Bat Image from OpenClipart (Pixabay License / Pixabay)
It’s rare for a decade-old film to inspire internet debate—especially one that was a box-office flop. But Sam Raimi’s 2009 Drag Me to Hell still provokes a lot of soul-searching. Did Christine Brown deserve to be dragged to hell by demons? Vengeful demons who crack open the earth as we watch, devouring poor Christine alive?
Among the most acclaimed horror films of the last two decades, Raimi’s terrifying and often campy film follows the last three days of an ambitious loan officer saddled with a terrible curse. It begins when Christine (Alison Lohman) runs afoul of Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver)—an elderly woman who, having fallen behind in her mortgage, shows up at Christine’s desk asking for another extension. But this is a bank, not a nonprofit, and Christine needs to prove to her petty, peevish boss (David Paymer) that she’s worthy of a promotion. So although she feels terrible that Mrs. Ganush’s belongings are landing on the curb as they speak, she allows the eviction to go forward.
Humiliated, Mrs. Ganush unleashes on Christine a curse: in three days she will be dragged to hell by “Lamia”, a demon that will “feast upon” her soul “while she festers in the grave.” Meanwhile, she’ll spend the last three days of her life tortured by hallucinations.
Naturally, 2009 audiences felt that Christine Brown deserved her fate—who didn’t want to see bankers dragged to hell as the less-fortunate were dragged from their houses? But schadenfreude for Christine has outlasted our contempt for the financial sector. Despite the film’s initial lackluster showing, its provocative ending drives people to the internet for answers. A search for “did Christine Brown deserve hell?” brings up recent Reddit threads, and horror sites keep the debate alive.
While many viewers defend Christine, Wicked Horror‘s Nat Brehmer believes Christine “deserved everything she got” for refusing to extend Mrs. Ganush’s mortgage (which had already been extended twice), and then for trying desperate maneuvers to dodge damnation. For instance, after suffering hallucinations and a spectacular nosebleed, Christine tries to return Mrs. Ganush’s house so she’ll lift the curse. But it’s too late—Mrs. Ganush has died. Christine’s attempt at reconciliation, Brehmer says, is motivated by “self-interest” rather than a desire to atone.
Okay. So Christine may not be sincere about apologizing to a woman who doomed her to hell, not to mention geyser-like nosebleeds. But … really? We’re talking eternal damnation. Not bad luck—not losing a job or a relationship. Not even death. Eternal torture—for refusing to extend a mortgage that had already been extended twice.
As a horror buff, I’m embarrassed to admit I was unsettled by Christine’s final destination. Not because it’s unusual—I love terrifying endings, of protagonists giving birth to devil children or being whisked away in horseless carriages—but because people seem to delight in her suffering. What has she done that’s so terrible? Authorize the repossession of Mrs. Ganush’s house? (Yes, at the urging of her boss, who dangled a promotion and implied she’s not as capable as Stu, the “new guy” who’s “quite aggressive—and we like that.”) Is it because she lies about her decision to evict Mrs. Ganush, pinning the blame on her boss? (Stu, by the way, steals Christine’s work and sells it to the bank’s competitor.)
Or is it because she kills a cat? After being told by a psychic that an animal sacrifice might appease Lamia, a horrified (and vegetarian) Christine balks at the prospect. But after enduring demonic torture for two days, she dispatches her sweet kitten, sobbing as she does so. Brehmer calls her sacrifice of an “innocent animal” the “point of no return.”
Even S Raimi roots against his character, saying she got what she deserved. To be fair, for Raimi the question is cosmic—Christine deserves hell because we all do. She’s complicit in an immoral financial system, and as an allegory about institutional evil, with Christine playing an Eichmann figure, Drag Me to Hell certainly works. (We even learn that Mrs. Ganush was a Romani-Hungarian woman born before World War II—she likely experienced the Holocaust firsthand.)
But then Raimi goes further, damning Christine not just for what she’s done but what she considered doing. With time running short, she learns she can transfer the curse to another person and considers giving it “to some poor sap” at a diner.
But she doesn’t go through with it. After agonizing, she concludes that no one deserves hell—not a stranger, not even Stu—no one but the already-deceased Mrs. Ganush.
