It’s strange that The Woman in the creation account of Genesis only receives her name (and, in a fuller sense, her identity) after humanity’s fall from grace. Only after the Curse has begun to wrap its serpentine body around the collective throat of humanity that we hear Adam (literally meaning “Man”) eke out that The Woman’s name is Eve, “because she was the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20, ESV). One might think this identifier would’ve come earlier in the story when all was good and right in the world. After all, doesn’t it make more sense for Eve to be Eve when life is the only option for a blossoming humanity? So why is it that only once Death has encroached upon Eden does her distinctive role as a future life-bearer become clear?
The role of Eve as the archetypal Woman has been the subject of perennial debate since, well…the beginning. And sadly, at least within much of the fractured Evangelical world, this debate seems to draw out the worst ire of raging scholars and leaders until their theology of women seems more aptly described as a doctrine of misogyny.
But the systemic abuse and silencing of women is not simply an American religious problem—it’s simply an American one. The rhetoric of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) may be worlds apart, but both are reckoning with the sins of their recent past—a staggering number of vile assaults on women. It’s interesting that both groups claim to be the kind of people who are for the flourishing and empowerment of every woman. But hypocrisy is just as likely in Hollywood as it is in Houston. (I should clarify here that my intention as a Christian is not to blame shift. Instead, it’s to draw our attention to the fact that this horror extends far beyond any particular tribal identifier.) And if I may be so bold to suggest that the abominable oppression of women isn’t even just an American problem—it’s a tragically human one.
Which brings me back to the topic at hand—that Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) is a dramatic and distinctively American re-imagining of the Garden of Eden story that reveals how our progressive age is just as barbaric as the antediluvian world we encounter in Christian Scripture. And part of what drew my attention to this was the strange fact that Jessica (Zohra Lampert) reminds me so much of my own mother! The suffering of the former compelled me to revisit the situation of the latter. So the question I want to wrestle with here is what does Jessica have to do with Eve?
Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is an American gothic horror that plays out like if Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, collaborated to write A Vindication of the Rights of Vampires—it rages at both the injustice towards its main character and the complete inability to do anything about it. Jessica is a woman who has suffered some unknown familial trauma and wants nothing more than to find restoration in this new life. She wants to go back to her pre-Fall state. She wants complete reconciliation with her estranged husband. She wants to gain the agency to freely testify to the terrors of her world. And she wants to be believed, especially by the men in her life. In many ways, Jessica is the archetypal American Woman, struggling for autonomy and love; reparation and peace.
The broad plot of the movie is that Jessica, our protagonist, is a woman who was recently released from a psychiatric ward after suffering a nervous breakdown. The details of her committal are foggy, but we get the sense that some of this was brought on by marital strife and jealousy. So she and her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman) have decided to retreat from the Babylonian chaos of New York City by taking up residence in their newly acquired apple orchard in the Edenic countryside of Connecticut. They are joined by Duncan’s friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor) who hopes to escape his own malaise. In a later scene, he confesses that he’s relocated to the country with his friends because, “We’re all running from something…We’re all kind of wandering spirits.” The irony, we discover, is that the return to paradise is actually a gradual slide into hell.
As Jessica and crew arrive in their new hometown with their entire life packed in the back of their car—a not-so-subtle hearse (“It’s cheaper than a station wagon!”), it quickly becomes clear that their life will be no simpler here than it was in the big city. Modern life is a grind, sure, but at least you can disappear into a crowd in Manhattan. Here, the intense and accusatory stare of only old men (all of whom are mysteriously bandaged) is not so easily avoided. Slowly, we begin to realize this is an all-male town, save for Jessica, an unnamed girl, and Emily, who we’ll meet momentarily.
Not only does Jessica find herself cruising in the passenger seat of a hearse, but her main therapeutic hobby is gravestone rubbing, in which she puts large sheets of thin paper over old grave markers and rubs a piece of charcoal to capture the images and words that are still there, only weathered by time and environment (an apt metaphor for Jessica’s worn mental state and social situation). As Jessica rubs her first grave stone, she wistfully says of herself and her husband, “We’ll start over…” The dark irony of the scene is memorable: although Jessica hopes that death is behind her (her mental and emotional deterioration, her husband’s failed musical career as a bassist in the New York Philharmonic, and most recently, her own mother, etc.), here she intentionally fixates on death.
