Finding Myself in ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death’
Content Warning: This piece discusses bullying, emotional abuse, and ableism within the context of John Hancock’s ‘Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.’
“I sit here, and I can’t believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares? Madness or sanity? I don’t know which is which.”Let’s Scare Jessica to Death
I was thirteen when I was first put on antidepressants. So much of my life up until then felt like a haze of torture—feelings I couldn’t cope with. It didn’t cure the abuse my peers doled out, but it did level my moods and take the edge off of my anxiety. I was a fragile girl. My heart was full-on Debbie Harry made of glass, and I didn’t know how much more I could take. I felt constantly under attack and no matter how much I begged, my school’s administration thought that bullying was no more than a rite of passage. I was left to be preyed on. I felt like a corpse that had already been picked clean, yet the animals still came back to gnaw on the bones of this hollow being.
Of course, I started to believe I deserved it, along with all the other nasty insults that were hurled my way on a daily basis. I began to question my own perception of reality. No one seemed to care that this was taking place, so did it really matter? Was I blowing it all out of proportion? My version of reality became something warped that I wasn’t sure I could trust despite knowing exactly what was happening to me. A strange chasm formed in my brain at that time. There was a gulf, so to speak, between what was happening to me and how others tried to justify my experience. It was always a joke—they didn’t mean it, or I was being too sensitive. Doubt bloomed in me like an invasive species of flower that smelled of rot and disease. I was terrified to even believe myself, to question those around me. I am still trying to rid myself of that doubt. It’s much easier said than done when you’ve spent over half your life plucking at the weedy stems and praying they won’t return, or at least slow their growth.
Around that same time, I discovered the film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death by accident. I had already started to sink my depressive teenage self into an obsession with vampire films and literature as a way to create a balm for my aching soul. This led me to Jessica. I still have my bootleg DVD copy that was burned by a friend of a family friend. It’s something I keep out of pure nostalgia. The film follows the titular Jessica as she is released from a mental facility and moves to the country with her husband, who has recently purchased an orchard for them to live on in peace. Of course, that dream is short-lived thanks to an unexpected guest, a young woman named Emily, who just might be a vampire. Jessica naturally starts to question her sanity as everyone around begins to doubt and continually gaslight the poor woman.
I can’t say that I have ever been in Jessica’s exact situation, but I can say I have felt like Jessica. Even at my young age, I recognized a part of myself in her. I was grappling with a newly diagnosed mental illness, becoming medicated, and fighting the daily battle against my peers. I was the problem after all. I had to be, right? I mulled that over and over, and in some cases, I mull it over still today. Were the jokes really jokes, or were they more sinister? Was I making it all up? I wasn’t, but my mind still found a way to take the blame in order to rationalize the bullying and abuse. Jessica herself goes through this. She’s constantly at war with her mind. The audience is privy to her innermost thoughts via voiceover, and it adds to the film’s themes of mental illness and gaslighting. Her mind is at war with itself, and most importantly, we get to see and hear that war taking place.
I felt like a moth, pinned to a board alive, slowly dying as I attempted to act natural. We’re taught to hide how we feel and what we experience for fear of being called “crazy.” “Don’t tell them. Act normal,” she tells herself at one point. I used to police myself similarly. I thought if I made myself less of a target then things would go smoothly. Jessica tries to hide her growing panic and terror, so people won’t question her sanity. When she tries to tell her husband, she’s always brushed off, not unlike I was by the school administration. I was the problem. Once you’re stamped as “crazy,” that hateful tag seems to follow you for the rest of your life. It didn’t take long for my peers to consider me the “crazy” one. It was my first brush with ableism. I was worn down and had little fight left in me. I would cry at the smallest ridicule, bursting into hot tears that relentlessly spilled down my cheeks. There was no hiding my declining mental state just like Jessica isn’t able to hide her suspicions regarding Emily. The creeping horror that she is right about something that might be a fabrication of her mind.
Much like Jessica, the people who should have believed me and worked to protect me didn’t. Jessica is begging for people to see the situation at hand, but they diminish it and put the onus on her. Jessica’s husband is one of the film’s biggest offenders; he should be more concerned with what is happening to his wife. It’s easy to ignore a dire issue and hope it resolves itself. Being ignored in your turmoil makes you feel even more invisible. It got to the point where Jessica couldn’t trust anyone around her, and that was how I came to feel. The authority figures at school didn’t help my damaged perception and enabled the unrelenting bullying. If they were okay with it, then it must mean I wasn’t seeing the situation clearly or correctly. It was distortion upon distortion. It didn’t occur to me until much later that this was a form of neglect.
