It was the late-’80s, and we were smack dab in the middle of The Great VHS Boom. I believe it was Herbert Hoover who once promised, “a VCR in every home, and a membership to every mom & pop video store” – and that’s exactly what every family (including ours) had. And with the proliferation of VCRs came a wave of home recordings. No rental was safe from being recorded to a blank Kodak tape (or Polaroid, Sony, RCA, Fuji, et al.) You just had to make sure your recording speed was set to LP, and to put a little piece o’tape over that broken tab on the back, and you were in business. Sure, it was illegal. But it was the ’80s, and everyone was doing it.
These home recorded tapes would be traded among friends and family, recorded over, forgotten, and rediscovered. And the cycle would begin again. They were one part time capsule and one part secret peek into a person’s psyche. Plainly put, they were pure magic. (There’s a weird market for these things, now: you can find tapes full of old TV programs, commercials, and home recordings for reasonable prices on eBay – and I’m glad they still exist so that newer generations can sample the bygone charm of these relics – but nothing compared to having tapes your own family and friends made, or better, a mix tape you made yourself.)
However, one of the drawbacks of the beautiful black magnetic tape inside the cassette’s plastic exoskeleton was that it could be damaged and degraded fairly easily. Trading, and re-recording, and pausing, and too much sunlight, and general age would really wear on a tape – and what once looked pristine (and probably as good as the rental you recorded off of) would soon turn into a staticky, garbled nightmare. Or, in the case of this piece, a staticky, garbled A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
I’ve mentioned before how I was lucky (?) enough to watch horror movies at an age no kid should be watching horror movies, and one those films happened to be A Nightmare on Elm Street 3, which also happened to have been home-recorded onto a tape, a tape which happened to be deteriorated to a point of warped, unwatchable hellishness. One day me and my cousins sat around the TV, watching the tape – which was probably in its fourth or fifth pass, at that point – and, despite it being almost unwatchable, we couldn’t avert our eyes. I recall one scene in particular – wherein the cast undergoes group hypnosis, only to have Freddy pop up and turn the room into a fiery boiler-room – to be especially terrifying.
The sound was distorted, the colors were particularly saturated, and the jumpy tape was peppered with intermittent visual fuzz. Now, anyone who’s familiar with Freddy Krueger and the Nightmare series will realize that all of these defects would only heighten the already surreal, fever-dream feel of the movie. I didn’t know what a snuff film was, at the time – but looking back, that’s almost how I’d describe it now.
I tried my best to recreate this demonic aberration below using a clip which leads up to the scene in question and little Final Cut Pro trickery on my part. And while it does a fine job of nailing the VHS vibe, it comes nowhere close to duplicating the hallucinatory horror I witnessed as a kid – there’s no way I could recreate it perfectly. And honestly, I don’t know if I’d want to.