As best as I can recall, I found the old VHS tape in a cardboard box on someone's front lawn. The yard sale signs had pointed me there, and since I'm big on finding cool old junk without paying extortionate eBay prices... I was game.
The box was marked "25 Cents", but just to show how much of a cheapskate I was, I had to ask...
"Twenty-five cents each, or for the whole box?"
The butch redhead shot me a glare, then her expression softened.
"Well, that's my asshole ex-boyfriend's shit - but I'm not an idiot."
I rummaged around in the moldy-smelling, slightly damp container. Nothing seemed that interesting, there were a few dusty action figures I didn't recognize and a Nintendo controller with its cord stripped and frayed.
Then, my hand found something hard and square, something brick-like at the bottom of it all.
That's what was written in thick, red marker on the VHS tape's stark white label.
"What's this?" I asked the redhead, "Who the Hell has a VCR anymore?"
I did, but there was no reason for her to know that.
"I don't know. I told you, that's my Ex's shit."
"Sid?" I asked, not really intending anything by that.
"NO." she replied, "And how is that any of your business?"
"I'll give you a dime," I reached into my pocket and extracted the coin, "Just to see what is is."
The redhead got up from the rainbow lawn chair she'd been inhabiting, stormed over to me until we were nearly nose to nose, and took the tape from my hand with a rude yank.
Just as suddenly, she threw the tape to the sidewalk and mashed it in with one hippo-stomp. Black plastic shrapnel shot up a few inches from the pavement.
"It's all yours." She mumbled, storming away once more.
For a few moments, I stood there in a bit of shock. Then slowly, carefully, I retrieved the mashed casing from the ground.
"Thanks a bunch!" I passive-aggressively called out to the yard sale bitch.
Honestly, the thought crossed my mind that "Sid's Video" might somehow, some way, be footage of the girl herself. You know, in a bit of a compromising position. It was a long shot, totally unlikely, but it occurred to me that leaving the tape there would be letting pride overtake my interest in the item.
Besides, even if it wasn't smut, it could've been something strange. I was a big fan of strange at that point.
I put the video aside for a while, thinking that at some point, when I had nothing better to do, I would see if there was any point in trying to save it. There are tons of things around my house... tons of broken, weird things... that I intend to get to someday.
The video fell by the wayside, just another piece of clutter in a hoarder's paradise.
Then came the night I decided to re-watch a film. Jaws.
I popped the VHS tape into the VCR - both of which I'd had since childhood, having taken them (along with other videos) when I left my parents' house long prior. The classic opening scene, the steady build-up, I'd always loved the movie.
It wasn't until the end that I noticed something strange.
You know how it ends. We all know how it ends. Jaws ends up with an oxygen tank in its mouth, then BOOM, a single bullet detonates it along with the evil monster shark.
Not this time.
Roy Scheider took the fateful shot... and missed.
I was quiet for a second as my mind took in this change. Before I could even register what had just happened... that something impossible had occurred... my eyes were already following the ongoing footage.
Jaws worked the tank out of its razor-toothed maw. The ship continued to sink. The shark slowly, agonizingly devoured Scheider and he kicked, flailed, and screamed bloody murderer.
"It wasn't supposed to end this way!" he shrieked seconds before the teeth clamped down and pierced his lungs. Only a bloody gurgle issued forth after that.
The Richard Dreyfuss surfaced.
"Oh, God..." Richard said sickly, already exhausted from the ordeal he'd suffered previously, "Oh God, oh God, oh God!!"
That dreaded fin sliced through the waves, and Richard disappeared under the surface. He only reappeared once after that, one bloody eyeball dangling from a fresh gash in the side of his face. With a quick, quiet splash, he was gone again.
The video played on for minutes on end. Just sparkling waves, open water, a long shot of empty sea. There were no credits, no closing theme, nothing. I watched, perplexed and terrified, until the tape ran out and the loud roar of static overtook the screen.
My thoughts ranged from "What the fuck?" to "How the fuck?"
I studied the Jaws cassette for any signs of... anything. It looked the same as it always had, right down to the mysterious stain that marked its label since the early 90s.
Someone, I concluded, must have switched the tape out while I'd been away. Never mind the how or why, especially since there WAS no how or why, I was sure this had to be the case since there was no other logical explanation.
