If you can't quantify the risk, all you are left with is a black hole of fear. "It's a classic tale of darkness," another source moaned, "Think: the horror, the horror."
--Abigail Hoffman, "Barclays [Bank] and the Fear of the Unknown," Euromoney, 2007
Since Marx's famous description of the talking commodity, we are accustomed to seeing economic forms brought to life. It is less common, however, to see such a form given life only to be put to death—yet this is what we find in the name for a contract on a real estate loan, a mortgage, which comes from the French for "dead pledge." Trying to understand why this particular contract should take on such a mortal cast, the sixteenth-century jurist Sir Edward Coke explained, "It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Debtor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not pay, then the Land...is taken from him for ever, and so dead to him upon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant." 1 The mortgaged property exists in an ontologically perilous realm, alive to one but not another, rising from the grave and returning to life as it changes hands. What is it about the real estate loan that makes all its paths lead to death?
The connection between borrowing and burying is encrypted in the etymology of the word "mortgage," but the language of horror has also been manifestly present in contemporary representations of the ongoing financial and credit crises. From the ubiquitous "zombie banks" to muckraker Matt Taibbi's description of Goldman Sachs as a "great, blood-sucking vampire squid," a discourse of the gothic, the uncanny, and the terrifying is itself the specter haunting late capitalism. In this essay, I argue that this discourse does not merely reflect the anxiety and fear associated with current economic volatility, but is rooted in fundamental transformations in the economy itself: specifically, the financialization of credit markets and the power of securitized debt to penetrate the very fabric of daily life. To understand the increasing inextricability of horror and securitized credit, I turn to a text that brings them explicitly together: the 2009 horror film Drag Me to Hell (dir. Sam Raimi), in which the standard tropes of the horror genre are repurposed to represent the emerging horrors of our dangerous new economic order. 2 In Raimi's film, I'll show, the formal mechanisms of suspense become an index of the somatic tolls of risk; the visual excesses of gore are now the signs of financial contagion and toxicity. Like the characterization of complex financial derivatives as "Frankenstein's monsters," Raimi's film draws on the traditions of horror to describe a new kind of terror—the deadliness of financialized debt and credit crisis.
In offering a surprisingly nuanced representation of the contemporary financial economy, Drag Me to Hell also allows us to track larger historical transformations in both markets and culture. I want to make two related arguments concerning these changes. First, unlike eighteenth-century novels of credit, early-twentieth-century financial panic novels, and a long tradition of horror-genre economic allegories, Drag Me to Hell refuses either to contain economic anxiety or to imagine a restored calculus for accountability. Second, I see this refusal as a consequence of a fundamental shift in the relationship between credit and financial markets, particularly the introduction of commodified risk into the credit transaction. I read the film's divergence from the above generic forebears as a response to historical transformations in markets and their attending ideologies; Drag Me to Hell is in this sense both a representation and an effect of the contemporary credit economy. Dialectically situated between symptom and depiction, Drag Me To Hell is able to critique, rather than resolve, the economic contradictions it describes. In doing so, it suggests that the collapse of credibility and mutuality in the economy also entails a crisis in the ways culture is able to write—and underwrite—economic ideology.
In particular, I argue that Drag Me to Hell's correlation of credit and debt with horror marks a shift in—indeed, constitutes a rejection of—the long-standing and seemingly intractable ideology of credit. Credit has long been understood as a salutary economic form, associated with communality, interdependence, and trust. Although indebtedness has often been represented as a hellish or shameful condition, credit typically seems "an extension of mutual aid" and thus "an extension of human society," as David Graeber puts it in his magnum opus Debt: The First 5000 Years—or, as Richard Dienst suggests in his recent The Bonds of Debt, by presuming an exchange between trusting equals, credit enables "the purest, most transparent...form of mutual recognition." 3 According to most critical accounts, literary representations of credit likewise reassure economic actors that the social relationships on which the credit contract depends are equitable and stable. In terms that mirror Brook Thomas's influential account of realism and the "promise of contract," for instance, Jennifer Baker tells us that seventeenth-century American writers and thinkers saw the risks associated with credit money as "a means to build ... communities and foster social cohesion," defining communities by "soliciting ... commitment." 4 The cultural forms of the emergent credit economy not only represented credit as a socially salutary economic form but also were, in Ian Baucom's words, part of "a mutual and system-wide determination to credit the existence of imaginary values." 5 The realist novel—whose historical emergence was concomitant with the development of those new forms of paper credit Marx called "fictitious capital"—has been seen as particularly crucial in supporting and sustaining the credit economy; Mary Poovey has influentially argued that the novel "helped make the system of credit and debt usable and the market model of value familiar." 6 Itself a "a creature of credit," 7 realistic fiction taught economic subjects to accept the uncertainties of an economy dependent on credit: to confidently lend money out and expect to receive it back with interest; to "accept the deferral that was essential to credit...without feeling imperiled by risk," making possible the faith and credulity on which the modern economy depended. 8
Economic actors not only had to learn to trust in paper money and the institutions that issued it, they also had to learn to trust other individuals—and to trust their own capacity to judge the credibility of those individuals. 9 Realistic characterization, as developed by modern fiction, was particularly influential in securing that confidence and faith. Writing on the "economy of character" in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction, Deidre Lynch claims that writers and readers of that period "used the [fictional] characters in their books" to "humanize" an unfamiliar marketplace dependent on credit transactions, and Baucom likewise argues that the eighteenth-century novel "trained [its readers] to read the character of the individuals whose promises and money they increasingly had to take on credit and to evaluate the credibility of that general system of value that had encircles society." 10 When eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives depicted economic transactions, particularly economic transactions based on credit, they tended, as Poovey puts it, to "rework" economic plots into "a different set of terms that promise comfort instead of posing a threat," thus "modulat[ing] the reader's response to the danger an actual lack of money would have posed." 11
If Drag Me to Hell, in exploring the social relations mediated by twenty-first-century forms of credit and debt, now refuses to comfort or humanize that is because the credibility that a few hundred years of capitalist ideology sought to render self-evident has suddenly dissolved. In its place, Drag Me to Hell suggests, we have a credit economy based on the commodification of uncertainty and risk, a credit economy that turns the reciprocity of credit into revenge and "payback," a credit economy whose singular obsession with liquidity destroys social connections and renders whole populations vulnerable to credit risk.
The film's refusal to resolve the ideological and historical contradictions it depicts thus marks a shift in the cultural representation of credit transactions. More notably, it also suggests a departure from the generic conventions of horror narrative itself. Horror is uniquely able to give form to social traumas and anxieties, but is typically conservative in its representation of resolutions to those fears—to quote just a few representative critical descriptions, horror tends to "restore the rational, normative order," to offer a "ritual outletting" that "bring[s] things back to a more stable and constructive state." 12 In his seminal essay "Dialectic of Fear," Franco Moretti argues that although Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein allegorize the violence of the capitalist social order, they do so in order to "com[e] contentedly to terms with a social body based on irrationality and menace." Despite activating a "dialectic of fear," Moretti says, these narratives ultimately "reconstruct...a social cohesion." 13 For Moretti, in other words, horror narratives produce the same ideological comforts as the classic realist narrative described above: both strive, albeit in very different registers, to overcome and repress the initial shocks of frightening economic changes. 14
Why, then, does Drag Me to Hell depart both from the comforting way that credit relationships were represented in past moments of economic change, and from the cathartic conservatism of the horror genre? More importantly, what can this departure tell us about the contemporary credit crisis and our cultural response to it? I will argue that Drag Me To Hell helps us track the emergence of a financial economy dependent on ever-growing levels of debt and ever-more profitable forms of securitized credit. In representing the structural uncertainty and instability that, in a moment of crisis, this economy could no longer manage, the film offers a powerful and critical account of the transformation of credit risk from an economic inevitability to be diluted and managed into a source of profit to be exploited, created, and passed on.
Even before the spectacular collapse of global markets in 2008, the contemporary financial system tarried much more willingly with the dark unknown and the dangerously uncertain than did the credit markets of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century economies explored by the critics described above. After the 1999 repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act (which separated risk-seeking speculators from risk-averse commercial banks) even formerly conservative banks sought out ever-riskier speculative investments that promised ever-higher rates of return. 15 Whereas in the eighteenth-century financial economies that concern critics like Poovey, Lynch, and Baucom, risk was a danger to be mitigated, minimized, or hedged against, by the turn of the twenty-first century good business meant finding "rewarded risk." If, as Poovey has argued, novels like Pride and Prejudice attempt to manage the anxiety caused by new and volatile forms of paper money, Drag Me to Hell's horror is the objective correlative of an economy whose most characteristic forms are derivatives based on the Volatility Index (VIX), or "fear index." A measure of market volatility created in 1993, the VIX has since 2004 become the underlying "asset" for derivative instruments—for speculative bets, in other words, on fear itself.
