Growing up, one of the few things I was allowed to do freely while living under my conservative, restrictive, and isolating family’s roof was watch movies and shows. They didn’t limit screen time and their rules about what we were allowed to watch were arbitrary enough to allow broad scopes of media open to access. Since generally all I was able to do was watch movies, shows, and cable, I have a lot of nostalgic memories surrounding it that I’d like to share.
In a bite of the wall (and later in the built-in wood alcove) was kept the movie cabinet, which was less a cabinet and more a set of drawers with two shelves on top. It was custom built to be deep, wide, tall and made of entirely wood, (no screws), so you can imagine it was incredibly sturdy and very heavy. Originally, it was a dusty light blue with hand-painted flowers on the drawer fronts (which had no knobs, but was pulled out by placing your hand in the opening near the top of each drawer), but was later repainted to be dark blue with white fronts. The bottom drawer held Shirley Temple plastic clamshell case VHSes and Nick Jr. (especially Blue’s Clues); the second one up, Disney plastic clamshell case classics; third up, Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Looney Tunes cartoons; fourth up, educational videos like Discovery and See How They Grow. The last 3 drawers were more eclectic, with old Bob Hope movies, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Spot the Dog, recorded VHSes of Food Network Unwrapped and Mickey’s Prince and the Pauper, and a couple other options. The lower shelf held adult romance dvds and, eventually, holiday movies (the upper shelf was too skinny, so it generally held figurines or some other brick-a-brack).
When I wanted to watch something, I would go to the cabinet, pull out a drawer (the bottom two were very heavy, so I’d have to brace my feet on the floor to get enough leverage to pull it out), and carefully slide out a box from the tightly packed rows. Sometimes I would reorganize the cabinet, placing the VHS boxes in an order that made sense to my brain since no one else cared how the movies were arranged as long as they could find what they wanted. I was very nostalgic for that cabinet and talked my mom out of getting rid of it twice before it finally went the way of the garage sale. It was such a basic nothing piece of furniture, but in my mind, it held riches, and so it was a treasure in and of itself.
Closely tied to my nostalgia of the movie cabinet is my nostalgia for the VHS tapes it held. I can still hear the sound of clamshell cases in my ears, and I also loved the colored VHSes (the Nick Jr. cases were orange, and we had a Disney Vacation one that was blue). The holiday movies were special because we were only allowed to touch them around Christmastime; the rest of the year we had to pretend they weren’t there. For the recorded VHSes, we had these black cases with handmade construction paper covers that had the name of the movie written in marker on the front and the side. There were also a few movies in our collection we weren’t allowed to watch for some reason, and I think there were a few we never touched but never got rid of either.
As for watching VHSes, there were two rules we were given. The first was more of a request than a rule: rewind after we finished watching (but, well, being kids, that didn’t always happen). The second was that we weren’t allowed to rewind things while the images played. If we needed to rewind, we had to press Stop to turn off the visuals then press the Rewind button. My mom said it hurt the cassettes if you rewinded while the image played; I don’t know how true that is, but I didn’t argue with it. One thing I did do that I wasn’t supposed to, though, was play with the cassettes. I just liked how stimmy they were. I would put my fingers in the wheels and try to turn them or just press in, since they were button-like. I also liked pressing the little button on the side to open the cassette’s tape shield. I wouldn’t touch or play with the tape at all, since I knew that would hurt the movie, but I did love to flip up that little plastic flap.
And finally, I hold nostalgia for the interesting quirks a VHS would have. The soft or sometimes loud buzzing where there was a glitch, the crackling in the background audio, and the long tone when you reached the end of the tape are all very memorable to me, but there is nothing that sticks out more in my mind than the fast, whining whirring as a tape was rewound, because I always felt like it was going to zoom right out of the player like a shot if I didn’t have my finger ready to pause in case it went too fast. And finally, the most satisfying sound: the soft chingk the player would make when you pressed stop, and the louder, more startling CHUNGK when it finished rewinding. Both sounds are so specific to VHS; when we switched to DVDs and then Blu-rays, I very much came to miss it.
Then there were the visual glitches: pepper noise, rainbow noise, images rolling from top to bottom, horizontal misalignment, noise stripes, noise with a spiky stripe running across it (vertically or horizontally), and much more, as unique as snowflakes to each individual tape. And yet, you would still watch it, even if you knew the movie or show would have a small glitch at a certain part, making you miss a snippet at the same moment every time you watched it. As long as you accepted the minor imperfections, it was possible to watch a slightly faulty VHS tape over and over start to finish without issue by infering what was happening where the glitches were. The same can’t be said for DVDs, which will skip whole sections of a movie if they have a glitch, making you miss an important plot point without mercy. So basically it’s like:
VHS: I’m so sorry my tapes a little messy here so my image is gonna get really noisy for a, bit but you can still see the shape of everything moving and the sound is still fine so hopefully you can still understand what's going on and continue watching the movie without problems. I really don't mean to be an inconvenience so I’m gonna keep playing as best as I can.
DVD: Oops, I got caught in an itsy bitsy scratch so now I'm going to skip to the end of the movie because I just can't handle this pressure anymore and no, there's nothing you can do about it because I'm a stubborn whiny little beyotch.
I don’t mind that media technology has evolved to have blu-rays be the most prominent physical format, since they have better quality, can hold much more storage, are more long-lasting, and are resistant to damage, but I am also glad that I was able to have VHS as my first intro to media.
Another aspect of my childhood media watching experience was our local video rental store. It moved three times over the years, but that didn’t stop us from patronizing it. Usually, we’d spend a couple of hours scouring the movie aisles, reading the backs of VHS and DVD boxes for our next film to watch. In addition to movies, there was a video game section and an upper platform called “The Vault” because it had older and rarer movies in it.
For prices, the store had a color system instead of bar codes. When we’d come into the store, my dad would say something like, “You can get 3 blue dot movies or one green dot and one blue dot”. So we’d scramble over to the family or kids movie aisles and pick out ones that looked interesting or ones we had watched before, while our dad would go and pick out a new release for us to watch as a family and probably a grown up movie too. When we had picked out our goodies, we’d run them over for him to examine and approve and then dump them on the checkout counter for when he was ready. While waiting, we’d run up and down the aisles just for fun (especially in The Vault) or even go sit in this little kiddie den they had with deflated bean bags and Looney Tunes playing on an old TV.
Another cool thing was that the store had a neat discount system, like, “If your first name starts with this letter, get 10% off,” or, “Wear a shirt this color to rent one blue dot, get one free,” or, “Guess this movie trivia and get free popcorn!” Which, uh, we had a bigger family, so we would pile all of us into the car to get a greater chance at a discount by sheer number and variety. It was always very exciting, like winning a game, when you fit the discount offer. Sometimes, if we asked very politely, the workers there would give us free balloons just because.
By the way, all the employee name tags were movie or game characters instead of their real names. For example, the main manager was just “Ms. Kitty”, and I also saw a Link (from Legend of Zelda) and Kermit before too. That was just another little touch that made [REDACTED] Video Rental Store a little extra special. I mean, can you imagine being checked out by a pimple-faced, teenaged “The Terminator”?
It was really sad when that store finally closed down. It lasted almost 3 decades, through the transition from VHS to DVD and Gamecube to Wii, as well as Netflix’s early DVD mail service, until finally streaming services ate its bottom line, making them close up shop and sell their entire inventory.
VHSes and [REDACTED] video rental store were both very formative keystone experiences in my childhood, and I think they contributed to my love of movies & shows to this day. Hence why I’m making this Movies & Media booth page in my Fav Fair.