NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library recently acquired a blockbuster of a collection: 2,700 VHS tapes, most of which are from the horror and exploitation genres.

Tucked in the “basement backlog” of Sterling are 45 boxes full of tapes that had their heyday in the late 1970s and early ’80s, said David Gary, a librarian of American history.

There’s “The Werewolf of Washington” from 1973, with the iconic horror movie host Elvira on the box. There’s “What the Swedish Butler Saw,” which may best be left unknown.

Gary met Aaron Pratt, a doctoral candidate in English, during one of Pratt’s weekly movie nights and the two decided that Video Home System tapes were worth preserving so they started looking for them and amassed about 100. But they knew they had hit the big time when Joe Pesch of Kittering, Ohio, offered to sell his 2,700 tapes.

Both Gary and Pratt are from Ohio and during Christmas break, “We actually went to the guy’s house to look at these,” said Pratt. “We had to make sure the collection was what we thought it was.”

It turned out it was just what they’re looking for. “The whole collection is horror and exploitation movies,” said Gary. “We had to go kind of genre-specific to make it manageable.”


The collection is “probably going to be in the nicest home it’ll ever be in,” said Pesch by phone. He said he still has thousands of tapes and hasn’t stopped collecting.

“I grew up watching ‘Scooby Doo’ and ‘Shock Theater.’ Ever since, it’s had an allure for me,” Pesch said.

These are the kinds of movies that really demonstrate what the VHS era was about, less anonymous than a movie theater: “It’s social, but more intimate by virtue of the increased privacy of the home,” said Pratt. They’re the kind of movies teen boys would rent for “the express purpose of watching with your friends,” he said.

Now, if you want to see “Widow’s Nest,” you’re more likely to stream it – if it’s available. Many of these movies were actually filmed on VHS tape, the magnetic strip spooled inside those plastic boxes, and never released in theaters.

“It’s a throwback to a culture that everybody remembers,” Pratt said. “The dumber and weirder this stuff seems, the more important it is to save them.”

Among universities, “No one else is collecting this material that we know about,” said Gary. “We’re trying to create a large archive” so future scholars can answer questions “that we don’t even know of right now.”


They’ll also be available for public viewing in the special collections reading room, the players sitting alongside the august volumes that Sterling is home to, though requests will have to be made in advance so the tape can be brought out of storage.

Gary and Pratt, whose main field is Shakespeare and the history of books, aren’t just interested in the films as cinema but also as objects. The gaudy artwork, the packaging, the previews are all material they believe it’s important to save.

They also hope to digitize the collection, but it’s costly, at about $50 per tape and raises copyright issues.

Meanwhile, viewers can still enjoy “Zombie … The Dead Are Among Us.”

“This stuff will be preserved and this is a culture I care about,” said Gary.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.