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

Press Play By Jed Mayer | Press Play June 13, 2013 at 8:30AM

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.
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Jessica Promo


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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