This transformation in the role of risk was perhaps most significant for the manner in which it transformed credit markets. In the early 1990s and through most of the 2000s, federal interest rates were pushed to historic lows: able to charge significantly higher interest rates than they had to pay on their own debt, banks lent more and more readily. High-risk lending was far more profitable than low-risk lending because the latter was expensive to acquire and had a limited potential value. 16 As a result, the once-fundamental idea that institutional lenders should only lend to "credible" borrowers was abandoned: between 1999 and 2006, the so-called "subprime" market—the market in the riskiest debt—went from five percent of all lending to forty percent. Banks introduced a wide range of new "affordability products": loans that did not require borrowers to document their income, interest-only loans, no-down-payment loans, and loans that allowed lenders to borrow twice the value of the house. Very in-credible borrowers (such as those referred to as NINJAS, or "No Income, Job, or Assets") were granted vast amounts of credit. Precisely because these loans were so risky and thus potentially so rewarding, subprime mortgages became a hot commodity, producing an incentive for lenders to relax background and credit checks; eventually the frenzy to acquire subprime mortgages reached such a pitch that banks began encouraging brokers not to run credit checks at all. And although many of those formerly unqualified buyers were being offered "subprime" or adjustable rate loans with draconian long-term interest, the seemingly infinite rise in housing prices, combined with the lax credit markets, meant that home-owners could always refinance their loans or resell the mortgage collateral.
This changing view of credit risk—and the consequent extension of massive and historically unprecedented amounts of risky credit—was enabled not only by low interest rates (and, after decades of wage stagnation, rising demand for consumer credit) but also by the financialization of credit markets. The securitization of debt—the pooling of thousands of debts into tradable assets—ostensibly created a kind of virtuous cycle: banks could grant loans to previously unqualified buyers but could then dilute the risk by packaging those loans and reselling them as securities. Brand-new financial instruments like collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), which divided the pooled debt into tranches with the highest rate of return going to investments in the riskiest loans, made it possible for banks to sell off the riskiest portion of their debt to more risk-seeking investors. In reality, however, the distinction between risk-seeking speculative investors and risk-averse banks was a mirage: banks and investment houses actually were holding on to most of the mortgage-backed instruments they issued. The banks borrowed on the "good" debt they held in order to buy their own high-risk CDOs. As the bubble got even bigger, banks created CDOs "squared" or even "cubed": instruments whose revenue stream came not from the original mortgages but from another CDO, or from another CDO of a CDO. Commercial banks took on massive amounts of debt in order to buy financial instruments based on the risky loans made by other debtors, and thus creditors increasingly became more indebted than those to whom they were lending. Consequently, a single default could trigger a chain reaction that would spread swiftly and virally through the whole economy. As Warren Buffett put it, "the troubles of one [bank] could quickly infect the others...the credit markets were linked in ways that could cause them contemporaneously to run into a problem because of a single event." 17 When housing prices began their precipitous fall and the mortgage default rate climbed, many investment banks found themselves deprived of income, without credit, and leveraged to the hilt. Effectively, the banks themselves were bankrupt. 18
At the heart of both the late-twentieth-century economic boom and the early-twenty-first-century financial bust, we thus discover a completely reinvented set of relations between credit, debt, risk, and speculation. These historically new forms force us to reconsider traditional accounts of the way cultural texts represent both credit transactions and the social order in which such transactions occur. In his influential work on literary and economic form, Marc Shell has argued that there is an inherent relationship between the faith that the money we lend will be repaid and "the very ground of aesthetic experience." 19 But can that same kind of "aesthetic experience" account for the violence that ensues when debt obligations cannot be met—when the uncertainty of a financialized economy redounds vengefully on the social totality? I want to suggest that Raimi uses horror to represent an economy in which credit relationships have threatened to infect and destabilize the social order, in which risk is engineered, concentrated, and passed around. Drag Me to Hell thus takes the inherent uncanniness of debt—the "dead pledge" which provides a form in which the past can continue to live on, like a ghost or zombie, in the present—and brings that uncanniness to bear on the credit side of the transaction: the securitization of credit has, it suggests, transformed debt from naturalized side-effect to the financial system's own violent, toxic lifeblood.
The Return of the Repossessed
If, as Moretti suggests, the vampire of 1897 must stand in allegorically for the capital of 1897, we should not be surprised to discover that Raimi's 2009 film concerns the capital of 2009. But Drag Me to Hell does not simply function as an allegory: rather, it quite explicitly thematizes the kind of credit transactions whose ubiquity and risk were rendered visible by the financial crisis of 2008. The film is specifically concerned with the role of banks in generating a horrifying catastrophe whose immediate cause lies in mortgage default. Its protagonist is Christine, an ambitious young woman who works as a loan officer at a Los Angeles bank. When Christine denies an old Eastern European woman named Sylvia Ganush an extension on her mortgage payment deadline, Mrs. Ganush curses Christine to be dragged to hell by a demon known as the lamia. Although Mrs. Ganush fails to meet the obligations of her mortgage contract, she makes good (if slightly belatedly) on the promise of her curse on Christine. The film's plot is thus centered on debt, while its form makes visible the relationship between debt and an economic system dependent on risk, uncertainty, and precariousness.
The first scene following the film's credits tells us something more about the link between the mortgage contract and the violence of the "dead pledge." Mrs. Ganush thrusts a stack of papers at Christine and asks her to explain them; Christine replies "The bank is informing you of their intent to repossess your property today." By describing Mrs. Ganush's house as a property that can be "repossessed," Christine turns the home into a commodity whose possession is as precarious as it is alienated. Christine's boss Mr. Jacks transforms Mrs. Ganush's home a second time, shifting from the discourse of the commodity to the language of pure, liquid value. "Apparently we've already granted her two extensions," he tells Christine. "And you know in this type of foreclosure we seize the trapped equity and the bank makes a sizable amount in fees." As the expression on Mr. Jacks' face slowly changes from irritation to lecherous greed, what Mrs. Ganush calls a "home" and Christine calls "property" finally becomes "trapped equity." Mr. Jacks's use of the term "trapped equity" is doubly significant. First, the film's startling use of banker's jargon reveals a relation to contemporary financial forms that is more than merely allegorical—it is almost certainly the first horror film to include the phrases "asset-based lending" and "long-term debt restructuring." Mr. Jacks' reference to "trapped equity" is also significant, however, because his use of the term is slightly unusual. Typically, the phrase describes a situation in which the owner of a home wants to access the home's value without having to sell it. Here, however, the "trap" which keeps the value of the equity from being realized is the home itself, and the equity's rightful owner is the bank. Mr. Jacks thus performs a sort of reverse reification, transforming a concrete thing into fungible equity, a house into an investment.
Raimi's dramatization of this transformation makes a crucial point concerning the attempt to blame the real estate crisis on speculative "home flippers," for whom houses were mere investment commodities. 20 In fact, as the leering greed of Mr. Jacks makes clear, it was not borrowers but lenders for whom homes were transformed into speculative investments. Because of the securitization of credit, real estate loans were an incredibly desirable financial instrument for the financing institution and for the investors to which the financing institution sold the securitized loans. As Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty point out, twenty-first-century households "were not simply borrowers of credit; they were also suppliers of 'product' to the securities markets....The growth of mortgages was integral to the risk diversification of global financial markets, and in this sense households...were in demand as objects of investment." 21 Bryan and Rafferty emphasize the way securitization created a gap between the homeowner's perception of the property as an illiquid asset (that is, as a stable home) and the market's perception of securitized home loans as a highly liquid asset. 22 It is precisely this difference between the home as a home and the home as "trapped equity" that Drag Me to Hell reimagines as the origin of supernatural violence. Mrs. Ganush understands her house as a home, not an investment property, and she emphasizes to Christine that up to now, she has always paid her mortgage on time. Mr. Jacks and the bank, by contrast, are eager to make Mrs. Ganush's house "liquid" again—to make it a tradable asset easily exchangeable for other assets—and such liquidation requires the home's "repossession." If, as Tzvetan Todorov has put it, the supernatural appears "because we take a figurative sense literally," the uncanniness of these transformations in the properties of the home and in the home as property already begin to suggest their relationship to the frightful imagery of the horror film. 23 Raimi's film takes the figurative violence of the mortgage's "dead pledge" and literalizes it in the fatal curse with which Mrs. Ganush punishes Christine, playing on the pun between the demonic possession of the body and the "repossession" of property.
