The Horror

without VHS tapes and HBO, my childhood would have been a lot less traumatic

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Ian Kloster

For a moment, allow yourself to consider the noble VHS tape – the bygone ruler of home entertainment. The black plastic exterior of this rectangular icon has housed a collective eon of visual delight in the form of major motion pictures and the occasional Billy Blanks Tae Bo workout series. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, VHS tapes delivered joy to millions and millions of people while simultaneously dismantling the American leisure paradigm.

Or some crap like that.

I can only assume the potent combination bad writing, bad acting, and bad cinematography produced a horror movie inert enough for 10-year-old Mikey Paulus to withstand.

I believe we’ve reached a point in time (or possibly just zipped past it) where VHS tapes are watched with ironic glee by snidely snorting hipsters. Once the cornerstone of my Friday (and Saturday and Sunday) night festivities, VHS tapes have been flung to the roadside on our never-ending journey towards home-based cinematic bliss. Today, the oversized cartridges seem dull and crude in both form and function.

For the love of Zeus, they’ve got rolls of tape inside them.

But back in 1986, VHS tapes were the shiz, Memorex was king, and a humble collection of home-recorded videos changed my life forever. Probably for the worse.

I was 10 years old in the October of 1986, and my family was preparing to celebrate my grandparent’s 40th wedding anniversary. A huge party was planned and a special spot on the guest list was reserved for my “cousins from Virginia” – an awesome group of people who drive all the way to Wisconsin pretty much every summer. In 1986, many of them were teenagers. And back in Virginia, they had HBO.

These Virginians were pretty fun all on their own, with their Southern accents and all that, but this year they had brought along a stack of videos – HBO movies they’d taped onto VHS. My grandma had recently gotten a top-loading VCR, and this was one of my first experiences with unedited, commercial-free movies in the living room.

And this was the first time I’d ever seen an R-rated horror movie.

The scariness of these movies was legend among my older cousins – and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. But even though we screened the videos in broad daylight, I couldn’t watch beyond the first half hour of Nightmare on Elm Street. And while my cousins loved it, I could barely stand any of Friday the 13th. I remember feeling disappointed in myself for being so scared. I couldn’t talk about how super freaky Freddy and Jason were. I couldn’t share the experience of watching them to the end.

However, there was one horror movie I did actually finish. I remember it well. It was called Bloody Birthday, it starred exactly no one famous, and it was awful. Produced in 1981, it’s about “three children born at the height of a total eclipse. Due to the sun and moon blocking Saturn, which controls emotions, they have become heartless killers 10 years later, and are able to escape detection because of their youthful and innocent facades.”

I can only assume the potent combination bad writing, bad acting, and bad cinematography produced a horror movie inert enough for 10-year-old Mikey Paulus to withstand. I vividly remember a little kid trying to shoot his babysitter, a dead woman falling out of a closet, and a particularly remarkable scene were a half-naked teenage girl looks into a peep hole in her closet only to be shot in the eye with a bow and arrow.

The weird mix of mild nudity and mild gore (and mild archery) produced in me a weird mix of prepubescent emotions (not to mention the occasional nightmare). Though I’ve never consulted a psychological expert on the experience, I can confidently assume that a clinical psychologist would tell me that Bloody Birthday “totally effed you up, Mike. For realsies.”

But hey, I had a horror movie under my belt, and I could brag about it to my friends back at school. This movie is so bad almost no one I’ve ever mentioned it to has seen it – which allowed me to artificially inflate the freaky factor. And since lying about doing awesome things is a time-honored right of passage for little kids, I can thank VHS for adding defining moment to my childhood. Thanks, VHS.

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