1971 was a great year for horror. Just that one year saw so many great films being released that one can only envy the cinema audiences of the era. Amongst genre landmarks like The Cat O’ Nine Tails, A Bay of Blood, Blood on Satan’s Claw and The House that Dripped Blood was also a little small-budget affair by director John Hancock, that, despite some middling first reviews, went on to redeem its place amongst the other classics. At the time when horror was getting bloodier and gorier, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death made its impact with a slowly seeping terror that would burrow its way into the audience’s minds for years to come. Its remarkably realistic take on mental health issues (supported by the fantastic performance of Zohra Lampert), struck a chord with me on a very personal level on my first viewing. I can only think of a handful of other films that have had a similar effect on me. As this year marks the 50th anniversary of this fantastic chiller, it seemed only appropriate to share some thoughts and love for this frequently overlooked classic.
Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has recently been released from a mental institution. The reasons for her six-month stay at a such facility are never explicitly explained, but some sort of breakdown involving auditory and visual hallucinations is strongly suggested. To get her back to even keel, Jessica and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) have decided that best course of action is to ditch the city life and relocate to the peace and tranquility of the countryside. Together with their friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor), they take over a rundown farm in rural Connecticut in the hopes of making a living from its plentiful orchards. On paper, the place is the pastoral dream that anyone who’s ever dreamt of making such a move imagines: a beautiful period building, plenty of land to farm, your own private beach, and all the peace and quiet one could ask for. Sheer heaven. However, things might not be as perfect in this agrarian idyll as it first may seem. From the get-go, the local townsfolk exude a hostile, we-don’t-like-your-kind-around-here kind of vibe. In addition, Jessica is haunted by visions of a young woman in white. And when the trio first arrive at their new home, they find it occupied by a freewheeling hippy named Emily (Mariclare Costello). All of this is innocuous enough, but as the summer days at the farm progress, these details seem to be forming a more sinister tapestry that will eventually push Jessica to the edge of sanity.
In the subgenre of women-going-mad thrillers, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is not overly innovative. It follows along similar lines as its predecessors, such as George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) or Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), where a fragile heroine is slowly driven insane by forces that may or may not stem from a supernatural source. Despite the slight lack of originality, there is much to love about the film. It may be a small-budget production with nothing overtly flashy to offer, but what it may lack in big, grandiose scares, it makes up in atmosphere.
Everything starts with a beautifully mellow ambiance. As we follow the trio making their way through the Connecticut countryside, there is a real sense of place and time; of a hot late summer’s day where autumn is approaching, but the sun is still warm, as is the car they are traveling in. There is something reminiscent of childhood trips to visit grandma in a hot, sweaty automobile where no one is quite comfortable, but the destination is definitely worth the discomfort. That same sense of nostalgia continues as the three friends explore their new surroundings. You can almost feel the coolness of the lake water on your skin and smell the stuffy, hot air and dusty long forgotten items that hide in the farm’s attic. It is sentimental, but in the best possible way, reminding one of the carefree and simple way summers used to be. This soothing summertime ambiance does not last for long, though, as things quickly shift to gloomier climate, with Jessica starting to detect the first signs of danger around her. Ominous characters lurking somewhere just out of reach swiftly morph into something more tangible, and Jessica’s calm composure will gradually start to slip away. As a leading lady, Jessica is certainly carved from similar wood as the similar heroines that came before her, albeit with the added package of already exciting mental health issues. The fragility of her character is evident from the very beginning, and it is obvious that as viewers we may not be able to trust her observations as being real. What sets Jessica and her experience apart is the authenticity of her reactions. Because of her mental health background, Jessica does not jump to any quick conclusions, but her inner dialogue is more concerned with the fact that no one will believe what she has just witnessed. After catching yet another glimpse of an unfamiliar female character, this time occupying the front porch of her new home, Jessica does not alarm her husband or friend to this, but tells herself “Don’t tell them. They won’t believe you.” This is her mantra throughout much of the film, up until events overtake her and she can no longer maintain the smiling façade of sanity. Lampert does an incredible job in portraying this delicate dance between a completely freak out and maintaining appearances. How she manages the change from panic-stricken terror to happily-smiling pleasantries is skillfully done, bringing authenticity to the character.