It is not surprising, of course, to find the relationship between domestic space and economic uncertainty registered in the horror genre: ever since the anti-aristocratic politics of the gothic novel, the haunted house has long served as a figure for class anxiety and, as Walter Benn Michaels argues, for more generalized "anxieties about ownership." 24 American horror narratives like the immensely popular films The Amityville Horror (1979) and Poltergeist (1980) have also used the genre to explore financial transactions. Many haunted house films explicitly dramatize the sale of the home: the uncanny back-and-forth transformation of a home into a commodity (and of private life into public spectacle) is aptly represented by the generically typical scene in which the real estate agent and the family meet before exploring the house. As critic Dale Bailey observes in his exploration of the haunted house genre, horror films have also adopted the Gothic narrative's interest in the relationship between old and new money, since the haunted houses in contemporary films often come with aristocratic names and trappings. 25 Indeed, this often becomes part of the economic anxiety plot, since the purchasing family can only afford such a large and impressive house because the house is cursed. Both Bailey and Michaels note that in the immensely popular haunted house films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the desire to purchase a home that would be financially out of reach if it weren't haunted signifies the frustrated desire for upward mobility.
The films of the '70s and '80s are, in other words, symptomatic of a period of wage deflation and price inflation, a period in which one's ability to purchase a home is fraught with anxiety—hence the importance of the sale of the home and the real estate agent. And, of course, it was precisely the '70s crises of wage deflation and declining profitability that led to the financialization of capital and credit markets in the ensuing decades. Today, then, the suitable representative for contemporary financial anxiety is no longer the real estate agent who sells the home—it was, after all, relatively easy to buy a house beyond one's means in the subprime years of the new millennium—but the mortgage institution that, month after month and year after year, comes asking for repayment of the "dead pledge." Drag Me to Hell dramatizes what Randy Martin has powerfully described as securitization's twenty-first-century form of dispossession: "Whereas peasants had to be physically removed from common lands to dispossess them of property... possession has [now] been rendered liquid... The active pulse of money in motion is the medium through which... a job or home can no longer bear the demand for increased value placed upon it." 26 This historical shift from the commodification to the collateralization of property is registered in Drag Me to Hell's transference of real-estate horror from the house as a possession to the uncanny transactions that render possession terrifyingly precarious.
Paying Back and Getting Even
By first articulating the process by which a home becomes an instrument of speculative investment, Drag Me to Hell is able to reveal one of the darker consequences of financialization: the unprecedented proliferation of debt. Christine's decision to deny Mrs. Ganush more time to repay her loan both sets off the plot and seals Christine's fate. After a campily horrific fight scene that takes place in the bank parking lot and in which both a stapler and a ruler are weaponized, Mrs. Ganush grabs a button from Christine's coat and curses it. Christine later learns from a fortune-teller named Ram Jas that as long as she possesses the cursed button, she is doomed to be dragged to hell by the lamia after three nights of torment. The film is thus built on four overlapping plots concerning debt, ownership and retribution: Mrs. Ganush is unable to pay back her mortgage loan, while Christine is unable to give back the accursed button; Mrs. Ganush seeks vengeance on Christine for her failure of compassion, and Christine in turn attempts to get revenge on Mrs. Ganush for cursing her in the first place. Indeed, the characters' debts themselves are uncannily doubled and redoubled. This is the case first with the metaphorical or moral "debts" of the film—Mrs. Ganush begs with Christine at the bank; Christine will later go to Mrs. Ganush's house to beg her forgiveness. But it is also true of the literal debts: Mrs. Ganush's mortgage problem opens the film, while Christine goes on to incur two monetary debts over the course of the film, one to a pawn shop and one to her boyfriend, an ambitious recently-tenured professor. And of course, Mrs. Ganush turns the tables on Christine's refusal to grant her "a little time" to repay her mortgage by cursing Christine with a more fatal due date.
Capitalizing on the frightful excesses of the horror genre, Drag Me to Hell reimagines debt and revenge as two forms of "payback." The very first scene of the film establishes the inextricable relationship between vengeance and repayment. The titles tell us we are in Pasadena, CA in 1969: a rusty truck careens into the drive of a large Southern California plantation house and a couple jumps out carrying their young son in their arms. "For the last three nights he's been hearing voices," the desperate mother tells Mrs. San Dena, resident of the house, "He thinks something's coming for him." "What did he do?" Mrs. San Dena asks forcefully. Reluctantly, the parents confess that the boy "stole a necklace from a gypsy wagon." Mrs. San Dena attempts to exorcise the curse from him, but the floor of the house opens up and the little boy is dragged down into the fiery hell of the film's title. Although the transgression—the boy's theft—is the ostensible cause of the curse, the curse is also in excess of the stolen object. "We tried to give it back," his mother explains. Refusing the possibility of a circular exchange, of a repayment or restitution, the curse demands an exchange to which more value must accumulate: to truly reimburse the theft, the family must give back more than just the necklace—they must give the little boy himself. This strange prologue thus establishes the relation between the horror genre and Drag Me to Hell's engagement with economic exchange. In the film, the vengeful excess of the curse, a common horror trope, soon becomes the vengeful excesses of the credit contract as an equally punitive form of social exchange. In accruing interest, as in seeking revenge, the "cost" of a crime or a loan is vastly greater than what has been originally taken or lent. By playing on these interrelated forms of payback—a logic, the film makes clear, more of revenge than restitution, more of excess than balance—Drag Me to Hell shows us the consequences of the financialization of debt for a social order constituted around economic obligation.
An Economy of Fear
Since the release of 1999's Blair Witch Project, a hyper-realistic and "unmediated" aesthetic has dominated twenty-first-century horror film. As critic Peg Aloi puts it, contemporary horror films all "favor implied authenticity over... artificiality"—or, in the words of Blair Witch writer Dan Myrick, the audience ought "not to have any clue while watching the film that it [is] a piece of fiction." 27 Breaking entirely from this tradition, Drag Me to Hell explicitly and insistently reminds us of the artifice behind its spectacular visual images. 28 This emphasis on technical artifice marks its difference from earlier meta-horror franchises like Scream, in which self-consciousness is brought to bear on the genre's narrative content (the phone call from inside the house, the slutty girl as first victim). 29 Drag Me to Hell, by contrast, makes us conscious of the technical aspects of the genre, and of the way those effects are manipulated to create affects like suspense and surprise. I argue that in drawing our attention to these technical mediations, and particularly to the temporality of editing, Drag Me to Hell draws a link between the somatic or psychological experience of economic risk and the horror film's capacity to produce and exploit our fear.
The film's editing is always just a little out of step. In the first suspenseful scene of the film, for instance, we find ourselves in a dark and deserted parking garage after Christine leaves work on the day she has denied Mrs. Ganush the loan. As Christine sits behind the wheel of her car, a handkerchief, which we recognize as the same Mrs. Ganush wrapped her dentures in, floats towards her. The handkerchief drifts like a ghost across Christine's line of sight, then falls down below the hood of her car. As Christine breathes a sigh of relief, the handkerchief suddenly pops up again, plastering itself onto the windshield as the music swells and Christine screams. This moment of cinematic surprise is structured conventionally, so that the music, Christine's expression of fear, and the sudden appearance of the unexpected object all occur in the same instant, and we are thoroughly identified with Christine visually, aurally, and narratively. Yet this sequence is entirely a red herring, since the handkerchief is actually nothing to be afraid of. The truly frightening surprise, which follows immediately after this one, is structured much differently. As Christine watches the handkerchief float harmlessly around the car, the camera pans slowly so that we too watch it through the front and then the back passengers' windows. As we see the backseat of the car, however, we notice the dark outline of a head and shoulders: Mrs. Ganush is in the backseat. But it isn't until ten seconds after the viewer has noticed Mrs. Ganush's presence that Christine gasps. In the strangely long gap between the image of Mrs. Ganush and Christine's expression of fear, there is complete silence. It is only when Christine gasps that we register our belated surprise, and yet we are also forced to register the fact that we needed a cue to do so. Drag Me to Hell reveals the fundamental artificiality of the experience of fear, tying it to the exploitation of temporal uncertainty.
Economic research has likewise connected fear and suspense to economic behaviors like financial speculation, in which the willingness to participate in risky investments depends on one's belief in the certainty of a particular future. Behavioral economics, which seeks to describe why some economic subjects are more willing to take risks than others, evaluates risk tolerance by seeing how individuals respond bodily to fear and surprise. In its empirical studies, it often uses horror film clips to stimulate those feelings—subjects watch clips of films like The Exorcist and Hostel and then are asked to make decisions that call on them to evaluate economic risk/reward: the effect of the experience of watching the films on their decisions is rendered mathematically in what the researchers call a "fear index." 30 (That this is also the name of the securitized measure of market volatility—the VIX—described earlier is probably coincidental but certainly telling.) In refusing to naturalize the formal mechanisms that produce fear, Drag Me to Hell responds to this development by reversing the process that Gail Houston, in her exploration of financial panic and Gothic fiction, describes as taking place in the "stylistic excess" of the Victorian horror novel, which "fills in the gap that opens up when [economics] views emotional and psychological accounts of the subject's reactions to economic panic as illegitimate data." 31 By contrast, Drag Me to Hell's formal or generic self-reflexivity restores the gap between subjective fear and its structural origins to index a moment in which psychological response has become legitimate data.