At this moment, the film’s only other human woman appears in the distance between a gravestone and an American flag. She’s young and attractive; mysterious and ominous. And just as Jessica looks away for a single moment, she disappears. And in an instant, Jessica’s world begins to crumble. Her distrust of her husband starts creeping back. Her fear of not being well is rising in the distance. But she suppresses these thoughts and runs back to the car at the behest of Duncan. As they load back into the hearse to finally arrive at their new home, she presents her findings—an epitaph that reads “Frail as the leaves that shiver on a spray, / Like them, we flourish. Like them, decay.”
Finally, Jessica, Duncan and Woody arrive at their new home. The farmhouse at the orchard is a tall and majestic Victorian home with, we’ll soon discover, a gruesome history. It’s simultaneously beautiful and haunting; both a waking dream and an uncanny nightmare. As Jessica stares up at its spires, Woody and Duncan hand her a few items to unpack. She promises to straighten up the place. Woody laughs knowingly, “A woman’s work is never done!”
Upon entering the house, the trio sees a figure darting into the darkness. Their search reveals a young woman named Emily (Mariclaire Costello). Jessica intuits something’s not right here—somehow, this stranger is the catalyst of her paranoia. Emily tells them she’s a squatter drifting aimlessly from place to place. She has no provenance, but she has a presence about her. Duncan and Woody, defensive and aggressive just moments before, are now effortlessly seduced and charmed by Emily. They offer her lodging for the foreseeable future, and she accepts. Jessica tries to join in their enthusiasm but with obvious reservation. She struggles to figure Emily out by asking, “You don’t care where you go?” Emily calmly replies, “No. Do you?” She hesitates, “Well…yes. I think I do now.”
Emily poses a threat to Jessica’s recovery. She’s young, beautiful, adventurous, and worst of all, alluring to Duncan—all the things Jessica wants to, but struggles to be. At dinner that evening, Duncan pulls out his upright bass and Woody, his guitar. Emily asks Jessica if she plays. But she doesn’t. Then Emily sings a mournful love ballad as Duncan and Woody accompany her. And here, Jessica’s relapse truly accelerates. We hear her inner monologue notice Duncan’s looking at Emily, “He likes her…” Just then, Jessica looks down at her plate and sees gnawed meat sitting in raw blood as this strange woman slithers around the heart of her beloved.
All the hopes Jessica had of finding purpose and rediscovering her own personality are relentlessly undermined by Emily, who like Jessica, represents a distorted kind of femininity. But for Emily, it’s one that is only duplicitous and deadly, never life-giving or nourishing. Film scholars have debated what exactly Emily represents. Some suggest she is a vitriolic projection of a hopeless Jessica who fantasizes about taking revenge on her disinterested husband. Some suggest she is an actual foil that mirrors how the routine apathy towards Jessica’s tormented inner life manifests violently and vengefully in the end. These and other interpretations all have their merits, but what is clear is that both Emily and Jessica symbolize different iterations of women in a fallen world. This means that neither are addressed as subjects; they are, instead, used only as objects. And their responses to masculine denigration are fight (Emily) and flight (Jessica), respectively. Their is no place for restoration or reconciliation in this parodied, upside-down Eden. It’s still a fallen man’s world, whether The Man is Duncan or Woody or the nameless and ominous townsfolk.
Jessica is emblematic of the contemporary Woman driven mad by the cruelty of modern life, while Emily represents the historical violence perpetuated against women of a recent but bygone era. This is why Emily (the disguised and day-walking vampire) convinces Jessica and the others to have a séance in this old home. She wants them to conjure the spirits that once inhabited this place so they can witness her agony. Jessica agrees and calls on the spirits of those who died in the house. She hears whispers; voices in her head. A spirit answers, and curiously, it shares Emily’s voice. She is here. She is watching. And she is outraged. Later we’ll discover that Emily is actually the undead Abigail Bishop, owner of the home that now belongs to Jessica and Duncan. Abigail met an ungodly end by being drowned in a nearby body of water, but came back with a demonic vengeance and has been wreaking havoc on this little community ever since. This is why Jessica also hears a wedding toast to Abigail Bishop during the séance. The voice of actual ghosts and the voice of doubt in Jessica’s head are one and the same. Madness is brought on by real violence. Historical misogynistic brutality is indistinguishable from the internalized trauma of a woman living during the age of second-wave feminism. The rhetoric has changed, yes. The facade is progressive, sure. But underneath, the plight of Abigail Bishop (whose drowning is implied as violent and not accidental) and the plight of Jessica are the same.
