David Gary and Aaron Pratt Team Up to Implement Nearly 3K Horror and Various Genre VHS into the Yale Library with Plans to Further Document and Preserve Video Era Information, Ephemera and Culture!
It's all true, Tapeheads! And you know what? We love them, too! Yale, that is!Tell us a little bit about yourselves, and your position(s) / responsibilities at Yale University. How long have you been working at Yale? Dave: Sure—I’m the Kaplanoff Librarian for American History at Yale University Library. I am the subject specialist in American history and the English-speaking Caribbean. Most of my time is spent helping faculty and students with their research and offering research instruction sessions. I also have responsibility for collection development, which means I get to buy American history materials for the library—books, scholarly journals, microfilm, large primary source databases, and some unique materials, including this VHS collection. This was my first position after receiving my PhD in American history from the City University of New York-Graduate Center in February 2013 and I’ve been at Yale a little over a year-and-a-half. My own research specialty is in early American history, roughly the period from the American Revolution to the American Civil War, with a focus on the history of the book. I’m interested in how people create, distribute and use the printed word. I also have a Master’s degree in library science from City University of New York-Queens College. Aaron: This is my fifth year as a PhD student in the English department at Yale. My research focuses on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature and the history of the English book trade during that period. I am finishing my dissertation right now, and will begin in the fall as a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. I am also a collector and occasional dealer of antiquarian books, and have a website where you can see some of what I am up to: http://www.aarontpratt.com. I am on a dissertation fellowship this year, but for the two years before this one I taught undergraduates at Yale: the highlight was a freshman seminar I taught on “Terror, Horror, and the Literary Imagination.” We read material ranging from short stories by Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, and H. P. Lovecraft to longer works including Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. We also watched Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), and I concluded the semester with a unit on “Gender and the Teen Slasher Film.” We watched one of my favorites, The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), and my students wrote analytical research papers that incorporated evidence from movie posters, trade reviews, and—I am happy to say—VHS packaging. Some chose to write on SPM, but I also read great papers on My Bloody Valentine (both 1981 and 2009), Sleepaway Camp, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien, and Dressed to Kill.
Aaron Pratt (left) and David Gary VHSmile for the camera. Pretty sure this was right after they snacked some snacks and watched David A. Prior's MANKILLERS. Dig it.Tell us about the initiative to bring VHS / Home Video history and culture into the Yale Library. You’re bringing in a wide variety of written material along with the VHS tapes. Can you give us an idea of the materials / tapes that will be available? How did you go about securing the VHS collection? The print materials? Dave: The initiative grew out of my friendship with Aaron Pratt, a graduate student at Yale and someone I’m sure some of your readers are familiar with. I met Aaron through our common interest in the history of the book and he invited me to a weekly movie night he puts together in his apartment in New Haven. I didn’t have much contact with horror films growing up, so seeing the movies he showed was eye opening to say the least. Talking to Aaron got me really interested in strange, weird, and absurd movies and we started talking about building a collection at Yale, which was a possibility because of the funding I controlled at the library. This initiative also occurred because of the intense interest in motion pictures among students and faculty at Yale. I get a variety of requests for movies and documentaries from people interested in cultural studies, especially from the American Studies and African American Studies departments. The tapes are varied, but most of them are horror films distributed in the late 1970s and the mid-1980s—materials that will help scholars interpret the Reagan era. We wanted to collect material that is relatively rare and not available on DVD and this collection fits the bill. Some titles include fan favorites of your readers: 555, The Dorm that Dripped Blood, Frankenhooker, and many others, but the selection is really varied. It was purchased from Joe Pesch: an Ohioan like Aaron and myself. Aaron sent out a message on the Facebook groups and Joe got in touch with us about two months later. The collection he was offering was exactly what we were hoping for—a chance to buy a large core of relatively rare material with boxes in good shape all at once. It’s an excellent foundation to build upon, and Joe was great throughout the process. I’ve only started to reach out about print materials – and the full run of your Lunchmeat was my first purchase. Joe graciously donated some issues from sixteen different publications on horror and VHS topics, and I’d like to build that collection in a very serious way. I’d like to pick up full runs of Video Watchdog, Fangoria, Rue Morgue, Horror Hound, etc. for the library, as well as ephemeral newsletters, promotional materials, VHS sale catalogs, VCR manuals, etc. I see the tapes as just the beginning.
