Interview: Josh Schafer Talks VHS Tapes, Culture

Be kind. Rewind.

Like a lot of folks, I've been on something of a VHS-era nostalgia kick of late. I've enjoyed blogging about the horror-section video boxes that frightened me as a child, as well as the sci-fi boxes that inspired me. Plus, 2013 releases like the "Blood Dragon" video game and Boards of Canada's "Tomorrow's Harvest" only added more fuel to the fire.

So in order to explore the VHS era a little more, I chatted with Lunchmeat VHS magazine editor-in-chief Josh Schafer about tape collectors and the cultural power of the technology we were all so quick to forget in the rise of the digital era. In addition to Lunchmeat (which boasts an incredible video nasty crossword puzzle), he's also co-producing the documentary film "Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector." Josh is waist deep in this stuff, so his involvement spills over into everything from "Chuck Norris VS Communism" and the VHS pillow. Now let's get to the interview...

So Josh, for the uninnitated out there, explain to us why VHS matters.

VHS matters because it's historical, and it preserves so much information. The introduction of the format was a veritable revolution in home entertainment, and it completely changed the way people watched movies. It laid the groundwork for all home entertainment to follow. And beyond the historical merit, the VHS tape is the only way you're going to get a chance to view so many flicks: horror, sci-fi, comedies, documentaries, weird cartoons, adult fare... there is an innumerable amount of material that's only available on VHS. For all of these weird, obscure and esoteric entertainments, VHS is their savior.

Do you see VHS culture as kind of a precursor to Internet culture?

In the way that it allowed people to access all kinds of information and view things they never could have seen otherwise, I think there's a correlation there for sure. I think the culture that existed in the video boom of the 80s was crazed, hungry and in some cases, insatiable. People became addicted to renting and buying home videos, and it pretty much consumed the bulk of their free time. I think there is a spooky connection with that and the internet, too, haha, but it was obviously on a smaller scale and of a different essence. Still kinda spooky, though. Ha!

So just how did the underground VHS movement in Romania help topple communism, as discussed in the documentary "Chuck Norris VS Communism?"

I think by watching these bootlegged tapes, it gave this oppressed body of people a sense of freedom, a sense of escape: two things that were very scarce in their time and place. I think being able to do something, or be a part of something, that was in some way combating a harsh regime, even something as small as watching an outlawed movie, gave the people that mindset of "Yeah... that's right. I'm doing what I want, and you can do nothing to stop me." That small slice of independence and freedom, multiplied by how many people were participating, I think that created a power, a force that helped break those chains beset upon them.

Were you always such a VHS enthusiast or did nostalgia draw you back in from the DVD age?

Always. I mean, VHS is the format I grew up with, and I've just never navigated away from it. I just never saw any reason to. I still have all the VHS tapes from when I was a little videovore! I've always picked up tapes at yard sales, flea markets, etc. They were a cheap way to build my film library, and VHS always brought me some of the weirdest stuff ever. I've always loved it for that reason. And, of course, nostalgia is a huge part of it. It reminds me of being young, of a simpler time, I guess. When everything wasn't so overwhelming all the time, haha.

Which tapes in your collection do you prize the most?

The ones from my childhood. The home movies and me and my family that are tucked away in my parent's basement. If I lost those, I don't know what I'd do. For the more "collectable tapes", my big box of "Microwave Massacre" on Midnight Video. It was the first big box I ever purchased. I grabbed it from a video store that was selling off all their tapes, and I got it for a buck. It was (and still is) so cool aesthetically, and the movie so awesomely bad. It pretty much launched my conscious collecting. Also, my copy of "Mother's Day." I got it from a dollar store and watched it over and over again, with friends, etc. I found that flick for the first time on VHS, and it's since become my favorite horror flick. There's a lot of personal history with that tape, so I have a tremendous affection for it.

Some of the new releases from companies like The Video Pharmacy, Horror Boobs, Massacre Video... those dudes are all my buddies and they're making amazing pieces of art. Sure, they're VHS tapes and they're essentially putting out movies on what a lot of people call a "dead format", but there's a lot of passion, energy and thought that go into these releases. Because of the relationships I have with the people that made them and the importance they carry in the current culture, those tapes mean a lot to me. I know that one day I'll be able to look at these tapes and remember all the awesome times we had doing what we love.

What's the holy grail for the modern VHS collector?

I really think it's different for every collector. Some people go for ultra-rare big boxes, some for mexi-sleaze clamshell releases, or some go for stuff that they remember from their childhood. There was this whole (very interesting) debacle about someone paying $13,000 for an original MEDA release of "Halloween," but it turned out to be some sort of sham. That whole story is on my blog, and will go into print in a future issue at some point; but the whole thing started because this guy really wanted this tape because he had it when he was a kid. I think a lot of people just go for tapes that make them happy. Like I say with LUNCHMEAT, VHS is Happiness.

There are tapes out there that nearly every collector is hungry for, but because nearly everyone wants it, the prices are insane. That's something I just can't get with. For me, collecting is all about the thrill of the hunt. You can go out and set your sights on something, and miraculously find it for like a dollar, and then you get this rush of jubilation that's hard to compare to anything else. But, for me, the most amazing thing , the essence of it all, is going out and finding something you never knew existed, taking it home and enjoying the hell out of it.

That's why I love VHS: No matter how deep you dig, there's always going to be something weirder out there, just waiting to be fed to your VCR.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.