In using the horror genre to stage the link between suspense and uncertainty, the film lays bare the affective experience of speculative finance: narrative suspense, like speculation, depends on a kind of asymmetry of information. In the conventional horror film, we are frightened precisely because we know that something is about to happen, but we don't know precisely when or precisely what. Drag Me to Hell turns this anticipation into a kind of arbitrage, forcing us to consider the ways that these gaps in information and time are intentionally created by film's visual economy. 32 The dangerous uncertainty of what we don't yet know is no longer a natural side effect of an otherwise healthy economy; rather, uncertainty is the very thing that must be artificially engineered to make an economy—narrative as well as monetary—function profitably.
Far from reassuring its audience of the stability and naturalness of a social totality imagined through and fueled by the exchange of currency, Drag Me to Hell depicts an economy in which the easy flow of money allows toxic assets to contaminate the entire economic order. In the film, monetary transactions threaten rather than support the social whole, and the interlinked sociality of economic exchange is what makes finance so dangerous. Drag Me to Hell explores the narrative consequences of this danger, I want to suggest, by performing a sort of uncanny retelling of an eighteenth-century literary subgenre with its own origin in the representation of economic change, the talking coin narrative. As Deidre Lynch explains, talking coin narratives "draw persons into a community of mutual dependence." In the traditional talking coin narrative, the coin's journey from hand to hand not only describes but actually produces a new sense of collective economic life, one whose structures of trust and interdependence appear as positive affects rather than as constraints or dangers. Emphasizing the impersonality and indistinguishability of the traveling coin, these stories imbue economic transactions with a kind of free-floating capacity to connect subjects, thus humanizing an economic system known for its risks and "affording [their] reader a kind of comfort." 33
The coin that is both a central symbol and a crucial plot element in Drag Me to Hell, by contrast, is marked by its rarity and its particularity. Early in the film, Christine gives Clay, her professor boyfriend, a rare coin she came across at the bank; Clay, an amateur numismatist, recognizes its value immediately: "It's a 1929 Standing Liberty, and it's almost fully struck," he says in nerdy wonderment. "You found this in regular circulation at the bank?" 34 Whereas the eighteenth-century coin is faceless and thus can function solely as a lubricant of social exchange, Clay is excited by his coin's material specificity. Yet this very materiality changes the role of the coin in circulation. A "fully struck" coin has been relatively uneroded by wear—Clay's coin is valuable because it has evaded use in the past. To remain valuable, it must also be removed from future circulation, and so Clay immediately seals the coin into a small white envelope. The coin is thus no longer a meaningful form of circulating currency: its transformation into mere "collector's item" suggests the triumph of postmodern money's dematerialization (the 1973 removal of the dollar from the gold standard, which paved the way for the ensuing decades of financialization). For Clay and Christine, the coin is no longer a measure of value, it is a kind of historical curiosity; far from securing their "personalized integration" into an imagined community of circulation, it symbolizes the anachronistic quality of material or personal financial exchanges.
If the turn to "floating" exchange rates marks one kind of dematerialization, the digitization of money marks another: electronic money represents almost absolute liquidity, since it can be transferred across the globe instantaneously. Thus whereas the coin represents Clay's self-avowedly "geeky" hobby, it is his platinum credit card that represents his actual wealth: in a modestly macho gesture, he brandishes this card at psychic Ram Jas to pay for Christine's fifty dollar fortune-telling session. Clay's money is clearly of the digital and invisible variety, and this is in sharp contrast to the resources available to striving Christine: when she later needs $10,000 to pay for an exorcism, Christine is shown crying in front of an insufficient row of stacked dollars. Earlier I suggested that the transformation of Mrs. Ganush's house from "home" to "trapped equity" marked a kind of reverse reification, the transformation of an object into pure, immaterial value. The same transformation occurs with Clay's coin: since there is no longer any need to materialize value into hard currency, cash is replaced with the credit card and the coin can become a collectible artifact to which physicality has been restored. If the coins described by Lynch produce a sense of spatial interconnection by functioning as a kind of circulating medium that runs throughout the social body, Clay's credit card represents the annihilation of that social space by the time, and particularly by the temporal deferments, of credit.
The anachronism of material money is emphasized again by Christine's work at the bank. "Oh, that job must be so difficult," Clay's upper-class mother remarks with dripping condescension. "With all that counting and repetition—it must get so tedious." In imagining Christine's dreary life counting physical cash, Clay's mother relegates her to the same past as the antique coin. Christine, however, corrects the error, and restores her place in the postmodernity of contemporary finance: she is not a teller, but a loan officer, and one on the verge of a major professional coup. Christine goes on to describe the "big loan" she has been working on: "Well, I was reading in the Wall Street Journal about this medical supply company who was looking to expand but didn't have the necessary liquidity. So I met with their CFO and presented him with a formula for restructuring some of their long-term debt." My earlier outline of the financialization of credit economies reveals the significance of this story: what Christine is describing is a company that wants to get bigger but has no assets; debt restructuring is what enables an institution already in debt to go into more debt. This is precisely the kind of arrangement that Christine denied Mrs. Ganush, and it is one whose profitability for the bank is precisely correlated to its riskiness. As Ram Jas says of the exorcist to whom Christine—or, rather, Clay—will later pay $10,000, "The woman who can help us, she must put herself at great risk. And she will not do that for free."
The horror genre has classically used "circulation" to describe both blood and money. In Moretti's reading of Dracula, for instance, bloodsucking is an allegory for the centralization of social capital in one monopolistic corporate body. Yet Mrs. Ganush's attacks on Christine force us to rethink the metaphoric relationship between bodies and currency. When Christine goes to Mrs. Ganush's house hoping to apologize and have the curse revoked, she is admitted into the house by Mrs. Ganush's niece, who takes her downstairs to the basement. Christine realizes in horror that this is Mrs. Ganush's funeral, but as she backs away, she knocks over the coffin, which promptly falls on top of her. In perhaps the film's most infamous moment, Mrs. Ganush's corpse falls onto Christine's body as a cascade of grotesque liquid is expelled into Christine's mouth (see figure 2).
Whereas Dracula bites and sucks, Mrs. Ganush gums, dentureless, and spews: over and over in the film she emits saliva, mucus, embalming chemicals, and other noxious fluids. If Dracula is all about circulation, in other words, Drag Me To Hell is all about liquidity. In economic terms, liquidity refers to the ability of an asset to be easily convertible to currency: it is pure value, unbound by a particular material form. Unlike the tangible money imagined when we speak of healthy "circulation," the purely liquid value form never fuels a body or powers the process of production, but instead is constantly shifting shape and on the move. It is liquidity that Christine's medical supply company lacks, and liquidity that Mr. Jacks wants to restore to Mrs. Ganush's house. From this perspective—the perspective of a finance capitalism whose representative monetary form, the derivative, is the apotheosis of pure liquidity—liquidity is to be desired: it makes no sense to keep assets "trapped" or "tied up" in commodities when they could instead move freely, when they could become instead Credit Default Swaps, Collateralized Debt Obligations, or other risky and immaterial speculative instruments.
However for the film, which is already looking back on the credit crisis, the liquids involved are not life fluids but death fluids; they are, in other words, toxic. In an earlier scene, Christine herself is, like Mrs. Ganush, a horror image of liquidity, spewing copious blood from her nose. Whereas Dracula is frightening because he siphons off the circulatory medium, Christine is frightening because she spreads it around. Mr. Jacks, who is standing in front of her, is drenched in blood, and his real concern is not for Christine but for the possibility that he has ingested some: "Did I get any in my mouth?", he asks frantically (see figure 3). The point of toxicity—like the "toxic assets" that were discovered to have contaminated the portfolios of even risk-averse investors like pension plans and local governments—is that it poisons with little regard for the volition of the infected. The flipside of "liquidity" is thus contamination: the free flow of liquid money that for early twenty-first-century investors was the perfect expression of a fully financialized mode of profitability, must now be prevented, lest its poisonous toxicity spread throughout the social order.
If liquidity is, as John Maynard Keynes described it, capitalism's "most anti-social fetish," 35 then Drag Me to Hell's vision of a completely liquid social exchange is precisely the obverse of the vision of sociability offered by the eighteenth-century talking coin narrative. Whereas the latter, as Lynch describes it, is "geared to the comforting demonstration of the adage that what goes 'round comes 'round," in Drag Me to Hell the infinitely fungible coin is replaced by circulating toxic liquids. 36 The film thus presents a more horrifying vision of "what goes 'round comes 'round": rather, the return of the coin now looks more like the threat Mrs. Ganush's niece makes to Christine—"You deserve everything that is coming to you."
