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Exploring de Sade and Gothic Horror in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser

Contained within the synopsis from The Books of Blood by Clive Barker is the phrase “Be thankful if your skin crawls. It means you’re still alive.” It’s a fitting introduction to the work of one of the most creative people who’s ever lived. For decades, Barker has constructed baroque tales of the fantastique, merging science fiction, horror, and fantasy all into one. Although the English born author has always been highly praised for his writing, his talents extend far beyond the pen and paper. Thirty years ago, he made his feature-length directorial debut with Hellraiser (1987), and it’s still being discussed with rabid enthusiasm. Based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, it’s a remarkable story that pushes the limitations of sexual desire and obsession. The imagery of the leather-clad Cenobites and the puzzle box known as the Lament Configuration have become just as recognizable as Graf Orlok rising from his coffin.

The transition from the pages of The Hellbound Heart to the movie screen was certainly an interesting one. If not for one of the worst adaptations in history, it might have never materialized. It all began with the release of Rawhead Rex (1986), based on the short story of the same name from The Books of Blood. Barker’s tale was an unadulterated rampage, a saga of a resurrected Pagan god thrashing across the English countryside, devouring victims with its massive jaws.

“He opened his mouth. The gums were suffused with blood as the teeth emerged from them, like claws unsheathed from a cat’s paw. There were two rows on each jaw, two dozen needle sharp points” – Clive Barker, Rawhead Rex

Although Barker penned the screenplay, he was locked off set for objecting to the liberties that were being taken. What resulted was the complete bastardization of the source material. Rawhead, a nine-foot phallus with teeth, was transformed into a lumbering mongoloid with fangs and a Mohawk. Barker would even go on to describe the creature as “Miss Piggy in combat fatigues.” The finished production ended up resembling a second-rate disaster film, complete with incompetent police and POV camera angles. Barker’s original intention, which was to explore the phallic principle found in horror, was completely lost in translation. It was from this mediocrity that a silver lining would emerge; Barker himself would direct the next adaptation of his writing. Needless to say, this decision was about to yield remarkable results. It would also serve as a fitting conclusion to a unique phase in his career. Around the time cameras began rolling, Barker would transition from horror to fantasy with Weaveworld, considered by some to be his greatest novel.

Hellraiser seems like an unlikely addition to the horror canon of the 1980s. The landscape of the genre had evolved drastically, and the film seemed to emerge from the jaws of Cerberus itself. By 1987, the slasher craze was in full swing. Monsters such as Dracula and the Wolfman had been replaced with the likes of Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. Racking up high kill counts and ticket sales, they were the faces of terror for a new generation. Hellraiser is sometimes loosely associated with them, mostly due to the ostentatious appearance of the Hell priest (aka Pinhead). The films theatrical poster even featured Doug Bradley in his full Cenobite regalia; clutching the Lament Configuration with a menacing look on his face.

Based on that image alone, one might assume that the Hell priest is the main focal point and chief antagonist of the film. Although it’s understandable why those assumptions would be made, nothing could be further from the truth. At its core, Hellraiser is a tale of gothic horror. Much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a popular misconception is found within the title itself. If you mention Shelley’s novel to the average person, they’ll most likely describe the monster and not the creator. Hellraiser does boast some very unique monsters, but the Hell priest isn’t one of them. Even Bradley shared this misconception about the character he was portraying. “Approaching Hellraiser I thought I was going to play the monster in a horror movie…” the actor recalled, “…but it turns out he’s not.” The real monsters of Hellraiser are Julia and Frank, and the actions they perpetrate throughout the course of the story.

