The VHS Box Art Phenomenon Inside the strangely ubiquitous origin story of horror fans

Here’s how the story goes for me:

The Albertsons grocery store that we went to every week had a small video rental area near the front. At the end of most shopping trips my mother would let me pick out a movie or a Nintendo game to rent – I usually went with a Nintendo game. However, I always dared myself to walk by the Horror section on the way to the video games, and out of the side of one eye, I’d peek at the movie covers within. It was a glimpse at a forbidden realm, a frightening realm that I wasn’t ready to experience yet, but it was right there in front of me. It was the very first clue into the later obsession that would one day come to define a large part of my personality. It was the seed of my growth into a horror nut.

I’ve told versions of this story before, elsewhere on this site, but I bet you’ve heard it from other sources as well. Because as I become more engaged with the horror community via conventions, podcasts, DVD commentaries and the like, it occurs to me that this specific story is weirdly common among horror fans of a certain age. Spookily common

Granted, I also credit “pretending to be asleep on the living room sofa but secretly watching Tales From the Crypt with my parents” as an equally formative horror experience, but the memory of those scary VHS box covers is earlier and more vivid. What was it about that cover art that was so influential?

Of course, it’s the people of my generation specifically – Gen X, X-ennials, people born between roughly 1975 and 1990 – that tell this common tale. But we’re now the ones making waves as the new horror directors, as well as fanatics, so I’m hearing the story a lot. Seriously, ask a horror fan between the ages of 30 and 40 when they first knew they had an attraction to the genre, and I can almost guarantee they were freaked out and intrigued by the video tapes.

What will the story be for subsequent generations? I’m not sure. I doubt scrolling through Netflix has quite the same visceral thrill of looking at physical VHS boxes. And besides, anyone born after 1995 probably doesn’t remember a world without personal access to the internet. There is no forbidden, mysterious world of media – everything is already right there in their homes. I don’t doubt there will continue to be horror fanatics for decades to come, I just don’t know how they’ll be made.

All that aside, I think it’s time to exorcise the demons of the VHS box once and for all. See, while the story surrounding them is common, remember that VHS was only dominant as a film medium for a relatively short time period – about 20 years. The specific horror movies that everybody seems to remember from the cover art alone is a pretty small, consistent selection. However those artists did it, they are the unsung heroes of the horror community – responsible for birthing legions of fanatics.

Here’s the ones I remember:

Ghoulies

Among this elite group of iconic VHS covers is a handful of movies that I’m convinced people ONLY remember from the cover art. This is one of them, as are the following two entries. In an adult’s eyes, this cover is undeniably silly, even outwardly comedic, but I’m not sure the artist really understood how visceral and terrifying this picture was to a kid. The toilet is something we all had in our homes, one of the few things we relied upon! The thought of a little green creature, even one wearing suspenders, biting us “in the end” was too much to bear.

Critters / Critters 2

I think I remember both of these covers being at Albertsons, but I’m not entirely sure which one actually traumatized me. Again, I never bothered to see any of these movies. They failed to make into the horror canon for a reason, I figure. Now only the image of that hairy little evil troll grinning at me from the movie shelves lives on in memory.

Monkey Shines

In case you didn’t know, Monkey Shines is about an actual, regular monkey (a capuchin monkey to be exact) that turns eeeevvvillll while employed as a service animal. It is NOT about one those cymbal-crashing toy monkeys they put on the poster, which are far more terrifying. Such a simple image, and so effective. Toys that come to life with malicious intent will never not be scary to a kid. Which brings us to…

Child’s Play 2

For some reason, it wasn’t the original Child’s Play VHS box that I remember freaking me out at the video store, it was Child’s Play 2. I imagine it’s for the same reason the Monkey Shines poster was scary – a black background, a toy, and the unmistakable glimmer of evil in the toy’s eyes. The original Child’s Play poster only showed a bit of Chucky’s face, which SHOULD be scarier, but to a kid lacking in subtlety and nuance, it’s much worse to see the whole shebang.

Tremors

Not much to say about this one. Just a giant pointy-toothed maw loosely mimicking the Jaws poster, but on land. A weird overlap with a lot of the movies on this list is they’re actually horror-comedies, but we’d never know it because we were too terrified by the box art to ever dare watch the movie itself.

Creepshow

I talked about this at length in my review, but to recap, that skeletal ticket taker is not in the movie at all. An unthinkable contradiction to a kid. The stuff that’s actually IN the movie would have scared the shit out of me, however, so maybe this is a rare one that actually lives up to its cover art.

Poltergeist

The only movie on this list that I actually saw as a kid, and even after seeing parts of the movie through parted fingers, this image continued to haunt me. “TV people” is just one of the many horrifying ingredients in this scare salad of a movie especially tuned to frighten children.

Nightmare on Elm Street 3/4/5

As Freddy Krueger’s popularity rose to stratospheric heights throughout the 80’s, the box art for his movies started featuring him more prominently (and plainly) front and center. Unlike the poster art of the first two films that focused more on the main protagonists and featured bizarre, skeletal versions of Freddy, the later sequels show him to you in full glory, as the REAL star of this franchise.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

Another simple yet dramatically effective horror movie cover (whatever happened to this style?). For kids in the late 80’s, Jason and Freddy were IT. Even if we were never allowed, or too scared, to watch their movies, even if we couldn’t even keep straight which series each was from, we all knew who these guys were. And basically, Jason WAS a hockey mask, so putting that image on the box with the bloody knife sticking out was all you needed to know to know this one probably wasn’t fucking around. It was, of course, fucking around, because a Part 5 went into production pretty much as soon as “The Final Chapter” was released. You gotta love that old school hucksterism.

So what am I missing here? What VHS movie boxes traumatized you, fellow late 80’s child?

2 comments

  1. Halloween 5
    Return of the Living Dead 2
    Evil Dead 2
    Nightmare on Elm Street 3
    Sleepaway Camp
    Slumber Party Massacre
    Faces of Death

    …were all big players in my weekly fear-filled trip down horror row…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *