ED NOTE: Welcome to issue 4 of Vulture Bones! The thread of community (or a lack of it), gender, and horror runs through several of the pieces in this issue. This essay takes that thread and weaves it back to why so many of us are drawn to speculative fiction in the first place. I’m glad I could share it with you.
"It is not hands that call us, it is desire." - Cenobites, Hellraiser
The exact details are fuzzy, but I was about 10 or 11 when I saw Hellraiser for the first time. And after seeing it again as an adult, I am flabbergasted by the fact that I was about 10 or 11 when I saw Hellraiser for the first time.
With the recent rise of horror fans, vivid homages and the active, compelling reimagining of horror (indeed we are experiencing a renaissance), I felt compelled to lean into the franchise I remember loving but have mostly fuzzy memories about. I have also become quite addicted to unpacking representations of “otherness” in horror films. Our monstrosity is a beautiful complicated thing, and we have seen that first hand in some of our most beloved horror movies. It has spanned over the course of cinematic history and it is landing here, during a very exciting time for “others” in horror. Clive Barker remains an author and director who has always straddled the fence of queer cinema, and though Hellraiser isn’t overtly queer per se, it also ISN’T overtly heteronormative/”straight” either. It’s uncomfortable, just like the 80s were.
I had a phone conversation with my mother a while back about her choice of renting Hellraiser 1 and 2 for us as a family back in the early 90s. She didn't have much to say, although she said so much in her silence. It tickled me in delight to think about the politics of how involved and deeply intense memories really are. They’re packed with so many complicated layers of our shit. I told her I was disturbed on a level I couldn’t describe when I rewatched Hellraiser as an adult. Chuckling, she told me that she liked scary movies, and I liked scary movies, so dad thought it would be a good choice. She ended the conversation with, “well we reminded you that it wasn’t real all the time, if it makes you feel any better.”
The film starts off in Morocco with a man named Frank Cotton who purchases an antique puzzle box which, according to the rumors, was meant to "open doors." The box indeed opened doors, doors into another realm where the line between pain and pleasure is very fine. The Cenobites take the form of ritually mutilated creatures, and they can only reach our realm through a schism of time and space, which is opened and closed using this box. The box itself is called the Lament Configuration, a fictional puzzle box from Clive Barker's The Hellbound Heart. You can learn more about the history of this beautiful box in the comic books, or in the online world, and you can catch a mostly vanilla history in Hellraiser: Bloodline.
Frank has been trying to escape hell and the Cenobites since he opened it, he enlists the help of one of the creepiest characters in the franchise Julia, who lures male suitors to her new house in efforts to murder them for Frank’s regenerative process. Julia is married to Frank’s brother who is innocent in all of this (aside from generally just being a jerk). It’s not until Kirsty, his daughter (queue final girl/scream queen badasssery status that you can learn more about here), has an encounter with the Cenobites, where we begin to understand who they are, what the box is, and how she can hustle them in exchange for her survival and possible safety of her father.
This film is dark, gory, and flirts in and out of spaces that interrogate and invite the concept of bodily transformation. It’s grotesque and hyper sexual; it challenges the audience to try and delineate between the horrifying and the glorifying, because more than once we are confused as audience members. At least for those of us in the audience who were also confused about our own identities. At the tender age of 13, to be tinkering with these things can really only lead to one experience. I suppose shame is the most accurate descriptor here, at least when I think about the parts of Hellraiser I do remember. I remember feeling so much of this adjective when watching these movies, parts II and III especially. As a young eager pre-teen fascinated by the images around me, I was turned on tremendously. I was stimulated by this gross representation of desire. It was the act itself that widened my eyes in curiosity and it bothered me. “No seas sucia mija,” my mom would say if she ever caught me doing anything naughty, or unladylike. I was though. And it bothered me. Turns out, being queer bothered me too, for a very long time.
It was The Priest with whom I began to wish would nail something in me one day. I wondered what it would feel like if he were my guide, the virgil to my inferno. I was suppose to view the Lead Cenobite (known as Pinhead in popular culture) and his army as the villains, the monsters, the evil entities coming for our souls! It was all very confusing to me. Did I want to be Frank or a Cenobite? Did I like Julia’s power suits because I was non-binary, or am I non-binary because of those fucking power suits? Did I want Kirsty to defeat Frank, or the Cenobites? Both? Was I attracted to Kirsty? (That jacket though). I was after all, a plump brown first generation loud mouthed nerd who was expected to fall in line or pay the consequences. And I was reminded of how much I didn’t every single day. I felt guilty that this is what was turning me on, that this is what I wanted more of and absolutely could not turn away from. I spent many nights wondering if there was anyone out there like me, sucia.