Last Girls and Scapegoats
Figuring debt not as reciprocity but as revenge, and liquidity not as connection but as toxicity, Drag Me to Hell refuses both to manage the fear of financial crisis and to naturalize market volatility. In this regard, as I have already suggested, it is distinct from a long tradition of financial crisis narratives. David Zimmerman, in his insightful Panic: Markets, Crises, and Crowds in American Fiction, describes a formally and ideologically far-ranging set of fictional responses to financial panics, from conspiracy plots to melodramas, but ultimately argues that "[w]hatever their ideological names, all of these [texts] imagined or suggested ways to remedy financial crises and contain the social trauma they produced." Panics, he suggests, incited novelists to figure out "how to quarantine the infectious hysteria" of financial crises. 37 Progressive writers like Sinclair Lewis rewrote mob psychology as salutary public sympathy and imagined a civic or even moral purpose for the pandemic effects of financial crisis, while naturalist novelists represented market crises as the inevitably tragic battle between a single individual and a vastly larger non-human system. In the panic fictions of Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris, the market is a natural (rather than collective or historical) force whose vitality and dynamism can never be harnessed by a single individual. Those with hubris enough to try to "corner" the market either meet a tragic end (as in Dreiser's Financier trilogy) or are destroyed and then reformed (as in Norris' The Pit): in both instances the spectacular failure of a representative financial subject provides a cathartic social resolution to the trauma of financial panic. Even contemporary financial thrillers, as Paul Crosthewaite has recently observed, typically "answer to an ideological obligation to curb and domesticate" our response to financial panic, typically by "channeling subversive impulses that...pervade the social totality" into the individualizing depiction of its villain, typically a "brilliant, charismatic, and ruthless financier." 38 I want to suggest that Drag Me to Hell's resistance to this "ideological obligation" emerges out of its refusal to treat individual characters as symbolic representatives of a larger economic system, whose punishment (or redemption) could allow us to repress again the fear of financial crisis and the systemic economic violence it reveals. Instead, it imagines a system where "payback" is not the cathartic resolution of a cycle but rather the terrifyingly endless circulation and recirculation of unpayable debts.
As the promise that Christine "deserves everything that's coming to her" suggests, the socially-circulated object does indeed come back to its rightful owner, but this return is far from comforting. Having failed at all other attempts to free herself of the curse, Christine finally decides to rid herself instead of the "accursed object," the button Mrs. Ganush took from her coat. She takes the button, sealed in a small white envelope, to the cemetery where Mrs. Ganush has been buried, digs up the body and shoves the envelope into the corpse's mouth, shouting as she does: "I'm giving it back to you. You're gonna take this thing. Are you gonna take this thing? I, Christine, do hereby make a formal gift of this button to you, Sylvia Ganush. Choke on it, bitch!" Cheekily referencing the bloodlust of the classic slasher tradition, this scene seems to code Christine as what film scholar Carol Clover famously calls the "last girl": the female protagonist with whom we identify and whose traditionally bloody—but here simply muddy—triumph over her monstrous antagonist fulfills the slasher film's revenge fantasy. 39
However this reading implies a simpler and more satisfying logic of justice than Drag Me to Hell can maintain. In fact, the film's disruption of identification destabilizes all such neat allegorical dichotomies, constructing not one but three different ways for us to understand Christine, of which the heroic "last girl" is only the first. Indeed, the second narrative position she occupies depends on the reversal of the last girl plot. Despite having the air of climax, the scene at Mrs. Ganush's grave is in fact the film's penultimate scene, and what follows is designed to play on our expectation that the horror film must end in the restoration of order. After Christine emerges triumphantly from the grave, covered in mud, she takes a purity-restoring shower and in the bright light of the morning after the third night of torment, she happily goes to meet Clay for a planned romantic vacation to Santa Barbara. On the train platform, she embraces Clay, reassuring him that the horrible situation has been resolved: "I want to tell you something," she says. "I could have given Mrs. Ganush an extension on her mortgage payment, and I didn't. The choice was mine, and it was wrong." Kissing her, Clay sappily remarks on her "good heart," at which point Christine shows off the new coat she has just impulsively bought for herself. "What happened to the old one?" Clay asks, and Christine replies that she threw it away. "Well that's too bad," he says, "because I found this in the car after you left last night," and from a white envelope he takes out the cursed button. Christine immediately realizes that she has not "paid back" Mrs. Ganush the "accursed object" but rather the rare coin she gave to Clay and sealed in an identical envelope. She begins to step away from him in horror. Deaf to Clay's shouts, she falls onto the tracks just as a train comes barreling towards her—Clay reaches his arms out to grab her, but the ground beneath Christine opens up and she is pulled into the fiery pit by the hands of demons, her face melting. As the train squeals to a halt, the ground closes up again, leaving Clay staring horrified at an empty space; the music crescendos and Clay's face is replaced by a black screen bearing the film's title. The film thus concludes with the punishment that Christine (and the viewer) thought she had avoided, suggesting that Christine is not a triumphant "last girl," who has successfully settled the score. Instead, since "what goes 'round comes 'round," it is Christine who gets "everything that is coming to her." The final scene suggests, in other words, that the revenge of the film is not Christine's but Mrs. Ganush's, the "payback" of the victimized mortgage-holder on the villainous banker who refused to grant her clemency.
Of course, if Christine's transformation from heroic last girl to vanquished villain really was this straightforward, Raimi's film would remain within the basically conservative boundaries of the horror tradition: the demonization of Christine as a symbol of the evils of finance capital and lending would allow us to comfortably displace the horrors of the financial crisis onto an acceptable symbol of those horrors, and the defeat of that monstrous symbol would provide catharsis without requiring any fundamental social transformation. 40 However I want to argue that the film ultimately insists that we read Christine not only as both heroine and monster, but also as a misplaced victim of precisely this form of demonization. Drag Me to Hell undermines our attempt to enjoy the torments of Christine as a symbol for the crimes of financialization, and it does so by questioning the very logic of substitution on which such satisfying allegories are constructed. For Moretti and other horror critics (as for Zimmerman and other critics on financial panic narratives), the genre's ideological conservativism is linked to its formal tendency to create allegories: the villain's sacrificial death can guarantee the restoration of the status quo precisely because she has become an allegorical stand-in for all that is frightening in a given historical moment. In refusing these easy substitutions, and offering in their place a more uncertain logic of symbolic doubles and shifting identifications, Drag Me to Hell refuses to re-entomb the economic and psychic horrors it has raised from the dead.
This rejection of simple allegorical substitution also bears on the film's particular interest in credit and debt, since the figure of the substitute sacrifice—or "scapegoat"—is central to the logic of debt. Coke's account of the etymology of "mortgage" figures one such fatal sacrifice, the "death" of the commodity that underwrites the debt. But we should also recall that the first items that could be "pawned"—that is, substituted as repayment for a debt owed—were wives, children, concubines and slaves. As Margaret Atwood points out in her recent Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth, debt and pawning are ideologically as well as historically linked to stand-ins and scapegoats, as in the Biblical representation of Christ as collateral for (or, in the language of pawning, the "redemption" of) man's debt to God. 41
Fittingly, both the sacrificial animal and the scapegoat actually appear in Raimi's film. First, Christine attempts a bloody animal sacrifice: on the advice of Ram Jas, she stabs her own kitten to death to appease the lamia. Later in the film, Ram Jas and Mrs. San Dena, the exorcist, try to lure the lamia's spirit into a literal goat, hoping to kill the animal while it is possessed. Importantly, both of these sacrifices or attempts at symbolic substitution fail: the lamia remains unsatisfied, its thirst for revenge unquenched by the blood of these sacrificial deaths. The film thus rejects the very logic of substitutability on which both the debt relationship and the creation of scapegoats are based. The formal and ideological mechanisms that would make it possible for Christine to stand-in as a proxy for the excesses of financial capitalism, in other words, are undermined by the film's representation of failed symbolic sacrifices, and Christine thus emerges neither as the apotheosis of good nor the representative of evil, but rather as a victim of precisely the same kinds of sacrificial substitutions which the film depicts.
We can best understand Drag Me to Hell's canny response to the formal logic of allegorical substitution and the ideological logic of scapegoating—and to the affective dis-indentification on which both depends—by considering one of the film's more seemingly inexplicable details, Christine's rural background. When Christine visits Clay's parents, who live in an ostentatious southern California mansion, she brings what she describes as a "harvest cake." "Is that something you would make on a...farm?" Clay's mother asks scornfully. "We used to," Christine replies, "When we had a gaggle of geese. Right around the harvest time, that's when your goose eggs will make a real dense yolk. Makes for a rich cake." Here and elsewhere in the film, Christine's farm girl background is the object of ridicule and even horror: indeed, the harvest cake—baked at the same time as Christine was butchering her kitten—will soon hatch a gigantic fly and a bloody eyeball. This representation of the rural as shameful or disgusting refers us to another horror film subgenre described by Clover, the "urbanoia" narrative. In the urbanoia film, Clover argues, "the threatening rural other" poses a danger to the moneyed representatives of the city, not only because of the rural's capacity for primitive violence but also because of its very culture. "The wild family's personal habits are as atrocious as the city family's are proper," Clover writes, which explains why Christine's thick-yolked goose eggs can seem grotesque even before the cake begins to spew kitten blood.
