PopHorror Writers: VHS Cover Artwork That Scarred Our Souls

Many of us grew up going to video stores and picking out a brand new horror movie to watch and add to our personal watch list. But without trailers or ads, we had no idea what a movie was about. The only clue we had was the VHS cover art. For the PopHorror writers, the artwork on some of these covers was so creepy, nasty, or scary that we were scared t watch the actual film. This memory of finding these hidden gems of terror is, in most cases, even more appalling than the film itself (when we finally got up the courage to watch it, that is). To ring in those shiver-inducing nostalgic feels, we’ve compiled a list of covers that have scarred us for life.

Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

I’m guessing I was 7 or 8 years old, picking a movie with my friends for a sleepover.  We walked into Mr. Video, breathing in the delightful combination of smoke and stale popcorn, and took a right for VHS (left was Betamax).  I saw an image that intrigued the hell out of my virgin mind: is that a shish kebab??

There have been many versions of the artwork, but the original VHS box for Happy Birthday To Me is iconic for me. Of course, the character depicted on the poster is NOT the one who gets skewered and some versions even claim “John will never eat shish kebabs again!” when the boys were named Steve, Alfred, Rudy, and Etienne. Hand drawn and over the top, this artwork far surpasses the actual film (though I love this whodunnit with a kick ass twist), which makes it this girl’s imprinted primary representation of home video packaging.  They knew what they were doing: draw them in young and they will be lifelong horror fans, spending copious amounts of disposable income on re-releases, collectibles, and posters as adults. — Rebecca Rinehart

It was actually a bit challenging to think of a VHS cover that scared me as a kid, but there is one that did give me the heebie-jeebies. That VHS cover art was for Happy Birthday to Me. We ate a lot of kabobs growing up, and I always thought some crazed killer was going to crash our dinner party to wreack havoc by killing us all with our kabob skewers! Completely demented, but I guess that’s what you would call effective cover art! — Lacy Lou

Zombie/Zombi 2 (1979)

I have always been afraid of parasites. Things that suck blood or eat flesh have freaked me out since I was a little kid. Maggots, ticks, tapeworms, leaches, even fleas… they’re all enough to make me want to crawl out of my skin. Strangely enough, earthworms, bugs, and spiders don’t bother me at all. I actually like spiders and try to move them to different parts of my house so they won’t get squished. So you’d think that the VHS cover that really grossed me out as a kid would be one covered with blood-sucking creepy-crawlies eating some poor sap alive from the inside out. But no. The one that I still shiver to look at to this day is Fulci’s Zombie/Zombi 2 (1979) cover. To this day, I still haven’t seen the film. I’ve missed out on zombie vs shark badassery that will haunt me until my dying day. This is perplexing because the zombie on the cover clearly has earthworms in his eye socket, so why am I so innerved by it? The world is a strange place, and we may never know the answer. But there it is.  — Tracy Allen

Cujo (1983)

I remember my father taking me to rent movies for the first time. I was probably seven or eight. I remember noticing the cover for Cujo. For some reason it terrified me. The cover really isn’t that creepy, but growing up in the eighties the film always seemed taboo. One of the worst fears for a little kid is running into a dog from Hell. It’s no wonder so many little kids were afraid to watch it. — Jeremy Adkins

Maniac (1980)

The VHS box for William Lustig’s Maniac is seriously one-of-a-kind. There is no way in hell something like this would fly in the current social climate. It was graphic, gory, implied deviant sexual behaviors and the movie itself backed up what the VHS art promised viewers. The ominous tagline, “I warned you not to go out tonight” situated below a dude’s partially unbuttoned, bulging jeans, a woman’s decapitated head in one hand, and a hunting knife in the other…well, this was some sick shit. Maybe it’s because I’m female, but this artwork always unsettled me. Despite the fact I would eventually come to greatly respect this movie, the VHS cover to Maniac has continued to send chills.  — Danni Winn

S.I.C.K. (2003)

In the ancient days of yore long before Netflix and other streaming services, you had to go out and rent or purchase a physical copy of a movie you wanted to watch. I know, I know, sounds barbaric, doesn’t it? Also in these medieval times, there was no IMDb or cell phone internet to tell you how good a movie was instantly. One of the lost blessings… or curses… is browsing through the video store for something to watch if you didn’t have something already picked out. That’s where the covers of movie boxes came in handy. If something looked pleasing, you’d rent it and hope for the best.

For every cover that drew you into a good horror movie like Funhouse (1981) and Friday The 13th Part 7… there were covers that looked great, but contained a complete turd. One of these turds was called S.I.C.K. (2003). Serial Insane Clown Killer itself sounds ridiculous because it sounds like the killer kills the clowns, but not is one. The movie itself is about four people on a weekend getaway, and there’s a killer clown on the loose. The problem is the dialogue is garbage, the acting is worse, the characters aren’t relatable and the biggest head scratcher is our clown is morbidly obese, well over 300 pounds. In one scene, one of the characters is being chased by the fat clown and is clearly looking for things to trip over to make it a worthwhile chase scene.

