As human beings, we tend to think that everything will last forever. We think the good times will never end, that the other side of the pillow will always be cool, and that our sports injuries from high school won’t ever catch up with us.
Subconsciously, we know better. Freud said that death motivates everything. Or was it something more salacious? That’s not the point. The point is that nothing lasts forever. Even--and maybe especially--our VHS tapes.
Because we can hold and touch those wonderful black boxes of celluloid, we assume they’ll be around forever. Heck, it feels like that old cardboard box in the guest closet full of old tapes has been around forever. Sadly, our VHS tapes have a shelf life.
How long is that shelf life? If you asked my mom when I was in kindergarten and watched Superman: The Movie on VHS every single day, she’d probably say way too long. But, like most of our blogs, brace yourself for a really unsatisfying answer: it depends.
That’s right, like pretty much every answer we give about everything, it’s hard to say exactly how long any one VHS tape will last before it stops working. The reason breaks down into five main variables.
What are the storage conditions?
This is the giant elephant in the room. Are you storing your tapes in a perfect, magnetically neutral, hermetically sealed vault? Or are they in a leaky corner of your basement? The answer matters. Dust and debris can make every watch a potential catastrophe, since those things can cause micro tears. Micro tears are not good for tape longevity.
What quality of tapes are we talking about?
Did you buy your tapes in the bargain bin at Dollar General? I hate to break it to you, but those aren’t going to last as long as professional grade tapes. It’s impossible to know exactly how long each individual model will last, but if you sprung for the nicer options, you’ll have a couple of extra years in the tank.
When’s the last time you serviced your VCR?
The tape itself is only half of the longevity equation. You have to play it in something. So what kind of shape is your VCR in? Have you been clearing it of dust regularly? How about making sure all of its hundreds of moving parts are still in the right place?
How old is the tape?
Older tape gets more brittle with age. Have you ever found something made out of plastic from the 80s? I found my old Stretch Armstrong not too long ago, and let’s just say that he was less stretchy and more just, stretched. Plastic doesn’t last forever, so if your tapes are old, they might be a ticking time-bomb for shattering all inside of your VCR. It ain’t pretty.
Why do you still depend on tapes anyway?
It’s actually a bit of a shame that we had to get this far into the blog post for me to start asking the real questions. VHS doesn’t exist anymore for a reason. Even better, you don’t have to watch your tapes anymore to watch the videos on them. All you need to do is get them digitized, and you’ll never have to worry about the million little things that could go wrong the next time you pop a tape in your VCR. I’m stressed out just thinking about it!
So how many times can you watch a tape before it falls apart? My Superman tape got a good 600+ watches no problem--to my mom’s chagrin. Whether all tapes have the staying power of Christopher Reeves’ superhero classic is another question. The truth is, there are way too many variables to say definitively how many times you can watch any tape. The lifespan isn’t as long as you might think, so get your stuff digitized ASAP and save yourself the headache!