Why Horror VHS Artwork Was So F*cked Up


Today, renting a movie doesn’t require much effort. Anyone can simply pull out their phone, or turn on their Smart TV and click on a thumbnail image, all without ever having to leave the house.
It’s easy, it’s convenient. But if I’m being honest, a part of me misses the time,
when renting a movie was an entire experience in itself. [ad in the background]
“Welcome to Blockbuster Video!” When I was a kid, there was nothing better,
than walking into a Blockbuster Video on a Friday night. In a matter of seconds, I would lose myself in a maze of shelves bursting with VHS tapes stacked high above my head, each with their cover designs pointed out at me, and each offering the promise to bring me into a unique world. I’d slowly make my way through
action, and comedy, and romance, but no journey was considered complete,
without a dark dive through the horror aisle. It was my favorite section – and that’s probably
because horror VHS artwork was really f*cked up. Out of hundreds of horror film covers I saw, a select few were forever burned into my young, impressionable mind. I was hooked, they had me.
And that’s the point. This is no mere coincidence: This entire exchange between the VHS tape,
and myself, in that video store aisle, was an example of perfectly executed AIDA-method advertising. AIDA is an acronym, that stands for:
attention, interest, desire, and action. The concept, commonly attributed to advertising pioneer
E. St. Elmo Lewis at the turn of the 19th century, proposes, that advertising messages
need to accomplish a number of tasks, in order to move a consumer through a series of sequential steps, towards the eventual purchase of a product. Let’s examine each step, and track how their influence
can be seen throughout horror VHS cover art. First: attention. With the rise of affordable VCR players,
and the accessibility of VHS tapes, the 1980s saw a period,
known as “The Great Video Boom”. It was the first time, that the average consumer could easily watch videos from the comfort of their own home. And with the rise in demand, the market was flooded with more and more at-home content. In order to stand out from the noise in the film market,
advertisers had to find practical ways to make their films louder and louder,
in order to grab the consumers attention. This couldn’t have come at a better time for the horror genre, which was continuing to push the limits of shock and disgust. The exploitation films of the 1970s,
touting ultraviolence and sex, such as “I Spit On Your Grave”,
and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, quickly evolved into the slasher films of the 1980s, such as “Halloween”, “Friday the 13th”,
and “A Nightmare on Elm Street”. So, how do these covers effectively grab our attention? First off, none of these designs are muddy or jumbled. Instead, they have clear images
in the center of the artwork. In “Halloween”, it’s a brightly lit pumpkin with glowing eyes, that first grabs our attention. But then we also notice the knife,
drawn in a suggestive stabbing position, which is also largest in the center of the design. Having a single image in the center of the design
is the simplest way to catch someone’s eye. In “Monkey Shines”, it’s a terrifying monkey puppet, holding a bloody razor. In “The Nest”, it’s a large cockroach,
attacking woman in her underwear. In all of these, the title is large and clearly legible. The color schemes are simplified as well. All three are mostly black and white,
with a single color, that makes the image pop. For “Halloween” it’s the bright orange,
highlighting the holiday and our main antagonist. And for “Monkey Shines” and “The Nest”
the design incorporates red, both in the blood and in the font,
suggesting violence and gore. Keeping the layout and color scheme of the design clean, with the main draw front and center, will help grab the consumers’ attention. In contrast, here’s the main advertising artwork for the film “Get Out”. Where does your eye go?