Testing this theory, I returned to the shelf that displayed my video collection. Pushing aside "Sid's Video", I retrieved my copy of The 5th Element.
It happened again, and again it was at the end.
The film is a bit obscure, so I'll elaborate for those who haven't seen it. In brief, an evil planet is hurtling toward Earth. If it reaches Earth, everyone dies. It should come as no surprise to you that the good guys win and the bad guys lose... the "Evil Planet" is destroyed before impact.
Or rather, it was until now.
I made the mistake of watching the entire movie all the way through, expecting to see differences elsewhere in the story. I got into the story and nearly forgotten why I was watching until the change came.
The 5th Element, that white light of creation, didn't activate. The crucial character died of her injuries... died in Bruce Willis' arms... and while he wept, the world ended.
First, the Evil Planet collided with the Earth. The film switched to a pulled-back shot of the impact, then focused in on different characters. The main cast was obliterated, since they stood at Ground Zero. They were immediately reduced to blackened ash.
Every other character, no matter how inconsequential, was shown burning to death in gory detail. Oddly dressed stewardesses and armor-heavy Police screamed in terror as wave after wave of searing heat battered their carcasses against the ravaged space-age landscape.
I watched, again until the tape ran out, as the Earth itself crumbled.
It was the same with every tape I tried. Alien ended with Ripley dying from acid exposure. Batman (the Tim Burton version) closed in the motionless face of Bruce Wayne, the lethal Joker Venom twisting his face into a pale grin. Movie after movie, bad ending after bad ending, it was all the same.
Even TV shows and concerts I'd recorded in my youth had been altered. A 90s Metallica show closed with the bandstand collapsing on the group. The audience, fleeing from the carnage, trampled itself into a crimson paste.
It didn't take me much longer to realize what you've most likely caught onto.
Silently, just as carefully as I'd first scooped up the broken tape, I removed it from the shelf and began picking over the cracked surface.
Somehow, I knew that this object was the cause of this strange occurrence. Working meticulously, I glued together the bits I could, and taped up the rest. In the end, I was left with an incredibly ugly, yet functional VHS tape.
"Well, Sid..." I said to no one in particular, "Let's see what this is all about..."
It was a cartoon. A strange cartoon.
The entire video was just this little cartoon guy walking across a never-ending loop of idyllic scenery. The same identical scene repeated itself throughout.
Well, that's not entirely true. Every so often, a flicker of static or a horizontal roll brought on by the damage had a strange effect on the scene.
Sid would jump... and I don't mean "jump" like the picture would shift... He actually jumped in surprise, his tiny brown shoes leaving the cartoon soil. When the screen would roll suddenly, he seemed to wobble as if he was unsteady on his feet.
Nothing seemed to get him down, however, as the little man continued walking on after every jolt.
"Are you Sid?" I asked, again really addressing no one.
Now I was the one who jumped, as the little man stopped in his tracks, turned to look directly at me, and gave a jolly wave.
"Hi there!" came a happy little voice from the television speakers.
The next few days were spent in a haze of morbid curiosity. I dug up every movie I owned... VHS tapes, DVDs, anything. I threw in a few music CDs and tapes as well, just to see what happened.
I figured out that leaving the videos next to or on top of the broken tape had much the same effect across the board. Shaun of the Dead, for example, was a little less funny when he and his girlfriend had their throats ripped out by the ravenous zombie hordes.
The music remained completely unchanged, however, which was felt a little disappointing. It's absurd to think I actually felt cheated when I found no effect there.
The weirdest video by far had to be a Dora the Explorer DVD I picked up in a thrift store binge. I figured that Sid... if that was the little guy in the infinite paradise... might have a more interesting effect on another cartoon.
I'd never seen Dora the Explorer before that night, but I made sure to watch every episode all the way through so I'd know enough to spot any small tweaks. Imagine my surprise when those "tweaks" stood out like a sore thumb.
The show apparently revolves around several life-or-death situations where Dora will turn to the viewing audience and ask the children what she should do. Kids' voices scream the answer like good little Stepford Brats, and Dora continues on her mad quests.
This time, however, there was no help to be found.
Dora hung from a cliff's edge and looked toward the imaginary camera. "How can I get off of this ledge?" she asked.
There was no answer. She stared blankly, out of the screen, her expression never changing from that slight smile.