Just a small sampling of the sick slips that will be preserved and protected at Yale University Library. Oh, man. Some Dope Rarities in here, indeed.What was the impetus to start this project? What inspired you to do the work to bring VHS / Home Video history and culture into the Yale Library? Can you detail a bit of the process that brought it all together? Dave: As I stated before, it was a combination of coming into contact with this material through Aaron and the scholarly interest of the people I serve at the library. We bought two small collections compromising 50 tapes last fall, but it took several months of discussions and e-mails with Joe to work out the details of this sale. Aaron and I drove to Joe’s house in Ohio over the Christmas holiday and viewed the collection and cemented the deal. Delivery was an issue. At first we thought we could pick up the collection ourselves and drive it back to New Haven, but that was ultimately not possible. The library hired a rare book shipper to pack and ship the materials to New Haven. They arrived in 47 boxes and weighed 1,800 pounds. Aaron: I grew up with VHS and have been collecting tapes on and off for more than 15 years now. I, like many who will read this, have fond memories of renting the craziest horror and action movies I could get my hands on—and talk my parents into—from my local video store. It was simply not possible to have a good sleepover without a movie like The Prowler (1981) or Bloodsport (1988) in the deck. With my interest in genre films stoked by these experiences, I began buying tapes as soon as I had a job and money of my own. (I don’t even want to think about how much I spent on mail-order bootlegs in high school.) When I moved to Connecticut from Ohio, alas, I made the questionable decision to liquidate most of my personal collection. Even so, it was my familiarity with VHS from years as a collector that got me thinking about the need for established institutions like Yale to start preserving tapes and their packaging for future generations, and to do so in a way that individual collectors simply couldn’t. My official academic interests may lie in a much earlier culture than the ones VHS has been a part of, but the commitment to physical objects that drives my research into early modern drama (Shakespeare and friends) is a commitment that extends to all media. It is probably even accurate to say that VHS, in a peculiar way, is what helped me care about studying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century print in the first place. Now, because of Dave, Yale University Library has made its own commitment to VHS, and has done so in a big way.
Dave trying to maneuver around the massive amount magnetic magic in Yale's basement. I just love that sign, man.You’ll be able to rent out the VHS just like other media in the library, right? I believe you said there are talks of viewing stations, as well? Or is that in the not too distant future? Anything else planned as the collection continues to build? Dave: Getting the collection to Yale took a lot of internal discussions. There are concerns about cataloging, preservation, copyright, and access. In particular, access has been difficult. Ultimately, the answer was to think of these tapes as rare material and to restrict their viewing to stations in Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives (MSSA), which is located in the central library, Sterling Memorial Library. The tapes will be stored in archival boxes and placed in Yale’s Library Shelving Facility, an environmentally controlled off-site storage area located one town north of New Haven in Hamden, CT. All the details are not clear yet, but the hope is that patrons will be able to request them and watch the tapes in MSSA, but the current policy of MSSA is to offer digital surrogates of any tape for viewing in order to preserve the original. The logistics of creating those digital copies still needs to be discussed, although it seems that Yale does have the ability to make preservation copies of many tapes under copyright law as long as they could only be viewed in the archive (http://www.nyu.edu/tisch/preservation/research/video-risk/VideoAtRisk_SECTION108_Guidelines_2013.pdf). But I want patrons to be able to see these movies as people did in the 1970s and 1980s, and MSSA seems willing to accommodate that, although the policies of a VCR station are still being worked out. Any tape requested will require three days to acclimate to avoid thermal shock and condensation. Our short-term plans include a viewing of a VHS tape this semester (we would seek out the rights to do this) to get the word out to the campus community, and to get articles published about this collection. We’re thinking that a number of people would be interested in Black Devil Doll from Hell, but it was not part of the collection Joe sold us and we’ll have to find a copy somewhere. In the long term, we would like to continue buying tapes and print material and find a way to fund a short-term fellowship to get outside scholars to come to Yale to use the collection for a book or article. I’m not sure how that fellowship could be funded, but I hope to have discussions about it as the collection grows. In the long-long term, I hope Yale can collect the records of production and distribution companies who made these tapes. Aaron: I will add that I also think it is crucial that the tapes we buy be taken seriously as rare materials and kept out of circulation. In the past, when libraries bought VHS tapes, they did so because they wanted access to the movie recorded on them, and cared little about the particular format that made that access possible. This is why so many libraries dumped VHS as soon as they acquired DVD releases of the same titles. It didn’t even matter much if a particular copy wore out or broke: the expectations were that you could ultimately find other copy and that any differences that didn’t impact the runtime or content of the film itself weren’t important. For us, though, we are collecting precisely because of the format, because of the historical information that each plastic tape and each box uniquely presents. It is true that a good percentage of the movies in the collection are ones that have never been released on a format other than VHS, and keeping them available is part of our mission, but we are perhaps even more interested in what scholars call paratext, or the stuff surrounding the main feature: trailers, previews, tape labels, box art and copy, etc. My students, for example, were intrigued by the fact that the 1985 Embassy
