This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Last week, a long list of sex acts were banned from British video-on-demand porn. "Ban this filth!" seemed to be the underlying message. "Think of the adults! All the fully grown men and women who'll be corrupted by this smut!"
Of course, moral panics—those phlegmy cries of outrage from society's self-appointed moral guardians—are nothing new. And one in particular is echoed in the UK's latest piece of ban-this-gross-abomination legislation: the freak-out over "video nasties."
Today, the hysteria, misinformation and censorship of horror films in the mid 1980s seems comically stupid. It's almost unbelievable that corner shops were raided and people went to jail over films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Evil Dead—films that are regarded today with benevolent admiration, in the same way we remember GG Allin or that kid who used to bring his snake into school.
The early 80s were halcyon days for people who liked their movies blood-splattered. The VCR had been invented! You could watch films at home! Better still, while cinema releases had to make it past the BBFC (now known as the British Board of Film Classification; then as the British Board of Film Censors), home video came under no such restriction.
Suddenly, everyone was selling or renting videos. Horror fans could pick up a copy of Blood Feast when they popped out for cigarettes or filled their car up at the garage. Teenagers gathered at one another's houses to watch glitchy videos whose tracking damage would turn images into snow at the only bits you really wanted to watch—the sex and the violence.
Earlier this year, horror director Jake West ( Doghouse with Danny Dyer, Razor Blade Smile, Evil Aliens) released the second part of his in-depth documentary about the era, Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide. A teenager at the time of the video nasties panic, West was a fan from the word go.
"Because video was unregulated, we had the chance to see crazy movies from all over the world that British audiences had never been exposed to," West told me. "For teenagers, it was a wonderful time, but those over forty or fifty were highly offended. There was a huge cultural gap between what people found acceptable."
The Executioner (1978)
As the video industry competed to produce the film that would finally make an audience throw up bile into their mouths, content became more and more outrageous. Covers were increasingly explicit—bodies impaled, heads slashed off, entrails consumed—often far overselling the shock value of the actual film. Between 1972 and 1984, 10,000 titles were issued on VHS, Betamax, and V2000. It couldn't last.
Mary Whitehouse—moral crusader and leading figure in the Christian anti-fun brigade Nationwide Festival of Light—was early on the scene. Although she admitted to never having watching one herself, Whitehouse had no doubt that horror videos would lead society into ruin. Tabloid newspapers fanned the flames and, before long, the term "video nasty" was coined, a phrase so appealing it was adopted by moralizers and teenagers alike, because who wouldn't want to watch a video nasty?
As the country reeled under mass unemployment, riots and messy overseas conflicts (sound familiar?), tabloids, campaigners and the powers that be were quick to agree that, yes, gory horror films were absolutely the biggest threat to national stability.
Invasion of the Blood Farmers (1978)
The hunt was on for any video that might contravene the Obscene Publications Act. Across the country, police raided corner shops, warehouses, and retail outlets—including HMV—looking for filth. They found it. Thousands of videos were confiscated. Juries were made to sit through screenings of films like I Spit On Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust, Driller Killer, The Evil Dead, and Faces of Death. Often never having watched anything scarier than Blazing Saddles, many were outraged.
Within a short space of time, 72 films were added to the Director of Public Prosecutions' list of banned videos. This quickly became the ultimate movie bucket list for teenagers. However, for many small business owners, it was the end. Shop owners and distributors were fined and sometimes jailed for profiting from "obscene publications."
Gleefully reproducing the goriest covers, tabloids spouted pseudoscience. Much as porn is now regularly linked to "addiction" and "permanent changes to the brain," so were video nasties. A study was commissioned and quickly found that 40 percent of children had seen a video nasty. Never mind that this study only included 47 children and that only three of them had claimed to see such a film; the fate of the video nasty was sealed.
Wrong Way (1972)
The final nail was hammered in when Whitehouse teamed up with ambitious Tory MP Graham Bright, who introduced a private member's bill calling for tighter controls on home video. Video nasties were an easy target. On passing Bright's bill, which eventually became the Video Recordings Act 1984, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, "There must be no place in Britain for the video nasty."
With the introduction of the Video Recordings Act, videos would now be classified by the BBFC before going on sale or hire. However, the moral panic was not over. Into the 90s, horror films continued to be portrayed in the media as the source of all evil. In 1993, the murder of toddler James Bulger was linked to Child's Play, although his killers denied ever having watched the film. This was one of a series of atrocities blamed on the video nasty.
From the moment the BBFC were appointed gatekeepers, the home movie industry changed. There's a strong argument for age rating, of course; most parents don't want their ten-year-olds watching people being eviscerated. But who will think of the grown-ups? If only we had some breed of people whose redoubtable character made them capable of watching this dangerous material without harm, whose moral superiority allowed them to deem what was safe for the rest of us.
Just as the new ruling on porn smacks of paternalistic superiority, so too did attitudes around video nasties. In the class crazy 80s, then-secretary of the BBFC James Ferman told reporters after a screening of Texas Chainsaw Massacre: "It's all right for middle class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?"
Parallels with the new regulations around porn abound. Again, the state steps in to decree what's good for porn-loving factory workers and the like; again, small-scale niche businesses will suffer while corporations will toe the line and flourish; again, seemingly arbitrary criteria are used to judge what is fit for human consumption.
The video nasties panic offers a glimpse into the future, says Julian Petley, professor of journalism and screen media at Brunel University. We should take heed.
"This is how these things always start," Petley told me. "People said, 'Oh, you don't need to be worried about new video legislation, it's just being brought in to get rid of a few video nasties.' Oh yeah? So by 1984 we had the Video Recordings Act, which required every single feature film on video to be classified and, if necessary, cut or banned by the BBFC.
"They're starting off by targeting obvious things like protecting children and fighting terrorism. But gradually all the mechanisms are being put in place—and I mean both literal mechanisms and more metaphorical legal mechanisms—to control other parts of the internet as well."
Video nasties may not be your thing. Fetish porn may not be your thing. Somewhere along the line, though, given the right set of circumstances, moral panic might be focused elsewhere. Today, fisting porn; tomorrow, Countryfile.
"What people have to learn is that freedom of expression has to be defended at its weakest point," says Petley. "And that might mean defending material you don't like."
Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide parts 1 & 2 are out on DVD.
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