It was this charade that really spoke to me when I first saw this film some ten years ago. I happened upon the film (at my brother’s recommendation) during a time in my life where I myself was not in the most stable place mentally. I had recently been diagnosed with a condition that essentially left me trapped inside my small flat. I could walk with the aid of my trusted crutches, but as moving around made my legs feel like they were on fire from the inside, even a small walk to the corner shop or to town was often not worth the pain. Isolation, combined with a rather heavy-duty pain management routine completely incompatible with my brain chemistry, put me in a very dark and bizarre place. It took its toll on my marriage and mental health, and even though I am happy to say both came out intact, it has left lasting effects on how I react to certain things.
Just as I had swapped my pain management routine for something more suitable, and was getting support for my other mental health issues, I first came to watch Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Jessica’s inner mantra “Don’t tell them. They won’t believe you.” hit home on a very personal level. As one of the delightful side effects of my medication was paranoia and auditory hallucinations, I was not a complete stranger to hearing things that were not there. Having called my husband in a panic a few times, thinking there was someone in the other room of our tiny two bedroom flat, I quickly learned that these kinds of notions were best kept to myself. Often, I sat filled with fear as I listened to the strange sounds and voices coming through the wall, fighting the urge to simply flee the flat while desperately trying to convince myself that it was all in my head. Jessica keeping a stiff upper lip, no matter how scary things got, was a behaviour I could easily relate to and understand. Similarly, the growing fear of not being able to recognise what is real and what is not. Even more so, not knowing which is worse: all of these terrible things simply being a figment of your own imagination, ergo symptom of your mental illness, or for them to be real, meaning that you are in fact dealing with forces beyond your full understanding. Neither option is particularly attractive or any less scary, leaving you in difficult quandary of how to deal with such options. For me, it was as “easy” as changing my medication and getting professional help, and the terrifying voices and weird paranoid thoughts went away. In Jessica’s case, we never really learn what is real and what is not. We do know she is not being gaslighted, as so often ends up being the case in these type of stories. But is she indeed being haunted (or hunted) by a hundred year old vampire that has wormed her way in Jessica’s life, unseen for what she is by anyone else? All the evidence certainly seems to point that way, but how reliable that evidence is is a whole other matter. As stated before, Jessica is not the most trustworthy of witnesses, and her observations of events do not always marry up with what everyone else is seeing. Yes, it is entirely possible that Emily is indeed the late Abigail Bishop, still haunting her old homestead as an ageless vampire, but it could also be that after hearing the legend of poor Abigail and what the locals believe became of her, Jessica’s paranoid mind has merely connected dots that are not really there. It is also absolutely conceivable that everyone around Jessica, including the townsfolk, are under some kind of vampire spell and that she is the sole survivor of this curse. But it could also be that the weird men that congregate around the town’s general store are nothing more than grumpy old men stuck in their ways and are wary of outsiders. For a paranoid or anxiety-ridden mind, that type of hostility is easily read as something more than it actually is, and is therefore perceived as somehow suspicious or even dangerous. We also do not have any solid proof whether any of the people that supposedly end up dead, have actually died, as Jessica is always the sole witness to their grizzly ends. That does, of course, not mean it is not real, but does leave plenty of room for doubt. In the end, things escalate to a point where Jessica’s only option is to try to flee the farm and then the island. We are left with the same image we began with, of overwhelmed Jessica sitting in a row boat lamenting “I sit here and can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Nightmares or dreams. Madness or sanity. I don’t know which is which.” Meanwhile, the vampire Emily and her minions look on from the beach, unable to cross the water to reach her, and like Jessica, we cannot know for certain whether they are really there.
Admittedly there are plenty of films, especially horror films, with ambiguous endings, so even in that aspect, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is nothing massively innovative. I would, however, argue that it is one of the best examples of such ambiguity. There is a fine line between leaving things just obscure enough to make the audience want more and continue to ponder and theorise long after finishing the film, and using an open ending as some kind of Deus ex machina and just leaving everyone with the distinct feeling that the writers wrote themselves into a corner with no way out. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is a fine example of how this tight rope walk can be performed successfully. The cryptic conclusion lets us relate to Jessica on a much more personal level, as, just like her, we too are left confused and rattled by the events that have just taken place. The desperation and panic of those final images is palpable, and Jessica’s inability to do anything but simply float away is deeply relatable. The real horror is in not knowing, and the film does an exceptional job in bringing that point home.
Fifty years after its first release in August 1971, Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is still one of the finer examples of how to handle a mental breakdown through the lens of horror. It passes no judgement, nor does it take sides. It is left up to the viewer to decide what is real and what is not, or, as the case may be, be left with the same horror as Jessica: the horror of not knowing.