"How can I get off of this ledge?" she inquired again, no more frantic than she had been before.
"How can I get off of this ledge?"
A few of her fingers loosened as fatigue started overtaking her small form.
"How can I get off of this ledge?"
"How can I get off of this ledge?"
"How can I get-"
Her hands slipped. She dropped like a stone. Her expression remained calm... vapid... as the footage followed her all the way to the rocky valley floor. There, she landed with a gruesome bounce and laid still. Cartoon blood pooled around the child's broken body.
The rest of the DVD beyond that episode was affected just as clearly. Every following episode consisted of shifting backgrounds and a myriad of wild animals who would walk onscreen, stand there dimly, then wander back off. There was no main character. There was no Dora.
I have to say that looking back on things, I feel almost privileged to have seen the episode where Jerry falls from his apartment window and lands directly ON GEORGE! Similarly, watching a version of Finding Nemo where Nemo's never born and his father commits suicide was really intriguing. It seems fish have a tough time with that sort of thing, but he managed.
FYI, Breaking Bad is an entirely different experience when Walter and Jesse are gruesomely murdered at the end of the first episode. I want to say everyone is a lot happier from then on, but unfortunately they all met untimely ends of their own as well.
By season four, it was just a series of vacant sets and Gus running a chicken restaurant until he died screaming in a sudden grease fire.
I was kind of enjoying it. Call me what you will, think whatever you want, but I felt like I'd stumbled across something special... that one cheap find of something priceless that I'd always been looking for.
Still, I wanted to see more... to know more.
What else could I do, though? How else could I test the effects of this dark, funny little tape?
I was reading through TV Guide when I realized what my next step would be. "Sleepy Hollow", a new fantasy/horror show, was premiering that night. I removed the DVD player and replaced with the VCR once more. Then, I put Sid's Video into the machine...
I pressed "Record".
My mind raced, along with my pulse, as the little red light blinked. I was recording over Sid's tranquil environment, and I couldn't wait to see what would happen. Sure, maybe the whole thing would come to an end... but it was just as likely I'd discover some new trick he could do.
The screen flickered.
A fleeting burst of static interrupted the show.
Was it the video, or just a glitch in the network's transmission?
Before long, I was sitting in front of a violent strobe light of chaotic, hissing noise. Characters onscreen were shot... slaughtered... beheaded... and I wasn't sure if that was supposed to happen or if something was being changed live, right in front of my eyes.
Then, characters who had been killed started appearing again... only to quickly suffer more gruesome and cruel fates.
Characters would stumble onscreen with missing limbs... gaping holes in their torsos... heads ripped open and bones exposed... it was never the same twice as the sickening slide-show unfolded before me.
Finally, when I could bear no more of the sickening, senseless mess, the screen cut to black. Stark, empty, endless black.
Though the room was relatively dark, a chill washed over me as I noticed no reflection on the screen.
Leaning forward on the couch, I picked out a small pinpoint of white on the otherwise dark screen. It was as if one single pixel had remained when all around it disappeared into nothingness.
The light grew. Soon, I could make out a form dimly lit by a glowing, pulsating square beside it.
As the figure came closer, that fuzzy glow illuminated its silhouette. Its feet hovered well off the ground... or the darkness where ground would be. Its limbs seemed knobby and contorted, like those of a corpse. The figure's head lolled to one side, and the square of light that traveled with it seem to float just a few inches by its side.
The figure stopped as it nearly took up the entirety of the screen. The shimmering square seemed to display its own contained span of static.
Thinking it was clearly time to remove Sid's Video and get rid of it, I turned on the lamp next to me.
As soon as light filled the room, it also illuminated the figure on the screen. It was as if that light had pierced the television glass itself and cast an immediate and horrible beam across that face...
That wretched, worm-eaten, desiccated face... its missing eyes hooded by tattered lids... its yellow-toothed mouth pulled back in a post-mortem grin.
Now I could make out the object it had arrived with... another television set, its wires weaving in and out of the cadaver's flesh. Its screen now displayed the same image I was viewing... a smaller corpse, a smaller television... and on THAT screen... another identical copy of the grim sight.
The levitating corpse raised one fetid, withered hand, the skin on its arm crackling and tearing as it did so.
Its mouth, however, did not move.