I could not stop thinking about Drag Me to Hell. And not just because there’s a great grave scene near the finale.
If you know horror, and if you know Sam Raimi, whose film credits include the cult classic Evil Dead trilogy as well as Spider Man blockbusters, you may not be surprised by the skillful balance of slapstick and spooky that characterizes this film and makes it so fun to watch. Equally deft is Raimi’s background narrative of economic crisis that give a touch of social commentary. In other ways this movie combines nearly every conceivable horror trope you may be able to come up with off the top of your head: ghosts, shadows, gypsy curses, animal sacrifice, graveyards, exorcisms, corpses, devils, and, of course, hell, so don’t watch it thinking you’ll just focus on the love story.
Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is a young loan officer bucking for a promotion at work that will assure her future and help to assuage her fears about her personal life. Therefore she takes a hard line when Sylvia Ganush (Lorna Raver) appears at her desk to ask for an extension on her mortgage. The old woman curses Christine for her lack of compassion, promising that she will be sent to hell in three days. Shaken, Christine repents, but Sylvia’s death prevents her from making amends, and she must find a way to break the curse before demons appear to drag her to her doom.
At the center of this film is a young woman with a seemingly good life but also a boatload of insecurities. Though her rival at work is characterized as an ambitious, if slimy, climber, and later, as a spineless wimp, she is intimidated by him and unsure that she’ll get the bank promotion based on her own stellar work history—an attitude which prompts her strict injunction against the old gypsy woman Sylvia Ganush, getting the horror-film plot moving. Christine is on similarly shaky ground regarding her perceptions of her relationship with her boyfriend, Clay (Justin Long). Forgive me if I misremember (it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the film), but the film’s characterization of Christine shows that she has struggled since young adulthood with her identity—she was a 4H type of girl, raising prize-winning pigs or cows (again, memory is cloudy), and she was overweight. Though she is now a capable bank associate with a tidy, suburban home of her own and she is clearly attractive, her insecurities remain. These feelings are reinforced when Christine overhears a phone conversation between Clay and his mother, Trudy. Here, Trudy mentions a former classmate of Clay’s who has what she sees as significantly more social potential than Christine (she play tennis, is a successful lawyer, etc) and Trudy is of the opinion that this person as a more suitable match for Clay, a college professor.
Christine’s quest to save herself from being dragged to hell by Mrs. Ganush’s curse seems to me to have a dual purpose: one, of course, on the level of the horror plot—she does not want to be captured by demons and carted off to the land of eternal suffering. That’s not too hard to figure out. But the second purpose lies in the journey itself and the things that Christine must do in order to save her soul. If we see Hell as a manifestation of Christine’s insecurities, the things that will “keep her down,” we can perhaps view her trajectory as a struggle to bolster her own self-esteem. During the course of the film, Christine is asked to face terrifying situations, including exorcism and meeting her boyfriend’s parents.* But with her soul on the line, Christine is able to show her strength of character, and finally even face her rival from work. Though at this point in the film she could easily transfer the curse to him, she relents, and seeks other means to rid herself of the demons that haunt her.
Mrs. Ganush is able to curse Christine by stealing a button from her coat and then returning it to her, with demons now attached. Christine violates Mrs. Ganush’s grave in order to “make [her] a formal gift” of the cursed button (as her spiritual advisor, Rham Jas, played by Dileep Rao, has instructed her). Here’s the great grave scene I referred to earlier: Christine digs up Ganush’s grave during a violent rainstorm, tearing open her coffin and shoving the button into her gaping mouth. This scene shows both Christine’s physical strength and her emotional fortitude in facing another terrifying situation. She nearly drowns as the grave floods, but she accomplishes her goal, goes home and wakes in the morning refreshed and ready to start her life anew.
Christine’s transformation is symbolized by her coat. Possession of the old button has allowed the demons to follow and torment Christine, but now that she has given the button back, the demons and the curse seem to have disappeared. Near the end of the film, with the curse finally broken, Christine plans a weekend away with Clay. His continued presence is a comfort to this viewer: even though at many, many points in the film Christine must have seemed unstable (to put it mildly), Clay has supported her. By this point Christine seems to have rid herself of not only the curse, but the personal “demons” that have haunted her since her adolescence. She externalizes this transformation by purchasing a new coat, lighter in color, and far more stylish than the old one Ganush stole the button from. This coat seems to symbolize Christine’s new outlook on herself: bright and professional, even hopeful.
But when she appears on the train platform to meet Clay, he expresses his dismay at her new look, and innocently states that he’s found the button to her old coat in his car. It seems Christine has placed a valuable quarter in Mrs. Ganush’s mouth rather than the button (both were encased in identical white envelopes). When Clay hands the button back to Christine, demons appear and summarily drag her to hell. The end.
A horror film-Sam Raimi twist? For sure. But what do we make of this ending if we’ve been reading the demons as Christine’s buried insecurities about herself and the curse as the vehicle through which she might rid herself of them? We’ve seen the lengths Christine has gone to in order to rid herself of Ganush’s curse, and through it all she has transformed from a passive and submissive person who seems to have let her lot in life simply happen to her, to someone who has the determination and drive to act on her desires and make things happen for her. She has also tried to do so while maintaining some integrity—she attempts to apologize to Mrs. Ganush and help her with her loan (though the old woman dies before she’s able to do so), and she does not pass on her curse to her workplace rival when she has the chance even though she detests him openly. When the film drags Christine to hell, are we to assume that this transformation is merely window-dressing, and that she is, at bottom, still ruled by her inner turmoil, making her unable to succeed in life? Could we even believe that the film cannot abide a productive, powerful, successful and happy female protagonist? Or do we just chalk it up to the director and the genre in which Christine’s character exists?
*Significantly, during this scene, Christine’s “demons” batter loudly on a door to the room where she dines with her potential in-laws, making her fears about her worthiness to be with Clay readily apparent (at least to her). The presence of the demons causes Christine to act inappropriately during the dinner, sabotaging the good impression she has so far made with Trudy and Leonard. Interestingly, her outbursts and odd behavior, rather than driving Clay from her, show him to be truly loving and supportive of Christine—a good example of “for better or for worse.”