To Raimi, her change of heart is irrelevant. “She came that close [to giving it to an innocent person]. I think she was a good person on the outside, but when you really start to look at her … the real person comes out.” So, Christine deserves hellfire not just for doing bad things but for thinking bad things. (Good luck to everyone who’s had an intrusive thought.)
By policing Christine’s thoughts and emotions, Raimi reveals that Christine’s damnable flaw isn’t what she does but who she is—and to Raimi she’s inauthentic. She appears one way “on the outside” but is another person inside—a problem that extends beyond her thoughts to encompass her past appearance and inner-life.
Christine was once fat. She was once a farm girl crowned “pork queen” at the county fair; now, with discipline, she’s a Los Angeles hottie. “You used to be a real fat girl, didn’t you,” says Mrs. Ganush’s granddaughter when Christine searches for Mrs. Ganush to make amends. It’s not a question but a taunt.
When we meet Christine, she’s working to hide her humble beginnings by using a tape to imitate a “newscaster accent”. She wants to be taken seriously. Who can blame her?
Her boyfriend’s mother, for one. Early in the film, Christine overhears Clay (Justin Long) defending her to his mother on the phone. She’s convinced Clay deserves better—like so-and-so who graduated from Yale Law. Christine walks away, crestfallen. Her boyfriend’s mother refers to her as “a little farm girl”. To her, that’s all Christine will ever be.
It’s not groundbreaking to say that men and women are evaluated differently in terms of their ambitions, with women being held to impossible and conflicting standards, but Drag Me to Hell unveils a more intriguing problem—that the self-made man is always, well, a man. Self-made women exist too (apparently, Kylie Jenner is one of them), but there’s a difference: women are expected to remain characterologically consistent throughout their lives.
Men, broadly speaking, can achieve perfection. Women, however, must be born that way. A man who remakes himself is hardworking; a woman is concealing and scheming. Men (white ones especially) can transform themselves to find success, snag a spouse, or trade up. Women must be genuine outside and in. Not someone who uses “false advertising”.
The myth of the boy who moves to the city and casts off his past is among US culture’s oldest, dating back to Benjamin Franklin, whose Autobiography functioned as a primer for working-class youths looking to find success.
Franklin understood that appearance is more important than reality. You don’t have to be the real thing—you just have to project it. That’s why Franklin makes sure his neighbors see him trundling a wheelbarrow up the street. “I was seen at no places of idle diversion,” he writes. Drawing up a list of virtues, Franklin keeps track of his shortcomings. For Franklin, humility is the most challenging, and though he “cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue,” he “had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” He refers to his life’s mistakes as “errata”—a printer’s term for errors that can be expunged from future editions.
Christine engages in similar self-fashioning. Always impeccably dressed, she keeps her surroundings immaculate and her demeanor cheerful. Briefly ruffled when her boss and Stu (Reggie Lee) expect her to fetch them lunch, Christine lets her sunny disposition slip. Stu complains that she bought him the wrong sandwich. (She didn’t.) Though she stops short of telling Stu off, the damage is done—Stu and the boss roll their eyes at Christine’s carelessness and (uncharacteristic) irritability.
Above all, Christine is disciplined around food. “Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation” is Franklin’s commandment, and Christine follows it to the letter. We rarely see her eat; at one point she passes a bakery and looks longingly at cupcakes. When she bakes a cake to bring to Clay’s parents’ house, she doesn’t dare taste it—possibly because from her cookbook tumbles a picture of the “Pork Queen Fair 1995”. In it, she’s a potbellied child next to a blue-ribbon pig. She destroys the picture—another attempt to blot out this erratum. The only time she does eat is when damnation seems inevitable. Clay finds her eating a carton of ice cream. “I thought you were lactose intolerant,” he says.
While Christine’s efforts to remake herself are laudable, they’re often derided as evidence of her insincerity. She’s ” a fraud“—”someone who is willing to be dishonest to others in order to improve her position.” She seems “nice and innocent” “on the surface,” but “the truth is she was a self-centered person”—a “bank teller” who “dug her own hell.” (For the record, Christine is not a teller—but Clay’s mother calls her one in an effort to put her down.) Brehmer finds Christine deplorable because it takes her so long to “admit that she’s done something wrong. And even when she does, it’s only because she’s tried everything else. She doesn’t believe a word she’s saying.”
