1970s Spooky: Let’s Scare Jessica to Death Filming Locales

October 29, 2017 — When I first wrote about visiting the filming sites for Let’s Scare Jessica to Death in The New England Grimpendium, I was pretty glib about the movie. Actually, I was pretty glib in that book in general. I was still kinda figuring out my voice back then. But the movie has really grown on me. Something about the dreamy atmosphere, the distant narration, the other-timelineness of it all. And, of course, that house. I love that house, man. I mean, I’m not going to cheat on the Psycho House with it, but maybe just some ego-boosting innocent flirtation? Maybe?

And, of course, a big part of its charm is that, seven years after I wrote about it, that old Connecticut house used in the film is still dilapidated and abandoned.

I was never quite satisfied with my first visit to it, though. I abided a little too much by the No Trespassing signs, I think. So I decided to check it out again. Get closer to it. See some better angles of it than just its lofty tower above the trees from the car dealership across the highway. And, while I was at it, I’d stop by the rest of the filming sites.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death came out in 1971. Directed by John D. Hancock, it’s the story of a woman, recently released from an institution, who moves into an old farmhouse with her husband and a friend. There, her mind either starts breaking down again or is fine and it’s all the vampires in town who are the problem. The entire movie was filmed in East Haddam, Chester, and Old Saybrook, neighboring towns near or at the southern edge of Connecticut on the Long Island Sound.

The first scene in the movie has the trio arriving in town in an old hearse (because they’re just like that) and stopping at a graveyard. Out of that hearse pops a young woman whom we would soon learn is our titular protagonist/possibly unreliable narrator. She’s holding a roll of parchment, and quickly finds a grave to make a rubbing of. Actually, she puts the paper to multiple stones due to continuity errors. She starts with a white stone in one angle and then another angle has her at a dark, reddish stone with a face engraved into it. And then she sees/does not see the mysterious blonde woman.

The graveyard is the First Church Cemetery in East Haddam, an historic site dating back to 1788. I thought it would be pretty easy to find the main stone she was rubbing. The darker stone was, after all, marked with an historical placard.

I went to the cemetery armed with information gleaned by those who’ve made this trek before. It’s even common knowledge enough that it’s on Wikipedia. All the sources say that the gravestone she rubbed is the head marker for a bloke named Venture Smith. He’s an important historical personage to the area, and his grave has a placard denoting that. In fact, while we were at the cemetery, a sandwich board outside the gates advertised an upcoming Venture Smith Day.

When two paths cross in a story, it’s fun to take both, so…tangent time.

Venture Smith was an 18th century black businessman. Actually, that’s hardly an adequate summary of this man. He was a prince from a tribe in Guinea sold into slavery at seven years old for a few gallons of rum, given the name Venture and then passed around New York and Connecticut slave owners until he was able to purchase his freedom from the man whose surname he took as his own. Then he worked another seven years to purchase the freedom of his wife and children by doing any work that came his way, including seven months on a whaling ship. Finally, free and with his family beside him, he started amassing land and businesses, and became a successful entrepreneur. And all without knowing how to read or write.

Anyway, after taking photos of the grave and then much later comparing them with footage from the original movie, it’s quickly apparent that she’s not at all rubbing Venture Smith’s gravestone. It’s a similar stone with a similar color, shape, and angel, but it’s not his stone. Nor is the epitaph she reads in the car from his stone. However, the rubbing she hangs up in the old farmhouse is a rubbing of Venture Smith’s stone. So either they were implying she was constantly rubbing stones throughout the movie, or it’s just some minor continuity errors.

But all that means for me and this article is that I wasn’t looking for the right stone from that scene, and therefore didn’t find it.

Let’s get back to possibly imaginary vampires now. We hung out in the graveyard for a while because it was a really nice one and then, after chasing a large gaggle of turkeys around the cemetery for a bit (the number of times I’ve come across turkeys in New England graveyards makes me want to promote them above crows as far as macabre symbols go), we headed to downtown Chester.

In the movie, every time they go downtown, there are always this group of old-timers hanging out on the porch of a shop there—old timer who eventually start seeming menacing, despite their walkers and rocking chairs.

Today the shop’s an art gallery, and a much cheerier-looking place than the old white, peeling thing it was in the movie…although the rocking chairs are still there on the porch. While I was taking photos of said porch, a woman walked out with a broom to sweep it off. She quickly apologized to me and ducked back inside. I have no idea if she thought I was taking photos of it because of a 46-year-old movie or because her town and the 18th century building she worked in is crummily idyllic.

Finally, it was time for the house. That house. That Victorian, disease-yellow, decrepit house with its unique tower that was only shown in the movie immersed in fog.

The house is on the busy Middlesex Turnpike in Old Saybrook, but hidden at the top of an overgrown hill so that you can’t see it when you driving past. In fact, the only way to really see it is to cross the turnpike to a row of car dealerships. And that’s where Lindsey parked the car to watch me make an ass of myself after she dropped me off at the base of the driveway.

And I walked up that spooky driveway. Past the pair of No Trespassing signs attached to a mailbox, its flag perversely in the up position. Past the overgrown branches that seemed to want to swallow all ingress onto the property. And on to the house itself.

And it did not disappoint. It looks like a horror movie house. Hell, it looks like it has survived real-life horrors. Like it really could scare Jessica to death. The exterior was rotten and plastered with Private Property signs. Vegetation had grown wild around and over the place. Windows were plugged with plywood or left gaping for pigeons and bats to turn the interiors acidic.

Most of the house had lost its yellow paint, except for the tower, which, oddly enough, still seemed vibrant yellow. Like a new top hat on an old corpse.

After staring at it for a little while, hoping, hoping, I’d see movement in a window, I exited the driveway and walked down the highway a bit. Once there were no cars passing to witness my next bit of tomfoolery, I charged up the steep hill for a different angle at the house. This view, across the hairy front yard, gave me more of a sense of the house as a whole. And that sense was that the house looked like it was on its last gasp, about to be pulled into jungle like some ancient Aztec pyramid.

Man. Maybe I would cheat on the Psycho House with it.