarious. Then I think, somebody made this, this is real. To me, it’s a personal thing. I don’t give a shit if I saw it on LaserDisc or DVD, it doesn’t matter, this is a piece of someone’s story, and I found it sitting there at a thrift store.

G: They went through it all to do something, and then put it out.

N: Yeah, and we can laugh at that and think, ‘this movie sucks’ or ‘this is the worst movie of all time,’ but at least they made a movie, you know? I haven’t made a movie.

G: What’s your favorite tape that you have, if you could pick just one?

N: If I had to pick only one?

G: Yeah, one that embodies everything that you’ve been talking about, like someone putting themselves on the line, going through this whole thing, doing their absolute best.

N: If I could only keep one, Things is the one. It would be that one because, okay, it’s terrible. It’s a complete failure if you’re looking at textbook, but you can tell it’s three people that are making a movie because they love movies. You can tell that they tried their best. It’s just so unique and cool. Getting to know the guy who made it has made me like it even more.

G: Have there been any bad side effects for you as a collector?

N: Oh yeah, for sure. It’s like a compulsion. Thinking that buying more stuff is going to make you feel good but then once you get it, you don’t feel any better about your life. It’s just a thing. I’ve learned a lot about what I want and don’t want out of life just by buying VHS tapes.

G: What has been the hardest thing that you’ve had to deal with or confront inside yourself as a collector?

N: It’s been hard to balance the feeling that I need something or why I even do it. Nothing in my life has ever been affected by the fact that I own hundreds of VHS. I’ve met friends through it, but you know, my personal life hasn’t really changed that much. So it’s been hard to learn why I do it and what it’s good for.

G: What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to deal with as a person?

N: Like, the hardest specific time of my life?

G: Yeah, the hardest thing you’ve ever gone through.

N: The hardest time of my life was three things all at the same time. A failing long term relationship along with my music career, and my mom having cancer. Wow, I never really thought about it like that. That’s a lot of stuff. No wonder I went nuts.

G: How did you respond to that?

N: Well, by trying to feel good any way I could, trying to get away from it. Smoking weed and continuing to work. Then dropping everything and moving to Idaho and spending six months not doing good.

G: You’ve mentioned to me before that collecting as a side-affect for people who are into history. Could you say more about what you mean by that?

N: With some collectors I think the thing they collect is just the mascot for the overall feeling that they are trying to regain or remember. The historical aspects of collecting is trying to feel a piece of history that’s gone and not forgetting it.

G: What are some challenges that you think the next generation will face in collecting old media?

N: I think about that a lot when I go to the thrift store. Stuff in the past 20 years hasn’t been made to last. I also think that people buy things differently now, stuff is meant to be bought every five years now. Nothing is held onto. The generations before The Boomers were more the type to not get rid of stuff and fix things.

G: Yeah, I think that’s true. Maintaining things isn’t part of everyday life as much as it used to be.

N: I think that’s going to change the way things go in the next 20 years when it comes to collecting old junk. I mean, a VHS tape sold in 1999 right now is essentially garbage to people. There’s no way people are going to be able to find it later.

G: Yeah, it might even come down to thrift stores changing quite a bit because the amount of stuff that’s going to last will be less and less.

N: In 10 years or so, there’s no way you’re going to go to the thrift store and see stuff that I have a hard time not buying, like old fake wood-grain clock radios and stuff from the 70s that reminds me of being a kid. I mean, it doesn’t matter, it’s not going to affect my life or anyone’s life, but it’s just changing. That’s why I think people buy and collect stuff anyway, is because things are changing and they want to remember.

G: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. I think that people collect things because they feel like a sense of compulsion to hang on to what they had before.

N: Yeah, and also comfort, because life is hard. You know, there’s this guy I see at my work, he comes in every day or every other day with his daughter to buy Hot Wheels cars. He repaints them and collects them. I just wonder what that guy’s life is like, you know. He’s a nice guy, we talk and stuff, but why does he do it? I don’t know. But I can’t blame him.

G: We talked about the hardest thing you went through in your life, what is something that you’re most grateful for?

N: That’s hard. I feel like I got lucky. I haven’t had a bad life or hard life. Not any more than the average person. I feel lucky that I got a good branch of my family tree. I feel lucky that my dreams from when I was a kid came true as in my life goals of wanting to be a touring musician and put out records. I feel lucky that when I thought it was all over, life got better.

G: You’ve been collecting tapes for a really long time. You were even in a tape collecting documentary.

N: Yeah, It’s called Adjust Your Tracking. You can see it on YouTube. It’s collectors and filmmakers talking about VHS.

G: Wasn’t there another movie you were involved with?

N: Yeah, there’s another movie called Hi-8, a Hi8 is a type of analog tape recording. There was a Facebook group for it. A lot of people that made pretty famous SOV films were in that group, and everyone would talk. It was super cool and positive. I posted on there and said, ‘with all the talent in this group, we should make an anthology movie,’ because everyone lived in different places, but had all made movies. Then Tim Ritter who made a bunch of movies was the first one to comment and it took off. The movie got made and released and reviewed in Fangoria Magazine. I had nothing to do with it other than that first post, so I’m not taking any credit, everyone else did it. One of the guys who was involved in it did an interview where he said, ‘I was sitting at home thinking about the old days and how we used to do stuff and blah, blah, blah, so I had this idea to make an anthology movie.’ He just took the whole credit. All the credit should go to the Facebook group of people that were working together, not just some piece of shit guy that thinks he’s cool because he made a really shitty low budget $1,000 movie in the 80s that no one cares about. It just offended me. There’s a lot of that mentality in collecting and collecting circles. But they’re are shitty people in everything, so it’s not really surprising.

G: You’ve talked with me about that before, the weird collector evil side. Explain more about what that is.