The cover that inspired so many of Aaron's students. I mean... look at it. How could it not?! This is analog era excellence.Why do you think it’s important to have this selection of VHS / Home Video history and culture available at Yale? What are your personal opinions on the format, aesthetically and historically? Dave: The rise of VHS and home video culture is a hugely important historical moment. Analog tape is the greatest change in media format between television and the Internet and it revolutionized how people consumed cultural content. The growing interest in the era of the 1970s and 1980s among historians requires the moving image culture of the period to be available to scholars, and there is a huge gap in institutional collecting in VHS. The collections of VHS in libraries have largely been acquired by happenstance, and often skipped the type of material that scholars will likely want to see in the future. It is the out-of-the-way sources that historians and critics will want to see, and while libraries and archives do a great job collecting manuscript, print, and born-digital materials, they often skip over analog tape due to perceived challenges of the medium. Someone has to make this available, and I’m happy Yale is taking this gap seriously. I personally love the VHS format – I happily remember watching Ghostbusters on VHS when I was seven and being astounded I could do this in my living room. That joy matters, and I want people to be able to study the reasons why it was and is created. I see the study of VHS as a form of the history of the book. People will be studying these tapes for difference of edition, their materiality, and the paratext present with each tape. It is likely that scholars will ask questions about different tape stocks, and this collection will hopefully be able to help them get answers. In addition, people will want to study the rental store phenomenon and will need to view the box art, stickers, and previews to understand why certain titles became popular or not. Aaron: I have already said a few things about why it’s important to preserve VHS as a format, but it is probably worth mentioning why we are focusing on horror and exploitation at this stage. As publications like Lunchmeat make clear, these genres are certainly what’s been driving the current VHS renaissance, and it is worth taking this seriously. A number of the tapes in the collection we just bought are from distributors like Massacre, Sub Rosa, and Vultra, and we think they will be important to anyone working on the history of horror and its relationship to particular formats. It is also almost certainly true that VHS has had the most impact on genres like horror, action, exploitation, and pornography when it comes to production. Once VHS proved itself commercially, filmmakers who were already used to making movies on a budget looked to the new format as a way to get their stuff out without the same kind of overhead that a theatrical release—if they could even get one—would have entailed. And fans who would have never been able to make a traditional film were able to become filmmakers with VHS camcorders and only a bit of cash. Their tapes could and did end up on shelves right next to releases from proper Hollywood production companies. In terms of scholarship on film, there has also been a lot of attention paid to slasher and other horror movies, but no one has really looked at the importance of VHS (and Betamax) to that story, which seems crazy to me. There is a lot to be done, and I am confident that research with the Yale collection will have an impact on our understanding of both visual art and the larger cultures it has participated in. At a more practical level, focusing narrowly on one or two genres also makes it possible to imagine achieving a pretty comprehensive collection. Trying to collect all VHS would be total madness. Horror is hard enough.
One of the most coveted and loved big box VHS from Thriller Video: BURIED ALIVE! So glad this one's getting the preservation treatment. Utterly Essential.What has the reaction been from your colleagues around the University? Are they scratching their head like, “VHS? Hum.” or do they show interest and excitement about gathering this particular collection? Dave: The reaction I usually get is, “oh, that’s really cool.” Part of the job of a librarian or archivist is to think about the culture they live in and decide what will be important to preserve for the future. When I made arguments about the role of VHS in world culture, people often agreed with me. It was more that VHS was a quotidian part of their lives and they never considered it for collecting. As I said before, there are concerns about copyright, preservation, and access. There are a lot of costs associated with the care of this collection, and they have to be addressed. Almost everyone was excited about this collection, but it is the logistics for its long-term care that concerned my colleagues, and rightfully so. Aaron: My experience pretty much matches Dave’s: initial bewilderment (and maybe a bit of dismissal) followed by enthusiasm. If you care about preserving any historical media—rare books, manuscripts, ephemera—then you pretty much have to care about VHS, at least on principle. I find, though, that people really understand its particular importance once they step back and think about the different histories tapes can help tell. We can learn about the social groups that VHS has created, from preteen sleepovers to swap meets; the modern industry that VHS essentially created; and the ways VHS helped audiences negotiate the anxieties of the Reagan era (and beyond)—just to list a few things. People actually care about the Library’s effort to build this collection, even if isn’t what they work on.
