The Hunt for Perpetual October: An Interview with VHS Collector & Preservationist Earl Kessler
Interview by Josh Schafer
Earl Kessler sure is one voracious Videovore. He eats, sleeps, breathes and (of course) watches VHS every day of his life. His fervor for the format, while extreme in comparison to most, isn’t becoming more of rarity these days; quite the opposite - it seems that more and more people are entering the fold, getting chewed up by the collector bug and grabbing every tape they can, by all means necessary. What does this mean for the average tape collector? Does it mean tapes are going to be harder to come by? Yes. Does it mean when you find them, they are going to cost you a bit more? Yes, if you use eBay as a main vein (stick to flea markets, yards sales, tape trading etc). But beyond these obviously frustrating facets, it also means that the video collector sub-culture is expanding at an inspiring rate; and with the expansion, we’re that much closer to solidifying the VHS tape as the coolest & most cult media format to ever exist. But also, and perhaps most importantly, I’d like to think it means we have an ever-growing cadre of Videovores with whom we can tape-trade, share digging tips and generally nerd out about our favorite media format . . .
LM: How and when did you get started collecting tapes? Where did you first start grabbing these chunks of black gold?
My horror movie obsession started as a young kid like most people, catching movies on late night TV, then not being able to fall asleep for a few nights straight. My parents were very aware of what I was watching or renting from the video store so they would deny most oddly titled movies. It wasn't until I was about 14 or so that I started exploring horror a bit further. I would rent the goriest & crazy-looking flicks from the video store and go over to my buddy’s house to watch them.
At the same time I started picking up my own VHS tapes to start my own collection.
One of the first video stores to go under right before my eyes was Video Systems Plus
in my hometown. I'd say I was around 15 or 16. A bunch of us stopped in and everything was on sale! We were delighted and grabbed bags and bags of horror VHS tapes! I recall getting I Spit on Your Grave
(not the Wizard release ), Beware! Children at Play, and even Embrace of the Vampire starring Alyssa Milano . The internet was too new; I still had to watch soft-core vampire tits . It wasn't long after that DVD had fully emerged & the rest of my high school career revolved around picking up horror VHS and skateboarding. I strictly bought tapes from flea markets and video stores, nothing online.
There is a nice, foul-smelling flea market in the next town over that I would hit up every weekend. A woman there had a boat load of VHS tapes, including a nice horror section. She always wanted like $6 - 7 a tape, though, which bothered me. So I started trading her other crap like Disney VHS for horror. It was actually just this past year that she left the flea market; she was old, so maybe it was time. One of the best tapes I got from her was The Asphyx clamshell on Magnum Entertainment. There's still a lot of VHS stuff at that flea market, but it all sucks.
Anyway, around 2001 I went to college and continued scarfing up VHS in other towns, video stores, record shops, etc. By the time I was done with college I had a nice collection of a few hundred tapes; lots of common stuff, but lots of weird stuff, too. I was satisfied. Then I found collectors online . . . then I found eBay . . . which is when I dove in head first to collecting super-rare VHS tapes! I was really intrigued by all of the stuff that has been outside of my grasps for all this time!
LM: What was the first (and some of the first vids) you owned? Was there a particular title that really got you collecting seriously?
EK: The first big box I owned was The Grim Reaper aka Anthropophagus. I do remember that. I bought it from an online friend (one of my first online purchases) and when it arrived I was like, “ WTF is this giant box? Oh, yeah . . . it’s one of those bigger VHS boxes . . . sweet! ."
I was into the Troma stuff when I was younger, too, so stuff like Bloodsucking Freaks & The Toxic Avenger really got me going as well as 80's classics like C.H.U.D., Demons, and Fulci films. I didn’t know if there was any value to any of the tapes I had or anything; I was just picking stuff up based on the cover art, the Video Nasties List, and friend’s recommendations. Once I found eBay, other collector shit blew up big time! Just like new horror VHS collectors are doing today, I got sucked into SOV cheese rarities, Eurosleaze, weird-ass Mexican cinema . . . the list goes on. I was mostly hunting for content, though -- for the movies themselves.
