Reelin’ in the Years

by Jake Brandenstein

As a 24 year old I’ve developed this odd sense over my “three sets of eight” — certain stages of my life are now in the past and feel like separate lives all together. Jobs I’ve held, old friends who I no longer see, and brief stints with certain Mike Patton records feel like they belonged to a different person. Yet, I look at my shelf in my room full of old CD’s, thinking “I’ll never forget the day that I listened to this one for the first time.” Despite these previous lives that constructed this walking building with a brain (that’s me), I owe the best side of me to one group of people, and that’s my friends. 

I can remember enjoying cheesy movies since I was young, probably 13 or younger. I used to get together with a group of friends from my school and watch “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The show revolved around three characters who were stuck on a spaceship, forced to watch awful movies as some form of torture; during the movies the characters would rip the movie apart, making hilarious comments seemingly out of nowhere. From there on out, my friends and I fell into a void of cheese from which we would never escape, bringing forth one of my favorite traditions that I hold with those close to me. 

Pat Clifford (left) and Nick Sherock (right) with fresh stacks of tapes from Youngstown’s Goodwill. Photo by Jake Brandenstein.

Although several friends of mine share a love for bad movies and cursed media, one in particular has been by my side since day one. Nick Sherock initially inspired the activity we refer to as “tape hunting.” It’s simple: We hit up a thrift store or two and search for the strangest VHS tapes that we can find. Some people want to hunt for Bigfoot, some want to go to Area 51, but we took a route that was far more dangerous. Since 2018, Nick and I have found some absurdities, some gems, and a bit of everything in between. 

“I guess what got me into tapes specifically was ‘Wheel of The Worst’ on RedLetterMedia,” Sherock said. 

Wheel of the Worst is a series featured on the popular film-related YouTube channel RedLetterMedia. The series follows a group of friends who watch weird and obscure tapes together that get sent in by fans.  It was largely this outrageous internet series that made us want to look for tapes as media in general. 

Sherock went on to say that the appeal of tapes doesn’t come from the format itself for him — it’s more that he notices the standards for quality and what could be sold appear much less strict for tapes, as opposed to DVD’s or other media. It’s this mentality when going on these searches that really makes the hunt exciting for us. 

“I guess it’s the same feeling that people probably get when opening up a pack of trading cards and finding something like the holographic shiny card, except you don’t even know what you’re looking for, so it’s even more of a surprise,” said Sherock. 

The tapes that we have found on our various journeys have been quite literally all over the place. Some of which include:

A home movie tape that consisted of random mid-90s television clips that would change in totally random patterns.

“Frog,” a direct to video flick directed by Shelley Duvall where a young boy acquires a talking frog that helps him find love. 

An amateur home-documentation of a hunter filming himself hunting a bear. 

Or, one of my personal favorites, the “The Adventures of The Polar Cubs” — an obscure anime movie from the late 70s, featuring some of the worst voice acting that I have ever heard. 

Pat Clifford showing off a few of his latest finds. Video Courtesy of Jake Brandenstein

As a frequent Goodwill shopper myself, I asked Sydney Tillman, a manager at Goodwill in Boardman, Ohio, what she noticed about VHS sales in her store. 

“As a member of the managerial staff at Goodwill, we are seeing a spike in the purchase of VHS tapes. We also sell them extremely cheap so people know that they can either go online and pay almost the original price of a VHS tape, or buy them at a thrift store for 25 cents,” Tillman said.

Tillman mentioned that she thinks tapes are becoming a collector’s item — not only that, but they are also becoming more popular for the sole purpose of watching the original composition of movies without the remastering or edits that we typically see now. 

“People who resell know that people are seeking VHS tapes out and there is a market for these tapes,” Tillman said. “Without VHS tapes having an intrinsic value to people, there wouldn’t be a market for them, so I think people are collecting these little pieces of history while also still using and enjoying them.”

Last year was, well… rough. Yet, when I would gather with my pals and view cursed tapes, everything else just disappeared for a bit — it’s truly a group activity like no other. Not everyone will understand the appeal of this. However, finding people to enjoy a bad movie with is something quite special. 

Pat Clifford, a friend of mine and connoisseur of bad movies, said it best when I asked him about the joy of watching bad media with people. 

“If you’re watching something that’s super cheesy and you aren’t enjoying it whatsoever, at least you can bond over the fact you all hate it — sometimes you just gotta stop taking life too seriously and enjoy the cheese!”