That Time I Got Caught Stealing a VHS Copy of Basic Instinct When I Was 12

On the 30th anniversary of this classic erotic thriller, actor-writer-director Ryan Spahn shares how the movie drove him to a life of crime.

It was 1992. I was 12. Puberty was barreling through my body. I was literally turned on by everything in sight. I didn’t understand what was happening. I needed help. Google hadn’t been invented yet. The internet didn’t exist. At least not for tweens in the Midwest. Adult magazines were impossible to come by. Especially ones a gay boy would stan. I had a dusty VHS of Risky Business stashed in a dresser drawer, but Tom Cruise only gets you so far. Ugh. I was yearning for education. Some guidance in understanding my own body. Like, stat. Before I tried understanding my own body on someone else.

Confused, I did what every movie-obsessed tween of the ’90s did: I turned to my Entertainment Weekly. I tore through its pages, desperate to find a movie that had a sexy plot. Something that might show “adult” scenes. Something I could pause and rewind.

Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct: “This would be the educational event of my adolescence.”

And then, like a leaf spluttering from a lawnmower, she made herself known. Oh, snap! She’d be coming out a few months before my 13th birthday. Hot damn! Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman gave her a solid B-. He used juicy review phrases like “frenzied sex,” “soul-wrenching,” “ice princess” and “explicit.” Dead. This would be the educational event of my adolescence. I legit had never heard of Sharon Stone or Michael Douglas, but they were now my professors.

Basic Instinct was released in theaters on March 20, 1992. Obvi, I couldn’t see her in person. She had a profoundly deserved “R” rating. I had to wait until she exploded into the video store.

Tick-tock. Tick-tock.

Finally. She arrived. My local Target had her in stock. She was just a bike ride away. And – OMG, NSFW, NSFPANTS – Basic Instinct was released in two versions: R and unrated. Butter my butt and call me a biscuit, I didn’t know what “unrated” meant, but taking a cue from its red-band packaging, the unrated version was the one I’d be inhaling.

Not wanting to go alone, I convinced my younger cousin, K.T., to bike to the store with me. He didn’t know what I was up to, but he was game to hang. As we entered the overly air-conditioned Target, sweat showered my body. K.T. was like, “What’s up with you?” And I was like, “Ha-ha. Nothing.” I was spiraling.

K.T. and I split off. He was a gamer, so he went down that aisle. I was going through puberty, so I went down that aisle. I browsed the new releases. Slowly. Alphabetically. Taking my time. On the D.L. Like a secret mission. I was the James Bond of Michigan.

Full disclosure: I didn’t want anybody to see me. I was terrified. Of being exposed. For having interest in sex at all. Growing up in a Christian household, my relationship to sexuality was a private thing. Often, a shameful thing. As it was for many.

But then, OMG, I saw her. Basic Instinct. I literally gasped. She was wrapped in that promised red packaging. Boy, oh boy. I reached my shaky hand out and grabbed her. I blushed. Shed a tear.

But then I froze. Shit. I hadn’t thought further than this pivotal moment. How would I get her out of the store? Target Lady would never take a tween’s coins for this kind of racy content. Terror raced through my core. What to do, what to do … ? Without pause, I shoved her down the front of my blue jeans. She was gone. I pulled my shirt over my pants. She was buried. I had never stolen anything before, but now I was making up for it in spades.

I started walking. Deep breath. I reached the front of Target. Deep breath. I armored myself with my American Eagle jacket. Deep breath. I could see the sunshine in the parking lot. I could see my parents’ VCR. I could see my future education. I could see my … Shit. A hand was on my left shoulder.

“Come with me, son.”

A strange, older man escorted me into a beige break room in the back of Target. I was terrified. Humiliated. Shook. I don’t think I took a breath for the next several hours.

“Got anything in the front of your pants, son?”

“No.”

“Really?”

The man flicked the front of my pants. The sound of the plastic VHS tape echoed through the sterile room. He was revealing all my sins. All my shame.

Ryan Spahn at age 14. (Photos of him at the time of his arrest were not available.)

What happened next played out in a foggy haze. The police were called. I was handcuffed. I was escorted out of Target. My cousin watched. Along with everyone. I was put into a police car. The red lights were turned on. The siren blared. I was driven to the police station. I was fingerprinted. I was given a juvenile delinquent file. I was assigned a social worker. I was allowed a single phone call. I called my mother.

To this day, my mother has never walked in on me masturbating. Thank God. I know that’s a rich embarrassment locked away in most young men’s memory, but getting arrested for stealing Basic Instinct is a comparable horror show.

“Wow, Ryan. Wow.”

We left the police station. We didn’t talk. I got into our white minivan. We didn’t talk. We drove home. We didn’t talk. I went into my bedroom. We didn’t talk.

Sex remained an unspoken thing. For years. I was scared of it. Until I was 39 years old, I avoided seeing Basic Instinct. I related the movie itself to my fears of sex; a fear that stayed with me well into adulthood. But in early March 2020, I finally watched her with seven friends. We had a movie club called FAAA (Film Appreciation Association of Astoria). I presented her as my offering to the group. This would be our last in-person movie club event before lockdown.

Beulah the cat at an FAAA event (left); and a social media response to the FAAA Basic Instinct screening (right).

Basic Instinct chronicles the saga surrounding a crime novelist, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone, in a Golden Globe-nominated performance), who is the prime suspect in a recent murder case. Homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) is sniffing around, but Catherine has other tricks up her sleeve. She lures Nick into an intense sexual relationship he cannot refuse – even though he’s in a relationship with his psychologist, Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn). Men are the best! But, strangely, the murder case grows more complicated as bodies continue to pile up and Nick’s psychologist/lover becomes a key suspect.

Basic Instinct was nominated for two Academy Awards (score and editing), so it’s legit. It’s deeply sexy. It’s racy. It’s fun. A bit camp. But none of that struck me as much as Sharon Stone’s riveting performance. At 32, Sharon Stone had command over her body, her sexuality, her power – particularly around men – in a way that floored me. In a way that I still don’t possess. During the infamous interrogation scene, in which Stone spreads her legs to a room full of men, she felt like the one in control. Even if this wasn’t true. During the many sex scenes she was required to do, the nudity, Sharon Stone felt like a powerful woman making a deliberate choice. Even if this wasn’t true. Making this movie, I cannot imagine what she was up against. I’m sure she was having her own horror show. Sharon Stone is a hero. A force. A national treasure. She would’ve made for a killer professor during my adolescence.

(LOL, my punishment for stealing the unrated VHS version of Basic Instinct was that I was not allowed to see Rosie O’Donnell in the national tour of Grease. Sorry, Rosie!)

Ryan Spahn has been published by Rotten Tomatoes, Metro Weekly, USA Today, IntoMore, and American Theatre Magazine. His feature, Nora Highland, is playing at film festivals. As an actor, Ryan can be currently seen in The Bite, Chicago P.D. and Modern Love. Ryan is a graduate of Juilliard and is based in New York City.