But this is a complex portrait of the human condition, And like Eve, Jessica is not altogether innocent in her situation. In fact, Jessica’s problem as a white woman is smartly and subtly cast against the plight of black men in America. I don’t think it’s accidental that John Hancock (both writer and director) chooses to connect the séance scene (which reveals a violent crime committed against historically disenfranchised women) with the next scene in which Jessica observes another kind of historical atrocity. Before going to sleep, Jessica reads different gravestone imprints she captured earlier in the day to Duncan. One is of an African prince who was kidnapped and sold as slave, but “by industry, acquired money and purchased freedom.” Jessica insists their situation is similar. She believes her quest for freedom is the same as this displaced slave/prince. But historical inquiry reveals a much more muddled picture. Women’s suffrage and black liberation and civil rights, although indisputable improvements to immense suffering, are not completely comparable. Jessica’s countenance drops as she ponders these things, “Who’s left to remember them?” Then she notices one last detail on the gravestone, “Angel faces…they look so merciless!” Is it any wonder that God set one of his cherubim to stand guard over Eden with a merciless and flaming sword? The kind of humanity we see emerge from the Fall is a violent and slave-taking kind. Genesis 4 (only one chapter Eve’s story) gives us Lamech, the murderous slave-master who brutalizes his wives (plural) and any unfortunate young men who cross his path with the same demonic regard. This kind of humanity is one we see all throughout American history.
The next day, when Jessica discovers a silver-framed picture of the Bishop family in the attic, we notice an eerie likeness of the vanished Abigail Bishop in Emily. Duncan, upon seeing the picture, plans to sell it. But Emily pushes back, “But the people; the history… You can’t just sell them like an old car.” Duncan smirks, “People sell old cars,” again establishing that the lives and bodies of many Americans have long been for sale. It’s not just an anomaly either; it’s a proud American tradition!
The implicit racial tension continues as Jessica and Duncan arrive in town at the shop of an antique dealer. They introduce themselves as new residents of the community, and he smugly asks if they are escaping the “urban blight” of New York (no doubt referring to the minority residents). They both laughingly confirm while he shows them around the shop. The first thing he draws their attention to is an old lamp in what he calls the “flowers of evil” style because of the its resemblance to a toxic species. “How can anything this pretty be evil?” Jessica wonders. We might ask the same of her and her subtle racism. How is it that a woman who feels she is often unjustly ignored could be so insensitive the unjust treatment of others. But Sin is strange that way.
When Jessica and Duncan arrive back at the orchard, they encounter the sight of Woody riding a large, imposing tractor spraying a deadly pesticide over all the apple trees. The roar of this modern machine is deafening. It stifles any ability to communicate, which is why as Jessica reaches up to pluck a bright, red apple, Duncan has to bat her hand away, “It’s poison!” But that warning doesn’t matter too much to a people who’ve already taken a large bite out of the forbidden fruit already. Jessica, Duncan, and Woody all live in a modern world of loud, droning machines that are meant to make life simpler, but usually only make it more toxic. In other words, the machinations of Babel are already firmly founded in the heart of a dissolving Eden.
Some time later, Jessica sees another girl in the distance. This time it’s not Emily; it’s not the demonic vampire. Instead, it’s a voiceless victim; an innocent who has been terrorized by Emily’s distorted femininity. She is, quite literally, mute, and she leads Jessica to the body of the antique dealer she just met. Jessica’s terror spikes and she frantically recruits her husband to come help her make sense of this. She pleads with him to acknowledge that she isn’t crazy. But by the time they return, the body is gone and the girl is nowhere to be found. Jessica sobs as she knows her credibility is out the window. How will her husband ever be able to trust her? The consequences of this evil are hidden and Jessica becomes the next victim in Emily’s destructive campaign. But just then, the mute girl re-emerges. They chase her down and try to get her to explain. But again, she is voiceless. Neither Duncan nor Jessica can make sense of her trauma, so it’s easy to discount her as crazy. But when Emily appears on the scene, devilishly tossing an apple in the air with a crooked smile, the girl flees in terror. The traumatized girl is powerless next to the traumatizing Woman.
This encounter sends Jessica spiraling back into psychosis. She can hardly keep the Satanic voices at bay. Although she is the victim, the voices accuse her of bringing this all on herself—a common rhetorical trope of oppressors. And as the group sits around the dinner table again, and Emily strokes Duncan’s arm lovingly, Jessica hear’s Emily’s psychic projection that she is not enough and she never will be. He doesn’t love her anymore. She is too weak, too vulnerable, too damaged. The suffering human she once was died in that lake never to be seen again. In her stead, a vampiric persona has emerged.