Looking closer at Hellraiser, it seems less like a horror movie and something more intricate. I’ve always considered it a gothic fairytale. Kirsty Cotton could easily be Snow White, a young heroine who overcomes insurmountable odds mounted against her. She exemplifies one of Clive Barker’s most notable traits found in his writing—a strong female character. A slight change was made for the film to make her more relatable. In The Hellbound Heart, Kirsty’s relationship with Rory (renamed Larry for the film) is that of a friend who admires him from afar. In Hellraiser, she’s rewritten as Larry’s daughter. To further establish her purity, most of her wardrobe consists of white clothing. Julia of course, takes the form of the wicked stepmother, and her character arc is one of the most interesting aspects of Hellraiser, as she goes from unhappy wife to cold-blooded murderer. Overcome by her obsession over Frank, she goes to unfathomable lengths to bring him back to life. The follow-up, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), furthered this concept. Julia takes Frank’s place as a manipulative puppet master enticing Doctor Channard to bring herself back from damnation. At one point even confronting Kirsty with the line: “They’ve changed the rules of the fairy tale, I’m no longer just the wicked stepmother, I’m now the evil queen, so come on–take your best shot, Snow White.” It’s very apparent that Frank is the monster lurking in the castle; even his name seems to be a slight homage to Shelley’s staple of Victorian literature. However, it’s another famous (or infamous) author whose writings are at the core of Frank Cotton.

“Another [referring to the Lament Configuration], in the form of an origami exercise, was reported to have been in the possession of the Marquis de Sade, who used it, while imprisoned in the Bastille, to barter with a guard for paper on which to write The 120 Days of Sodom.”   – Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart

Deeply rooted in the pages of The Hellbound Heart and the imagery of Hellraiser are the transgressive elements found in the works of the Marquis de Sade. Barker’s allusions are not only found in the backstory of the Lament Configuration, but also the actions and motivations of the characters involved. The most prolific of these are the aspects of pleasure and pain as they relate to sadomasochism. As de Sade once wrote: “Sex without pain is like food without taste.” It’s this concept that makes itself known right from the start. At the beginning of Hellraiser, Frank slowly opens the Lament Configuration after procuring it from a shopkeeper. As he solves the enigma of the puzzle, hooks leap forth from the box, piercing his flesh as he screams in terror. His experience in The Hellbound Heart is just as intriguing, but also a lot more graphic in its description. Frank’s first encounter is met with an inquiry from the Cenobites, who ask him what he wants. As he answers pleasure, he experiences a complete sensory overload. Every memory and sexual encounter is relived; every scent and sensation comes rushing to him to the point of torment. He attempts to alleviate the ordeal through masturbation, which has no effect. Losing sight and the rest of his senses, he pays the ultimate price for his curiosities. All that’s left of him is a shell existential dread.

“All at once; all of it. Gone. Sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. He was abruptly bereft of them all. There were seconds then, when he doubted his very existence.” – Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart

Although Frank is the quintessential monster of Barker’s fairy tale, he’s also similar to one of de Sade’s most infamous creations: Juliette. The title character from L’Histoire de Juliette ou les Prospérités du vice (Juliette, or Vice Amply Rewarded, 1797), she’s completely amoral, and the personification of hedonism, vice, and debauchery. Juliette possesses a self-serving nature, which continually leads to her personal gratification. Much like Juliette, Frank uses others for his own personal gain. The perfect example is his manipulation of Julia, bending her to his will as both a sexual conquest and as a means to an end. In The Hellbound Heart, Frank’s vices are described as sexual philandering, drug addiction, and petty theft—engaging in every form of criminal activity he can experiment with. This is similar to some of the misadventures of Juliette, as she peruses every form of vice, including pedophilia, cannibalism, and murder. Frank simply takes what he wants without restraint or fear of consequence. Ironically, it’s this arrogant nature that leads to his eventual downfall. Frank and Julia are the personifications of one of the most important aspects found in de Sade’s body of work—the libertine. A libertine is someone who celebrates hedonism and derives pleasure through the senses, and lacks all restraint with sexual activity. It’s the suffering inflicted upon others where much of this pleasure emanates from.

