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Why do VCRs Sometimes Eat Your Tapes?

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By Christian Roemer

For anyone who lived during the pinnacle of VHS popularity, you know all too well the perils of a machine that consists of so many moving parts. Maybe you were getting ready for an old fashioned family movie night, or you were about to partake in some analog Netflix and chill, VCRs were a proverbial ticking time bomb.

They worked most of the time, but when they bit the bucket, they bit it big time.
Sometimes, in the middle of a movie viewing session, you’d start hearing the dreaded sounds--a whirr, a pop, a buzz, and a blood-curdling screech. The TV screen would flicker, gasp for life, and ultimately settle on Poltergeist snow while the VCR went up in a puff of smoke.

 

The VCR was hungry. It ate your tape.


The bad news is that, like Humpty Dumpty, there’s no putting an eaten tape back together again. Even worse, the VCR’s insatiable appetite usually led its own demise as well. Nobody won. Everyone was sad. Movie night was ruined.


But what actually happened to your unsuspecting Jerry Maguire VHS when your VCR’s tummy decided to go out for a midnight snack? Let’s pop back the hood of a typical VCR and see.


Lurking inside each VCR is a cavalcade of turning drums, winding mechanisms, and flashing lights. Put together, each of these components makes the machine work. But they also offer plenty of opportunities to snag, tear, or otherwise mangle your tape. If you want to get a visual peek of what the inside of a VCR looks like, this article has some great pictures of the whirrlymagoos inside. We’ll use it as a base to talk about the three main culprits of tape chowing.


Snag Spot #1: The head.

On every VHS tape, a floppy piece of plastic covers the film. This plastic is helpful because it protects the film during storage, but when it’s in the VCR, it’s covering the tape that has all of the important content on it. When you push your VHS tape into the VCR, a mechanism lifts back the film protector so that the VCR can read the film underneath. This is step one of potential breakage. Plastic isn’t always the hardiest of materials, and if it was weakened from sun exposure or moisture, it could snap like twig, ruining your movie night with a merciless crack.


Snag Spot #2: The rotary drums.

When VHS tapes are played back, the film passes through a labyrinth of drums and wheels. That’s because the film has to pass over a light in order for the movie to show on your TV. While necessary, these drums have the potential to be a major issue for compromised film. One single rip, tear, or burr could send the wheels spinning celluloid to their doom. If you’ve ever gotten a long string wrapped around the inside of your vacuum cleaner, you know what this calamity looks like. Good luck peeling out all of the loose, torn, and otherwise mangled film from the box of doom.


Snag Spot #3: The spool winders.

The last major snag points are the mechanisms that turn the white gear-looking wheels on your VHS tape. Like the previous two snag spots, the wheels help the film progress through the VCR at a normal and predictable pace. If these wheels get out of sync, the film can get extra slack in it or become too taught, leading to catastrophe. In addition to timing problems, the spools themselves on the VHS tape could get cracked or broken. Sometimes the VCR doesn’t eat your tape. The tape eats itself.


When it comes to VCRs, there’s a reason that DVD players replaced them. VCRs had so many moving parts and treacherous variables that it was a wonder they didn’t break more often. Even the tapes themselves were self-saboteurs, randomly burning themselves to bits like shooting stars.


If you ever had the misfortune of sitting down to watch a film that was unceremoniously cut short from your VCR eating your tape, now you know why it happened.

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