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9 Rare and Expensive Types of VHS Tapes

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Collectors of any kind know that scarcity is king, but that the loving eye of the beholder can also account for a lot; for example, a slice of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding cake recently sold for almost $3000, even though it was presumably pretty stale.

The same is true of VHS, a medium which, having only finally been retired by major studios in 2006, is still finding its groove with collectors in terms of what’s precious and what’s worthless. To wit: eBay sellers are currently hawking seemingly a million VHS copies of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for anywhere from $10 to $500.

Here are a few kinds of VHS tapes—including this year’s hot properties and some long-standing rare finds—that you might want to stop using to prop up the cat’s litter box.

1. HORROR FILMS: THE MORE ‘SCHLOCKY’ AND LOW-BUDGET, THE BETTER

While pristine "first edition" VHS copies of time-honored movies are always great, aficionados are especially interested in gathering and archiving movies that never made it to DVD or other digital formats (even Yale University is pitching in)—often because nobody ever bothered to preserve those particular flicks.

The result is that many of the rarest, most desirable VHS tapes contain films that are real clunkers. Tales from the Quadead Zone recently made a splash by fetching $700 (an amount that might double by the next time it’s resold) despite being a trainwreck of a movie. As TIME puts it, the horror film’s high resale value can be credited to the fact that “schlocky horror and exploitation films stand little chance of ever being transferred to DVD or Blu-ray, [meaning] VHS copies are often the last surviving evidence that the film existed.” So, for both fans and archivists, they’re priceless.

2. PRO WRESTLING

Both professional wrestling and VHS enjoyed their golden ages in the final two decades of the last millennium, and their combination makes for real heritage items among collectors. Got a copy of the 1994 WCW classic Halloween Havoc that’s still in the shrink wrap? Unless you’re (understandably) dying to watch it yourself, leave that plastic on—there’s one on eBay looking to fetch several hundred dollars. World Class Championship Wrestling Vol. 1-5 are also quite rare (and valued accordingly), while an opened copy of Bash at the Beach 2000 recently sold for $599.

3. FILM RELEASES FROM SECOND-RATE AND DEFUNCT DISTRIBUTORS

So the only thing about your tape that rings less of a bell than its goofy title is the pulled-a-name-out-of-a-hat company that produced and sold the tape? That’s a great sign.

During VHS’s heyday, small distribution companies picked up the cheap rights to all kinds of titles (especially B movies and public domain "classics"), letting them turn a quick profit by selling budget films on budget tapes. Some distributors produced tape boxes and sleeves that were absolute gems, while others absolutely did not, and both the highs and lows of small-time re-releases make a big splash among collectors.

For example, Donna Michelle Productions (no relation to classic Playboy Playmate-turned-actress Donna Michelle, as far as we know) released seven horror flicks between 1986 and 1990 that really strain the term “B movie” and drive VHS collectors wild. The 1987 rural horror film Splatter Farm—written and directed by John Polonia, Mark Polonia, and Todd Smith, and starring Marion Costly, John Polonia, Mark Polonia, and Todd Smith—is one of this prized batch, and almost impossible to find. It’s been released on DVD, too, but the format matters: To see every gruesome shot of farm butchery found in the original version, you have to watch the tape.

If you come across any Donna Michelle Productions releases—especially Rock and Roll Mobster Girls or Monsters and Maniacs—be sure to hang on to them, as they can fetch three-digit prices.

4. DISCONTINUED OR BANNED MOVIES

Regardless of which field they’re scouring, many collectors aim to scoop up those items that authority—or even society as a whole—has deemed unsuitable. Such is the case with Disney’s controversial 1947 musical film Song of the South, which had a few theatrical releases over the years, was then finally and summarily retired from Disney’s cache of offerings, and can fetch around $30 on tape.

It’d also be worth seeing if your garage has any titles found on the list of "video nasties" that were banned (or, at least, heavily scrutinized) by the British Board of Film Classification starting in the mid-‘80s. For several years, public discussion of these films linked them to rising violence among youths, while the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions argued they were in violation of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. An original copy of 1979’s Delirium, aka Psycho Puppet, for example, can easily net between $100 and $150.

5. MUSIC MOVIES

Various music films found their final resting place on VHS tapes, too, including ones from the some of the world’s most famous bands. The documentary film Let it Be is a behind-the-scenes look at the recording process for the Beatles’ album of the same name; because it ended up capturing the very sour dynamics in the group right before the four split up for good, however, their production company elected to let VHS be the film’s final format. Only last month, too, was The Decline of Western Civilization, the renowned documentary about underground LA punk, released on DVD and Blu-ray for the first time—having made it one of the most sought-after VHS titles for over 30 years.

6. COMPLETE TV SERIES RUNS (IN ALL THEIR SPACE-HOGGING GLORY)

If you’ve been dedicating, say, a quarter of your basement to storing VHS box sets of old primetime TV shows, you’ve made a wise choice: one asking price for 23 episodes of Star Trek is $345, while Set 3 of The Best of the Simpsons commands $45 on its own.

