RAISED IN FEAR: LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and the Perils of Country Living

RAISED IN FEAR: LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH and the Perils of Country Living

Most
potential viewers would expect a film made in 1971 with the title Let’s Scare Jessica to Death to be a
teen slasher picture, but in fact, it is a subtle, moody piece of cinema that
explores the fragility of the mind and the persistence of the past, achieving
moments of rich psychological insight. 
It is also one of the most powerful treatments of the dream of getting
away from it all, and the horrors that ensue when we seek refuge in places we
little understand and where, in the end, we may not really belong. 

The story
is told largely from Jessica’s point of view, and creates a disturbing sense of
uncertainty in the gap between her own perceptions and those of the other
characters. This is nicely captured in
the opening scene’s voice-over narration, spoken by Jessica (Zohra Lampert):
“Nightmares or dreams … madness or sanity … I don’t know which is which.”  Her seemingly tenuous grip on reality is
partially explained in the back-story given in the early scenes of the
film. Jessica has just spent several
months in a mental institution, and she and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman)
have decided to escape from the confines of their Manhattan apartment to try
the curative powers of country living on an apple orchard in rural
Connecticut.  Later, they encounter an
antiques dealer who made the same move, and he recognizes in them fellow
“refugees from urban blight.” But despite this antique dealer’s idyllic
portrait of the area they’ve just moved into, the newcomers are given many
signs that something is seriously wrong in this superficially bucolic retreat.

In the nearby
small town, they encounter hostility from the native population, which seems to
consist almost exclusively of old men. 
While the newcomers are all evidently in their thirties, the enmity
seems largely to derive from a generation gap, one that is reinforced by the
hippyish appearance of Jessica and Duncan’s friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor). Though their unfriendly encounters appear to
be the expected clash of anti-establishment baby boomers with the so-called
“greatest generation,” these tensions also derive from a more ancient enmity,
one between country folk and city folk. Many great films of the seventies address this theme, notably Deliverance, Straw Dogs, and The Texas
Chain Saw Massacre
, but what makes Jessica’s
treatment unique is the brooding ambiguity that shrouds the true nature of this
rural community. Since portrayed events
are filtered through the protagonist’s melancholia and relentless self-doubt,
it becomes impossible to be certain whether we are witnessing mere uncultured
rudeness and suspicion of newcomers or something much less benign.

My wife
and I moved to the mid-Hudson valley five years ago. At that time, we often felt such
doubts. The demographics of this area
are difficult to read from an outsider’s point of view, and we often felt
uncertain of the nature of our adopted community and its environs. Driving through the countryside on weekend
rambles, we would be mystified by the sudden transitions from quaintly
gentrified little towns with espresso cafes and antique shops to run-down
whistle stops with little more than a gas station and a grain silo, where
locals sip 40 ouncers and stare malevolently as you drive by.  While generally I find New Yorkers to be the
most friendly people of any state I’ve lived in, I have also walked trails in
the Catskills where people pass by stonily ignoring my hello, or worse, glaring
back silently.  Though I have come to
know my neighbors for the wonderful people they are, when we first moved in,
they frankly gave me the creeps.  Perhaps
this is because one of them introduced himself by saying that he had watched me
carry my wife over the threshold when we first moved in.  Moving into a new place has its perils, in
the city as well as the country, but there’s something especially unsettling
about the country’s unique sense of isolation. If your country neighbors turn out to be monsters, who you gonna call? I’ve seen enough horror movies to be wary of
the local sheriff’s connections. At the
end of the day, one’s doubts and suspicions most often turn out to be
groundless; but then again, what if they’re not?

As with
Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby,
Hancock’s film carefully choreographs our doubts by selectively withholding
information and calling its protagonist’s perceptions into question. And yet, as with Rosemary, Jessica’s point of view
is richly, sympathetically rendered, and as the film progresses we begin to
feel that the men in the film are the naïve, deluded ones. Jessica’s world is magical and strange, an
effect largely achieved by Joe Ryan’s complex sound design, in which
non-contextual sounds and voices form a constant countercurrent to the film’s
narrative flow. Wind blows even when the
trees are still, and queasy, seething electronic noises provide an aural
equivalent to the characters’ unease. Jessica’s disembodied voice offers a running disjointed monologue, often
uttered over spare piano or melancholy acoustic guitar figures. The increasing claustrophobia of this
would-be idyll is as much a product of the protagonist’s psychological
isolation as the characters’ rural equivalent.

With the
entrance into the story of the enigmatic character Emily (Mariclaire Costello),
Jessica’s internal monologue begins to incorporate other voices. Emily appears to be a free-spirited wanderer
squatting in the house newly purchased by the film’s protagonists, but as the
film progresses she seems more deeply connected to the town’s history.  Jessica seems uniquely attuned to this, a
connection furthered by a séance scene in which she declares her receptivity to
“everyone who has ever died in this house.” 
The abiding presence of the dead and their stories is a theme struck
early by the film, when the three main characters (who drive a hearse, by the
way) stop at an old cemetery so that Jessica can take rubbings from
tombstones. These rubbings adorn the
walls of her and Duncan’s bedroom and seem to summon further voices in
Jessica’s head.  In some respects she is
a visionary, attuned to the local spirits.
Yet this potentially empowering receptivity gives way to powerlessness as
the characters begin to reenact the family dramas of those long dead. Let’s
Scare Jessica to Death
moves subtly from being a film about retreating to
an idyllic place to being about the spirits of that place reasserting themselves.

Although
the spirit of place in Jessica is
clearly malevolent, the film’s cinematography, saturated with color and
suffused with shimmering natural light, continues to seduce us into its dark
pastoral world. Like all great horror
films, this is not so much about what horrifies us in our daily lives, but also
what entices us, revealing two seemingly conflicting sides of the same
experience. One of the voices in
Jessica’s mind often repeats the phrase “You’re home now,” but after a certain
point it becomes difficult to tell if this is the incorporated voice of the
mysterious Emily, or Jessica herself; the seemingly malevolent voice of the
rural township or the consoling voice of Jessica’s own city-bred mind, hoping
to reconcile herself to her country retreat. 
At the conclusion of the film we return to where we began, with the
voice-over musing on whether we are living a dream or a nightmare.  Though horror films can show us how easily
one can turn to another, they can also muse upon those paradoxical moments when
our life choices seem to unleash an uneasy combination of both.

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

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Comments

John Keefer

Just watched this the other day and was quite struck by it. Have there been any essays or analysis written about the period in horror cinema from '68-'78? I've found films like this and Alice Sweet Alice and many others from that era to be alive and engaged in a way that post-Halloween horror wasn't so interested in. It's a broad generalization based on my love of the pre-slasher era.

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