Let's Scare Jessica to Death
John Hancock, 1971
A blood-orange sun. The opening shot of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is not all that different from Toshio Matsumoto’s Demons released the same year: a metaphoric image rather than an establishing setting. With both films, this infernal opening warns the audience. As the sun closes in, it burns with caution — it’s a trap door.
Jessica, her husband and their close friend arrive at a long-uninhabited house. It’s their new home. ‘Couple starts over and moves into a sepulchral property’ was as much a trope then as it is now. Indeed, houseguest-horror was bounteous material for the twisted imagination; the erosion of domiciliary spaces symbolised how far paranoia infiltrated American culture. Following the decades-long accumulation of war, economic collapse, and social upheaval, as felt by a society trying to restore itself, the horror genre found its subjects closer to home; it saw realism for all its grit.
Throughout the 60s and into the late 70s, horror, whittled down to its essence, often equated to broken trust: a loss of sacred values. The stability of the nuclear family, if it was ever stable to begin with, became irrevocably disrupted, itself an object of fear. What were once conceptually familiar — children, husbands, homes — had the potential to distort into something sinister. Horror directors expressed this most imaginatively: innocent children could be possessed by psionic evils, ordinary men were capable of unspeakable violence, houses could devour their inhabitants.
Beneath its domestic paranoia, Jessica recognises the maladies of contemporary psychiatry. The plot hinges on psychological vulnerability; it is made clear through exposition that Jessica was recently a patient of a psychiatric ward. And yet, despite her release, and so confirming the oversights of the system at large, her madness lingers. Her waking moments slip into violent hallucinations — hallucinations which are, at once, the film’s horror and its social critique. They illustrate her navigation, or rather her failure to navigate, a society that disavows its accountability. Jessica stands for the culture's most alienated figures, those who survive at odds with a system that misunderstands illness, no less its treatment.
What specifically Jessica hallucinates plays into this same criticism. The first ‘vision’ takes place during the drive to their new home; the car (a black hearse embellished with a ‘love’ decal) is packed full; Jessica narrates her relief to be freed of the psych ward. Driving further into the bucolic countryside, the group pull up to a cemetery. Jessica goes in alone, the others hang back by the car. She traces the emblem and epitaph that decorate a tombstone. She glances up to see a woman stood by a distant grave, beside an American flag. Reminiscent of the white rabbit from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the girl gazes luringly at her. She looks real, though we assume her character serves a more psychic purpose. After looking away briefly, in a feeble attempt to call for the others, Jessica finds that the woman is gone. Only the American flag remains, waving to the sound of indecipherable whispers that taunt and call on Jessica.
The group soon arrive to an audience of suspicious townspeople — “look what they’re driving” one of the locals disdainfully observes before another calls them hippies. Though not in direct dialogue with the locals, the group similarly remark: “look at those bandages. I think these guys are left over from the Civil War.” Later, an antique dealer playfully calls them “refugees from urban blight.” The generational-social divide between the old and rural and the young and urban is plain to discern; and, as the genre permits, where social relations expose their fractures, horror will soon materialise.
What’s so remarkable about Jessica is that it swings between external and internal, between fantasy and subjectivity. This is because film is able to disintegrate the line that separates hallucination and horror; surreal events do occur in horror, and in stepping inside a film theatre, audiences are encouraged to believe the horror they are presented with. Therein lies the difficulty of distinguishing between a character’s perception and the film’s reality, though it is precisely this uncertainty that drives Jessica. Jessica's hallucinations are as interpretative as her responses; her credibility is a source of speculation. As in many horror films, where psychic forces leave material evidence, their existence is qualified by their effects — thus the question is not so much “are these forces real?”, if they are not, they may as well be, but rather “how do I defend against them?”
As she continues to experience hallucinations, Jessica tells herself “don’t tell them” — “them” being her husband and their friend, or, realistically, anyone at all. She silences what she sees as proof of her insanity in the hope it will die of starvation, or believing at least the facade of wellness will keep her from rehabilitation. This impulse is unsurprising; the repressive and often unethical nature of psychiatry at the time saw patients (/mental illness) as incorrigible. Some were regarded as chronic and thus categorised as incurable; there for the long haul. Some were submitted to invasive psychoanalysis, others to the experimental whims of electroshock therapy. Exposing or concealing themselves entirely, ‘mad’ women are at home in horror. In horror, protagonists, who are typically women, are able to identify their trauma as external, as if offloading the burden of individual anxiety; it’s the world around them that’s disturbed, not they.
Outside the house, Jessica notices a woman on the porch; inside, the same woman appears at the top of the stairs — the latter incident is witnessed by her husband. “Don’t worry, Jess” he tells her, “I saw it too.” Jessica is overcome with relief, amusement even. As they hurry upstairs to investigate, Jessica is exhilarated by the very idea of an intruder. Though she is potentially in physical danger, at least, for once, she is not alone — her senses were correct. She embraces the prospect; she smiles wildly.