7. FOREIGN FILMS AND TV SHOWS

If interest in a particular film has dipped or vanished before a format changeover, there’s a fair chance that this title won’t make the cut of movies that receive the upgrade. When it comes to international and foreign language films, competition for next-generation format preservation by U.S. production companies is fierce, especially if a large number of fans haven’t been howling for it. Thus, in order to enjoy programming like Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals (among many other things), you gotta track it down on tape (and can expect to pay big bucks).

8. EXPLOITATION FILMS AND RELATED SUB-GENRES

From classic "exploitation" titles and Blaxploitation sagas to (mostly European) nunsploitation ones, the cult favorites in these over-the-top genres always get action from collectors. If you’re looking to buy, the film Sextette, starring Mae West, Timothy Dalton, and Dom DeLuise, will only cost around $15 or so all told, but even a former rental store copy of the Blaxploitation classic Brotherhood of Death could set you back $76—and that’s without an unaltered original case.

9. REALLY, ANYTHING WITH A WILD, CREATIVE, OR INACCURATE COVER

This point is likely old news to the record-collectors, but the cover art and packaging of many VHS tapes—whether it’s particularly great or awful, or somehow both—can carry a lot of weight in terms of their value; for example, you might want to drop $20 on a VHS copy of the mediocre movie Revenge of the Mysterons From Mars (which featured Supermarionation special effects) if you find yourself moved by its striking but awkward cover art.

On the other hand, if covers aren’t your thing, that same $20 could get you a copy of “How to Get a Record Deal”—featuring sage advice from Kenny Loggins, Phil Collins, and others—plus a pizza and/or a sixpack of beer to go with it (pizza rates may vary by location). Then again, you could keep it simple and just get enough $0.99-copies of the “Ab-Doer Back & Spine” exercise video to fill a bathtub. To each their own.

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The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
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In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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Wise Quacks: A History of the Rubber Duck
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In the middle of a raging storm in 1992, a cargo ship carrying a huge assortment of vinyl toys tipped over. Descending into the Pacific were nearly 29,000 tub playthings, including untold thousands of rubber ducks. Bobbing and drifting, the tiny yellow birds took weeks, months, and years to wash ashore in Hawaii, Maine, Seattle, and other far-flung locations. Their journeys were able to tell oceanographers crucial information about waves, currents, and seasonal changes—what one journalist dubbed “the conveyor belt” of the sea.

The humble little rubber duck had, once again, exceeded expectations.


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Aside from soap, shampoo, and towels, there may be no more pervasive an item in a kid-occupied bathtub than the rubber duck, a generic aquatic toy that usually squeaks, sometimes spits water, and can be teethed upon without incident.

The ducks had their origins in the mid-1800s, when rubber manufacturing began to gain ground. Out of the many animals crafted, they were the most native to water and broke away from the pack. Families who used to make bathing a weekly event prior to Sunday church sessions would entice children to submerge themselves in the murky tubs with a duck, some of which didn’t float. They were intended as chew toys.

In 1933, a latex supplier licensed a series of Disney characters and made inexpensive bath floaters: The most popular were Donald and Donna Duck. While Disney’s brand recognition helped, companies looking to mass-market cheap ducks didn’t want to depend on a license. Sculptor Peter Ganine is believed to have been the now-familiar generic duck’s primary designer, patenting a toy in 1949 for a period of 14 years. Ganine reportedly sold over 50 million of them.

By the early 1960s, the vinyl ducks were free from patent restriction and became a bathroom fixture. They were cheaply made, cheaply acquired, and a soothing presence for children with apprehensions about being dipped into water. Any hydrophobia was eased by the bright yellow duck, who didn’t appear to have a care in the world.

On February 25, 1970, rubber ducks got their biggest break yet. On the first season of Sesame Street, Ernie splashed in a tub while singing an ode to his maritime companion:

Rubber Duckie, you’re the one

You make bath time lots of fun

Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you

Rubber Duckie, joy of joys

When I squeeze you, you make noise

Rubber Duckie, you’re my very best friend, it’s true

The song went on to sell over 1 million copies as a single and has been included in well over 21 different Sesame Street compilation albums. The image of Ernie playing with the duck was licensed for T-shirts, storybooks, and other merchandise that further endeared the ducks to child-occupied households.

The duck has since undergone some minor advancements. Some, molded to resemble celebrities or athletes, are a popular gift or marketing tool; others are sculpted to giant-sized proportions to bob in lakes during summer festivals. And while the toys now come in $99, Bluetooth-enabled versions, it was the classic yellow duck that made it in 2013 into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Additional Sources:
“Rubber Ducks and Their Significance in Contemporary American Culture,” The Journal of American Culture, Volume 29, Number 1 [PDF].

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