by Sandy DeVito
When you grew up in the middle of nowhere in the 90’s, you watched movies.
Or, rather, you watched the movies you could find. If you grew up Mormon and poor in rural Pennsylvania in the 90’s, like I did, you would watch whatever. Literally, anything you could find. Because you couldn’t find much, because everything was restricted and kept away from you. And this was before Netflix, y’all. This was before the internet, really. The internet was not really a household thing and nobody had it until I was more or less in middle school. Then we had dial-up for a really long time. So the internet wasn’t something you could watch movies on. Since I grew up poor (I was one of five kids and my dad worked for the local prison), we didn’t have a DVD player until I was in middle school, either. When I reminiscence about my rather unconventional childhood, I realized my timeline for when technologies became available is skewed because I often experienced them significantly later than most people my age. Being poor does that. When you’re poor, you experience a lower quality of life in every aspect. That’s why capitalism is evil, y’all. But I digress.
What I’m getting to is, we had a VCR my entire life until I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18, even after we got a DVD player. I don’t remember when I stopped watching VHS tapes regularly, but it was probably significantly later than most people my age. My mother raised us on a steady diet of Disney films and benign dramas (Kevin Sullivan’s Anne of Green Gables comes to mind), but my dad was slightly more lenient about what he let us imbibe. Let me, first, explain that in rural Pennsylvania, there is nothing. Nooooothing. There is woods and farmland with dairy or beef cows. There are dubiously paved roads. There are Amish and Mennonite people who are very polite and keep to themselves always. We had a few surrounding neighbors, but our house was at the end of a very long gravel path behind a line of dense trees. We basically grew up in seclusion back there: my world revolved around going to school, visiting my grandparents (they lived in suburban Mercer), and my aunts (who both lived in suburban areas), going to church (yes, in fact, there are some Mormon people in Pennsylvania, though a lot more in Ohio, very close to where I grew up), and being home. I won’t get into my home life much, mostly because for every good memory I have of doing things with my siblings, I have three bad memories of my parents fighting or my dad being an asshole. But when we were younger, my dad was nicer and he would take us to the video store.
The video store was about a fifteen minute drive from where we lived. In order to go places in rural Pennsylvania, you need a car. Everything is at least a fifteen minute drive away; the closest gas station, the closest restaurant, the closest grocery store. The video store was across the street from a Sheetz. (that’s the Western PA version of Wawa, y’all, and it’s a poor substitute for Wawa, let me tell you). [Editor’s note: Wawa is a 7-11 mixed with a Subway or other comparable shitty sub place, but don’t tell people from Philly that. They’ll lose their everloving shit.] The video store closed a few years into my middle school years, so my memories of it are vague (though all of them are good). It was quite small; maybe two rooms. They always smelled very musty. VHS rental stores had a very unique smell, almost like a used bookstore but slightly different. It smelled like old memories, but memories of things you’ve seen, not things you’ve imagined. This video rental store also had lots of candy at the register, and some toys. My dad used to buy us Pogs there sometimes (remember Pogs?). There were two areas in the video store: the area for kids, and the area for adults. The adult area may or may not have included porn, but it had ALL the other videos for adults too, R-rated movies and PG-13 alike. The kid’s movies were in the front as soon as you came in the door. They had lots of the videos displayed on front-facing shelves but there were other shelves behind that had videos lined up alphabetically by their spine. I used to gaze at whatever was displayed in the front with wide eyes, admiring the box art. VHS tapes always had great box art. There was a certain quality of presentation that doesn’t exist for home-video releases quite in the same way (except maybe what Shout Factory is doing). VHS tapes exist in their own specific memory for me; their own special mental space in my backlog.
I remember two tapes I would ask to rent the most. They were: Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story and Ron Howard’s Willow. I must have made my dad rent these two tapes ten times each. I think the first time I watched Star Wars I was 11; I definitely watched Willow before that. If lots of people grew up loving Han Solo more than any other fictional character, I loved Madmartigan that way for awhile. Lots of people bring up how much Artax dying in the Swamp of Sadness fucked them up; I loved that scene. I mean, sure, it made me sad. But it also made me realize that life was inherently sad, and sometimes we lose the ones we love, and sometimes that’s part of the journey too. I had a beautiful white plastic horse that looked just like Artax. My sister found a cloth bridle that looked just like Artax’s in the movie and put it on my horse for me. For years I had my Artax on my bookshelf. Later, when I was diagnosed with clinical depression and an eating disorder, I thought about that scene sometimes. I thought about how depression is like the swamp, sucking you down into darkness, making you fight to stay alive. Now, when I watch Willow and The Neverending Story, I feel them in my bones, because they are a part of who I am, utterly. They are me. Their practical puppets and dramatic scores (James Horner’s Willow score still makes me cry, conjuring a thousand memories of childhood in its notes). Their high fantasy, worlds of fantastica, abandon, and endless hope. Their musty VHS tapes, watched by a hundred kids before me, hopefully watched by a hundred kids after me, whispering secrets about how to survive through this wretched life. If we can’t have magick that lives and breathes in every fiber of our daily lives, we can always return to the magick that inherently exists in movies. The Neverending Story and Willow have magick that never fades for me. Limahl singing the opening lines of the song with pink clouds floating behind the opening titles; I see that in my dreams. If I hadn’t had the memory of renting those tapes, of the joy and excitement I felt when my dad said we were going to the video rental store, would I feel the same way about them? Maybe. I don’t know. But I know that the process of finding them, discovering them, in a musty, tiny video store is a memory I cherish.