And yet while Christine's treatment as rural other may seem to further bar our identification with her, allowing us to treat her as the figurative expression of the villainous and perverse financial system, Clover argues that something more complicated is going on in the urbanoia genre. Although the abject rural character is indeed the scapegoat for the urban viewer's discomfort at watching "the confrontation between haves and have-nots," this "demonizing mechanism" ultimately fails. 42 Because "the motor of the urbanoia film is economic guilt," we are left instead with an uneasy recognition of the urban bourgeois viewer's collusion in the exploitation of the rural and the poor. In the cake scene, similarly, our potential disgust at the harvest cake (and our horror at Christine's willingness to kill her own cat) is overridden by our sympathy. We feel for Christine—who can only get $3,800 at the pawnshop for all her earthly possessions—as she experiences the distrust and scorn of Clay's upper-class parents. In other words, our pleasure in watching Christine be tormented as the stand-in for the sins of the credit economy is tempered not only by the film's representation of the malfunction of the scapegoat but also by the fact that the narrative forces us to see Christine a cog in the machine, no more culpable than the bank teller drearily counting other people's money. If, as I argued earlier, Christine and Mrs. Ganush are doubles, it is not through the dialectic of monster and hero, but as so many indistinguishable victims of finance capital's violence. Whereas allegory's representational apparatus functions as a kind of narrative co-laterality, Raimi's film refuses the dyadic logic of substitution, parallelism, and equivalence. It thus reveals the unnatural violence of the credit relationship and refuses to return the repressed terror of a credit crisis to the safety of the political and psychic unconscious. In the end, Christine is not haunted by Mrs. Ganush but rather by Mrs. Ganush's promise—the "dead pledge" of capital—itself. 43 The promissory note of credit, the film suggests, is not a symbol of sociability, it is its horrifying objectification: it is the alienation of social relations from social actors themselves. The absolute certainty of the future of "payback" precisely exceeds those who created the contract, and neither Christine's attempts to avoid it nor (as in an actual mortgage contract) Mrs. Ganush's death can stop it coming due.
In suggesting that securitization, the process of transforming debt into financial investments, has spread the toxicity of risk far beyond the speculative investors who created that risk, the film offers a subtle response to the historical moment that is its subtext. Economic historian Robert Brenner explains the complex problem of finding justice for the financial crisis: "The collapse of the financial market would have been poetic justice, except for the fact that the leading executives...managed to insulate themselves, and the horrific losses redounded primarily upon the heavily working class and minority purchasers of subprime mortgages." 44 The ideological rhetoric that has made it possible for those executives and their ilk to evade responsibility has been as adept as any imaginative narrative at performing astonishing characterological reversals of victims and villain. (Recently, for instance, former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson declared that "any homeowner who can afford his mortgage payment but chooses to walk away from an underwater property is simply a speculator"—a claim particularly ironic given that Paulson's employer of thirty-two years, Goldman Sachs, made a killing on the collapse of the housing market.) By refusing the simple allegorical substitutions associated with the horror genre—constantly shifting the poles of Moretti's stable dichotomy between monster and hero—the film is a profound representation of the problem that faces us today: how to find political redress for the damage wrought by financialization and debt.
Allegories of Crisis
Although the film resists simple allegorical substitutions, however, it still works as a richer kind of allegory—one that, as critic Jim Hansen puts it in a reading of Walter Benjamin's theory of allegory, "depict[s] the...horror of the contemporary world" precisely by refusing to redeem it. 45 For Moretti the horror genre is allegorical; for Benjamin, likewise, allegory looks a lot like the horror genre: in allegory, he writes, "everything about history that...has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face—or rather in a death's head." 46 Yet in Moretti's account, the fears to which horror gives allegorical form are ultimately repressed in the name of a restored social order. For Benjamin, by contrast, allegory's depiction of the violence of capitalist modernity lays waste to all comforting fantasies of progress or restoration: the "allegorical way of seeing" makes visible "a world that is meaningful only in the stations of decay." 47 In subverting the reassurances of horror narrative's simple allegories and happy endings—in killing off both its victim-cum-villain and its villain-cum-victim—Drag Me to Hell refuses to imagine that there is a form of justice adequate to redressing the systemic violence of financialization. It is thus not a narrative of redemption but of the unredeemable, fittingly allegorized by the fact that Christine will never "redeem" the goods she left as collateral at the pawnshop.
But what of the "contemporary world" that allegory strives to unveil? "Allegories become dated," Benjamin writes, "because it is part of their nature to shock." 48 Allegory is a form of the present both because it glimpses the horror of its particular historical moment and because it represents history not as progressive modernization but as catastrophe and ruin. Reading for allegory in this sense thus allows us to describe the relationship between culture and the economy neither in the functionalist terms laid out by Poovey—for whom generic distinctions have a "naturalizing" effect, rendering new forms of representation, value, and exchange "socially usable"—nor in the Jamesonian interpretive model performed by Moretti, for whom literary form proposes imagined solutions to social contradictions. Rather, Drag Me to Hell suggests the capacity of cultural texts to perform what Benjamin describes as a kind of "shock." Recalling Todorov's description of horror's capacity to transform the figural into the literal, we can see that horror film's generic openness to technical and visual extravagance, camp excess, and wild narrative implausibility allows Drag Me to Hell to literalize the language of horror figuratively attached Frankensteinian CDOs, the "shadow banking system," zombie derivatives. In so doing, the film returns our attention to the original source of our fear, denaturalizing our acceptance of these new economic forms and systems and refusing any imaginative, psychic, or ideological solutions to the social contradictions that underwrite them.
Reading Drag Me to Hell as an allegory in Benjamin's sense is thus the literary-formal equivalent of reading the credit economy through its moment of crisis. Much as allegory reveals the barbarism at the heart of civilization, crisis lays bare the risk and violence that capitalist ideology must constantly labor to conceal. When our faith in credit's certainty is thrown into radical doubt, we are shocked into seeing the always-already fantasmatic nature of that faith. We also are urgently reminded of the much more material forms of violence and coercion that actually underwrite the "dead pledges" of our debt economy.
In closing, then, I want to turn to two final images whose resonance speaks powerfully to this sense of crisis as allegorical ruin, compelling us to reflect on a complicated and still-shifting relation between narrative or visual representation and the brute material consequences of the economic crisis. The first image comes from Drag Me to Hell's publicity poster; the second, part of a Newsweek photodocumentary series titled "Evictions: America's Housing Crisis," was taken in February 2008 in Adams County, Colorado, and shows the eviction of Tracy Munch and her four children.
Tracy is surrounded by the contents of her own home: buffeted by the wind, and backgrounded by a darkening sky, she calls to mind not only the image of Christine suspended in torment between two houses, but also Benjamin's famous angel of history, whose allegorical representation similarly reverberates with the gothic aesthetics of the horror genre:
Where we perceive a chain of events, [the angel] sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. 49
Because they are littered across her yard, the contents of Tracy's house appear as "wreckage," the underside of finance capital's relentless liquidation. Her belongings here are virtually unexchangeable, "trapped" in the form of meaningful objects like furniture and children's clothes and thus worth as little in liquid capital as Christine's pawned goods. This image speaks for the debtor often ignored by literary critics' focus on the ideological needs of creditors. It shows us the Collateralized Debt Obligation's most obvious collateral damage. Tracy's life itself is radically and precariously subject to a financial calculus of the subprime, of possession and repossession, reminding us again of the "dead pledge"—the life-threatening danger—that lies at the heart of the contemporary mortgage contract. We err, it suggests, in describing the contemporary financial economy as somehow immaterial, imaginary, merely linguistic. Under an economic system in which risk is sought-out, leveraged, and financialized—developments we have been too happy to call progress—it is hard to hope for the equilibrium, the making-whole, of either Moretti's "social cohesion" or Brenner's "poetic justice." As long as engineered catastrophe is the basis of both our economy and our social order, payback will mean only the excesses of an unearned and undeserved revenge, the vengeance of a system that can build only with the deadly debris it has created.
Annie McClanahan is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is currently at work on a book titled Dead Pledges: Debt, Crisis, and Twenty-First-Century Culture. In 2012 she will be a fellow at the Cornell University Society of the Humanities, which will convene on the topic of risk. She adds in acknowledgment:
This project was supported by a 2010-11 postdoctoral fellowship at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. I am also immensely grateful to the editors of Post45 and to the anonymous readers for their extraordinarily useful and incisive suggestions. Many thanks also for the patience and intelligence of my first, last, and best reader, Ted Martin.
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Shell, Marc. Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.
Shiller, Robert. The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do About It. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
Stevens, Dana. "An Alternate Ending of Drag Me to Hell." Slate (June 1, 2009). http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2009/06/spoiler_special_an_alternate_reading_of_drag_me_to_hell.html.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975.
