“Pleasures of Heaven or Hell”: Religious Imagery in Hellraiser

With a name like Hellraiser, that Clive Barker’s 1987 film (based on his 1986 novella, The Hellbound Heart) exists in a universe where Christian ideas largely influence morals and religious imagery comes as no surprise. On the surface, this imagery is easily identifiable, too: the struggle between good and evil (as seen in the characters of Frank and Kirsty, respectively); the use of “Jesus wept,” the (in)famous last words uttered by Frank-as-Larry, a phrase which refers to Jesus’s reaction to his friend Lazarus’s death in the Gospel of John; Pinhead’s explanation to Kirsty that he and the other Cenobites are “demons to some [and] angels to others”; and the efficacy of Larry’s blood to resurrect Frank (not unlike the power of Christ’s blood in certain Christian circles) all point to specific influences.

At the same time, giving the film more than a cursory glance allows for other complex themes to appear. As we will see, this religious imagery is firmly rooted in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and other stories from the late ancient world.

The Wicked Woman

As the story goes, after studios rejected using the title of the original novella, a woman on the production team offered up a suggestion: “What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck.” Honestly, is it even a stretch to say that it succinctly identifies the driving force of the narrative? I dare you to come up with a better title. (Go on. I’ll wait.)

All kidding aside, the “woman” here, Julia Cotton (played brilliantly by Clare Higgins), is on the make, although maybe not at first—at least not in the flashback sequences where she appears meek, softer even. No, Julia has to work to become the film’s “lusty, bitchy antiheroine” that Kaite Welsh describes in her piece, “‘What a woman will do for a good f*ck’ – Julia Cotton’s sexual agency in Hellraiser.” In this case, Julia’s quest is for the sexual satisfaction that she found with only one man: her husband’s brother. Coincidentally, that quest requires her to lure men to their deaths.

A hand wipes blood on Julia's face in Hellraiser

We could read Julia’s transformation through the lens of the religious imagery of the woman-as-temptress in the symbol of Eve in Genesis 3. But I think her behavior also maps on to the woman found in both Proverbs 7 in the Hebrew Bible and the text from the Dead Sea Scrolls known as “The Wiles of the Wicked Woman.” Here, we have the personification of folly as a woman who entraps those open to her advances, all in order to drag them away from the ways of wisdom. The woman approaches her mark, “decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart, […] and at every corner she lies in wait” (Proverbs 7:10, 12).

Julia speaks to a man at a bar in Hellraiser

When Julia agrees to help Frank regenerate by getting him more blood (hint: it’s not by robbing a blood bank), we have a front-row seat to her first attempt: “decked out” in jewelry, dark sunglasses, red lipstick, and drinking alone at a bar, Julia “lies in wait” for her prey. An anxious but (un)surprisingly aggressive man in a pinstriped suit takes the bait and, after a short acknowledgment that they are both alone, “follows her, go[ing] like an ox to the slaughter” (Proverbs 7:22). It’s as if Proverbs 7:23 provided the description for the role: “He is like a bird rushing into a snare, not knowing that it will cost him his life.”

Julia face covered in blood looks at herself in the mirror

That Julia’s house is indeed “the way to Sheol [or Hades], going down to the chambers of death” as expressed in Proverbs 7:27 is manifested not just in terms of the gruesome ways in which her victims are killed (first by hammer, then by exsanguination). Her house is actually a portal to the hellish dimension of the Cenobites because Frank has Lemarchand’s box in the attic. Similarly, the tradition about the personification of folly in “The Wiles of the Wicked Woman” in the Dead Sea Scrolls can also help make sense of Julia’s link to hell and chaos. The portrayal of the “Wicked Woman” in the Dead Sea Scrolls appears decidedly more menacing and otherworldly compared to Proverbs: she has eyes that “have been defiled with evil,” while her adornments are “diseases of corruption.”[1] Julia’s wiles undoubtedly drive the plot, though the film’s overall framework has other plans for her: sadly, the folly of her desire ultimately proves to be her undoing.

The Monstrous Monk

While Pinhead, Doug Bradley’s character, is the most well-known figure to emerge from the film, he is simply called the Lead Cenobite in the closing credits, followed by Chattering Cenobite, ‘Butterball’ Cenobite, and Female Cenobite. The fact that they are summoned as a collective stays true to their very identities: after all, a cenobite is one who lives in a community with others (from the Greek koinos, “common” + bios, “life”). Let’s take a look at what lies behind this religious imagery.

The Monstrous Monk
People often use the term “cenobite” to refer to those who lived in fourth- and fifth-century CE monastic communities in the Egyptian desert and other such places. These people, many of whom were men, pursued lives outside of the cities in search of an “ascent to virtue,” oftentimes encouraged by one’s fellow monastic brothers.[2] Much like Hellraiser’s own cenobitic “explorers in the further regions of experience,” ancient cenobites sought their own otherworldly experiences, sometimes encountering the demonic along the way (even without Lemarchand’s box). That is, all sorts of demons with whom monks engaged in combat populated the desert: knife-wielding demons, chatty demons, stinky demons, lusty female demons, and so on. One such example comes from an anonymous story in The Anonymous Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

“A brother was terribly tempted by the demon of [fornication]. Four demons transformed into the appearance of most beautiful women stayed for twenty days, wrestling with him to draw him into shameful intercourse. But as that man bravely struggled on and was not overcome, seeing his noble struggle, God granted him grace no longer to burn in the flesh again.”