N: It’s like when you see someone wearing designer shoes at WinCo. No one gives a shit about your shoes, because it doesn’t matter. It’s the same thing in tape collecting. If you have the rarest or most sought after one that everyone wants, people just want to show off, fill a hole in their personality or self-esteem. They just want to be the one with the most. I just think that’s kind of gross. You show that you have Tales From the QuadeaD Zone on VHS and everyone’s supposed to act like you are a great and interesting person because you spent a bunch of money on it. Nobody cares. You know, at the end of the day, you may have 400 tapes and your mom may be going through cancer treatments, you know, and what is that going to do for you? I think you have to find your balance or else you’re just making your life worse. You’re letting the collection ruin your life.

G: Yeah, absolutely. I think that can be said for a lot of things. I want to talk more about Tales From the QuadeaD Zone but first, talk to me about SOV.

N: In the 80s when VHS got more affordable, and movie stores started opening up, there wasn’t a very big selection of tapes to rent, and shit was getting rented like crazy. VHS was a really cheap way that you could make movies. With home video cameras, there was no developing costs and editing was easier. Movie stores needed more tapes. People realized they could make a really bad movie, spend most of their budget on good box art, call the movie stores and sell it themselves. These movies would do well because some dumb-ass Megadeth fan stoner would rent a horror movie with someone getting eaten, like Cannibal Campout, and think that it was awesome and rented over and over again. It created this sub-genre of horror movies. People could make their own movie for 500 bucks and then get distribution to Blockbuster. It would do really well. These movies were sold in the backs of magazines, too. They were also considered pieces of shit, so nobody hung onto them. Then by 2008, they’re hard to find, collectors are starting to catch on, and everyone wants to see the weirdest shit they can. They go, ‘Okay, well, have you seen this? This is the weirdest move ever,’ and there’s like four copies in existence. That’s how, of course, all collector’s markets turn out.

G: That’s pretty cool. SOV stands for ‘Shot On Video’

N: Yeah, and it’s kind of like calling a type of music ‘Indie Rock.’ It sounds more vague than it really is. Shot On Video is a type of sub-genre.

G: Do you think that there are any SOV movies that people still don’t know about?

N: For sure. There are ones that people made that never got released that blogs like Bleeding Skull are putting out for the first time. There’s so much lost stuff like that. Now is the best time ever for being a collector if you just want to see cool rare stuff, because people are releasing stuff like that. A lot of people complain about how the old days are gone, of discovering something you feel like no one else in the world knows about. I complain about that too, but if you just want cool stuff, it’s all there now. We’re living in God’s computer, anything you want, you can have. Any TV show, any movie, any album.

G: This concept of finding something that no one else has found before, I think that that has been deeply rooted in humanity for a long time. Where’s the weirdest place that you have gone and how far you have gone to find something?

N: Like digging through moldy boxes in the basement of an old strip club? I’ve embarrassed myself sometimes looking for tapes. I’ve shown up places and asked for tapes, called all the old movies stores and they act like I’m crazy. Yeah the strip club, it was an abandoned strip club with a sign, a handmade sign that said, ‘Estate Sale.’ There was just a guy selling moldy boxes of old magazines and books. I’ve been in places before where I felt unsafe, like they were selling something illegal. There’s been a few places looking for tapes that I’ve ended up and felt uncomfortable. For sure. Where I didn’t know what else they were selling behind the scenes. If I get that feeling, no tapes worth that, you know.

G: Yeah, that’s crazy. What are the most sought-after rare tapes right now?

N: I’m sure that there is more now. In the past three years I quit being a part of that whole scene. I just separated myself. The one Holy Grail that I remember was that Tales From the QuadeaD Zone, it’s an anthology movie that was filmed in the 80s by this guy Chester Turner that’s like insanely weird and fun. That one I know, from Scarecrow Video, sold for $1,000.

G: Woah, a VHS tape?

N: Yeah, but that’s how collectors’ markets happen. I don’t know how much money people spend on stuff now, but it’s all about having the biggest gold chain or whatever. It just makes me sad. So my own collection makes me sad too in a way.

G: Talk about that a little bit more.

N: Unless you’re trying to get all of something, you’re never done. It’s really hard to not let it crush you. The second I get a tape I want, it doesn’t matter anymore. Essentially, I’ve quit buying them because it shouldn’t be about owning the thing. Some of them I bought I don’t even want to watch because I don’t want to hurt them. Well, what’s the point of that? Sometimes the collection just bums me out. I’m just carrying these things all around from apartment to apartment or from state to state. Every time I do it, I wonder why I’m taking it with me.

G: Yeah. It’s almost like a collection can veer pretty close to the edge of obsession. 

N: Oh, I’ve completely been there. Looking every day looking on Craigslist. Something will happen in my life that’s really rough or bad, and I’ll just buy as much as I can, you know, in ways that makes me feel better. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with a healthy distraction, because the reality of life is very bad. But it can get to the point where it’s like, you have to constantly be asking yourself why?

G: Yeah, and be willing to maybe let go of some too, I mean, you are doing that now.

N: Yeah, and its hard looking at all the ones I’m getting rid of, but I don’t need any of those, you know? In the past few years, after all that stuff went down, I’ve tried to focus on making stuff, writing music or collages. It just seems like a way better use of my life then spending $40 on some tape. 

G: And a lot of those tapes will not be able to work eventually. 

N: Yeah, they degrade in time.

G: For some of the tapes that you have, how long do you think it would take for them to get to that point?

N: I don’t know. The oldest tape that I have is my own family home video from Christmas 1984 and it looks good still. 

G: That’s good! So who knows?

N: I don’t care if they fade out. By the time they’re fading out, I’ll be fading out too. So I’ll go with them.


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