“You don’t believe me. You don’t think there’s anything strange going on,” Jessica says to her husband. The palpable desperation on screen matched my own. There were no vampires and no dismissive partners, but the emotion was biographical to me, something I myself had felt. It was odd and beautiful how a film from 1971 spoke to the feelings that welled within me. Jessica begs to be seen and believed. It’s one of the most frustrating parts of the film, a frustration that colored my own life. At school, I had nowhere to turn. It was like I was trapped in a crowd of strangers who wanted nothing more than to contribute to my harm. Those who swore to be my friends forever turned on me. There was nothing. Sitting in my bedroom in the evenings felt like Jessica sitting in that boat at the end. I had nothing left to do other than recount my day to myself and question everything I knew was true.
Jessica’s story has stuck with me on my mental health journey because it was one of the first times I had felt represented in my struggles. It took me years to figure out that I was gaslit by those around me, and as a result, I still have trouble trusting myself and my perceptions of events. It’s improving, slowly, but it’s taken almost fourteen years to feel comfortable enough to say, no, it happened this way, and I know it did. I still find myself comforted by the cinema of gaslit women, those who feel like their sanity is hanging by a string, where the trauma makes them question their own minds. However, my relationship with Jessica keeps evolving, and I find more depth in her character.
As an adult, I identify with Jessica even more deeply. The world is difficult to navigate with mental illness, and every time that I make progress, I am always struck with fear of having what I perceive as a setback in managing my depression, anxiety, and PTSD. There’s a sort of ebb and flow that can be unpredictable. When we first meet Jessica, she is fresh out of treatment and hopeful, but she has that fear of her mental state once again worsening. This is just a fact of mental illness and one that I have dealt with from the time I was young. You start off blaming yourself, but you come to learn that progress is not linear and having a depressive period does not undo all the strides that you’ve made. Seeing this depicted earnestly helped me acknowledge that this is normal. It was a facet of the film that struck me differently as an adult because I have acquired more experience dealing with my mental illnesses.
Another important aspect of the film that I can fully appreciate as an adult woman is how Jessica’s own mental illness is never presented as a moral failing. She’s the film’s anchoring point, the one the audience puts their trust and faith in. The moral failing is on those around her who fail to believe her. She’s mentally ill, but the narrative doesn’t allow mental illness to define Jessica even when her husband and others define her by it. It’s truly miraculous and affirming to have a heroine portrayed in such a way. Jessica is the lens the film uses to tell its story.
Lately, I’ve been feeling more like Jessica than I have for a long time. The details of my current mental state aren’t really important, but how it has wreaked havoc on my personal life paired with overall burnout has left me exhausted and weary. The monsters and demons of my youth have returned with vengeance. PTSD isn’t so different from Emily herself, an eternally hungry monster that seeks to control and destroy. It’s times like this that I find it hard to believe there is any good in the world, but I have to look not only inwardly but outwardly as well. I want to be as honest with myself and my own mental condition as the filmmakers who are working to normalize emotional and cerebral unrest. There’s comfort there not just for me but others as well. There are films where I feel a shard of myself is wholly reflected and refracted back at me in a way that is cleansing and affirming. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death happens to be one of those films. It’s become an integral part of myself, my story, my storytelling, and my journey to the idea of radical self-acceptance. I’m not at the self-acceptance part yet. The past still prickles at me. One day I will push past that barrier, but not yet. There’s still work to be done.
Making my home in the house of women deemed as being “psychotic,” especially at a young age, was not an easy choice. It’s freeing to push back against the idea of normal and the confined boxes of fine and not fine, to be able to be honest about your own mental illnesses. I actually felt more myself, more normal, watching these fictional women process their own fears and emotions. With the horror comes catharsis. It’s honest and exquisite, and I still cling to that form of therapy when I need it. My therapist says I seek media as a form of self-healing, situations that mirror a part of my own in some aspect. Horror is full of these stories, and each one of them is precious to the person that finds themselves and their healing in the space of terror.
I still feel like Jessica sitting in that rowboat, questioning my version of events. When this happens, I think about how it mirrors feelings from my youth—but my pain is not unique, and it has been documented time and again by different creatives. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death became an unwitting home where my own trauma and fears were reflected back. What should have left me shaken left me with a feeling of acceptance. More films have captivated me and became an outlet for my nervy form of catharsis. They’ve joined my personal hallowed halls where Jessica still reigns as one of its queens. It’s still claustrophobic to see parts of myself in Jessica and other carefully crafted women, but it’s also one of the most liberating experiences I know.