Lost & Found: Iconic VHS Cover Artist Corey Wolfe's Subliminal Designs

Digital culture and the rise of DVDs have spawned the fun and often mysterious “easter egg” attribute found in many releases. The term refers to hidden features on a DVD or Blu-ray disc that must be discovered by the viewer. Whether it be a simple image or a portal into deleted scenes, photos and additional information about the release, these are placed without the knowledge of the viewer.

In retrospect, artwork can often feature similar attributes, such as the hidden initials of the artist. Alchemists from the Middle Ages often hid meanings and formulations in the images of their texts, creating a secret language made up of symbols. Much of this was due to what would be harsh and swift punishments for any claims of heresy.

Here at the Sanctum, we take pride in offering the original artwork of Corey Wolfe, a veteran illustrator who has been creating iconic VHS cover art since 1979. Some of his greatest known works include Magnum Entertainment’s Driller Killer and Drive-In Massacre, Vestron’s releases of The Kindred and Chopping Mall, and many others. 

Wolfe also has illustrated covers for Disney (more than 1,200 jobs) and sci-fi/fantasy publishers such DAW Books. Contrary to the urban legends surrounding Disney’s infamous classic VHS release for The Little Mermaid, which was recalled due to a perceived phallic symbol appearing in the original cover image, Corey Wolfe and another artist competed for that artwork. “We both submitted front and back sketches for the release,” Wolfe told the Sanctum. Disney selected Corey to design the back of the box and the questionable image from the other artist was selected for the front cover.

“I used to hide my initials in most Disney pieces,” Wolfe said. Due to a strict “no attribution” policy, artists were not permitted to sign their work for Disney. With a trained eye, however, the letters “CW” can be seen intermingled in the coral on the lower portion of The Little Mermaid's back cover. “I placed my initials in that coral five times in the hopes that one would survive,” Wolfe added. Shortly after the artwork was submitted, Wolfe received a call from Disney citing they had discovered and deleted all "four" instances where his initials had been placed in the art.

“I nearly got fired, so I slowed down on placing my initials in the art,” he said.

Wolfe remains active in the illustration field with an impressive selection of clients. His lifelong interest in metaphysics has created other references in artwork for which collectors are mostly unaware.

Magnum Entertainment’s 1985 release of Speeding Up Time, an obscure Blaxploitation/Revenge film from 1971 starring Winston Thrash and directed by John Evans, features a four-sided cover presenting the film’s main character with a burning tenement in the background, which is relevant to the plot of the film. On the back cover, Wolfe included the names  “Theo + Sophia” (i.e. Theosophy) in graffiti on the bricks above the dumpster.

What most collectors and viewers don’t know is that Wolfe placed this in the image as a reference to what he was studying at the time. Theosophy refers to systems of esoteric philosophy concerning the mysteries of being and nature, the divine, hidden knowledge or wisdom and branches of mysticism. According to Wolfe, he sought to "subliminally open the minds of viewers,” although, he conceded, no one ever questioned the reference or names. 

While not all of his illustrations hold clues to the artist's thinking, Wolfe says he is influenced by the writings of Theosophist C.W. Leadbeater and Zen philosopher Alan Watts. At the time of this writing, Wolfe was reading Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot and says he has a deep interest in radionics.

Video Sanctum is proud to work closely with Wolfe to select original paintings, sketches and printed advertising pieces used for many of our favorite VHS covers to offer to Video Era art collectors in our gallery. Each item comes with a signed Certificate of Authenticity from the artist.  Below are some of our favorite covers from Wolfe.