ANALYSIS: Horror at Home – video rentals, paratexts and how we watch now

The way we’ve watched horror films has changed dramatically over the years. Here James C. Taylor charts the evolution of how fright flicks have been consumed, from rental stores to DVDs, streaming platforms and beyond…

I became fascinated with horror films before I’d even watched one. As a child, when my parents took me to our local video rental store, Mr. Video, I invariably strayed into the horror section and become transfixed by the grisly cover art. The box for The Hills Have Eyes (1977) in particular carved its way into the recesses of my mind. The image at once left little room for imagination, presenting Michael Berryman’s angular visage as an ogre glaring directly at me, and prompted my imagination to run wild with the tagline’s promise that “the lucky ones died first…”. What fate awaited the unlucky ones?

The conditions through which home video brought The Hills Have Eyes to my attention created a bewitching aura and set gruesome expectations (which, when I finally did watch the film years later, it actually lived up to, unlike many of the other horrors whose boxes I pored over). These ways in which home viewing shapes our experience of horror films is the focus here.

The sad demise of video stores means that my entryway into horror is not just consigned to my personal, but also the cultural, past. Yet as home video has developed from bulky cassettes and shiny discs to intangible video on demand platforms, we lose some aspects of our relationship to films while others evolve and new ones emerge. Our experience of films is shaped by the cultures and, in academic parlance, paratexts that surround them. Paratexts are peripheral to the text (in this case the film) but guide our understanding of it. They include things like VHS box art, the “special features” on a DVD or reviews of a film. While the ways in which we encounter home video affect the experience of any film, horror inflects these experiences in particular ways.

No discussion about horror on home video written from a UK perspective would be complete without mentioning the “video nasties” moral panic of the early-1980s, which set culturally pervasive ideas about allowing horror into your home. As such, the panic provides a useful compass for exploring horror cinema’s infiltration of our private spaces. Upon the introduction and rapid popularity of videocassette technology to the UK, circumstances including a lack of regulation for the content of home video and booming horror production in Europe and the U.S. coalesced to give horror a prominent place on video store shelves. The ensuing cultural panic, fuelled by the tabloid press and Tory government, perceived horror films as more dangerous in the home than on cinema screens due to being made accessible to impressionable young minds (and also, according to MP Graham Bright in an infamous interview, the easily-corruptible minds of dogs). Obviously, my opening anecdote reveals that there is a grain of truth to such claims. And the box art for The Hills Have Eyes is an exercise in restraint compared to some of the video nasties, whose artwork displayed sights such as cannibals devouring entrails or a man having a power drill plunged into his forehead as they sought to catch the eyes of video store customers.

This box art encapsulates another key aspect of home video: the opportunity it offers for viewers to isolate particular moments or scenes. In this sense, the marketing was complicit with a means through which the 1980s UK parliament was invited to assess the video nasties; they were not screened complete films, but rather a showreel of grisly moments extracted from narrative context. Again, this misrepresentation of the films has some validity in its reflection of certain viewing practices. The fact that horror fans may rewatch a film’s most gruesome set-pieces is evidenced in how a videocassette’s tape wears down from repeated viewing. The most viewed scenes become the most distorted. Anybody who used to rent VHS will remember the combination of disappointment and thrill when a climactic moment was obscured by grainy distortion. While denying you direct enjoyment of a scene, these glitches contorting the imagery gave the impression that malevolent forces are reaching beyond the film’s world to corrupt the tape itself and could make the scene seem more “real” by concealing poor special effects. Meanwhile, such distortion creates a tangible connection between yourself and everybody who previously rented that tape. Even if watching the film alone, the very materiality of VHS, the physical damage done to the flimsy tape encased in the hard plastic shell, inscribes your film viewing experience with traces of the tape’s prior audiences.

Once home video went digital new formats and platforms continued to offer the ability to rewatch specific moments, although lost the unique degradation that each videocassette gained throughout its life. From the age of DVD onward, home video presented crisp digital images that would not degrade from viewing and rewinding. DVD, however, offered new ways of connecting with a film’s history. Special features such as director commentaries and making of documentaries became synonymous with the format, these paratexts bundled onto a disc and intended to enrich a viewer’s understanding of the film.

This new digital age of home video provided my formal introduction to the video nasties. The late-1990s popularisation of DVD coincided with a changing of the guard at the British Board of Film Classification, which resulted in many previously banned or heavily censored video nasties now being cleared uncut for home video release. Fortuitously, these developments occurred as I found myself old enough to not just readily watch horror films but also, given the small income provided by a part time job and the industry shift from the rental to the sell-through market, to buy them. I was the ideal audience for DVD collections like Anchor Bay’s “Box of the Banned”, which playfully parrots some of the 1980s scaremongering with its cover strapline “depraved and corrupt” while packaging six of the more popular video nasties alongside documentaries and other special features. With this boxset, that took up less shelf space than two VHS, I had access not just to some of the most notorious films from the horror genre’s past but also a wealth of material that contextualised these so-called video nasties and unveiled an episode of national history in many ways more shocking than the films.

This access to film culture from the comfort of your own home has mutated as many viewers replace their physical discs with subscriptions to video on demand platforms. Rather than spending hours perusing a video store’s shelves to select an evening’s viewing, we now get lost browsing through streaming platforms’ labyrinth interfaces. While the algorithms of big hitters like Netflix are designed to personalise our experience in a way that paradoxically feels decidedly impersonal, genre-focused platforms like Shudder and Arrow Player provide higher degrees of human curation. These two specialist platforms’ interfaces present playlists categorised by factors such as subgenre and decade of release, recreating something of the feel of an independent video store run by genre fans who lovingly organise each shelf. While Shudder’s library emphasises new independent horror, Arrow Player leans more into genre history, each opening new avenues for viewers to probe deeper into horror cinema.

Connections to a wider community also take new forms with video on demand. For instance, Shudder invites subscribers to write short film reviews—in practice mostly cursory but occasionally incisive—while Arrow Player assumes the position of an authority guiding you through genre cinema, featuring more detailed film descriptions alongside playlists curated by filmmakers. Occasionally on Arrow Player you’ll find a film with a description proudly proclaiming that it was once branded a video nasty and banned in the UK. Curiously, such titles are not currently included on Arrow Player’s “Ban This Sick Filth presents: Moral Outrage” playlist (but documentary Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape is!). Horror’s thorny history on home video is still honoured in the streaming present, although it’s just one among many threads available to trace across playlists and platforms.

Ultimately, home video horror communities now primarily reside online. For lots of fans, physical formats are still alive and well; the DVDs and Blu-rays that fill my shelves may be cumbersome but are repositories of both film and personal history that, unlike a film on a streaming platform, can’t just suddenly disappear from the library. Yet whatever format or platform you’re watching on, you can connect with likeminded fans in virtual spaces like social media or blogs, similarly to how earlier audiences exchanged recommendations with video store clerks. One factor that persists, from the shop floor to the online message board and amidst all the other changes that have occurred since horror became a home video staple over four decades ago, is that, despite all the ghastly films into which they immerse themselves, horror fans are typically the loveliest people. Far from corrupting society, horror on home video has cultivated film cultures, built communities and can offer a sense of belonging even when you’re home alone at the witching hour, the only light coming from ghoulish images on your television.

James C. Taylor

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