What catches your attention? For me, my eye went to the gap in the broken glass,
and towards the main character’s back; since that’s almost centered,
and takes up a lot of space in the design. As much as I love the film, this is
extremely ineffective and lackluster. The design is muddy, with a mash of incoherent images,
that don’t evoke any kind of response from me. Look at how much more effective
this alternate version of the artwork is. Our protagonist is centered,
with a look of sheer horror on his face. The colors split down the center makes the design pop. And the only color is a spot of red, highlighting the creator, which is a big selling point. Attention is first, but then the consumer
must move on to the next step – interest. The consumers are walking the horror aisle of a video store for a reason. They wanna find a movie, that will
both entertain and scare them. And in this step, the cover art must feed
off of those desires by creating curiosity. The images can spark questions, establish the mood,
and even throw the audience into the world of the story. Designs from the films, like: “Child’s Play 2”, “Silent Night, Deadly Night”, “The Video Dead” and “Ghoulies”, challenge expectations by taking something
the consumer is already aware of. In this case: a doll, Santa Claus,
a television, and a toilet, and twisting it into something terrifying. Subverting expectations is an effective way to provoke questions, leaving your audience wanting to know more. In “April Fool’s Day”, they’ve taken something innocent, like a woman’s hair, and turned it into a universal symbol of death. The design also sets a tone, as we see
a young cast washed in a pink hue, almost like something out of a John Hughes movie. But then, we’re also shown the juxtaposing images of the noose and the knife, which don’t appear to fit into this world. The entire design exudes an ironic, playful tone,
which could be the deciding factor for the consumer. Once the consumers curiosity’s been piqued,
they must then move on to the third step – desire. In this step, the design needs to back up its claims,
to satisfy the consumer with tangible information. The majority of this information will come
from the synopsis on the back of the tape,
or reviews incorporated into the cover design. The design and information should give the audience what they want. Blood: ☑ Nudity: ☑ Humor: ☑ And in the 1980s, what audiences wanted was to find films, that would push the limits of what was deemed socially acceptable. And the lack of legislation and regulations in the video market, led to designs, like “The Driller Killer”
and “Cannibal Holocaust”. In the UK, there was a cultural panic,
which led to censorship, and banning of these certain films,
which were coined “video nasties”. [BBC Hour newscaster]
“40% of 5 and 6-year-old children have seen a video nasty, showing scenes of sadistic sex and violence,
horrific enough to have been seized by the police”. [prof. Christopher Frayling]
“There was no certification system for home entertainment. So all these videos were coming out
uncertificated, between ’82 and ’84.” [Entertain The Elk]
In total, 72 separate films appear in the
“list of video nasties”, at one time or another. Including: “Dawn of the Dead”, “The Evil Dead”, and “The Hills Have Eyes”. However, in the United States, these films chose to wear those warning labels like a badge of honor. Including “Make Them Die Slowly”, and “Headless Eyes”. These warning labels were too enticing for audiences to pass up. The moment they saw, that a film was completely banned or re-cut in other countries, they had to know, what all the outrage was about.
It was a marketer’s dream. In fact, some films that weren’t banned anywhere,
still decided to cover their designs with warning labels, with hopes of manufacturing their own publicity and intrigue. All of these steps mean nothing, if the consumer
doesn’t move on to the final step – action. This step is usually accomplished with the synopsis on the back of the tape, which is basically just a written sales pitch. But directives can also be incorporated into the designs,
speaking directly to the consumer. For example, in “Burial Ground” the design tells
the consumer, that “you have to watch it to believe it”. It’s a directive informing them,
that what lies inside the VHS tape, is far crazier and scarier, than anything they could possibly imagine. And designs for “Savage Weekend”
and “Don’t Go In The House”, speak to the audience, like they themselves are integrated into the story: “You have been chosen”, “you are doomed”,
“prepare yourself for…” and “you have been warned”. The consumer has no choice or say in the matter,
they are already on the adventure. Now they can merely purchase the film, and hold on for the ride. Netflix, Hulu, iTunes and other streaming services
have made renting movies simple and easy. But the generic, bland, promotional images they use, to market films on their sites, just don’t resonate the same way. And that’s because they aren’t able
to employ the AIDA method as effectively. Clicking a thumbnail from the comfort of my couch is extremely convenient. But when compared to the adventure
of getting lost in a video store, the experience will never come close. Hey everyone, thanks so much for watching. If you enjoyed this video, please subscribe below,
share with your friends, and leave me a comment below. Tell me, what your favorite horror movie is. For me, it’s probably ‘The Shining’,
with ‘The Thing’ coming in on a close second. And if you’d like to support Entertain The Elk,
so I can keep making these videos, feel free to check out my Patreon page,
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you’ll get 10% off your first purchase. Thanks again everyone for watching,
and I hope you all have a happy Halloween.

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