Christine passes herself off as false bill of goods. She isn’t refined—she’s country. She’s isn’t pure—she has bad thoughts. And she isn’t thin. She’s a thin girl who used to be fat. Ex-fat girls often become fat again. Even thin girls become fat. It’s the curse of metabolism and age, just as damning as the one Mrs. Ganush cooks up. Inside every thin girl is a fat girl waiting to bust out.
Alison Lohman as Christina and Lorna Raver as Mrs. Ganush
I remember the first time I heard that guys check out their girlfriends’ moms to see if a girl will “pork out” as she ages. It was in a teen magazine, one of those “Ask Guys Anything!” columns. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but I was actually relieved to learn this. As a teenager, I didn’t feel I had a lot going for me, but I wasn’t fat, and neither was my mom. Phew. I would pass the “fat mom” test.
By the time I was in grad school, I was more self-aware. One day, while printing a paper in a computer lab, I stood behind an undergrad who pored over a webpage with a headline so large that it could be seen from space— “WHAT IF MY GIRLFRIEND’S GETTING FAT AND I DON’T WANT TO HAVE SEX WITH HER ANYMORE?” Now, I’d hate to be judged by the tackiest thing I’ve googled … but the fact that this guy was asking the internet such a personal question in a public space gave me pause. He didn’t minimize the page when anyone walked by. When he got up to throw something away, he left the website up. When he returned, he gave it his full attention.
Such anxieties—about thin girls getting fat, or ex-fat girls getting fat again—are a normal part of everyday conversation. Women’s bodies are subjected to a kind of “futural discourse” that seeks to predict how we’ll “hold up”. We’ve all heard the internet dating truism—that women worry they’re meeting a serial killer, while men worry they’re meeting a fat chick. But the problem isn’t just meeting a fat chick—it’s meeting a thin chick who will become fat. To date is to enter a “futures market” where you could be fooled by a “stealth fat girl”—or attractive woman who will “hit the wall” sooner than later.
A (hopefully satirical) essay from AskMen.com outlines how to crunch the probability that “your woman’s appearance will stand the test of time”—a necessary public service, since the likelihood of aging badly is “especially true, unfortunately, for women.” (I hate to break it to this person, but it’s not great for men either—just hit up your high school’s Facebook page with your yearbook in your lap.) Ways to manage your risk? Assess her friends—attractive friends means she’ll stay hot since nothing motivates women like a little social Darwinism. Also, look at old pictures to see how much she’s changed.
To be clear: people are entitled to have preferences—to find anyone attractive or unattractive for whatever reason, and callous or unkind dating practices are not exclusive to heterosexual men. Moreover, men are also fat-shamed. Recently a picture of Pablo Sandoval went viral after a journalist tweeted an unflattering photo of the MLB star.
But there’s a key difference: when men are fat-shamed, it’s due to how they look like presently—not how fat they might become. The concept of the Stealth Fat Girl goes beyond simple body-policing, seeking to circumvent the power of time itself, and it looms in the cultural imagination. Consider John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, where John (Judd Nelson) taunts Claire (Molly Ringwald) because she has a “fat girl’s name” and though Claire isn’t fat, John tells her fat people are either “born fat” or were “once thin but became fat.” When Claire marries, she’ll “squeeze out a few puppies” and fulfill her fat-name destiny.
Or in David Chase’s The Sopranos, when Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola) almost has Ralphie (Joe Pantoliano) whacked for making a joke about his wife’s having “a ninety-five-pound mole” on her ass. What changes Johnny’s mind at the last minute is finding his wife eating candy. “You lied to me,” Johnny says. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” And Andre Dubus‘ short story, “The Fat Girl” (1977), details the journey of Louise, a woman who loses weight, gets married, and then gains weight when she has a child. Exasperated, her husband says, “I don’t want to touch you. Have you looked at yourself?”