Jessica makes one last attempt to reach Duncan’s heart. In bed that night, she tries to get Duncan to agree to leave this backwards country town and try to save their marriage in the city. But Duncan’s counter suggestion is to have her institutionalized. Jessica has become his burden. His role and duty as her husband is of no concern. He’d rather be with Emily. Jessica screams out in despair, but with vitriolic chauvinism he tries to clasp her mouth shut, “They’ll hear you!” To which she replies, “Who cares?”
And that is the prime dilemma of this movie—indeed, who cares for Jessica? Who cares for a broken woman constantly embattled with masculine prejudice? And even one can conjure up some empathy, who can possibly absolve her of her own prejudice? Eventually, both Duncan and Woody collapse under Emily’s seduction, throwing away their honor and even their own lives to be ravished by a soulless demon. It’s the ultimate self-destructing madness, but it’s one that has gripped the heart of our modern world so tightly. Each year we gasp in horror as the statistics for human trafficking climb and as the correlations between it and erotic entertainment are ever more closely linked. Why then are we surprised by the indignant and righteous heat of the #TimesUp and #MeToo (or #ChurchToo) movements? Why are we shocked when our vampiric culture has turned the ones we feasted upon into vampires themselves?
At the end of her sanity, Jessica is lured into the watery chaos of the lake. It’s here that we finally see Emily in purest and most monstrous form—as the undead Abigail Bishop seeking revenge on the world that drained her of her life and innocence. The Woman in the Garden, in this case, has become the Serpent. Jessica narrowly escapes and, after a day of fleeing and vainly searching for Duncan, collapses in exhaustion. She awakes to Duncan’s voice in the distance and throws herself into his arms. She retreats back home with him and sinks into their crumbling marital bed. He tries to seduce her and, during that process, the undead men of the town emerge and gather around. Duncan’s Satanic lust is vengefully shared with all of mankind. He exposes her to the worst threat of all—being given over to the hell of being exposed, ravished, and objectified by all. She is naked and ashamed.
But she escapes. She climbs into a rudderless boat, and, after striking her husband dead, sits marooned in the middle of the lake. The words that opened the film close them out: “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.” The vicious and predatory cycle has concluded, and yet it is just beginning. In the 50 years since this movie debuted, not a single problem it addresses has found a solution.
New Jerusalem Ascendant
This is a common telling of the story of humanity. It’s a common story that we hear from the most vulnerable in society. And yet, as we can attest, week in and week out, it is a never-ending cycle. Just as we think we are making utopian strides towards greatness is when we see a photo of a desperate father and his toddler washed up dead on the shore of the land of the free and the home of the brave. We are sick unto the point of death. The Serpent has latched its vampiric fangs into our throats, and no matter how hard we struggle with it towards different idealogical directions, it does not stop the flow of venom that is calcifying our hearts. What are we to do?
But there is Good News. We are not, nor will we be the authors of the end of our own story. That part has already been written, and thanks be to God that we have not been written out of it. It’s a Christian theological tradition that when the God of Genesis 1:26 speaks, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” that this God is speaking in a clear, triune voice. Father, Son, and Spirit confer with one heart and one will to make humanity. But God doesn’t make humanity as we see it today—with violent and oppressive hierarchy. Instead. God “in the image of God he created them—male and female” (1:27, ESV). And when this Man and this Woman, typifying the whole of the human experience, reject God and turn violently inward on themselves, it is still the voice of a gracious and merciful Trinity that says through the vulnerable Woman will One come to crush the head of the Serpent. The metaphysical chaos ushered into the history of human experience will be expunged by the heir of Eve—the mother of the living God-with-Us. But that One—who has come to identify with humanity by himself putting on human flesh; the one we call Jesus Christ—does not come into the world in order to kill it, but to be killed by it. He dies with vampiric bite marks in his heel as the Serpent dies with the imprint of his heel in its skull. The difference in this mutual assassination is that while the Serpent perishes for good, the God-Man rises anew, lifting not just Adam from the grave, but also Eve, the mother of all living. And God, in Christ, now speaks to Man and Woman—Adam and Eve, Duncan and Jessica, you and me—“Rise, come forth, and live.”