A slab of analog obscurity and another absolute essential from the collection. Pretty sure I spot a Continental WIZARD OF GORE and WEREWOLF OF WASHINGTON in there. Man, this collection just RULES. Joe Pesch = Amazing Dude.What do you hope this collection will offer students at Yale? Dave: I see this collection as helping a number of departments, including History, English, American Studies, African American Studies, and Film Studies. I like to purchase collections that can help undergraduates write their 15-20 page seminar papers and their 40-50 page senior thesis papers. For example, if a student wanted to study the genre of the slasher film for a paper, they could do it with this collection. I also want to support graduate students and faculty members working on their large projects. If this is material they can draw upon in a small way to prove their arguments, I will be very pleased. I also like how this collection offers users the ability to understand the Reagan era in new ways. But patrons will use this in very unique ways, I imagine. I recently purchased 1990: The Bronx Warriors to help a student writing about the history of fires in the Bronx in the 1970s. He was looking for representations of the Bronx as a wasteland, and this movie mattered to him. Also, Yale is in the process of creating a new digital humanities center, and I can imagine students using algorithms and computational techniques to analyze the content of these tapes. Aaron: My teaching has confirmed my suspicion that students love the experience of working directly with all forms of media, including VHS. There has been so much media transition in their lifetimes—the rise of the Internet, DVD, Blu-ray, streaming video, the Kindle, etc.—but they often haven’t stopped to think about the impact of these transitions on the way we encounter film and literature. I teach Shakespeare’s early playbooks and VHS in more or less the same way, by asking students to slow down and try to figure out how the form in which we read and watch affects what we are reading or watching. It has always been a hit, and has genuinely changed the way at least some of my students approach media in their lives outside of the classroom. Anything else you’d like to share with all the Tapeheads here in Lunchmeat Land? Dave: I’d like to stress how important I think this collection is and I hope people will be in touch with me about potential sales, especially of print collections related to the history of home video. I’m looking forward to getting to know people who care about VHS. Aaron: I cannot emphasize enough just how much of a trailblazer Yale University Library has become by beginning to buy VHS, and I would love for your readers to think about the collection when they decide to part with rare and important tapes. Let Dave know if you have stuff that you think we need, especially if you have an original Black Devil Doll or Quadead that you’ll let us pry out of your hands! (And if you want to get rid of releases from VCII, do let me know—VCII is about all I collect these days.)
You heard it here, Tapeheads! VHS is now officially a protected part of media history with carefully cataloged VHSpecimens pulled from circulation and preserved in climate-controlled facilities en route to being available for study in the most academic of arenas. Not only is this an affirmation of the appreciation for the aesthetics and obscure entertainments that these chunks of magnetic tape and black plastic contain, but this implementation proves that VHS is a mode of physical media that truly matters. (That’s what we’ve been saying all along! ) This recognition and practical preservation from Yale University is the first step in keeping our favorite format around for all future media-munchers to experience and enjoy. It displays the potential to greatly expand the collected knowledge on an entertainment era that made an utterly indelible mark on us as a media-consuming society. Dave and Aaron, we here in Lunchmeat Land VHSalute you a million times over for all of your steadfast, rewind-minded work. And you (yes, YOU there with the nachos and Yoo-hoo!) can help contribute to this incredible and unprecedented collection at Yale. If you have any of the aforementioned materials e.g. radical tapes, video catalogs, video era ephemera, etc. (especially any of particular rarity) that you’re willing to part with and provide to the Yale collection, please contact Dave directly at email@example.com and tell ‘em Lunchmeat sent ya, mang! (And if you have any VCII tapes, be sure to tell Dave they HAVE to go to Aaron. Or else!) If at some point or another we can all make some sort of contribution, no matter how large or small, to this ongoing collection, WE have the power to play a part in the preservation of our passion and culture. And that’s pretty groovy, man.
Groove and Groove and Make History, dude.