Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. 1971. Directed by John Hancock. Screenplay by Hancock & Lee Halcheim.
Starring Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson, & Mariclare Costello.
Paramount Pictures / The Jessica Company
PG-13 / 89 minutes
Drama / Horror / Mystery
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
There was a time John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death was considered a lesser known horror, often recommended on lists of obscure horror. Thanks to fans, such as Stephen King, and better releases of it on physical media over the past decade or so, the film is much more well known nowadays. And it ought to be, because for an indie horror in 1971 it’s stood the test of time. The film’s haunting atmosphere, and its ambiguity, coupled with the protagonist’s troubled mental health, lends itself to a potential variety of exciting critical readings.
My reading of Hancock’s film is as a Gothic confrontation with whiteness through the figure of the vampire, exploring the lingering traumas of slavery in America in terms of how they reverberate across history through the white people who continue to occupy the land.
Jessica (Zohra Lampert) just got out of a psychiatric ward, released into the care of her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman). They’re headed for the countryside in Connecticut where Duncan’s bought a cheap fixer-upper of a farmhouse. Jessica, Duncan, and their pal Woody (Kevin O’Connor) head down to the house, running into a squatter, Emily (Mariclare Costello). Jessica invites the woman to stay with them the night, and the next day they ask her to stay longer.
Sadly Jessica’s not doing well, even after her release from the hospital. She’s hearing voices, seeing strange things. She’s also told a local legend about a young woman called Abigail Bishop who drowned in the lake during 1880, though people claim Abigail’s now roaming around as a vampire. This story just makes Jessica see and hear more strange things. She even starts to wonder if maybe Emily could be a vampire herself.
“We’re all kind of wandering spirits”
Because Connecticut is not part of the Southern U.S. it doesn’t get lumped in with much slavery discourse. Connecticut has a long history of slavery, and it didn’t officially end in the state until 1848, quite a while after many other Northern states had abolished slavery. In Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery (2005), Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank write: “Slavery was part of the social contract in Connecticut.” In one scene, a character remarks that a bunch of old men from the VFW look like they’re “leftover from the Civil War.” Aside from Connecticut specifically, the film draws off the general Gothic history of America, in that the country is a giant haunted house built on violent histories of colonialism and slavery. Slavery deliberately enters the film’s story when Jessica goes to the graveyard.
An important scene occurs when Jessica does a stone rubbing of a grave belonging to Venture Smith. Smith—whose real birth name was Broteer Furro—was an African man stolen as a child and sold into slavery, who later bought freedom for him and his family. Smith dictated an account of his life, in 1798, becoming the first slave narrative in America. Not only that, and more importantly to Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Smith’s account of being enslaved in America is a rare account about slavery in Colonial New England; this goes back to the fact that the practice was embedded in Connecticut longer than most of the other Northeastern States. More important than Jessica taking a rubbing of Smith’s grave is that she doesn’t seem interested in learning a whole lot about slavery, whereas she’s much more compelled by the local legends concerning Abigail Bishop’s vampirism. She’s interested in taking a physical sketch of the grave, treating slavery as a monument, an object. She’s much more interested in the actual story of white vampires instead.
The fact Abigail Bishop drowns in 1880 is significant because that year, and the decade as a whole, has a number of important connections with white supremacy in America. 1880 is the year James A. Garfield won the election to become POTUS; Garfield was pro-abolition while simultaneously, and paradoxically, balking at Blacks being equal to whites. 1880 was just after the end of the Reconstruction Era in 1877, when groups like the White League and the Red Shirts were growing in strength. Both the White League and the Red Shirts were white supremacist paramilitary terrorist organisations. Also during the 1880s, newly freed African-Americans were beginning to be disenfranchised by the U.S. Supreme Court. Perhaps most interesting, in contrast to all the white supremacy, is that 1880 was the year when Albion Tourgée‘s The Invisible Empire was published. The Invisible Empire is a striking text, and especially so at the time due to Tourgée’s own efforts to undermine racism; his book examines emerging white supremacy following the abolishment of slavery and the causes behind it.
Because Abigail’s death happens in 1880 the film’s making unconscious connections to America’s history of white supremacy. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death depicts white people as vampires while occupying a Gothic landscape barren of any Black people—we don’t see any Black faces in the film, only hear about dead Black people—and marred by the ghosts of American slavery. The vampirism of the film is whiteness itself.
.Jessica’s mental health breakdown is her inability to reconcile an ignorant, oblivious whiteness with the Gothic history of the house and the landscape. It’s as if she’s trapped in a giant liminal space, incapable of telling the undead white folk from the living ones. The screenplay expertly captures this strange racial dissonance with which Jessica grapples throughout the film by bringing in the real life figure of Venture Smith. The most relevant moment to Jessica’s difficulties with the Gothic history of American slavery is when she and her husband Duncan are talking about the purchase of the farmhouse where they’re staying. Jessica goes on to compare them buying a house to Smith purchasing his freedom out of slavery. It’s a stunningly oblivious moment the couple chuckle over, illustrating how neither of them are capable of understanding the true effects of whiteness.
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is one of the more unsettling, atmospheric takes on vampires in America cinema, and it ought to be mentioned in any conversation about the best vampire films. It doesn’t feel like a typical vampire horror, often taking on qualities of a haunted house film or even a slasher. The inclusion of Venture Smith is an integral element that a lot of people pass off as a throwaway detail. It unlocks all the film’s Gothic racial qualities, the key to its critical eye cast towards whiteness. Jessica’s haunting is a psychological haunting many of us white folk go through as we grapple with the role whiteness has played in the Gothic histories of our nations. She’s almost incapable of properly confronting such histories, nearly collapsing under the psychological weight of the truth about America, through Connecticut’s buried racist history.
Most viewers rightly read the ending as Jessica having killed a bunch of people. This essay’s reading of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death follows through to the end, in which the finale isn’t a tragedy, rather Jessica realises the town is full of vampires and does whatever she can to survive her time in rural Connecticut with the vampires and their whiteness. Nevertheless, the ending still ends ambiguously because as Jessica floats out onto the lake in the boat, vampires vanquished behind her on land, we see other townsfolk come out to the edge of the water to see what’s happened. And there’s simply no telling how many more people in that little town are infected by the vampirism that is whiteness.