A painting by Michelangelo showing St. Anthony tormented by demons
Michelangelo Buonarroti. The Torment of Saint Anthony. Public domain.

But monks didn’t only report on demonic episodes such as these. The writing produced during this time period also frequently focused on all the ways monks overcame those demons through renouncing the world. Relating these stories became a way for monks to share with others how to ward off their own demons and desires, namely, through the use of ascetic practices. These practices, like fasting, sleep deprivation and inflicting bodily pain upon oneself, sought to punish the body in order to permit one’s soul to ascend to God. In this sense, the person could suffer an experience of bodily pain in hopes of gaining something in return. Frank Cotton’s quest to obtain Lemarchand’s box at the beginning of Hellraiser is akin to the monastic quest for the reward of union with the divine. In his case, though, when it came to opening the “doors to the pleasures of heaven or hell,” he “didn’t care which.”

The Suffering Servant

In Hellraiser’s world of religious imagery, pleasure and pain, ecstasy and agony, do not exist in a dichotomy. Instead, they are on a spectrum, with the categories even sometimes collapsing so completely that one can no longer be distinguished from the other. Frank’s retelling of his time with the Cenobites communicates as much: “The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond the limits. Pain and pleasure, indivisible.” Here, Image Animation is largely responsible for bringing the sadomasochistic themes in Barker’s novella to life in the film. (For more on the makeup effects, see part 1 of Chris Griffiths’s Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II on Shudder.)

Frank Cotton is tortured by the Cenobites in Hellraiser

It would be remiss of me then, to “waste” the “good suffering” the film presents to us. Whether in terms of its emphasis on body horror or the anguish of being “[t]rapped in a bland marriage to a bland man,”[3] it is hard not to see the theme that lies at the heart of early (and modern!) Christian identity.  That is, to be a Christian is to suffer. Bound up in the storytelling of Christians in the ancient world is that they must suffer like Jesus did in his death by crucifixion. The extent to which this happened in the Roman Empire is not my concern here. (For more on that issue, see Candida Moss’s The Myth of Persecution). Instead, I want to draw attention to Frank’s bodily suffering and the ways in which it is reminiscent of early Christian martyr texts, like the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons.

The martyr Blandina is tossed by a bull in the arena
An etching of the martyrdom of Blandina by Jan Luiken, as found in the 1685 edition of Thieleman J. van Braght’s The Bloody Theater (or Martyrs Mirror). Public domain

In what is most likely a third-century CE text, the Letter of the Churches of Vienne and Lyons to the Churches of Asia and Phrygia includes many of the same themes and characteristics of other martyr stories from the ancient world. This includes the “evil” Roman officials finding some reason to round up local Christians, subjecting them to (admittedly imaginative) torture if they fail to sacrifice on behalf of the emperor or if they admit to being Christians. Yet early Christians longed to experience this suffering. It bore witness to their own ideology and hastened them to their heavenly unification with Christ.

Jean-Leon Gerome's painting depicting ancient Christians praying in a Roman arena as a lion approaches them.
Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1883 painting The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer. Public domain.

Beyond other issues going on with the text, what catches the modern reader by surprise is the gruesome and gory nature of these stories. Take, for example, what happens to Sanctus in the Letter: “When they could think of nothing else to do to him, they ended by pressing red-hot copper plates against the most sensitive parts of his body.” Likewise, Blandina was “subject[ed] to every kind of torture from morning to night,” so much so that those who tortured her “were exhausted by their efforts and confessed themselves beaten—they could think of nothing else to do to her. They were amazed that she was still breathing, for her whole body was mangled and her wounds gaped.”

Frank-as-Larry with hooks in his face in Hellraiser

Like Frank’s “experience beyond the limits,” this lack of detail is all the more terrifying because we are left to our own imaginations to envision the horrors both he and Blandina suffered. And yet this suffering is not for naught: Frank, Sanctus, Blandina, and other early Christian martyrs all undergo these experiences in hopes of attaining something—be it in this life or the next. As Frank tells Kirsty upon their first meeting, “Some things have to be endured. And that’s what makes the pleasures so sweet.”

At this point, it is hard to say how many times I have seen Hellraiser (and yes, even *most* of its sequels). I almost always come away with a renewed appreciation of Barker’s masterful storytelling, especially how he constantly reused and rearranged themes in the religious imagery that I study in new and interesting ways. And of course, I never fail to realize that the suffering depicted in the film brings pleasure to so many. In closing, then, I ask: “What’s your pleasure, sir?”

Works Cited

[1] Jacobus A. Naudé. “The Wiles of the Wicked Woman (4Q184), the Netherworld, and the Body.” Journal for Semitics 15.2 (2006): 372-384.

[2] David Brakke. Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006, 22.

[3]Kaite Welsh. “‘What a woman will do for a good f*ck’ – Julia Cotton’s sexual agency in Hellraiser.” Little White Lies.

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