by Tresa Rentler
The year is 2000, December, two weeks before Christmas. My grandmother babysits a mop-top blonde five-year-old and asks her to pick a movie from the bookshelf of tapes near the television. After scanning the array of colorful Disney and Nickelodeon features on the bottom row, she ventures to the next highest shelf, also known as Dad’s Shelf. Scrolling past titles she’s never seen before; Phantasm, Lethal Weapon, Pulp Fiction, Wayne’s World, she sees a bright gold symbol that she recognizes from a cartoon television show. Pulling the tape out from the shelf, the shiny film on the black paper case glints in the soft lamplight of the living room and the symbol is again embossed on the front cover, under 6 large gold letters:
Remembering the cartoon Batman she watches every Saturday morning on the WB Kids Network, she flips the case over to see which episodes are on the tape. Staring back at her is the white face paint, devilish smile of Jack Nicholson’s Joker through blood-red lips. In a panicked moment of terror, she throws the tape to ground, running into the hallway in a fit of tears. Her jovially amused grandmother calms her down, telling her she’ll put the movie on the top shelf where the child won't see it and promises her that the man on the box is just a picture. After some coaxing, they return to the living room and agree to watch The Rugrats for the third time that week.
Millennials, for the most part, remember their childhood as the twilight of the VHS era. Just as we were developing interests in movies, we, or rather our parents, were given the option to buy a movie on tape or as a DVD. My father, the ever tech-savvy multimedia fiend of the family, was quick to jump on the DVD train. And who could blame him? DVDs were higher definition, easier to store, share, and, most importantly, no rewinding, a task my parents dreaded doing. Nearly everything we watched was on DVD, and as I got older and we replaced tapes with discs, our VHS collection was boxed up to be either stored, sold or thrown away, save for some home movies of kindergarten graduation and family vacations.
In my memory, my childhood movies were fairly typical of most growing up in the 90s and early 2000s. Bambi, Beauty and The Beast, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and other Disney classics were always front and center on the shelf dedicated to VHS tapes at our house. The colorful print on the hard plastic shell case (which always crackled and creaked upon opening), the distinct chemical smell of the tape case, the pamphlet stuck to the inner cover advertising other movies to soon be released, and the etched white lettering of the movie’s title on the matte black tape are all nostalgic gems that stick out.
While it seemed that the rest of the modern world was so quick to move on to DVDs, I remember VHS tapes as a source of joy in my earliest years. They represented a brief moment in modern history that encapsulated 90s movie culture. While we may never revert back to tapes for our viewing pleasure, we will always remember their distinct style, art, and place on our living room shelves, never to be completely replaced.