I grew to understand the Cenobites over the course of the first three films and despised characters like Frank and Julia, or JP Monroe in the third installment. This isn’t a new concept either. Hollywood has been marrying queers and monstrosity since the beginning of horror cinema. The misunderstood monster in Frankenstein has become an american metaphor for otherness. The Phantom, the Creature from the black lagoon and Wolfman are all stand ins for the parts of us we are to reject and deny if we are to fall in line. I grew to see the Cenobites’ (and these other monsters’) appearance as more of an invitation to join them in their otherness, to liberate ourselves from the perils (and sometimes violence) of heteronormativity, of the mundane. The Cenobites were "...explorers, from the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others,” (Lead Cenobite/Barker) suggesting that the Cenobite’s prey were not chosen by the Cenobites themselves, but the other way around. I was in some ways, opening my own puzzle box.
In a decade where queer representation often ended in on screen death, torture or clear messaging as outlaw, Clive Barker is often mis-categorized here. Rarely is Hellraiser included under the canon of queer cinema however. In fact, the opposite is often true (Anderson/Benshoff.) And while some prominent theorists reject this film as queer itself, I would argue that if we close ourselves off to a broader understanding of queer, then we miss opportunities to understand ourselves differently, with honesty and integrity. Clive Barker himself imagined the Cenobites as “magnificent super butchers,” graced with “repulsive glamour” (Anchor Bay doc). Some of us choose repulsion and glamour as life goals! To me the cenobites are less monstrous than they are anti-heroes. And I am here for it.
Regarding the franchise and whether future directors were familiar, to the extent, of how queer the Cenobites were, I am doubtful. But for those of us who have been curious of, read about, watched porn to, dreamt about and dug into, we are familiar with the indulgences of Clive Barker’s psyche, on and off screen. In my case at least, Hellraiser was one of the entry points into my queerness as an adolescent. Not unlike Cronenberg’s early works in body horror, Hellraiser challenges us to consider the concept of transformation in our own lives. Bodily transformation of course is most obvious in this case, the Cenobites are literally transformed on and off screen for us to see and indulge in. But transformation here can mean a lot of things. What does it mean to summon the responders of this puzzle box? Who do we become when we finally do so? Who do we invite into ourselves when we do? And who are we on the other side when we have arrived? The Cenobites can be the AF to our queer, the fuck you to our gay, the asterisk to our trans*.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser has been in the category of confusion for a long time. We are not certain who the true monsters are. We are not certain if it falls neatly under the category of queer cinema. We are not certain how far into editing the studios were involved. Clive Barker claims he was asked to cut a lot of scenes from the film in efforts to appease a mass audience (Barker/Jones). Regardless, Hellraiser has this way of jolting you into interrogating the monstrosity in all of us. It is through the shame, through the guilt, through the gore and darkness that we can and have found ourselves. The High Priest himself (known only as Lead Cenobite in the first installment) discovers the humanity in himself as Elliot Spencer by reel’s end in Hellraiser II, giving us adolescent baby queers a light at the end of a dark twisted tunnel, that there is humanity in all of us, regardless of our otherness. And it can be brutal, horrific and liberating to explore and fall in love with our own psyches.
Clive Barker was rooting for me then, and he still is now. I am also grateful to my mom and dad, who indulged me in the darkest of fantasies on screen as an adolescent, regardless of whether any of us had the language to describe my own transformation at the time.
“For some of us, monsters are welcome opportunities to be different, to act in anti-normal ways, hideous and beautiful at the same time.” (Barker/Jones)
Hellraiser. Dir: Clive Barker, 1987. DVD: Anchor Bay, 2000
Documentary on the Anchor Bay Hellraiser DVD, 2000
Anderson, Colin. “Revealing the Hellbound Heart of Clive Barker’s Hellraiser,” July 2014 Off Screen
Barker, Clive and Stephen Jones. Clive Barker’s A-Z of Horror. New York: Harper Prism, 1998
Benshoff, Harry M. Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film. (New York: Manchester University Press, 1997
Netty Rodriguez Arauz is a professional rabblesouser at MSU Denver. They are utterly obsessed with gender, hip hop, horror and synthwave. When they aren't stirring shit up in academia they’re stirring shit up on the dance floor and in the kitchen. Follow them on insta: nettythebakingbetty