Floral wallpaper and grave rubbings: The microspace of fear in Jessica’s mind in Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971).

rev., June 30, 2015.

In the 1971 movie, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, there is a dreamy atmosphere created by the fact that, Jessica, having just recovered from suffering a nervous breakdown, talks to herself, in a constant flow of self-monitoring, to make she is not going backwards, or that no one sees that she is going backwards. This constant level of self-monitoring is fairly common in normal, everyday human cognition, which does things, and then thinks about doing things, but what sets her apart, and what perhaps gives the impression that this is an aftermath state of her nervous breakdown, is that very often the self-monitoring thoughts are intrusive, and of a negative quality completely at odds with what is going on in the room. This keeps happening all the time, making several scenes, which, on their face, are not that thrilling, interesting. For example, at one scene in the kitchen she monitors her husband’s interest in the new girl. That is fairly normal, though if her intent is to foist her off on him, because she thinks she is no longer good enough to love, then it is a negative, reverse to self thought, he likes her. But then something else happens, and looks down at the meat on her plate, and has a dark vision of mutilation. So, these are contrary, intrusive thoughts, indicative of recovering from a mental breakdown.

The question in the movie as a whole is how much these thoughts pervade all of it, and how reality meets her, to help or hurt her. Since one of her symptoms was seeing things, as that was apparently thought to be symptomatic of “being nuts” back then, the fact that they move into an old house shrouded in mist may give to it a quality that enhances the capacity to see things.

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The house, moreover, is a nest of old-fashioned floral pattern wallpaper, always a signifier of trouble in modern horror

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Not only that, this type of pattern is conducive to pareidola, that is, seeing things, as it is busy, in a way that incites our capacity to see faces of ghosts or monsters in it. It is then only reinforcing that the hippie girl they find squatting upstairs, is discovered in that spider web of wallpaper, and she is also wearing a camouflage military style jacket, meaning that she is from the first a something seen, not quite real

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The fact that in the upper left hand of this shot is another, if illustrated on wallpaper, rendition of the fern or rhododendron fronded plant, as representative of evil, makes the use of the floral motif more interesting. Again, because of the shape of the large fronded plant, with a stand, legs, a body, and then limbs that reach out, and then many of them, this plant came to be seen as, not unlike a suit of armor, a home décor element of Victorian design that could often make one start, thinking one has seen something or someone out of the corner of the one’s eye. And here, she is lined up directly in front of it, and in camouflage, not that differently, when it comes to this sort of recessive shot, than Doctor Blood in front of the frond plant in the outer hallway of the doctor’s office. It becomes clear as the movie progresses that the art director or director chose to instrumentalize the evil flower in a more thorough way than one might normally see, all to set the stage of an unreal, and possibly not good for you country. Here, Jessica turns about under a birch tree, a birch tree is always symbolic of entering through the static of hypnagogy into the realm of dream. The fact, however, that these trees are also near an apple orchard combines the two to suggest a sort of opposite of a garden of even they were looking for

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Later, after the ghost manifests herself as such, wearing a vintage gown, hippie style, we see her materialize as the thing seen in what now appears to be much more complicated vinelike wallpaper patterns, extremely conducive to physiognomy sightings

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We also see that it was the style of the time to not tamp down this floral complication, but amp it up, by putting another pattern over it, the chair, and then the director spins it even further, by reflecting it all again in a mirror in the same shot, complicating the situation even more (and making a jungle of the décor to house the stuffed animals above)

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The pictures on the wall float in a field of hypnagogy, and the fact that the young man she is seducing wears patterns too results in weakening his resistance to fading into the woodwork with her, in sex

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There is a very odd moment in an antique shop, when they go selling. While the husband is trying to sell, she is introduced to malfiori lamps, or flowers of evil lamps. In reality, they are called millefiori lamps, or thousand flowers, but in the flipside of horror, that was translated as mal to make them evil, meaning that this old lamp, which she mopes over in interior monologue wonderment at how it could be evil, because it is so beautiful, though she does not buy it, carries on the evil flower motif into her being itself,

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One of the oddest shots in the movie is at the end, when she is trying to escape, she runs into the orchards and gets sprayed on by the pesticide machine, manned by the dead hand, and she cowers like a flower that has been attacked by chemicals, so she is the flower too

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That is, the flower motif as a property convention has been instrumentalized to become an internalized property expressive of her inner struggle. The use of it here brings the evil flower into her own bad self-scripts and worries, making her the flower of evil. She even sleeps in a floral nightgown and on floral pillows, the décor is relentless in pulling her into the dream world where her evil thoughts are given flight again

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As this shot shows, the core worries of her wellbeing are sex and death. Her breakdown has obviously knocked out the couple’s sex life, which is why she is so worried he will try to fulfill his natural need, in the language of the 60s, with the other girl. But then when they finally do get into the clinch, she acts out her worry over him maybe having a venereal disease, or not really being concerned about her, but only about his selfish needs, by finding a vampire mark on his neck. At that point the room like in Rosemary’s Baby is filled with old people, and this view, which I believe is nightmare looking up from REM Stage through the lattice, to apparent waking, makes her freak, she sees her life threatened i.e. sex IS death, and runs

