Clive Barker published The Hellbound Heart in 1986. Coming off the heels of the author’s highly praised short story collections The Books Of Blood, Barker had been anointed the “new face of horror” by no less an authority than Stephen King. Then The Hellbound Heart caught the attention of Hollywood. Barker, who already had a fair amount of experience with filmmaking, convinced the studio to let him write and direct the adaptation of his novella in exchange for handing over future rights. The movie—Hellraiser, now a cult classic—was a commercial success. Sequels were commissioned, and Barker would go on to have less and less influence on each successive sequel, until the series finally sputtered out in the purgatory of direct-to-video. The later appeal of the original, however, hasn’t dimmed, and rumors of a reboot or a remake remain evergreen—sometimes with and sometimes without Barker’s participation.
But Barker is really only half the story of Hellraiser.
The word “Hellraiser” conjures an image of a handsome fellow with a certain “condition.” That’s Pinhead—the main image of this article and the main antagonist of Hellraiser and its eight sequels. As played by Doug Bradley, he’s one of the most iconic movie monsters in film history: erudite and articulate, officious to a fault. One might even say, given that both Barker and Bradley are English, that Pinhead is posh. Despite the franchise’s low profile these past years, Pinhead is still ranked alongside the likes of Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers. He is the franchise.
Pinhead was the breakout star of Hellraiser. He was the face on the video box, after all, but he was never intended to be the focal point of the franchise. There was never supposed to be a franchise.
The Hellbound Heart is a self-contained story. The demons therein, along with their unique version of hell, are mysterious and memorable, but again, they aren’t the focus. The focus of both the novella and the original movie is a man named Frank Cotton, who solves the notorious puzzle box and opens up a portal to hell. It’s not the Christian hell, however. It’s a realm of sensual pleasure and intense suffering meted out with no regard for guilt or innocence. The premise is simple: If you open the box and call its heralds, the deadly Cenobites, they will come and take you with them. It’s not a place where bad people go when they die; it’s a place where foolish people go when their lust betrays them.
Pinhead, in the first movie, is known merely as the Lead Cenobite. He isn’t named, and has only a handful of lines. He isn’t the villain. The real villain is Frank, the man who opened the box and was dragged to hell. The story is set into motion when he escapes from hell, and is willing to do or say anything to keep from being taken again. The Cenobites, as fearsome as they appear, are very rational, even bureaucratic creatures: They exist to enforce contracts, demonic process servers dedicated to ensuring that no one ever reneges. If you open the box, you are theirs, forever.
The problem is that as effective and terrifying as this was in the first film, it wasn’t material that necessarily lent itself to a sequel. It was a twisted story of corruption, murder, and familial betrayal with unsettling sexual dimensions. In execution it was half haunted-house story and half Faustian-cautionary tale. It was adult in a way that didn’t lend itself to the cartoonish adventures of other popular horror protagonists like the aforementioned Freddy and Jason. Whereas most horror films traffic in conservative sexual mores, Hellraiser represented something different. It wasn’t a film about the evils of premarital sex, it was a film about sexual politics in the era of the AIDS epidemic, written and directed by a gay man with firsthand experience as a hustler. The message isn’t abstinence; it’s safe sex. If you can’t control your desire, you run the risk of being destroyed, or worse, turned into a terrible monster. The Cenobites’ BDSM costumes are a fun-house mirror of BDSM culture, a reminder of the importance of safety and consent.
These themes did not survive the transition from film to franchise. There was no formula in the original Hellraiser for subsequent sequels to ape. As such the first four films in the series—before it went direct-to-video—are all remarkably different, and at least interesting. But by the time the series left theaters the filmmakers had mostly given up caring about whether the stories were consistent from one movie to the next.
It’s easy to imagine how Barker may have come to regard his great fictional offspring with some decidedly mixed feelings. The release this May of Barker’s newest novel, The Scarlet Gospels, was a long time coming. He’d been promising this story, or at least some form of this story, for quite a while. The premise was remarkably simple, and hardly a spoiler: It was time to kill Pinhead.
The character, as introduced in The Hellbound Heart, is no leader but merely another officiate in the service of hell. His description is strikingly dissimilar to his later cinematic appearance:
Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy—the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated.
Except for the pins, there’s nothing here to connect this character with Bradley’s eventual portrayal. Bradley’s Pinhead is stentorian and even noble in a way that hearkens back to Christopher Lee’s definitive Dracula. He’s a monster, yes, but he’s no mere bargain-basement murderer. He’s smarter than you, wittier than you. He’s an aristocrat.
Compare the original portrayal of the unnamed hell priest above and his description of Pinhead in The Scarlet Gospels:
As he appeared in the flesh, there was a distinct sense of humanity in his being, of the man he had been once, before the monstrous labors of his Order had been performed. His flesh was virtually white, his hairless head ritualistically scarred with deep grooves that ran both horizontally and vertically, at every intersection of which a nail had been hammered through the bloodless flesh and into his bone. Perhaps, at one time, the nails had gleamed, but the years had tarnished them. No matter, for the nails possessed a certain elegance, enhanced by the way the demon held his head, as though regarding the world with an air of weary condescension.
This is unmistakably Bradley’s Pinhead, star of stage and screen. There’s a hint here, in the intimation that the “nails had gleamed,” that this creature can trace his origins back to Barker’s original work. But the voice, the condescension, the presence, is pure cinema.