However, this shared vision is but a fleeting illusion. The title suggests as much — it is a cunning imperative, them against her; an attractive dare that certifies the task of Jessica’s alienation. We can assume the title is from the perspective of the mysterious intruder, a squatter named Emily.
The enigmatic and seemingly normal Emily reassures the group — she believed the house was empty, she tells them — before collecting her few belongings. She engages in a brief albeit intimate conversation with Jessica, revealing that she is a drifter. Perhaps envious of Emily's houseless liberties — and of her fearlessness for residing alone in an abandoned house, which seems implausible to Jessica who recently experienced a nervous breakdown — Jessica is evidently fascinated with Emily. She sees in Emily everything she is not; independence, solitude, a native to a world far removed from the haze of city life and psychiatric care; a siren of the earth.
Wanting to learn more about Emily’s lifestyle, and in the hope that liberty is infectious, Jessica persuades her to stay the night. Over a bottle of wine, Emily tells the group of her scepticism of higher education, believing a degree is futile, and how she relishes the isolation of being a nomad; she tells them of the “voices” she hears, the “shadows” which come to life. Aware of Emily’s sexual prowess, felt too by the men, Jessica’s eyes dazzle at these confessions. What Jessica has been wrestling with, what would be described as symptoms of schizophrenia, becomes endearing table-talk, part of Emily’s bohemian charm.
Bohemia is at odds with the capitalist air that the group brought with them to this rural town; to sustain themselves financially, they rely on the property’s orchard and antiquities to sell back to locals. It is during the process of rifling through an attic’s worth of portraits and trunks of miscellany, and then presenting such to a nearby antique dealer, that Jessica learns of the house’s former residents, in particular Abigail Bishop. Abigail, whose photograph bears an uncanny resemblance to Emily, was a bride who drowned in the house’s cove, and has since, according to local folklore, roamed the grounds as an immortal vampire — a fior di male.
Put in motion by Jessica’s discovery, the plot then rather coolly drifts along the course of a classical ghost story; both Jessica’s husband and their close friend are seduced by Emily; the locals reveal themselves to bear vampiric bite marks; Emily’s identity conflates with Abigail’s. As we, alongside Jessica, realise the truth of the town’s sinister mythology — this is made clear as those around her are bitten one by one — Jessica desperately tries to escape. And yet, despite the munificent evidence that the horror is absolutely external, she is still tormented by her initial paranoia: am I mad or am I sane? Is it a nightmare or a dream? Indeed, Jessica suspects the unreality to reside within; she believes the violence depends on or is at least related to her mind’s volatility.
By the end, we arrive at the beginning. To the same natural image: the sun, this time pouring its rays onto Jessica paddling in a rowboat — traumatised and alone. It appears the lake itself is another rather exact metaphor for Jessica's indeterminate status; suspended in liminality between here and there, as a victim of the genre, and, more symbolically, as a relapsing patient.
Jessica is but a flicker in the canon of ‘70s horror. Its cultural burial is surprising. Much like its contemporaries of low-budget aesthetic who gained infamy and acclaim, the intrigue of Jessica lies in its decidedly human conscience; the treachery of envy and adultery, the ties that bind a demising culture and self-annihilation. Jessica demonstrates horror’s efficacy at depicting personal and societal alienation. It is a monograph of connecting subjective turmoil to its secular source; an elegy of 60s counterculture in its decline; a faded decal on a black hearse. It is not simply a fable of exiling from the comforts of urbanity, or a classist spectacle of primitive rurality, it instead insinuates that modernity’s afflictions shadow one’s every move. Their scars reside beneath the skin. Of course, this reading of the film verges on anti-psychiatry — and yet it is not unreasonable to argue the film adopts this stance. Against scientific reasoning, the haunting ambiguity of Jessica retains a more philosophical sensibility; it seems the somatic essence of horror, a genre so markedly visceral, was the perfect vehicle to express it.
Jessica recognises that to cross the lake and return to New York solitarily and blood-spattered is no more appealing than surrendering to the vampiric cult. One could argue that the film’s end is a nightmare realised — Jessica’s metaphoric paralysis the bleakest of conclusions. Her ambivalence is not necessarily a gesture of hopelessness, however. It leaves room for potential. Affirmed by the image of the cult and Emily/Abigail stood ashore spectating from afar, Jessica is offered an alternative.
The countryside's barbarity is not proof of Jessica's illness but of her insight. For once, disturbance cradles her rationality; the horror is outside. Her only option, which is arguably the most pleasurable outcome — one void of male doctors and husbands who infantilise her and worsen her condition — is to start life anew; to exist amongst the apple orchards, vampires and cemeteries; to exorcise the ills of modernity; to look outward; to follow white rabbits.