The Death of VHS and the Archaeology of Media

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Pop culture is finally hitting the eject button on the VHS tape, the once-ubiquitous home-video format that will finish this month as a creaky ghost of Christmas past.

After three decades of steady if unspectacular service, the spinning wheels of the home-entertainment stalwart are slowing to a halt at retail outlets. On a crisp Friday morning in October, the final truckload of VHS tapes rolled out of a Palm Harbor, Fla., warehouse run by Ryan J. Kugler, the last major supplier of the tapes.

“It’s dead, this is it, this is the last Christmas, without a doubt,” said Kugler, 34, a Burbank businessman. “I was the last one buying VHS and the last one selling it, and I’m done. Anything left in warehouse we’ll just give away or throw away.”

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Do you remember your first VHS tape?  More importantly do you still own it?  I’d have to answer yes to both questions.  My family’s first VHS tape was one containing two Queen music videos that my father used to run at his bar, Studio I.  According to him, when he’d purchased the tape (possibly in 79-80) it had cost him a couple hundred dollars.  Back then VHS was  the hot new thing.  The tape still resides under the entertainment center at my family home, along with a few other veterans of the Home Video War.

The first VHS tape I clearly remember handling was a bootleg copy of Star Wars (Not Star Wars: A New Hope, STAR WARS), which I’m pretty sure predated Return of the Jedi.  It didn’t have a box, or even a title on the tape, just a small piece of aged masking tape stuck on the top that red ‘Star Wars’ in pencil.  As a child I watched it HUNDREDS of times, in fact the little plastic rectangle had been played, rewound and ejected so many times that the tape itself was in pretty deplorable shape.  But it still survives to this day.

Lastly, from the bizarro realm, I recall a copy of the original Halloween, also a bootleg.  Interestingly though, when the film had been copied, the settings had been all wonky and the tape copied in black and white.  For the longest time, I thought that’s how the movie had been shot.  In fact, it was only at the end of the 90s that I learned otherwise.  I’m not sure if that tape survives to this day, but if you ever can find a way to view the original Halloween in black and white, do it… its a totally different movie. 

The archaeologist in me begs to ask: why?  Why does my family still cling to these artifacts?  Clearly we never plan to use them again.

I guess in one case, its value.  The Queen music video cost a lot of money and despite the fact that nowadays you can’t even give away VHS, the fact remains that it was a costly purchase.  Its inherent value to my father has never decreased.  Because the price paid for it will never be reclaimed, its initial value will always be ascribed.

In the case of Star Wars, I have an artifact with irreplaceable nostalgic value.  My *first* copy of Star Wars.  Before ROTJ, before the first trilogy collection, the second, the third, the laserdisc, the Special Edition, the Ultimate Editions, and the DVDS.

My copy of Star Wars represents a point in time.  It is an artifact of my childhood, like a toy or a photograph.  It is an artifact that through hundreds of viewings shaped my character and drove my imagination.

The VHS also represents a form of exposure to a piece of cinematography that 80% of the world has seen.  The way we experience something is just as important as the experience itself.  The tracking lines, poor audio quality and playback speed all added to my initial viewing experience as a child.

Lastly, it represents an accomplishment.  How many people nowadays can say they own the first copy of Star Wars they ever watched?

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