These days collecting has evolved into more than that, including big box art, clamshell versions of classics -- pop art basically. I didn’t catch on to that little wave until I had a serious amount of collecting under my belt. By the time I had a job out of school ('06) I was scouring eBay & flea markets each week with the constant newfound knowledge of these tapes, fueling my ambition to go out and hunt for rarities & big box! I was bringing 5-10 tapes in a week & not afraid to drop 30-50 bucks on shit I was really after. Skip to the present, the last 5 years, I would say , I became a major player in USA, NTSC tape collecting, grabbing all the good shit I wanted, stacking up my collection to around 2,000 tapes!
LM: Were there a lot of Mom & Pop video shops around you? Can you share any memories about these wonderful & now virtually extinct places?
EK: We had a few. The main one I went to was Video Systems Plus. I remember sneaking around in the horror aisle as a kid, peeking at the back of the boxes, and getting cover art ingrained in my brain. I also recall an “Adult Section” where you had to walk through these swinging saloon-style doors to get in. Most of my video store memories come from an age before I could watch all the horror I wanted to, and as I got hardcore into the genre video stores started to close. So most of my experiences of Mom & Pop shops were buying out their VHS or rummaging through the bargain bin! I do remember trying to dupe my Mom into letting me rent either violent or sexually charged movies by doing some research on them, then picking the ones with the most innocent looking cover art despite their insane content! I succeeded many times, I must say!
LM: There's a group on Facebook called Horror VHS Collectors Unite. Could you tell us a little more about this group of rabid Videovores?
EK: Horror VHS Collectors Unite was created by myself a few years ago. I was anti-Facebook for a long time . . . same with MySpace. I never had an interest in social networking. I finally broke down and made a profile, hoping to get my art career off the ground using Facebook as a network. I started searching for cool groups to be a part of and noticed there weren't any groups for horror VHS, so I started one. It took off; people around the world united to share horror VHS images & content. I met tons of fellow collectors through this page!
Nowadays, it has evolved itself into a steady community filled with horror VHS knowledge! I think there’s almost 3,000 pictures uploaded and around 750 members. Everyone is friends with everyone; people do trades & sales with one another and there is never an issue! It's a great spot for sure, much more personable then any forum or blog site in my opinion! It's nice to have a core group of hardcore collectors to bounce this stuff off of; there's probably a good 20-30 of us that are on there daily sharing stuff! I would have to say it is definitely one of the most informative spots for info on horror VHS. There are tons of epic collectors sharing all sorts of great info from value on tapes, to runtimes (cut or uncut!), video labels, any question can probably be answered!
LM: What stands out the most about the VHS collector sub-culture to you? What do you think the core values are in the Videovore community?
EK: It's a really kick ass, neat thing. VHS is becoming collectable right before our eyes. It was one of the first home movie media to really take off and it's finally getting recognized for that. Sort of like records, but records have that whole “nice quality event though it’s old” thing that VHS lacks. It's more of a pop art thing for VHS - a nerd collector thing like Star Wars figures. But what makes the actual collecting community unique is we are all horror lovers! Everyone who's a horror lover, has ever been to a convention or shared moments with fellow enthusiasts knows that horror people are the coolest, nicest people. They herd together and befriend each other without second guessing; it's just how we are. The love of horror runs deep! Even today when VHS hunting can sort of become a battle ground for who is going to snag the next rare tape off eBay or something, there is never bad blood! Everyone is always psyched for a cool find in the collecting world, whether someone got the tape for a dollar at a flea market or snagged it right out from under your nose for $75 bucks on eBay - its all good! We share and trade doubles of tapes, send links to one another for good finds, even share want lists so that if someone ever comes across something you’re looking for they will get it for you! It’s great!
LM: How do you think collecting has changed / evolved over the past several years? Where do you see the culture going in years to come?
