War on Horror: A Look Back at the Video Nasties Moral Panic by John Lees

Vault Team
Vault Team

The Video Nasties, and the public hysteria surrounding them here in the UK, is, for me, one of the most fascinating stories in modern cinema history.

Recently, I had a great time watching In Search of Darkness: A Journey into Iconic '80s Horror on Shudder. It is a mammoth, near 4-and-a-half-hour-long documentary going year by year through the decade, from 1980 to 1989, with a variety of prominent horror filmmakers, performers and academics talking about an enormous array of films. Quite the opposite from what may perhaps be the intended effect of the genre, horror gives me warm, nostalgic vibes, I associate it with the childhood joy of discovery, my evolving love of horror intrinsically linked to my growing appreciation of cinema as a whole. And this documentary showed me that sentiment reflected in so many other people.

But one subject not really covered in the documentary is its title, which I found very evocative, as I think it describes the experience of many a horror fan. In Search of Darkness. That's what we're all doing, to some degree. We're hunting for the forbidden fruit, the Scariest Film or the Scariest Book, something beyond the popular canon that we've already experienced and are already familiar with, something somehow undiscovered by us which will have an impact on us and make us feel the way those seminal, formative horrors made us feel back when we first became devotees of the genre.

But if any horror hounds out there are wanting to go beyond the usual favourites and try digging for buried treasure, one place you might want to look is the DDP list of Video Nasties. The Evil Dead. Last House on the Left. Inferno. Tenebrae. The Burning. Zombie Flesh Eaters. Dead & Buried. The Funhouse. The Witch Who Came from The Sea. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker. The Beyond. Possession.All these and many more found themselves on this notorious roster of films. The Video Nasties, and the public hysteria surrounding them here in the UK, is, for me, one of the most fascinating stories in modern cinema history.

In the wake of a moral panic spearheaded by campaigner Mary Whitehouse and right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail, local authorities started cracking down on video retailers, engaging in raids and seizing certain films for violating obscenity laws. The Director of Public Prosecutions released a list of 72 films that would result in prosecution for obscenity for anyone caught selling or distributing them, along with an additional 82 films which - while not technically meeting the margin for prosecution - were nevertheless to be seized, effectively banning them all. This list of banned films, mostly horror and exploitation fare, became known as the "Video Nasties."

One thing I immediately want to highlight about the Video Nasties is how much of their time the aura around them was. This was in an era before you could go on YouTube and find a fair proportion of these full movies uploaded on there, free and easily available to view if you're so inclined, a time before Amazon opened the world up to a massive library far beyond any physical storefront. Back when I was a kid (help me, I've become one of those "back in my day!" types), the movies I saw were limited to the occasional cinema visit, what happened to be airing on TV on the limited number of terrestrial channels available in my household, or what gems you could find in the video shop. Since many video shops tended to be small independent businesses, what was stocked often reflected the personal preferences of the owner, and our local video shop happened to be quite horror heavy. Hence why I associate video shop visits in my memory with lurid wall displays of the latest schlock.

As an avid regular visitor of my local video shop from a young age, and an ardent fan of scary movies I was far too young to be watching, I long had an awareness of the notorious Video Nasties and their fearsome reputation. Even before knowing much about the specifics, there was something highly tantalising of knowing there was a whole culture of banned films deemed too dangerous and scary for anybody - kids or adults - to watch. But in those days of limited availability there was increased resourcefulness, lots of unofficial copying and pirating of films you wouldn't get at the local video shop, and there was a lively culture of under-the-table tape trading that, being young at the time, was mostly over my head. But I'm sure I was far from the only kid who knew someone who knew someone whose big brother had a bunch of EXTREME films in their collection. I'm not sure if such reports were even always true, but the idea of someone having access to these forbidden movies instantly made them seem cooler to me. I still remember back when I couldn't have been older than about 9 or 10, and my cousin came round to my house with a taped copy of Cannibal Holocaustthat he had acquired. We never actually watched it, the tape quality was too poor (if anything, the poor image quality served to enhance the mystique, as you could only imagine what horrors were unfolding behind all that fuzz and static!), but he did fast forward to a gory death scene so we could watch it and go "OOOOOOOH!"