A popular internet theory posits that Drag Me to Hell‘s Lamia symbolizes an eating disorder—Christine’s delusions are the result of self-starvation, not a supernatural curse. But according to Greek mythology, Lamia was Western culture’s first Stealth Fat Girl—a queen transformed into a snake by the goddess Hera, who discovered Lamia had had an affair with Zeus, Hera’s husband. After Hera killed Lamia’s children, Lamia began devouring other people’s children, growing uglier as she did so. (As usual, Zeus goes unpunished.)
Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay.
John Keats’s 1819 poem, “Lamia”, makes use of later versions of the myth, which involve the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana, whose young student Lycius becomes a target of Lamia—now a serpentine seductress who fattens up men and then thrives on their youth. Keats is more sympathetic to Lamia. In his retelling, the god Hermes restores Lamia to her human form, and she journeys to Corinth and falls in love with Lycius. When Apollonius crashes their wedding, he sees past Lamia’s façade and declares her a serpent, at which point she disappears. Lycius dies from shock.
Concerns about women’s “authentic” or future bodies bleed from popular culture to online discourse. A discussion among actuaries outlines ways to know you’re dating a Stealth Fat Girl, with answers ranging from serious to obscene. “Black crows circle overhead when you make out,” says a commenter. Others say to make sure your girl enjoys exercising. But this observable poses problems: “That is just asking for them to get fat if they ever get an injury. Better to seek out people who exercise regularly—and don’t balloon up if they miss a few weeks.”
Elsewhere, Westerners who want to marry Russian women fret that Russians don’t age well. An internet meme about Russian aging circulated in 2015, and an article in Deutsche Welle, “From Bombshell to Babushka” describes the pressure Russian women feel to maintain their looks—and the depression that causes them to overeat when they can’t live up to expectations. When a 47-year-old Chechnyan police chief got slammed for marrying a 17-year-old, Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman explained why this is okay: “Emancipation and sexual maturity happen earlier in the Caucasus. There are places where women have wrinkles at age 27 and they look 50 by our standards.”
Though these examples are anecdotal, the attitudes they represent are commonplace, and I wonder if they contribute to the disproportionate domestic abuse suffered by “mail-order brides”. Asian women are especially prized. Their desirability is often linked to racist beliefs that they’re submissive—but might it also pertain to the perception that they age well? Imagine spending all that money on a wife who “doesn’t hold up”. I guess you’d feel defrauded.
There’s the option of prenuptial agreements. If you can’t discern a Stealth Fat Girl before you marry one, you can draw up an insurance policy. LegalZoom describes some notable weight-gain clauses. While one prenup “limited [the wife’s] weight to 120 pounds”, another “includes a $500 fine for each excess pound the wife gained.” (Luckily, weight prenups are difficult to enforce.)
Again, the problem isn’t simply the double standard where “dad bod” is celebrated and “mom bod” ridiculed—it’s the ways in which people seek to regulate women’s future bodies. It’s about defining a good partner as a “good credit risk” who will remain a beautiful up-to-date Christine and never become a decrepit, defaulting Ganush. Christine’s sin might be inauthenticity, but authenticity is a proxy for policing the asset for which women are valued most—their bodies.
For Christine, these issues manifest when she has dinner at Clay’s parents’ house and brings a cake. Fending off not-so-subtle attacks from Clay’s mother about her background, Christine begins to impress when she speaks confidently about her job. Then she serves her dessert, which everyone eats—except Christine. She looks down to find the cake staring back at her, literally, with Mrs. Ganush’s eyeball. Christine, like all women, is subjected to food-intake surveillance—often self-imposed.
Things escalate. When Christine begins experiencing hallucinations that no one else shares, she has a breakdown, hurling her wine class at the door—handing Clay’s mother all the evidence she needs that Christine is “a sick girl” who doesn’t belong in Clay’s life.
* * *
Where does this leave Clay? How does he feel about Christine’s behavior—not to mention her past?