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From the first, an unhealthy preoccupation with death, according to standards of the modern period, was the prime symptom of her fragile post nervous breakdown state. To be thinking about death all the time was to be haunted, or to make one susceptible to being haunted, to the extent of putting one at risk of going mad again. The fact that as a couple they have bought a hippie hearse, and that she goes romping in cemeteries to get rubbings of old graves, a popular pastime then, accentuates this (it also means the husband is accommodating her in maybe not quite healthy ways). The fun thing about the movie is that the rubbings she makes are then transferred by her to the walls of her bedroom. Normally, a picture of this sort would block out the pattern, but here it seems to deepen it, to make of it on the wall a complex double layer of meaning with flowers and death combined into another flower of evil motif

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If one makes use of Uexkull’s model of the Umwelt as being the dwelling-world or immediate-surroundings of tones or meanings made by the feelers or sensing organs of animals, then the Umwelt is what that microworld looks like from inside the worldview or POV of the animal, and the Bewegung is what it looks like from the outside, in the world at large, the latter usually therefore imposing upon it an external meaning derived from the culture at large. Thus, in a generic face like this, it will speak to you as a mirror image, if you are thinking of death, but, then, from the outside, it looks like a blank face, and an evil presence, suggesting that there is a cypher quality to the appearances of the scene, and some darker haunting presence is there. It is in the microspace between the POV of the Umwelt and the imposition of the external view of the Bewegung on the same image that the little hauntings of horror are often fought. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in fact exploits her idea of wallpaperings the floral pattern of the bedroom with rubbings, quite well, with an almost inspired instrumentation. She puts them up above her bed, what this means is that they will become involved in whatever cognition she might indulge in lying in bed either trying to get to sleep, or, more common in modern horror, to seek safety

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At one point, it looks like she is gradually warming up to the squatter girl, and becoming friends in a way that might make reality set itself back down in reality, wipe out her contrary interior monologue, and get her in the swing of things, or flow of life, again. But it is at this point that the girl in fact betrays her, by making a lesbian pass. It is not clear that Jessica entirely understands what has happened, but only that it was too close, and freaked her out, she runs

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And well she might of, because at this point the girl identifies herself in her vintage dress self as in fact a manifestation of the drowned Bishop girl, living like a vampire in and around the lake and town ever after

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So Jessica runs away, and runs to the safety of her bedroom (why moderns thought bedrooms and bed in particular were places of safety I can’t tell, it goes back to childhood)

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Now she bunkers herself in, pushing the closet in front of the door, but, then, worried, spooked, she is now persecuted by her own interior voices, and they are fed by fears of the monster outside and the fear of herself going mad again represented by the rubbings’ faces

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But the most interesting thing is, if she sensed that the floral wallpaper spooked her a little, but then, contradictorily, challenged herself not to see faces and figures in them, by putting up rubbings with faces, she is, holding her pillow too, taking refuge in the space between the rubbings, and the wallpaper, and between the bedding and her mind

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She now has very whispery self-thoughts, and they are given physical form by drafts, that lift up the edges of the rubbings, hung loose, and keeping her on the alert, that through the tiny microspace, between wall and lift, between rubbing and wallpaper, the demon might get into her

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As the haunting proceeds, it closes in further, she is now obsessing on the possibility or fear that the rubbings and their faces might be the vehicle by which the ghost could pass into her

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And we get close-ups on those spooky faces, now made scary, in the context of her whispering session of panic

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And then, as if to finally symbolize that she has fallen down into that state, and given in and succumbed to the closing in, she gestures in a way that accidentally pulls a rubbing down over her head, that image of a head and her head touch, and she is closed in on by the crawlspace of fear created between image and fear of image, an actual physical manifestation in film of the microspace of her Umwelt turning against her, it’s a wonderful moment, a great shot (nice directorial work by John D. Hancock)

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And then she is suffocated in the lattice, the image of her impending death having now invaded her, and become real

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She must then drop down the wormhole, and this would be, as traditionally done, by the stairs, but then with a tomb image in her way, the case of the bass at the foot of the stairs, oddly, but, then, she sees placed there to, as joked about in the beginning when it was in the hearse, as a surrogate coffin, so it spooks her as an image of her impending death, not unlike like in Scrooge. It signals that she has dropped down into full-on REM stage, but, experienced waking, a nightmare of madness

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But then the further complications get her in any case. Still, an Umwelt is the small sum in one’s dwelling space of the feelers sent out to create a space, while the Bewegung is that same space seen, drained of your meaning, from the outside, and the blinkering back and forth from one to another is perhaps the stuff of a spooking. Let’s Scare Jessica To Death has a wonderful grasp of the in-between crawl space one is in, mentally, after recovery, and the dysfunction of hypnagogic states of burgeoning mental illness, but then truly surprises by going to the microspace of the Umwelt and actually physically rendering it in the wonderful scene in the bedroom, where the rubbings she loved at last come off the wall and they turn on her too.

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