With the explosion in the home video market (and long before Blockbuster/XtraVision standardised the business), working class business types running sweet shops, newsagents, chippies etc would get in on the market and become loaded overnight. One of the reasons is because (most of the time) the shops didn't care what they got in, so you would have shops that had seemingly everything from Apocalypse Now to Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. Of course, with there being no age restrictions, it was possible for horror fans to finally see what genuine, unregulated horror was like.
Films like Zombie Flesh Eaters, Cannibal Apocalypse, I Spit on Your Grave and The Driller Killer were released uncut onto tape. No need to go to the local fleapit cinema or hope that it turned up on TV. All you had to do was head to Rumbelows, hire a tape recorder, borrow the tape from your local newsagent and you had yourself a night. Unless you'd saved up for two years to buy a VCR.
It was mama from heaven.
But, in the wake of the hunger strikes, the Falklands, mass unemployment and the riots in Toxteth and Brixton, the Conservative government of the day were seemingly all too keen to use video nasties as a moral panic as a way of reinstituting order. So, by 1983, tales of children watching such films became tabloid fodder. This could then be used to explain rise in crime, immorality, truancy and even animal abuse. You name it, it was the fault of video nasties.
Take David Holbrook who, in his column for the Sunday Times, expressed the somewhat hysterical view that the popularity of video nasties demonstrated that:
The truth seems to be that if adults wish to indulge in cruel forms of the visual humiliation of human beings, and other degradations, children can no longer be protected - and the future consequences, whatever they may be, in disturbed behaviour are the price we must pay for progress. Since children are the future, does this indifference mean that we no longer care about tomorrow?
I think you'll agree that the above just oozes of arrogance and seething jealousy. Leaving aside the obvious (that such "cruel forms" are the foundation of art and Shakespearian plays, which he would have been all too familiar with), Holbrook's language is reminiscent of so many other moral panics (involving comic books, computer games etc) in that there are issues of class. Holbrook's social standing meant that he could position himself as the supreme moral guardian, making decisions on behalf of the great unwashed and making mental leaps that suggest that these works are highly corruptible.
However, as has been pointed out by the likes of Kim Newman, the covers were often the biggest magnets for controversy as they often highlighted instances of extreme gore in order to hype up the main presentation. Or we got particularly lurid drawings, implying that the film was too extreme to even use as a poster, so is it really a surprise that moralists would take a stand? Indeed, some have argued that the advertisers should have been aware that they would have been a target, and therefore must take the blame for what happened.
While I can see their point, it is not one I am sympathetic to. Especially considering, by the end of 1982, the police had seized 22,000 cassettes under the Obscene Publications Act (a campaign led by the Director of Public Prosecutions and the head of the British Board of Film Classifications, James Ferman) and were incinerating them. And when distributors (often small businessmen as opposed to multinational corporations like EMI) started to go to prison for distributing these tapes, then it was seemingly open season.
One of the key figures speaking out against the tabloid frenzy was Prof. Martin Barker of Aberystwyth University (then at Bristol Polytechnic). Pointing out that the Sun newspaper (then printing photographs of 16 year old Samantha Fox topless) had heavily criticised his defence of the video nasties by comparing them to the US horror comics outrage in Britain in the 1950's, he concluded that "...that sort of reaction proves my point. I have been treated as the dirt of society because I disagree."
Published in 1984, The Video Nasties collects a series of essays by various academics discussing the campaign, the implications for civil liberties.
Beginning with Barker outlining the history of the campaign and ending with the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, the reader is treated to a litany of the most melodramatic and absurd claims sensibly deconstructed by Barker. The most telling one involves the feckless working class parents too busy drinking and gambling to imbue their kids with art, literature and proper conversations (meaning they wouldn't be susceptible to such corrupting influences). Class war in effect.
American film critic Marco Star offers up a defence of one of the most notorious nasties, I Spit on Your Grave. The tale of a New York City author being gang raped in the woods, she extracts her revenge on the men through various brutal methods. Sexual violence against women is a trope the BBFC traditionally has had no truck with. Coupled with the infamous cover, it's no wonder the film set alarm bells ringing.
In his chapter, Starr takes the critics to task for claiming that the film is a misogynistic exploitation film, pointing out the strong female lead who takes action and that the rape is filmed in such a way that it emphasises the horror of the event as opposed to titillating the audience. As someone who found the film fairly dull and poorly acted, it's an argument that is lost on me. But it demonstrates a serious academic attempt to defend the material (something often sorely lacking, often due to the material not lending itself to serious scrutiny).
The most controversial segment is by Brian Brown, who had been a researcher for the Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry (a hugely misleading title as they were not an official parliamentary group, but were allowed to hold meetings on parliamentary grounds), which produced a report which claimed that up to 40% of children under the age of 7 had seen a video nasty.
Brown reveals, in frank detail, how the group was simply set up, not to actually study whether these films had any negative effects, but with the intention to get enough information to show how dangerous these films were and what could be done to restrict their influence. Which all had to be collected and reported within six months.
As any serious researcher will tell you, one must never start with a conclusion and then find (or fix) evidence to support the thesis. Coupled with the short time limit, Brown knew that this was not going to end well. Especially when, at one point, the head of the team broke into Brown's office, stole what research had been done by Brown and threw Brown off the project.
Oh, and the "40% claim?" Made up.
Brown reveals that, after the report was published, his staff did:
... a casual check...revealed that ...we had only received 46 returns from children in this age group ... ... only three of the children ... had claimed to have seen any video film at all - those three had ticked that they had seen some 17 nasties ...
Hence, "40% of children under the age of 7 have seen a video nasty."
In comparison, Graham Murdock's contribution looks at how such research can be problematic. He cites the example of researchers from Aston University in Birmingham going into schools with a list of films (some real, some fictitious) and asking the kids had they seen anything on the list. Unsurprisingly, nearly 70% of the kids named at least one of the bogus films as one they had seen.
Running at 130 pages, and slightly hamstrung by it's contemporaneous publication, the essays run the whole gauntlet from the back story to the campaign, deconstructing the stereotypes of impressionable children and even revealing the fraudulent research that was used to push the Video Recordings Act through, The Video Nasties is still a read that leaves the reader appalled at the blatant manipulation and the absurdity of the claims sprouted by the campaigners. Further books have expanded on the themes and looked at the subculture of fans themselves but, for it's historical importance, this is still an essential read.
Years later, Professor Barker was asked by filmmaker Jake West about his thoughts on the legacy of the video nasties. His words are ones that anyone interested in freedom of speech should have as a manifesto:
… I think, the most interesting thing to me, is just how little historical memory we have. The next time there's a panic, we won't remember just how stupid the last one was and how people get away with things … The evangelical got away with … fraud … They now laugh it off … What they want to do is to dominate the present and they don't care about history. Critical voices have to care about history. We have to care about the way in which things got controlled in the past because that's when the damage gets done.
Martin Barker (editor), 1986, The Video Nasties: Freedom and Censorship in the Media. Pluto Press ISBN-13: 978-0861046676.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.