Vernon, John. Money and Fiction: Literary Realism in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries. Ithaca: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.
Wagner, Tamara. Financial Speculation in Victorian Literature. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010.
Wuss, Peter. "Narration and the Film Structure for Three Different Learning Phases." Poetics 19 (1990): 549-570.
- #1 Sir Edward Coke, The first part of the Institutes of the lawes of England, First American ed. (Philadelphia: R.H. Small, 1853), L 3 C5, Sect. 332. In Money, Language, and Thought, Marc Shell discusses the "dead pledge" in Faust; Marx also explores all money as a kind of "dead pledge of society" in Grundrisse. See Marc Shell, Money, Language, and Thought: Literary and Philosophical Economies from the Medieval to the Modern Era (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), pp. 121-6, and Karl Marx, Grundrisse, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), p. 160. [↩]
- #2 Sam Raimi, dir., Drag Me to Hell (Hollywood, CA: Universal Pictures, 2009). [↩]
- #3 This paradox is perhaps the best evidence that exists for the productive incoherence of capitalist ideology. And indeed both Graeber and Dienst make firm arguments against this notion of credit. Graeber does so first by asking, "What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduce to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts?", and then by observing that "debt is strictly a creature of reciprocity and has little to do with other sorts of morality" and that to assume otherwise is to accept that "same old story, starting from the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definition, forms of exchange." Moreover, for Graeber the "reciprocity" that inheres in credit relations is itself secured by the "violence, or the threat of violence" that underwrites the transformation of "morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic." Dienst likewise goes on to point out that for Marx, at least in his early writings, the fantasy of an abstract equality is undermined by the fact that credit "is in fact the most direct form of subjugation, because it takes on the dimensions of a whole social and cultural order" and because "the credit system is the alienation of an essential social 'wealth' and...'debt' appears as the negation of [that] potential plenitude." David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2010), pp. 13, 121, 14; Richard Dienst, The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good (London: Verso, 2011), pp. 148-9. [↩]
- #4 Jennifer Baker, Securing the Commonwealth: Debt, Speculation, and Writing in the Making of Early America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp. 2, 17. [↩]
- #5 Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), p. 67. [↩]
- #6 Mary Poovey, Genres of the Credit Economy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 2. [↩]
- #7 Patrick Brantlinger, Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694-1994 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 150. [↩]
- #8 Poovey, Genres, p. 113. [↩]
- #9 The value of checks, notes, and bills depended not only on the solvency of institutions like state banks, but also on collective confidence and on the exchanger's ability to read the difference between a "good" bill and a "bad" one. Likewise, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture's treatment of economic relationships took place on paper, in the new mass media form known as the novel, and the novel's economic plots centered around the status of paper—of letters, contracts, wills and the like. Thus the creation of generic differentiations between forms of literary representation, Poovey argues, "dr[e]w on and help[ed] stabilize the distinction between valid and invalid" forms of paper money, and the possibility of determining the credibility of literary fictions and literary characters contributed to confidence in the possibility of "reading" the credibility of bank notes and borrowers. Poovey, Genres, p. 113. [↩]
- #10 Deidre Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 13, 93; Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic, p. 94. [↩]
- #11 She observes that in Pride and Prejudice, for instance, Austen "translates a monetary debt into mutual love," thereby providing "a symbolic resolution to real [contemporary financial] anxieties." Poovey, Genres, pp. 364-71. [↩]
- #12 Isabella Christina Pinedo, Recreational Terror: Women and the Pleasures of Horror Film Viewing (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1997), p. 15; Bruce Kawin, "The Mummy's Pool," Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film, Barry Grant and Christopher Sharrett, eds. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004), p. 7; Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2010), p. 13. [↩]
- #13 Franco Moretti, Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms (London: Verso, 2005), p. 84. [↩]
- #14 There are of course critics who see horror as having a much more critical function. In Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture, for instance, film scholar Annalee Newitz updates Moretti's allegorical method for twentieth-century film ("The extreme horror we see in [monster movies]...allegorize[s] extremes of economic boom and bust in the United States"), but diverges from Moretti in her sense of postmodern horror film's critical, even radical, possibilities. Recent work by Steven Shaviro and Peter Paik on the relationship between zombies and neoliberalism likewise refuses to see Moretti's "restoration of order" in horror, but the end result is more baleful than critical, since both critics read contemporary zombie culture largely as symptomatic precisely of the evacuation of critique (and utopian thought) under the reign of neoliberalism and late-late capitalist consumer culture. For Shaviro, "even in death, [zombies] continue to enact the rituals of a rapacious, yet basically aimless, consumerism," while for Paik narratives like the comic series The Walking Dead are "a hysterical overreaction to a prolonged and intractable economic downturn," and a symptom of our lack of "faith in political action to make a transition [to a non-capitalist system] a reality." Annalee Newitz, Pretend We're Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), p. 12; Steven Shaviro, "Capitalist Monsters," Historical Materialism 10:4 (December 2001), pp. 281-290, 289; Peter Paik, "The Gnostic Zombie and the State of Nature: On Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead," downloaded here (August 2011), p. 20. [↩]
- #15 As Douglas W. Arner puts it, "in the wake of the repeal of Glass-Steagall, investment banks found that in order to maintain and increase profitability, they had to have access to their own capital...and that they had to put their capital at risk, especially through proprietary trading in the late 1990s and increasing leverage prior to 2008. The combination of proprietary trading, leverage, and the originate and distribute model would prove toxic to many of the largest, most famous and seemingly most sophisticated international financial institutions in 2008." Douglas W. Arner, "The Global Credit Crisis of 2008: Causes and Consequences," The International Lawyer 43:1 (Spring 2009),pp. 91-136, 129. [↩]
- #16 See Robin Blackburn, "The Subprime Crisis," New Left Review 50 (March-April 2008), pp. 63-106. [↩]
- #17 Warren Buffett, "Berkshire Hathaway Chairman's Letter," http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/letters.html (2002), p. 13. [↩]
- #18 Aspects of the crisis that began in 2008 mirror the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing depression of labor and financial markets. In 1929, as in 2008, a bursting bubble (finance in '29, real estate in '08) fueled a deflation of debt that spread contagiously across the economy; and, also as in 2008, the immediate consequence of this deflation included the failure (and in some cases the bail-outs) of many large banks and financial institutions. However the similarities largely end there. For the purposes of my account here, the most significant difference between the contemporary crisis and previous ones is the invention of debt securitization. As a result of securitization, banks could make a loan and then sell it to another bank or to an investment fund, thus making credit markets available to speculation. In 2007, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke described this shift "from reliance on specialized portfolio lenders financed by deposits to a greater use of capital markets" as a "great sea change in mortgage finance." The first most significant aspects of this "sea change" was, as I have suggested to greatly increase market liquidity. Securitization allows illiquid assets—like homes—to be transformed into liquid ones. Following David Harvey's account of capital's "spatial fix," Kevin Fox Gotham argues that "[t]he conflicts over the securitization of illiquid assets—i.e. the creation of liquidity out of spatial fixity—represent intense struggles over efforts to annihilate space through time within mortgage markets and the real estate sector more broadly." The second major consequence of securitization concerns the transformation in the role of risk. As one economist puts it, securitization "encouraged the prolific transfer of credit risk to hedge funds and other lightlyregulated intermediaries and encourage[d] the creation of SIVs and investment conduits designed to maximize the returns from capital and accounting arbitrage" and this, in turn, "influenced the nature, composition, and funding of all bank risk assets and has radically altered the use of structured finance techniques by many banks, especially a group of major banks that is most committed to structured finance and risk management." It is precisely these transformations in the nature of consumer or real estate credit, in the penetration of securitized debt to all parts of the population, and in the role and extent of risk within the financial system that Drag Me to Hell indexes.
