The first time I saw the trailer for Sam Raimi’s new horror installment Drag Me To Hell, I knew I had to see this movie. From the trailer, I could surmise that a young bank loan officer forecloses on a poor old woman’s home and brings on a horrible curse in which she is hounded by demons who want to drag her to hell. Sure the old woman is a scary, creepy, milky-eyed gypsy, but does that make it okay to foreclose on her home and render her homeless? Sometimes, it seems, an Evil Curse From Hell may be necessary, especially during trying economic times like the current mortgage crisis. Seriously, can anything be more timely at the multiplex than a little exercise in Foreclosure Horror?
Did Drag Me To Hell provide in-depth commentary on the current state of American economics and the mortgage crisis? Well, it certainly does make some brilliant points encased in B-Horror camp, but mostly the movie provides a lot of hilarious moments that are primarily generated by another genre of horror that has been around long before the current economic crisis. I’m talking about White Trash Horror (e.g. The Hills Have Eyes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and every Rob Zombie horror movie). White Trash has historically provided oodles of fodder to scare people at the movies. An evil predator from the bottom of the class basement, White Trash has haunted the screen in the guise of rapists, cannibals, and serial murderers for decades. Why is White Trash so scary? Because we live in a culture that promotes fear of economic failure and conditions the population to gauge success by material acquisition. Nothing puts a scary face on this fear more than a rotten-toothed, chainsaw wielding, filthy, beer-guzzling, homicidal maniac.
The difference between Drag Me To Hell and its White Trash Horror predecessors is that it is not about the externalization of the White Trash monster who reeks havoc on the paranoid bourgeoisie. Rather it’s about the horror of suppressing the White Trash Within and the inability to escape class. In other words, Drag Me to Hell is about the horror of trying to become the bourgeoisie rather than killing the bourgeoisie. The movie centers on protagonist Christine Brown (noted as possibly the Whitest Person Ever in cinema) who attempts to escape her class via employment and marriage. Poor Cristine goes through all the moves in her attempts to suppress her White Trash class origins and become the bourgeoisie, but at the end of the day, Cristine cannot escape her class, and she is dragged to hell for trying. In its way, the movie actually does address the current foreclosure crisis which was provoked when massive numbers of Americans tried to pretend they were from a different class by purchasing homes that were way beyond their economic means, only to find that credit does not buy your way out of your class, so they were drug into the hell of foreclosure.
I’m getting off track. The Foreclosure Horror element is only one component of the subtext of Drag Me To Hell. Horror movies almost always serve as allegories of something or other (gender, class, psychology, sex), and in this case the horror couples two classic horror elements – class and gender – while also mixing in a good dose of psychoanalytical horror (directly connected to class and gender). Sam Raimi brilliantly plays on the classic tropes of horror, encases them in kitschy B-horror style, and integrates a whole lot of theoretical punch into a bellyful of laughter. Drag Me To Hell doesn’t just tell the story of how a young white trash farm girl is unable to escape her class, but it also shows how her class position is inextricably connected to her gender. All the pieces are there, and because the pieces are delivered via White Trash Horror, the movie is a total laugh riot because seeing how white trash manifests itself through disgusting symbols (flies, maggots, kittens, goats) is funny.
The movie opens with Christine driving her lowly Ford to work, the car itself placing her in the lower echelons of the working class economic scale. Christine is not only driving a cheap Ford, but she’s also practicing her diction with audio tapes designed to teach her how to erase her White Trash Farm Girl accent and adopt the voice of the upper class. In other words, the movie opens with Christine trying to erase her class from her voice. When Christine arrives at work, Raimi’s framing and camera perfectly embody the bland, life-sucking tedium of bank administrative life. From wastebaskets to water coolers to name plates and pencil holders, every set detail echoes with the depressing reality of the bank worker’s life. As if working in this environment isn’t bad enough, Christine is then confronted with a slew of overt chauvinistic encounters which firmly place her in the role of subservient lowly female. She is treated as an inferior by her power grubbing male colleague Stu, and she is told by her boss Mr. Jacks that she isn’t tough enough to get promoted to a higher level at the bank (e.g. because she is female). To top it off, when she meets her boyfriend Clay for lunch, Christine overhears a phone call with his mother during which Clay’s mother berates Christine for being a “farm girl” and insists he dump her for a “country club” girl. Poor Christine. She gets it for being trash and for being female, and those audio tapes don’t seem to be working!