Surprisingly, he seems to value Christine for who she is. He knows that she’s from “the farm” and that her mother is an alcoholic. And though it’s unclear, he probably knows she’s an ex-fat girl. For the genre, he’s a refreshing character. I expected he’d an impediment—the archetypal male skeptic who tries to have his girlfriend committed. (See The Devil’s Advocate for an example.) When Christine wants to visit a psychic, Clay isn’t game. He’s a psychology professor, and if any of his students ever saw him at a palm reader’s …
But then something interesting happens. Clay supports Christine—even as he remains skeptical. Even after she murders her kitten. Even after she ruins dinner with his parents.
Drag Me to Hell has a lot of “jump scares”, but I was never more shocked than when Clay walked into Christine’s kitchen in the film’s last act, announcing he’s already paid for an exorcism. We hadn’t seen Clay since the disastrous dinner with his parents, so I assumed he’d taken off. If he returned, it would be with white coats and intravenous sedatives.
But then Clay strolls into the kitchen and announces he’s paid the exorcist $10k (After pawning all her belongings, Christine came up $6k short.) “I thought you didn’t believe,” Christine says. Clay doesn’t know what he believes, but he sees she’s suffering. He’s willing to respect her reality, even if he doesn’t share it.
For screenplay analyst Jacob Krueger, Clay’s goodness is yet more evidence that Christine deserves hell. While Clay remains steadfast, Christine equivocates and fails. She doesn’t beg Mrs. Ganush for forgiveness. Instead, “she tries to condemn the soul of the woman she wronged” and commits “the same sin her palm reader assumed she might have committed—speaking ill of the dead in a cemetery.” True—Christine does desecrate Ganush’s grave … but with the blessing of that same psychic (Dileep Rao) who warned against blaspheming the dead. And by telling her she can transfer the curse in the first place, the psychic is, by his admission, her “accomplice.” Still, only Christine goes to hell.
Christine’s behavior in Drag Me to Hell‘s last moments is also egregious, Krueger says, as she attempts to inflict the curse on selfless Clay. Krueger mentions Clay found Christine’s button in his car—the cursed object Christine believes she’s given to Mrs. Ganush’s corpse. She hasn’t—she’s mixed up her button with another object. Realizing she hasn’t actually shed the curse, Christine stumbles backward onto the tracks, horrified. She makes no attempt to take the button from Clay, who is now “presumably damned to hell” because he’s holding it. The demons snatch Christine while Clay watches, proving that Christine’s selfishness—not Ganush’s curse—is what has damned her.
But that isn’t entirely accurate. Christine hasn’t made a “formal gift” of the curse to Clay—the only way to transfer it. There’s no evidence that she would have sacrificed Clay’s soul to save her own.
Though Clay’s moral authenticity seems to dwarf Christine’s, he’s not tested in the same way that she is. Yes, he agrees to the palm reading, pays for the exorcism, and stands up for Christine to his parents. But he’s never had as much to gain—or lose. Heshould stand up for Christine—they’ve been dating for a year. And he gives her money—but he also comes from considerable wealth.
These aren’t sacrifices. They’re basic decency.
Clay is privileged. He’s not “from the farm”. He’s never had to lose an accent or work at a bank, making uncomfortable decisions about whose house to repossess. His biggest worry is that his students will see him consulting a psychic.
Further, he supports the decision to deny Mrs. Ganush an extension. “You don’t pay your mortgage, you lose your house,” he says with Manichean rationality. There’s no reason to believe Clay would have reacted differently if he’d been in Christine’s place—that he’d have forgone a promotion for kindness’ sake. That Clay seems so remarkable to us—generous and patient—says more about our expectations than it does about Clay.
As Clay and Christine drive home from the (unsuccessful) exorcism, an apparition of Mrs. Ganush appears in the road. Christine reacts, causing Clay to slam the breaks. In the headlights stands an old man.
Though Clay is behind the wheel, Christine absorbs the man’s rage. He shakes his cane at her. “You bitch, you’ll burn in hell!” The thanks she gets for saving his life.
“Holy shit,” Clay says without acknowledging that Christine has just been blamed for his mistake. They drive away. Clay is relieved, but Christine knows she’s damned.
While Franklin’s mistakes are “errata”, Christine’s are unforgivable, evidence of the serpent that lurks inside a beautiful body. In Keats’ poem, Lycius dies from shock when he realizes he almost married a snake.
That’s because Lycius never had to imagine existence as a snake.
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