There are other ways to distinguish 1929 from 2008 as well. For instance, one might consider the way in which the internet made instantaneous and constant trading—and thus arbitrage—possible, drastically increasing both the liquidity and the volatility—i.e. the "toxicity"—of financial markets. (The other radical "technological" development, of course, was the development, in 1973, of the mathematical algorithm known as the Black-Scholes-Merton options pricing model, which made possible a radical departure in the economic understanding of risk.) Even more significantly, the emergence of what Adam Harmes has called a "mass investment culture" has transformed Americans' relationship to the stock market both quantitatively and qualitatively: whereas only 3% of households were invested in the stock market in 1929, over 50% were invested by the 1990s, and the shift in pension funding has caused that percentage to increase even more in the last decade. Likewise, the income disparities of the 1920s meant that most households were excluded from the housing market, whereas the emergence of securitization (and, consequently, of subprime lending) meant that by the early 2000s, investment in the real estate market had extended even into low-income households. As a result of what Randy Martin has influentially called the "financialization of daily life," not only have homes (and the debt that purchases them) been transformed into speculative assets but also that a financial logic has penetrated everyday existence--Drag Me to Hell is in part, I am suggesting, a response to anxiety about this transformation. Kevin Fox Gotham, "Creating Liquidity Out of Spatial Fixity: the Secondary Circuit of Capital and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33:2 (June 2009), pp. 355-71, 358. Arner, "The Global Credit Crisis of 2008," p. 123; Adam Harmes, "Mass Investment Culture," New Left Review 9 (May-June 2001), pp. 103-24; Randy Martin, The Financialization of Daily Life (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2002). [↩]
- #19 Marc Shell, Money, Language, and Thought, p. 7. [↩]
- #20 The discourse of homes as "investments" has been around for a long time, but as Robert Shiller (whose Case-Shiller Index is the standard for data on sales of single-family homes) has pointed out, in reality the rate of return on property values has historically just barely kept up with the rate of inflation. It wasn't until the (temporary) housing boom of the 2000s that the home actually seemed to be an "investment" worth leveraging (i.e. taking out second and third mortgages, or signing up for ARM mortgages whose high rates were well beyond the means of many borrowers). As a result, as Alyssa Katz details in her excellent historical study Our Lot, the rate of home ownership in this period shot up, reading a peak of nearly 70% in 2004, by which point home debt was $11 trillion, ten times what it had been two decades earlier. Robert Shiller, The Subprime Solution: How Today's Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do About It (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); Alyssa Katz, Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009). [↩]
- #21 Dick Bryan and Michael Rafferty, "Homemade Financial Crisis," ephemera 9:4 (November 2009), pp. 357-362, 360. [↩]
- #22 Karen Ho's cultural anthropology of Wall Street, Liquidated, argues that a culture of liquidity permeates more than just markets but also enables "the transfer and imposition of investment models of employee liquidity onto corporate America" such that "investment bank's organizational culture produces (and is produced by) their self-understanding as embodiments of the market, as the ultimate 'liquid' employee." See also Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (New York: Wiley Blackwell, 2000) and Karen Ho, Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 252. [↩]
- #23 Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975), pp. 76-7. [↩]
- #24 The gothic fiction of the Victorian era was also often a response specifically to financial panic; critic Gail Houston argues that just as Victorian capitalism "normalized economic panic" and made it seem necessary to healthy economic function, Gothic literature used horror as a way to "register, manage, and assess the intense panic produced and elided by the unstable Victorian economy" and even taught its readers how to "sublimat[e] panic in order to achieve financial success." However for Houston, as for Moretti, the function of the horror story is first to express, but then to repress, the fear of economic volatility. Even as it tarries with the tropes and aesthetics of terror, in other words, gothic "crisis fiction" ultimately serves to naturalize crisis and fear by literally "domesticating" it. Gail Turley Houston, From Dickens to Dracula: Gothic, Economics, and Victorian Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 10-11, 3. [↩]
- #25 Dale Bailey, American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction (New York: Popular Press, 1999). [↩]
- #26 Martin, Financialization of Daily Life, pp. 141-2. [↩]
- #27 Peg Aloi, "Beyond the Blair Witch: A New Horror Aesthetic?," ed. Geoff King, The Spectacle of the Real: From Hollywood to 'Reality' TV and Beyond (Portland, OR: Intellect Books, 2005), pp. 187-200, 187. Myrick quoted in Aloi, p. 196. [↩]
- #28 Consider the scene in which the exorcist's assistant is possessed by the lamia and compelled to hover in the air and fly around the room. As he flies, our awe at this uncanny special effect starts to turn into its opposite: the odd impression that he looks not like a man possessed but like a puppet controlled by strings, such that we are inevitably made aware of the hidden ropes on which the actor's body must be suspended. [↩]
- #29 Drag Me to Hell's self-conscious emphasis on mediation also marks its departure from the unmediated vérité of explicitly "political" horror films like George Romero's Night of the Living Dead whose "urgent documentary aesthetic" gave it an immediacy equivalent to the Vietnam War footage it echoed in its simulations of news broadcasts—Aloi observes that this look inspired the zombie-as-social-metaphor readings of both Night and the 1979 sequel, Dawn of the Dead. [↩]
- #30 See Chan Jean Lee and Eduardo B. Andrade, "Fear, Social Projection, and Financial Decision Making," Journal of Marketing Research, vol. XLVIII (Special Issue 2011), S121-129, and Luigi Guiso, Paola Sapienza, and Luigi Zingales, "Time Varying Risk Aversion," working paper (July 2011), available at http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/faculty/sapienza/htm/risk_aversion.pdf. [↩]
- #31 Houston, Dickens to Dracula, p. 12. [↩]
- #32 On suspense and information deficits, see Peter Wuss, "Narration and the Film Structure for Three Different Learning Phases." Poetics 19 (1990), pp. 549-570. [↩]
- #33 Lynch, Economy, pp. 96, 98. [↩]
- #34 The 1929 date on the coin is hardly coincidental, of course. However I want to suggest that Drag Me to Hell's reference to 1929 ought not be read simply as a winking comparison of the 1929 stock market crash to the present credit crisis. Rather, the fact that 1929 is inscribed on the very object, the rare coin, whose irrelevance as a form of value is implied both by its status as collector's item and by its replacement (as currency) by the credit card points to the anachronism of such a comparison. See note 17 for a historical comparison of the Great Depression and the crisis of 2008. [↩]
- #35 John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (New York: BN Publishing, 2008), p. 155. [↩]
- #36 Lynch, Economy, p. 98. [↩]
- #37 Zimmerman, Panic, pp. 3, 13. A similar argument is made by critics writing on pre-twentieth-century financial crises. In Financial Speculation in Victorian Literature, for instance, Tamara Wagner observes that nineteenth-century novelists "made up part of a concerted effort to establish the financial system as reliable," while critic Jane Moody argues that Victorian drama's fascination with games and risks provided the audience "some playful consolation for the frightening risks entailed by a speculative society." See Tamara Wagner, Financial Speculation in Victorian Literature (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010), p. 6, and Jane Moody, "Risk, Belief, and Liability On the Victorian Stage," Francis O'Gorman, ed. Victorian Literature and Finance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 94. [↩]
- #38 Paul Crosthwaite, "Blood on the Trading Floor," Angelaki 15:2 (August 2010), pp. 3-18, 6-7. Norman Denzin, in a reading of Oliver Stone's 1987 film Wall Street, makes a similar case: far from being a "'radical critique of the capitalist trading mentality,'" as some critics suggested, Wall Street is in fact a "conservative apologia"—in turning the story of Bud Fox into a "moral fable" it "resolves its tenuous ethical position through a nostalgia which returns the prodigal son to the family hearth" and thereby "creates...a sublimating fantasy structure which represses the 'real' destructive forces of a world economy gone wild and out of control." Norman Denzin, Images of Postmodern Society: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema (London, UK: SAGE Press, 1991), pp. 82-3. [↩]
- #39 Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993). [↩]
- #40 Moretti, Signs, p. 84. [↩]
- #41 Margaret Atwood, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (New York: Anansi Press, 2008), p. 67. Relatedly, in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche describes his "suspicion and repugnance" at the notion of debt, and re-imagines the "faith" of the credit contract with a searing sense of irony: "To inspire trust in his promise to repay, to provide a guarantee of the seriousness and sanctity of his promise, to impress payment as a duty, an obligation upon his own conscience, the debtor made a contract with the creditor and pledged that if he should fail to repay he would substitute something else that he 'possessed,' something he had control over; for example, his body, his wife, his liberty, even his life (or, given certain religious presuppositions, even his...peace in the grave...)." Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1989), p. 64. [↩]
- #42 Clover, Chainsaws, pp. 129-133. [↩]
- #43 This allows us to understand one interpretation of the film: that its narrative is not in fact supernatural but psychological. As some critics have pointed out, Mrs. Ganush dies less than halfway through the film, and in the final two "battles" between her and Christine, she is actually a corpse: not a zombie or a vampire, but just a lifeless corpse, albeit one with a rather uncanny ability to fall on top of Christine at precisely the right moment. Because there is never a clearly embodied villain, it seems plausible that the film represents "the vision of a mentally disturbed young woman" and what seem to be supernatural events are in fact "nothing more than the sum of Christine's paranoid visions as she slowly loses her mind." I am suggesting that whether Christine's haunting is real or imagined, in either case what haunts her is not a monster but a promise. See Dana Stevens, "An Alternate Ending of Drag Me to Hell," Slate (June 1, 2009). [↩]
- #44 See Robert Brenner's working paper, "What is Good for Goldman Sachs is Good For America: The Origins of the Current Crisis," available here. [↩]
- #45 Jim Hansen, "Formalism and its Malcontents: Benjamin and de Man on the Function of Allegory," New Literary History 35:4 (Autumn 2005), pp. 663-683, 671. [↩]
- #46 Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 2003), p. 166. [↩]
- #47 Benjamin, Origins, p. 166. [↩]
- #48 Benjamin, Origins, p. 183. [↩]
- #49 Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (London: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 257. [↩]