Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Is 50, but Its Portrayal of Gaslighting Is Timeless

The 1971 horror film added female disempowerment to its vampire tale.

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Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Is 50, but Its Portrayal of Gaslighting Is Timeless

“Don’t tell them. They won’t believe you.”

A woman grappling with mental health issues, a move to an isolated town upstate, the sneering looks of unfriendly locals. Any of the unsettling parts of Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s premise should seem as familiar to anybody in 2021 as they must have in 1971, when the psychological vampire tale first debuted.

The film was hard to find for years, but a Blu-ray release by Scream Factory last year has remedied that, which, considering its story hasn’t aged a bit, is fortunate for horror fans who might be interested in discovering it for the first time.

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Young couple Jessica and Duncan (Zohra Lampert and Barton Heyman) and their friend, Woody (Kevin O’Connor), move into an old house far from the city to pursue their dream of selling antiquities. Jessica has returned to her husband Duncan after a long stint in a mental health institution, and it’s clear from the way both men are now treating her that they’re concerned she may have some manner of relapse without warning. The hostile locals in their new town certainly aren’t helping.

As they get settled in the house, they discover a lonely woman named Emily (Mariclare Costello). They take her in, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that the sinister voices in Jessica’s head and the increasingly violent townsfolk are all the result of Emily’s supernatural machinations.

Emily may fool (and successfully seduce) Duncan, but the viewer will be onto her game pretty quickly: There’s a reason she bears such a striking resemblance to a woman in a century-old photograph the antiquers find in the attic, and why all the sneering men in town have wounds on their necks—Emily is a vampire, she is turning the entire town into her thralls, and she is happy to toy with Jessica before eating her husband.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death may have shades of Carmilla or The Vampire Lovers in it, but it plays mostly as a paranoid psychological thriller. Throats are certainly getting ripped out, but that’s not the specific fear Jessica is feeling for most of the film’s runtime. It’s the terrifying suspicion that she’s either losing her mind again, or, worse, that she’s not and nobody around her will believe her.

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Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’s story is similar to a lot of other movies, but the movie stands out in how it tells that story.

There are certainly parts that fit in perfectly with your every preconceived notion of gothic vampire horror, as seen in the character of a mute, terrified girl who leads Jessica on a chase that ends in her discovering the slaughtered body of the local antique shop man who was clearly freaked out when they told him which house they bought. But, more often, the horror is coming from a completely different place. Scenes of cheery life amid Jessica’s found family at the house are interrupted by the dissonant whispers of her anxiety, and it begins to become more and more clear that the voices in her head are being put there by Emily.

Later in the film, as Emily’s innocent act starts to give way to flagrant flirting, the fear Jessica feels stems far more from the possibility that her husband is simply going to have her committed again than from the possibility Emily is going to steal her husband from her. All of that paranoia and anxiety comes across through director John Hancock’s use of dreamlike imagery and sound. It’s a movie that very much takes place inside its heroine’s head in a way that the slasher movies of the day, or its own contemporary vampire films, really were not.

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One of the most interesting things about the movie is that it began in a completely different shape than it ended up. Screenwriter Lee Kalcheim originally conceived of it as a story about a bunch of hippies being attacked by a monster in a lake. Some of those concepts survive, but Hancock drastically rewrote the script, taking it from what sounds like an exploitative slasher story to something far more psychological.

The result is a ’70s vampire flick that has distinctly gothic imagery—the immortal temptress leering out from a century-old portrait, creeping up on the unwary in the form of a waterlogged corpse, surrounded by her leering thralls—even as it uses psychological horror techniques and roots its terror in the gaslighting of a vulnerable woman. It could be his persistent presence in recent films, but I was reminded of Charles Manson, watching the character of Emily: a villain who uses the trappings of the time period and the promise of community and belonging to hide sinister intentions.

The movie’s framing device tries to plant a seed of doubt in the viewer’s mind that what they’ve seen can be fully trusted. I think it’s the only inelegant part of the film, really. After all, wanting an audience to believe that a woman is hysterical and not in control of her senses, that’s the oldest trick, by the oldest villains.


Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste Movies. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.