It’s Friday night and you’re having a Disney movie marathon with all your gal pals — in true 90s-childhood slumber party fashion. A couple hours before everyone arrives, you gather your favorite classics: Lion King, Aladdin, The Jungle Book and Hunchback of Notre Dame — just in case the popcorn, guilty pleasure magazines and nail polish last more than eight hours.
You set the tapes aside with a bottle of champagne, and throw on your favorite PJs anxiously awaiting the night’s nostalgia.
Once everyone arrives and is snuggled up on the couch, you pop in the first movie. But the imagery jolts around and a ringing noise won’t stop buzzing in the background. You pop in Aladdin, only to find low-quality sound and even lower quality saturation. “Third time’s a charm,” you think, so you insert The Jungle Book. No sound at all. Hunchback of Notre Dame starts up, but for some reason it skips right over your favorite scene with Esmeralda, and when you try playing it back, funky things start to happen with the tracking.
Your friends don’t seem to mind, and the group decides to alternatively throw a 90s dance party, reveling in Britney Spears and Spice Girls pop songs. But while singing karaoke and attempting some synchronized hip hop moves with your best buds, you can’t help but grieve the loss of your beloved Disney films.
To learn what went wrong, let’s first take a look at the anatomy of your VHS tape:
VHS, SVHS, VHS-C and Hi 8 video tapes are all made of three layers: the binder, substrate and backing. While each may differ slightly dependent on their manufacturer, their overall engineering is pretty much the same.
A tape’s binder layer, responsible for signal quality, comes into direct contact with the heads of the tape’s playback machine. It contains magnetic particles that store the film’s information, as well as a lubricant that helps the playback heads turn smoothly and efficiently. Without the binder, the tape surface would be rough, similar to sandpaper.
The substrate and backing layers exist for durability and protection. Both of these parts work together to support the magnetic recording layer, which is too thin and fragile by itself. The backing and substrate help reduce friction, lessen static charge and eliminate image distortion.
How Long Do VHS Tapes Last?
On average the lifespan of a videotape can be anywhere between 8 - 25 years depending on how it's maintained. For example, overuse, storage temperature and time contribute to how quickly a videotape deteriorates.
Although videotapes can be repaired, it's important to think ahead and take steps to preserve the quality of your tapes. To put it bluntly, your VHS is susceptible to all kind of hazards — some of which are out of your control.
Common Causes for Video Tape Decay
To put it bluntly, your VHS is susceptible to all kind of hazards — some of which are out of your control.
You might not think a rectangular plastic box would be a hotspot for mold. Alas, your special edition of Mulan might just be Mr. Mold’s version of a feature on MTV Cribs. Look at your VHS. Look closer. See any white powdery spots lining the tape? Well, that itty bitty mold could be the prime suspect for killing your favorite Disney singalongs. The good news is that a touch of mold powder can be cleaned — preferably professionally — but if it accumulates to a thick coating, there’s not much hope.
Humidity truly is the end game for most video tapes. As the binder’s polymers absorb even the smallest amount of water in a tape, the reel sticks together and eventually forms its own version of a rock-solid hockey puck. Trying to play a tape that’s undergone this kind of damage is a surefire way to destroy the tape altogether, as well as the playback machine.
A flux in temperatures — and, in general, contact with extreme temperatures — can cause serious damage to the magnetic ribbon in your VHS. Beyond a certain point, tape ribbon will become so warped it refuses to play smoothly. Warping causes image malfunctions and static noise — two things you definitely don’t want to happen when Cinderella’s “Bippity Boppity Boo” starts to play.
If you were a kiddo during the VHS era, chances are you remember the beating you gave your videos over the years — i.e. dropping them on the floor, stuffing them in the VCR player, accidentally stepping on them, trying to retrieve them from the VCR with a screwdriver when they got stuck...Yikes! Well, this kind of foul play likely caused cracks and jams in the housing mechanism, which can also destroy the video player.
Over the years, rewinding and fast-forwarding takes a toll on the VHS tape, eventually causing the tape to detach from its housing case. If this happens, it can become impossible to rewind or fast-forward the tape at all. Thankfully, this problem can be fixed. (Again, we recommend using professional resources to help out.)
Trust us, you don’t want this to happen. A combination of temperature changes, humidity and general wear can literally shred your tape. And once this happens, you’re VHS has reached a point of no return.
The magnetic particles inside your tapes’ binding lose their charge over time, in a process called remanence decay. When this happens, colors in your films weaken, and details in imagery fade. These same magnetic particles can also be accidentally demagnetized. This can happen from storing your tapes too close to another magnetic source, or even from the playback machine itself. With a poorly maintained VCR, it’s possible that every time you play the video, the player actually erases information from the tape!
The lubricant disappears
There isn’t an infinite abyss of lubricant stored in the binder layer of the tape. Eventually, it’s all used up. As it disappears, the binder layer obviously takes on more wear and tear, resulting in information erasure.
When a tape’s backing and substrate stretch from multiple rewindings and playback, tracking errors can occur. Too many tracking problems dramatically reduces quality, and eventually makes such a mess of your tape that the video becomes totally un-watch-able.
You can’t escape the ticking clock. Although there’s no expiration date on VHS films, it’s clear they won’t last forever. Studies show that even well-stored tapes you’ve only watched once will experience up to 20 percent signal loss over a 10 to 25-year period. Over time, a great deal of information will be irretrievably lost, without any real cause.
Well that’s a depressing list. How can I avoid all of this from happening?
And one more solution…
The ultimate must-do, in addition to all the preventative ideas mentioned above, is to send your films to Legacybox. While digitization won’t save your VHS tapes, it’s a proactive way of preserving the memories stored on them.
Next time you get excited to host a 90s slumber party with your favorite childhood movies, if the VHS doesn’t work, we’ll have your back with a copy of the Disney hits on the Cloud, a USB and/or a DVD. The VHS tapes might not be invincible, but we are.