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Review: ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’ (1971) – Subtly Terrifying

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Review: 'Let's Scare Jessica to Death' (1971) - Subtly Terrifying

Stephen King, doubtlessly a master of horror, has written extensively about the different kinds of scares storytellers utilize to invoke a reaction. In his 1981 Danse Macabre, a non-fiction work dedicated to the history of horror fiction, King posits that there is actually a hierarchy of scares. For him, there are three levels of fright. And if anybody is to be trusted with matters of fear and what causes us to feel that way, surely it’s Stephen King.

The bulk of Danse Macabre consists of notes from when King was teaching several different college courses on the subject in the 70s. There are plenty of fascinating insights. He passionately writes about literary horror, horror on the radio, horror movies and TV shows, even horror in our culture and how it permeates our art and entertainment. He takes extra care in writing about the subtext of American horror movies, detailing the below-the-surface social commentary that’s hidden in many of our most popular films.

Key to the discourse of Danse Macabre is his idea of a 3-tiered fright ladder. Although he does make clear that he will use any type of scariness to shake his audience, King does have a real ranking.

“The 3 types of terror: The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it’s when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm. The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it’s when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm. And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It’s when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there’s nothing there…”

-Stephen King

Terror,” as the master of literary horror defines it, is the word best suited to describe 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, a beautifully understated film elevated by believable performances and gloomy atmosphere. It’s grounded in a very real way, so that when things start escalating, it’s all the more jarring, and all the more difficult to explain away. It’s from a bygone era of classy horror movies; even with its seemingly low budget, the film never stoops to cheap tricks to scare its viewer. Instead, we’re presented with a treatise on psychological fragility, a film that works as horror but also communicates a universal anxiety. Its depiction of paranoia is relatable, and that’s the scariest part of all.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death 1971

Jessica has just been released from a mental institution, but she’s well now. She keeps insisting she’s well in what becomes the film’s central, heartbreaking coda. You want to believe she’s well. You want to believe that this is a new Jessica, that we’re meeting her at her best, having recovered from whatever has plagued her life in the past. The entire movie, it turns out, is about whether or not this is true. She certainly seems okay. The filmmakers are brilliant in the way they introduce this protagonist. We don’t know what a healthy Jessica looks and acts like. Is this her at her best? Or is she a shadow of who she used to be? The audience simply does not know, and so we instinctively trust her as she is. This is who we’re spending time with, and so she’s the character we begin relating to. And to see the events through Jessica’s eyes is a truly harrowing experienced.

Stephen King may have deftly defined the terror that best describes this movie, but our protagonist is very solidly rooted in the work of another master of literary horror. Shirley Jackson, with her skill for inviting us into the mind of unreliable narrators, is the Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s clearest forebear. In particular, Jessica feels like she’s walked right out of the twisted, broken architecture of Jackson’s Hill House. She shares a lot with that story’s protagonist, Eleanor Vance. But while Eleanor has a whole group of believers around her, characters open to the idea of Hill House being haunted, Jessica is alone. She has no Theodora to confide in. And while Hill House reflects back to Eleanor the truths about herself she fears the most, Jessica is offered no respite at all, regardless of her location. She can’t leave the haunting. And we, the viewer, aren’t even sure if it’s all just in her mind.

Jessica is released from the institution into the custody of her husband, Duncan. Duncan, a renowned Philharmonic instrumentalist, has left his prestigious position to bring Jessica to a newly-purchased farmhouse in upstate New York. Together, the couple, along with their friend Woody, arrive into a town out of time, with their young, hippie-sensibility clearly standing in stark contrast with and derided by the town’s elderly citizens. The trio rolls into town in a hearse. When they get to the house, the friends discover a mysterious drifter who’s been living there rent-free. The drifter’s name is Emily, and she wins them over and Jessica invites Emily to live there with them. And Emily is the source of Jessica’s turmoil.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Movie Image

It’s around this time that we start hearing the voices in Jessica’s head. By witnessing these voices, are we the audience confirming that they’re real? Or are we all going a little mad? Because these voices are there. That’s another of this movie’s strengths. Whether these are auditory hallucinations, or evidence of some paranormality, we believe them. We’re right there sharing this with Jessica.

And that’s why it feels so painful to watch Jessica unravel. We’re participants in her paranoia, so when she’s not believed, it hurts us too. Because we’re learning the truth about this Emily figure, we’re privy to her being more than she seems.

The theme of not being believed when you’re so clearly in danger is explored a lot in horror movies, and for good reason. It is one of the most singularly terrifying experiences we share. The way Jessica is dismissed by the people in her life is terrifying. It’s mounting the whole time. What begins as a gloomy, somber climaxes with this absolute terror. Instead of grossing us out or scaring us with monsters, this movie terrifies us by showing us our human feelings.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is available to rent or buy on Vudu, Amazon Plus, and Apple TV.

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