But this taboo had a darker side, and caused real damage. The public hysteria stirred up around these films had them being blamed for the corruption of youth and the rise in violent crime, with retailers who sold them being publicly vilified by the press on a par with child molesters – intentionally so, might I add, with loaded language about “the rape of children’s minds” or “grooming the young” frequently employed in tabloid rhetoric. There were people who were dragged to court, who were prosecuted, who lost their businesses and livelihoods. All the controversy led to the passing of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which required all videos to meet the requirements of the BBFC for certification, at a level of censorship stricter than for films on theatrical release, before they could be released. This, of course, meant that the British public were being told that they weren’t allowed to watch in their own home what they could freely watch at their local cinema.

As a kid growing up in the UK in the 1990s, the most active stages of the Video Nasties furore were before my time, and yet in my childhood the effects of it were still reverberating. I have clear memories, in my lifetime, of when the bans on films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Exorcist (never on the official "video nasty" list, but still denied BBFC approval until 1999) were lifted, and when they were aired uncut on British TV for the first time. I also remember a similar tabloid frenzy in the 1990s when the tabloid press claimed that Child's Play 3 was responsible for the murder of James Bulger, as the children who brutally killed the young boy had supposedly replicated scenes from the film... a claim police later stated was untrue and a total fabrication.

But fast forward a couple of decades, and relaxed legal restrictions and the power of the internet means that I've now seen a decent amount of those mythical Video Nasties. There's some I still have no desire to ever see. The selection of Nazi-themed pornos. Films purporting to depict actual deaths, legit or otherwise. The covers and blurbs that egregiously market graphic rape for titillation. But out of those I have seen, removed from their old mystique, overwhelmingly what I was met with was pretty cheesy, tacky, poorly-made trash, some entertainingly so, some just outright boring.

Looking at the Video Nasties through a 2020s lens, in some cases it's still obvious what got a film banned by the DPP, even in cases where it feels tame by today's standards. In other cases, though, it's completely baffling, the decision to ban certain films when certain other, more shocking contemporaries weren't feeling somewhat arbitrary. You'll still hear stories now of people convinced their movie was put on the Video Nasties list based not on the sex or violence in the content, but because of its title, because it got mixed up with another, more extreme film, because some of the ideas were incendiary or transgressive, or simply because they came out at the same time as a bunch of other horrors that got banned and whatever censor was on duty that day decided it would save time to just group them all in the one cluster.

My impression of the films is that while some of them are genuinely great and are hidden gems of the horror genre, some of them have very little artistic merit at all, and are actively vile and unpleasant and display toxic values. But even so, I don't believe they deserved to be banned for that. At the crux of Mary Whitehouse's campaign was a deeply regressive, Conservative worldview, another frontier in demonising the young and "othering" people, red meat of outrage for the base. It's about policing and demonising people in the name of morality. And it's sad how successful and far-reaching this hysteria was, for a time at least.

It’s the kind of cynical moral crusading we’ve seen manifest itself in other ways over the years. We’ve seen it in the demonisation of those who listen to heavy metal, and the Satanic Panic that emerged from it. We’ve seen it in violent crime being blamed on video games. We’re seeing it now as moves are made to strip so-called “woke” books out of schools and libraries. It’s always claimed to be in the name of “protecting the children,” but in truth it’s always about trying to drum up a boogeyman more simplistic than the monster in a Video Nasty to draw people’s attention away from the more complex, endemic issues those in power are doing nothing to tackle. Moral panics like this need to be fought against every time they rear their ugly head.

But in the case of the Video Nasties, I do believe there's a happy ending to this particular story. Because Mary Whitehouse may now be dead and gone, but she has left an enduring legacy. With the DPP Video Nasties list, horror fans have been left with a curated canon of films to seek out. What otherwise would have been obscure, forgotten curios have now (for better or worse, depending on the film) been elevated to forever being a part of horror history, with new generations of viewers likely to go back and seek them out and study them and write about them for many years to come. What once were shunned and banned have been given a whole new lease on life. If Mary had actually watched the horror movies she so loudly condemned, she might have learned the lesson that, even if you think you’ve put the monster down, there’s always a chance they’ll come back for one more scare…

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