Since his 1981 debut of The Evil Dead, Sam Raimi has proven himself to be a master of effects, an exciting storyteller, and a curator of great horror films. The chilling scenes of The Evil Dead make for the perfect gross-horror, and that is masterfully paired with his ability to direct a film with such animation and edge-of-your-seat intensity. His later work on the Spiderman trilogy (2002-2007), as well as Darkman (1990), continued to show the excitement, comedy, and humanity he could bring on screen. All of these qualities translate to his 2009 film Drag Me to Hell. Since its initial release, Drag Me to Hell has received critical and commercial success. It showed the same scary, campy horror brilliance that Raimi demonstrated with The Evil Dead decades before. What also makes Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell so amazing is the subtext of shame. Whether he intended to or not, his film is saturated with associations of a woman’s shame. For this month’s Women in Horror, we want to take a deep dive into this subtext and dissect Raimi’s subtle nuances to convince you that this film is truly about a woman’s shame and how it is these insecurities that lay her literal path to hell.
Drag Me to Hell is about loan officer, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), who turns an old woman’s request for another mortgage payment extension down. As a result, she has been cursed and will be dragged to hell by a soul-eating demon – the Lamia – in three days. But before the Lamia will take her, he will torture her mentally and physically by making her hallucinate and tossing her around like a rag doll in order to break her spirit.
When we first meet Christine, she is driving in her car and listening to a speech therapy track – attempting to lose her Southern drawl completely. You see, the Christine you first meet is an adaptation, a remake of her former self. The first shame you see is a physical one, and it’s her own image that she’s ashamed of. The once fat, farm girl has done everything she can to shed all evidence of her prior self – from losing weight, to changing her accent and detaching from any connection to her former life. As her introduction continues, she walks past a bakery, pausing with delight before settling on self-resentment and resolve. In just a few seconds, Raimi introduces us to Christine’s difficult relationship with food and weight. Her personal shame – a seed planted by society and fed by her soul and peace of mind – is something she carries every day. It’s also something all too familiar. To everyone, including her boyfriend (Justin Long), Christine is someone completely different than what she sees in herself.
Along with this, Christine experiences work-place shame as she shoots for the new bank manager position – which she should be a shoo-in for – yet newcomer Stu Rubin (Reggie Lee), tries to weasel his way in. In one particular scene, her boss compares her and Stu, praising Stu for his “aggressiveness” and “tough” decision-making – all qualities in contrast to her cis-normative “feminine” qualities. He then proceeds to ask Christine to train her potential new boss. She – a veteran in the workplace and obviously strong enough in her position to be instructing new staff – is still in competition with the newbie who still hasn’t finished his own training. This workplace “shame” Christine experiences is a reflection of what society thinks about women in power. Her boss presumes she is incapable; he mistakes her humanity for incapability, and it was this pressure that puts Christine in the position she finds herself in with the elderly woman, Mrs. Ganush (Lorna Raver) at the beginning of the film.
What is profound about the character of Mrs. Ganush is what she represents to me: an image of the oppression against the lower class and the elderly. It’s class shame, and it’s one of the most prominent ones. Despite her clear, impossible circumstances, she is denied a mortgage payment extension because doing so would deny the bank substantial financial gains in fees. Her livelihood is sacrificed for monetary gain that only benefits the system. Both women are pressured by immovable forces – albeit one makes the wrong decision under this pressure. Even after being denied, Mrs. Ganush gets on her knees and begs for another chance, which causes Christine to call security and make a scene. With the bank at a stand-still and all eyes on Mrs. Ganush, she utters the iconic lines that inspired this essay, “You shame me.” Mrs. Ganush is the image of classist and ageist shame, and Christine represents the pressure women feel in the workplace, as well as the shame of abandoning your humanity for the system that oppressed both parties. Both women stood there as a mirror of each other’s humiliation and insecurity.
The final, prominent shame we experience with Christine is that of the unfit girlfriend. Her boyfriend, Clay Dalton (Long), comes from a wealthy family who expect him to date a doctor, a lawyer, or whatever their idea of what a prominent ’woman’ is. In this sense, Christine feels every shame at once. Dalton’s mother repeatedly refers to her as a “little farm girl.” Her career is downplayed because it’s not “respectable.” She doesn’t come from money, so she’s not good enough. In fact, it’s during her 3-day mental torture from the Lamia that these specific insecurities are especially highlighted. Christine goes to a dinner to meet her boyfriend’s parents for the first time. During the dinner, she seems to hurdle effortlessly over the passive-aggressive remarks and the tensions of fine-dining. However, she is not awarded happiness – at least not for too long – because the Lamia begins to torment her during dessert. She begins to choke on her food making a fly come out of her mouth. This disgusts everyone at the table convincing them that the cake is contaminated. She then begins to hallucinate voices and noises that make her snap under the pressure. It’s no coincidence that this happens during dessert, considering audiences already know about her body shame and relationship to sweets. After this moment, her image is crumbled, and her shame is restored ten-fold.
Christine attempts to pass her curse on to someone else, but in the end, she can’t because her curse is her own. Her shame is her own, and it literally leads her down the road to hell. Many have argued that Christine deserved the ending she got for what she did to Mrs. Ganush. This argument is to say that it was shame that drove every event and intention of this film, and her outcome wasn’t deserved. Although she made the wrong decision in denying Mrs. Ganush, you can see the immediate shame Christine feels for abandoning her humanity and sacrificing another person’s livelihood for her own benefit. This action would not have even happened if it weren’t for her boss subtly shaming her for being a woman in competition with a man. If anything, Christine never stood a chance. From the very opening of the film, she was cursed and all events leading to her meeting with Mrs. Ganush – even before the start of the film – shaped everything that unfolded.