At this point, we understand that Christine is a White Trash Bank Working Girl who is confronted with her lowly status at every turn. The conversation with Clay’s mother, when class and gender meet in Cristine’s face, is the icing on the cake and the turning point in the movie. It comes as no surprise that hearing her class ridiculed so blatantly provokes the horror to rise out of Christine and take over the rest of the film. Indeed, it is immediately after the phone call that Mrs. Ganush, the old gypsy woman who curses Christine, appears and that Christine decides to take her class destiny into her own hands and get tough (e.g. become a ruthless capitalist and foreclose on Mrs. Ganush’s home). Horrific in her natural state, Mrs. Ganush wears her lower class like a horror show. Her milky eye, filthy dentures, yellow phlegm, cracked and dirty fingernails, and candy-stealing grubby fingers are like the literal embodiment of Christine’s suppressed poor white trash background. Indeed, Mrs. Ganush can be read as an apparition of Christine’s class anxiety. Christine decides to get tough on Mrs. Ganush to prove to herself and others that she is not a Mrs. Ganush. At this point, Mrs. Ganush literally turns into a demon and unleashes a curse on Christine. Mrs. Ganush rips a button off Christine’s coat and dooms her to hell. Why a button? Because the coat that is ultimately cursed is the coat of Christine’s class, and it is buttoned tight onto her being as we will eventually see. I like to refer to this curse as the You-Are-So-Fucked-Curse because it is the curse which is impossible to escape (since it is programmed into Christine’s very genealogy).
The scenes with Mrs. Ganush are played out with disgustingly gross bodily humor as Mrs. Ganush spews all kinds of vile bodily fluids onto Christine and literally attaches herself to Christine’s body. We are so busy laughing at the disgusting humor that it’s hard to see how brilliant the whole You-Are-So-Fucked-Curse trajectory is. The foreclosure narrative flows seamlessly from the current mortgage crisis to classic psychoanalytical horror in which the unconscious materializes as some kind of monster that terrorizes the protagonist (usually female) in the film. In this case, foreclosure also directly refers to Jacques Lacan’s term cited here from the profound anals of Wikipedia:
Foreclosure is to be distinguished from other operations such as repression, negation, and projection. Foreclosure differs from repression in that the foreclosed element is not buried in the unconscious but expelled from the unconscious. Repression is the operation which constitutes neurosis, whereas foreclosure is the operation which constitutes psychosis.
Indeed, Mrs. Ganush is the manifestation of Christine’s class paranoia, and she is expelled from Christine’s unconscious and unleashes Christine’s psychosis into the material world. The horrors that ensue are a riot a minute as Christine’s White Trash Psychosis gets more and more out of control. Try as she might to deny her class and climb the social ladder, Christine remains doomed. Once trash, always trash, or at least that’s what Christine’s psychosis seems to be telling her. Mrs. Ganush unleashes the demon Lamia onto poor Christine, and it’s no surprise that Lamia first appears at Christine’s door right after a childhood photo of her as the Fat Girl Pork Queen falls out of a cook book. Christine stares in horror as her class is exposed in the photo of her white pudgy body posing with a pig on the farm. Christine drops the photo to the floor, and at that very moment, Lamia makes his first appearance in her house. It should be noted that Lamia bears the feet of a farm animal (e.g. the ghost of Christine’s farm girl past). Later that evening, the demon appears as flies invading Christine’s body. In a truly hilarious gross-out scene, a fly crawls in and out of Christine’s nose and finally wedges its way between her lips and disappears inside her mouth. We all know that flies are attracted to garbage (a.k.a. trash). The disappearing fly uproariously appears later in a dinner party scene at Clay’s parents’ house when Christine chokes at the dinner table and spits a fly across the table . While she can pretend to be accepted into the upper class life of Clay’s family, her psychosis and class anxiety provoke her to practically vomit her trash class all over the dinner table.
