Searching for Meaning in a Broken VHS Copy of the 1982 "Swamp Thing" Movie

Lemon Theory Writer: Kirk Loftin

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I love Swamp Thing. I can track this love to a VHS I had as a kid of the first episode of the (very short-lived) Swamp Thing cartoon. It was an episode called “Swamp Thing vs. the Un-Men,” and yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. I loved it, watching it over and over until I had it memorized. As a teenager, I discovered the Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing comics (which still remain my second favorite comic of all time, behind Gerard Way’s The Umbrella Academy). Heck, on my windowsill in my bedroom right now is a Pop! Vinyl figure of Swamp Thing. I think it’s safe to summarize this way: I love Swamp Thing to a level that will assist my availability in the dating pool for a very long time.

That love being apparent, there is a massive whole in my Swamp Thing knowledge: even though I own it, I have never actually watched the 1982 Wes Craven-directed live-action Swamp Thing movie (nor have I watched the even lower-budgeted 1989 sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, which starred Heather Locklear because 1989). I used to collect VHS movies, before getting rid of most of them before a move. However, I did keep a few that meant something to me, like my Swamp Thing tapes.

The other day I decided to finally watch the live-action Swamp Thing. Even though I’ve owned it for a long time, I never got around to watching it. Part of this was purposeful, because I know it’s not going to be a good movie, and while it’s fun to watch movies like The Room, I didn’t want my love for Swamp Thing tainted by the sight of rubber-suited stunt men pimp-slapping each other in a puddle of green water. But, for whatever reason, I decided I was in the right frame of mind to watch it.

Being a VHS copy, the quality wasn’t great, but still watchable. The movie opens with a woman in a helicopter flying over a swamp, and a bunch of random shots of guys with guns in the swamp (good? bad? who knows) and a smart-aleck pilot. Once landing, the man she’s replacing gets on the helicopter with a “get me outta here!”, and she gets on a boat as is led to the laboratory of Alec Holland (that’s Swamp Thing!), where he’s studying “something with plants.” It’s at this point the tape just stopped, and my VCR made a bunch of whirring noises. Having formally been a VHS collector, I knew what this meant (even though I didn’t want it to). I ejected the tape, and sure enough, coming out of the cassette was the long strip of video tape. The worst part was, the tape has somehow ripped, rendering it useless.

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Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, or because I’m currently working through my spirituality, or just because I’m a 30-year-old emo kid who still regularly listens to The Black Paradebecause he has feelings, but staring at this broken VHS copy of 1983’s Swamp Thing, I kept seeing meanings behind it. Logically, there’s nothing meaningful here. It’s a 30-year-old copy of a movie barely anyone even remembers that broke in 2019 inside a TV/VCR combo that was bought before 9/11. It happens, tapes don’t last forever. VHS tapes can be damaged by overuse, heat/humidity (I do live in Houston), even magnets. Logically, it’s no big deal, it happens, shrug, not the end of the world. But what if. What if it’s some kind of deep meaning metaphor for my life?

Put through the prism of my internalized guilt/shame from growing up in a conservative, Southern Baptist home, what if it’s a punishment for a sin? It wouldn’t be hard to isolate a long list of sins and faults I have. I chose to sit down and watch a movie, even though I knew I had work to do, both personal and professional. Maybe the tape self-destructing like a way lamer version of that scene in Mission Impossiblewas God punishing me for my sloth and laziness, or some other sin like lying, or not giving enough (or, if I’m being honest, lust has to be way up there on my list of sins, right?). Could this be divine punishment?

Using my more recent outlook on God, what if this is a gentle reminder about the fleeting nature of possessions? The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away kind of thing. I held on to this tape for almost two years before finally bothering to sit down and watch it. I can’t claim it was my most important possession. Losing this thing that I took for granted reminds me to not put too much importance in the material things of this world. A reminder to build up treasures in heaven (where moth cannot destroy, nor thieves steal), rather than on my bookshelf next to a VHS copy of Outland, an 80’s sci-fi movie starring Sean Connery with the tagline, “On Jupiter’s Moon, he is the only law.” My hungry VCR just re-teaches me the lesson that material possessions are inherently impermanent.

What if instead it’s a representation of my bipolar disorder, a manifestation of the unseen internal damage caused by mental illness? The outside of the VHS looks relatively normal, and it even functions like a normal VHS until something goes terribly wrong, and the tape breaks apart on the inside and stops working. Much like how I put on a tux, looked presentable and carried on semi-normally (if in a lower quality), until having a mental breakdown and crying on a curb outside my high school prom. Also, like my mental illness, the damage is unfixable, incurable.

Or what if it’s a reminder to live in the moment? Learning to let go of the past, stay more in the present, and work towards a better tomorrow should be the goal, not selfishly clinging to things that should have been let go (not to overdo the Bible quotes here, but “When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me”). The waters of nostalgia, as fun as it can be to ski on the surface, is a cold, punishing dark lake of misery if you dive in. 

Or what if it’s a metaphor for my dating life? Here, a rapidly aging pop culture relic that has an extremely niche audience is finally found by someone who loves it, but a move isn’t made for a very long time, and as soon as it is, everything falls apart, each side unhappy and unfulfilled. 

Or what if it’s a metaphor for my approaching mortality? Although it’s true that everyone dies, and none of know when (someone with cancer may live another thirty years, someone perfectly healthy may have a vending machine collapse on them tomorrow), I have the horrible knowledge that I will die early (thanks to a heart defect). Now (hopefully), I still have 2-3 decades of life left, but statistically, it’s almost impossible I’ll make it to my dad’s current age. So, even though I have several other VHSs of various ages that all function just fine, this one crapped out earlier than it had to, because the defect inside on the strip of the video tape (like the aneurysm inside my heart) eventually breaks apart, and the whole thing seizes to function. Actually, the more I think about this one, the more terrifyingly apt the metaphor seems.

Or (and I know this one is a huge stretch), what if it’s not a metaphor at all, and instead it’s just a 30-year-old copy of a crappy B-movie that was cheaply produced on the crappiest quality blank tape the company could find, and three years after the release of 4K Ultra High Def blu-rays this ancient relic of obsolete technology broke? What if I’m just a perpetually sad person whose bipolar disorder regularly disguises unimportant nothings as deep, philosophical crises? What if I’m looking for meaning, or metaphor, or God in a place that they’re just not, because I want it to mean something? Because I want to feel something important and deep? What if I’m just searching for meaning in a broken VHS copy of the 1983 live-action Swamp Thingmovie because I’m trying to fill some void inside me?

Or what if I just need to stop whining, shut up, and pay the 14.99 Amazon is charging for the Blu-ray?

You can read more about Kirk Loftin on Lemon Theory’s team page: https://www.lemontheory.com/team-lemon