EK: This question leads me back to the conversation we were having the other day about my recent acquisition of that crazy Tales from the Quadead Zone off eBay! For those who are not familiar with the tape, it’s one of those tapes that’s basically a myth. I had never seen one in real life before and the images of the tape I did see were 1 or 2 shitty ones off the internet. It's a movie that was done by the same director as Black Devil Doll from Hell (another VHS super-rarity), Chester Turner. Good luck ever seeing/finding one yourself! It has to be the rarest of the SOV POS movies ever!
Anyway, so I had money to burn from a side job I did, Quadead pops up on eBay, the first one I have ever seen in real life! Within minutes it goes from $2 to $400! So I watched it for a few days, saw it popping up on blogs, even our FB page Horror VHS Collectors Unite had a post about it that got 230 + comments! So I decided to throw in a “Big Player” bid and ended up with the win. I seriously thought it was gonna go for $800+, but no one bid in the last few seconds; I expected insanity, and never expected to win. I was a little jaded by having to pay so much, but in the grand scheme of things, this is the most coveted and challenging VHS to find. I’ve had offers from people looking to buy the tape off of me for the same price or more. It's just impossible to find!
I believe this sale could be a monumental point in VHS collecting history. Just that fact that it's public knowledge that someone is willing to pay that much is crazy! The funny thing is tapes have been going for this much in collector’s circles for years, mainly Euro tapes that have the “uncut” editions of some of the sleaziest films ever. I can rattle off 10-20 tapes that will demand $100-$600 bucks in collector’s circles, hell even on eBay. But nowadays people are collecting for reasons beyond that as I mentioned earlier: the rarity of a video label, the obscurity of a SOV flick, awesome cover art or big box novelty. The game is changing & will continue to, and I believe our group of collectors (and our passion for it) are gonna be the ones who put VHS on that map as a legit collectable! Putting a demand on these tapes entices others to join in on the collecting trend, hunt tapes, sell tapes etc.
Our subculture at this point and time will set the trend and make a lasting impression on the VHS collecting community from now on. The days of flea market hunting and yard sale gathering will soon be over. I expect it to end in the next 5-10 years, and then VHS will be a “collectors market”, where fellow collectors, eBay, or specialty websites/stores will be your best bet for rarities! We are on the cusp of turning junk into gold and it’s all because of the light that has been shone on VHS in the last 5-7 years. The same thing probably happened to records over the years. For a while they were the main medium to listen to music with, and then they were phased out, then people starting digging them up again and now they are a collectable and still listened to. Some go for 5 bucks and rare ones go for $1,000, even $10,000 ya know? Insane!
LM: What advice do you have for the budding VHS hound?
EK: You must love VHS, love nostalgia, cover art from a begotten time, movies about shit they would never make movies about today . . . if you can align yourself with these things, hurry up and join the club! But do it for the right reasons. Don't get involved if you’re just some guy looking to find info about the rarest tapes so you can make a quick buck! This shit is for the horror community not the business man! Lots of people are out there gouging prices on lame or very common tapes thinking they can cash in on this upcoming VHS craze. True collectors are aware of the “Video Bug” that bit all of us and turned us into plastic tape hunting drones; that's what it is all about.
If you don't feel immersed in your love of horror every time you stumble upon a nice box of musty smelling tapes, pick up a VHS tape and slap it in the VCR, or proudly display your newly found big box gem, then you have the wrong hobby! As far as acquiring tapes goes, keep digging at those flea markets, yard sales, etc. There's not much time left! In the next few years eBay will be the only spot (not the only, but the main) for rare VHS tapes besides other collectors. There are a lot of fellow collectors who help new folks out, stop in at Horror VHS Collectors Unite on Facebook and ask some questions; everyone is open ears! Your first tape is on me!
If your in the northeast PA area and want to see what else is going on with Earl, catch him at his horror movie event, Severed Sinema - monthly at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg PA. In August they are hosting the 10 year anniversary event of Fred Vogel's August Underground! Check out 'Severed Sinema' on facebook for more info!