“My passions, concentrated on a single point, resemble the rays of a sun assembled by a magnifying glass: they immediately set fire to whatever object they find in their way.” – Marquis de Sade, L’Histoire de Juliette ou les Prospérités du vice

Justine, Juliette’s sister and the title character of Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu (Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, 1791), is Juliette’s complete opposite. A woman whose virtuous nature continually leads her into peril, de Sade goes above and beyond to punish and humiliate her. While Larry might not be completely identifiable to Justine, it should be noted that the various incarnations of the two sisters have appeared in several movies to illustrate opposite personalities. Most recently, Raw (2016) and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), went so far as give the name Justine to one of their main female characters. The book goes into a brief detail about Larry’s complete disdain for his brothers’ hedonistic lifestyle. Just as Justine and Juliette go on very different paths once they leave the convent in which they were raised, the book describes the two brothers being inseparable in their youth, and becoming complete opposites during adolescence. Larry’s contempt for Frank is established in the film when he and Julia first arrive at his mother’s’ house, where he wears a look of disgust at the state of decay that Frank has left it in.

“There is a sum of evil equal to the sum of good, the continuing equilibrium of the world requires that there be as many good people as wicked people.” – Marquis de Sade, Justine, ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu

Julia serves as a figurative link between the two siblings. As many times as I’ve watched Hellraiser, I can’t help but feel that Julia’s name is somehow a wink and a nod to the character of Juliette. The love triangle between Larry, Julia, and Frank is an interesting one. While Larry plays the role of doting husband, he becomes dead weight in Julia’s eyes. He represents stability, yet he’s completely mundane and uninteresting. The Hellbound Heart describes Julia’s attraction to Frank as ‘beautiful desperation.’

Within the film’s first act, this outlook is explored during an interesting juxtaposition of imagery. As Larry and some movers struggle to move a bed up a flight of stairs, his hand is cut on a hook embedded in a wall. The scene is intercut with a flashback of Julia and Frank having sex on her wedding dress. It perfectly illustrates the type of relationship that they have with one another. Frank sees Julia as another sexual conquest, something to use and discard. His motivation isn’t one of affection, but one of taking something that belongs to his brother. Julia, on the other hand, is completely drawn to Frank’s hedonistic personality. The scene also blurs the lines between pleasure and pain; it allows the audience to grasp the entirety of the trifecta.

Hellraiser is arguably best remembered for the Cenobites, The Order of the Gash. The book describes them as theologians, and not having any specific gender. Contrary to some misconceptions, they’re not villains, but a religious order fulfilling sacred duties. The ultimate embodiment of sadomasochism, their pleasures exist within the suffering of others. Just as the popular tagline of the film reads: “Demons to some. Angels to others.” The phrase is a clear-cut indication of sexual preferences. Barker’s creations have a loose connection to another one of de Sade’s novels, one that’s referenced earlier in The Hellbound Heart.

There’s no other text more definitive to the Marquis de Sade than Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage (The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage, 1904) Written during his imprisonment in the Bastille, it’s easily the most controversial title in his body of work. The story is of four libertines, a judge, duke, magistrate, and a bishop. To fulfill their sordid desires, the four abscond with several adolescent children to an isolated estate. There, the children are subjected to physical and sexual torture. As the story progresses, the actions of the libertines become more barbaric and unrestrained. The torments increase until everything culminates with the libertines engaging in the mass slaughter of their victims. The book plays out in a perverse narrative, one that refers to its audience as ‘friend reader.’ Some of the descriptions de Sade uses for the libertines appear to have had an influence on the Cenobites. For example, the bishop is described as having a disgusting mouth, much like the chattering Cenobite. Durcet, the magistrate, is described as being very effeminate, which is one of the key descriptions of the Hell priest found in the very beginning of The Hellbound Heart. With Barker linking de Sade’s text to the Lament Configuration, it seems fitting that The Order of the Gash would bear a slight similarity to the libertines of de Sade’s novel.

Hellraiser is a film that’s just as complex as the Lament Configuration itself. A bold reimagining of the gothic that touches on sexuality ignored by many of its contemporaries, and one that maintains its appeal thirty years later. There’s a reason why we still find ourselves drawn to it. Clive Barker delved deep into the literature of the past and reintroduced many of its themes to a brand new audience. Transgressive yet relatable, it has such sights to show us.

About Jerome Reuter

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