More animals than flies appear with Christine’s psychosis. For example, there is the terrible Kitten Sacrifice scene, in which Christine murders her kitten as a blood sacrifice to the demon Lamia to try to save her ass. So much for the façade of Ms. Civilized City Girl. Once Christine’s White Trash Class Paranoia is foreclosed, the psychosis builds to the point where she non-chalantly kills her kitten like some kind of farm hog and buries it in the backyard. Sounds awfully scary, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not scary. It’s funny because watching this prim pristine girl covered with blood and flies and maggots and killing a kitty with a kitchen knife is funny. And the humor and animals don’t stop with the kitten. When Christine arranges to have the demon exorcised, the exorcism takes place in the form of a white goat. The goat itself is pretty darn funny, as in its white hairy goat face is literally hilarious. But when you read the goat as the literalization of Christine’s White Trash Farm Girl unconscious, the yucks are even more hilarious. The White Goat is Christine’s White Trash Background that she wants to kill. Christine is the White Goat, and the White Goat is Christine. Needless to say, try as she might, the goat refuses to be killed, and the exorcism fails. Christine cannot escape her class, and the goat lives! The goat always lives!
Speaking of spewing things, I must mention another over-the-top scene of gross-out spewage. When Christine returns to the bank after her first encounter with Mrs. Ganush and Lamia, she gets a nose bleed which starts with a couple of drops of blood on her desk and soon turns into a geyser of blood spewing out of her nose and spraying all over the bank. The two chauvinist men – Stu and Mr. Jacks — look on in horror. How can this woman be bleeding all over the bank? Eww. We’ve all seen Carrie. We know what blood spewing from a female orifice means in horror movies. The horror of the female body! Yes, not only is Christine mucking up the place with her white trash farm girl dirt, but she also dares to leak her femaleness all over the bank. Talk about a horror show. Christine can’t seem to contain anything these days. And talk about funny, how can we not laugh when Mr. Jacks gets splattered with Christine’s blood and then asks in horror, “None of it got me in my mouth did it?” God forbid you get female sexuality in your mouth!
Christine’s battle with the demon goes on and on with lots of gross-out humor. It culminates in a battle in Mrs. Ganush’s grave in which Christine becomes a combination of a mud wrestler and a wet t-shirt contestant. She wrestles with Mrs. Ganush’s corpse trying to pawn off the coat button and pass on the curse. After lots of nipple exposing muddy t-shirt shots, Christine thinks her mud wrestling stint with the gypsy cadaver worked and that she has rid herself of the curse. She rewards herself by shedding the white trash coat of her past and buying a new classy blue coat as a symbol of finally transcending her class. She meets Clay at the train station wearing her new coat and her new class, ready to embrace the life of the upper social echelons. Isn’t that nice? Well, no it’s not. Just as Christine opens her arms to embrace her new social position, she gets sucked into hell, back to where she belongs with Mrs. Ganush and Lamia the farm animal demon. Sorry Christine. No go. You can’t escape your class by buying a new coat. Apparently, the You-Are-So-Fucked-Curse lasts forever. You’re born with it and get sucked into hell with it.
This brings us back to the Foreclosure Horror as a mirror of the current mortgage crisis. Just as Christine can’t buy her way out of her class with a new coat, millions of Americans learned the hard way that you can’t buy your way out of your class with credit. Maybe if Sam Raimi made this movie eight years ago, so many people wouldn’t have lost their pretty blue coats (homes) and would have realized it’s okay to wear the coat you can afford rather than buying the expensive coat only to lose it inside the gaping hungry mouth of Foreclosure Hell.
After the movie, most of the audience was bellowing about how awful it was, even though they laughed all the way through it. Sure it’s awful, but it’s self-consciously awful. Sam Raimi plays on the tradition of B horror and tropes on classic horror narratives and theories at every turn. Full of belly laughs and gross-outs, Drag Me To Hell is an incredibly tight film that packs a whole lot of punches. I think that one of the most brilliant things about this movie is how smart it is while being delivered in a seemingly stupid package. The acting is awful. The script is hilarious and unbelievable. The monsters are ludicrous. And the movie seems to be poking fun at itself all along the way. But because it’s so darn simplistic on the surface, every single moment counts as allegory and symbol. From flies to mud to cheap Fords to bloody noses, every single thing in this movie is loaded, and that’s why it’s fun to watch. Still, for all the poor white trash farm girls of the world who want to transcend their class, I can’t say that Drag Me To Hell offers a hell of a lot of hope, just a hell of a lot of hell. But it’s funny hell!
KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.