What made a lot of people want to buy the movie was its cover art featuring a very scary looking clown. Unfortunately, the clown comes nowhere close to being cool as the art was. Still, 16 years after I first saw it, the cover still is frightening. It’s a shame the film is so bad, because the box art is great and killer clowns CAN be done right. Just not this time… S.I.C.K. really S.U.C.K.S. — Kevin Hayes

Xtro (1982)

Back in the early 1980s, full blown video stores weren’t really a big thing yet. In my home town you rented VCRs and tapes from the liquor store and then a gas station started renting them. There was one small hole in the wall video rental place that popped up in my home town in 1982 or 1983. Every time I went looking through the horror section, one cover REALLY stood out to me as being creepy AF, and that cover was: XTRO! This place also rented RCA Selectavision cartridges, which were much larger. On those slipcovers, that XTRO artwork really stood out. *shudder* — Kenn Hoekstra


Gore-met, Zombie Chef from Hell (1986)

For me, one VHS cover stands out from the rest. One movie just simply stayed in my head for the longest time. I remember the cover and the back cover, but the name was lost on me, and it drove me insane growing up. Nobody knew what I was talking about. Fortunately, I finally figured it out. The movie I’m referencing is Gore-met, Zombie Chef from Hell. Quite the mouthful for a movie about cannibalism.

As a kid, the VHS cover art stayed with me and scared me as well as captivated my interest. Too young to rent it, I tried to figure out what this movie was and what happened in it. The cover images freaked me out to the point where I thought, “Is this real?” Growing up I would search video stores, flea markets, online stores, conventions anywhere that sold horror movies to find it and finally watch it. I remember initially seeing the movie in a horror magazine, and the name stayed with me. Finally, with the internet, I was able to find out more.

I eventually saw the movie and realized what it was. Gore-met Zombie Chef From Hell was shot on video and it’s cheesy. A horror movie selling the sizzle of a VHS cover with a bad film. I wasn’t mad or annoyed after watching it, but happy to know it was real and not just me high on the idea of horror movies. Gore-met Zombie Chef from Hell is a movie that deserves to be seen with friends. It deserves to be appreciated by fans of horror. Honestly, a lot of shot-on-video horror had killer (no pun intended) VHS cover artwork that sold the product. Maybe these films inspired artists, photographers, filmmakers or even chefs. — Joe Graciano

Fright Night (1985)

Fright Night was touted as: “There are some very good reasons to be afraid…of the dark. If you love being scared, it’ll be the night of your life.” This cover art portrays the tagline perfectly. As a kid, I can remember seeing this cover at the video store and it was terrifying to me! I mean, those eyes and teeth! I had never seen anything like that! Fright Night has some of the best vampires and vampire effects of the time. Definitely true to the cover art. This cover has always stuck with me. When I hear or think Fright Night, I automatically see this image. — Jennifer Bonges

Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

These two words joined together for a horror movie fried my little brain. I knew both of these to be extremely taboo and terrifying and holy shit I was intrigued. The VHS art was minimalistic at best, and in some regions, shocking but it was what was stamped all over the movie that made it a must-see. Cannibal Holocaust literally branded itself the most extreme shit ever while simultaneously painting a target on its own back.

Ultimately becoming the granddaddy of found footage, Cannibal Holocaust was also a proud member of the Video Nasties, earning a notorious reputation around the globe for its uncomfortably realistic violence and real animal gore. Becoming banned in several countries, it gained an almost immediate cult following, all thanks to the clever albeit exploitative marketing campaign. This was also consistently checked out… — Danni Winn


Seed of Chucky (2004)

When I was young, I was absolutely terrified of anything horror related. I avoided it at all cost… yet, I was also drawn to it. Every time I visited our local video store, I always walked down the horror section just to look at their covers. However, there was one face that I had so much trouble looking at… at the time. Although I love Chucky and the whole Child’s Play franchise now, that doll absolutely traumatized me when I was a kid. For the longest time, I couldn’t even look at his face without freaking out. Every time we went into the store, I did everything I could to avoid the Seed Of Chucky poster. I tried to avoid it, yet my eyes always searched for it. My brother had the poster in his room, and I was scared to even go near it. I didn’t know a lot about Seed Of Chucky, I just knew I wanted nothing to do with that doll. — Karli Ray

Did one of us pick your most disturbing VHS cover artwork? What did we miss? Let us know in the comments!

About Tracy Allen

As the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of PopHorror.com, Tracy has learned a lot about independent horror films and the people who love them. Now an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, she hopes the masses will follow her reviews back to PopHorror and learn more about the creativity and uniqueness of indie horror movies.

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