Of the many accounts of the origins of the Cenobites, one detail is consistent from every party. While the filmmakers worked hard to make the monsters as distinctive and memorable as possible, the cast and crew were still taken aback by the reception the characters received. In hindsight, their surprise is almost ludicrous: Pinhead was a star from the first moment he walked on-screen. He lingered in your head long after the film itself.
Writing in 1989, Barker described the thrill of seeing his creation take on a life of his own, a famous monster of film land with a rabid fan base:
The extraordinary thing is this: that the moment you make a story or create an image that finds favor with an audience, you’ve effectively lost it. It toddles off, the little bastard; it becomes the property of the fans. It’s they who create around it their own mythologies; who make sequels and prequels in their imagination; who point out the inconsistencies in your plotting. I can envisage no greater compliment. What more could a writer or a film maker ever ask, than that their fiction be embraced and become part of the dream-lives of people who it’s likely he’ll never even meet?
The Scarlet Gospels is not, as the promotional materials may have promised, the last Pinhead story. It is more precisely Clive Barker’s last Pinhead story. The book represents an attempt at repossession on the part of an author in regards to his most famous creation. Given how far the character has toddled from his creator’s design, it’s not difficult to go one step further and imagine the book as a kind of exorcism, an attempt to drive the demon out one last time, to wash his hands of the monster with whom his career has been inextricably linked for almost 30 years.
The problem with the book is that while its gains its significance from its status as the official “death of Pinhead,” this isn’t really the same Pinhead we know and love. Sure, it’s supposed to be Bradley, that same regal functionary of hell with the booming voice and wry demeanor. But this isn’t the same hell, or the same Cenobites. Barker eschews any part of the Hellraiser mythos not created by him, and even there, he largely cherry picks material from the first film. This hell is not that of The Hellbound Heart, a realm of sexual excess and endless layers upon layers of diabolical puzzles. This isn’t the mysterious, Lovecraftian hell-dimension of the second film (written by Peter Atkins), a realm outside our understanding, ruled and controlled by an evil god whose motivations remain mysterious.
Disappointingly, the hell of The Scarlet Gospels is a modified version of the standard Judeo-Christian hell. This hell is not the home of the diamond-shaped demigod Leviathan, who wages a eons-old war against the chaos and disorder of the human realm. This is hell as made by Lucifer, star of the morning, and leader of the rebellion against God. It is populated by bored demonic aristocrats doomed to an eternity of waging the same petty internecine squabbles over and over again, an establishment in which the Order Of The Cenobites is only one small, sadistic corner.
At the book’s outset Lucifer has been missing for a very long time, having left the throne of hell empty, and the realm itself to the machinations of various parties. Pinhead decides to upend the status quo. He spends years studying mortal sorcery and uses it to massacre every other member of his Order. He uses his great personal power to destroy the current monarchs of hell, and leads an army of demons to the far side of the realm in search of Lucifer.
But this isn’t interesting, and it certainly isn’t very original—especially given Barker’s decades-long track record of conjuring up startlingly original visions of hell. If this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance you may have picked up on some of these plot elements reading Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman (Vertigo), or its underrated spin-off Mike Carey’s Lucifer (DC). Lucifer in The Sandman was a bored nobility, the second most powerful being in creation and yet intensely dissatisfied at his inability to act independently of his creator’s design. Lucifer in The Scarlet Gospels abdicates his crown for similar reasons. He’s bored and wants an end to it all. He eventually commits suicide, rather than merely walking off the job, but not even death can stop Lucifer for good. Eventually he leaves hell altogether, hitchhiking into the mortal world to have some new adventures, leaving the old fire-and-brimstone firmly in the past.
Pinhead is the ambitious minor demon capable of sowing disharmony across the entire realm, and ultimately comes very close to defeating Lucifer in his desire for… what? It’s not really clear. There is a glaring lack of motivation here. We know who Pinhead is, and we know he’s the most evil demon in hell, but other than that we’re really not given a lot of reason to understand why he’s decided to destroy everything. We don’t know what drives this guy—is he the Captain Elliot Spencer of the later Hellraiser films? Or is he someone different? What is the source of his all-consuming animus?
The sexual element, so vital to the first film and even the first sequels, is almost entirely missing. With the exception of an early scene featuring a group of magicians being tortured, there’s no sensual element to the character at all. Fans of the author’s early splatterpunk style will search in vain for any signs of the old, grisly Barker. In contrast, The Scarlet Gospels seems remarkably tame. (To say nothing of Pinhead’s actual death, which consists of falling from a great height.)
There’s a contradiction here as well. The reader sees that the Cenobites are a part of Lucifer’s hell, the conventional hell populated by demons and the souls of the damned, but the Cenobites still send their S&M puzzle boxes out into the world to trap the unwary. If hell and the devil exist, isn’t there a moral element to the punishment meted against the damned? Clive Barker’s hell has never been a moral domain of punishment, but a realm of total abandon. What does Pinhead serve if not excess? Is that the point?
Although The Scarlet Gospels is supposedly Barker’s last grand statement on the subject, it leaves more questions asked than answered. The book was reportedly heavily edited down from the massive manuscript Barker delivered to his publishers. Perhaps somewhere in those voluminous outtakes lie the origins of hell, of Pinhead, and the genesis of Pinhead’s great ressentiment. There’s simply not enough material in the story as presented to understand why these events are taking place. The narrative depends on our familiarity with Pinhead to maintain our interest, even as the version of Pinhead presented here is different enough to qualify as a reboot—“Ultimate Pinhead,” if you will.
But maybe that’s the point. This isn’t our Pinhead, it’s his. Much could be made, perhaps, of the various health problems Barker has suffered in the years since his last major book project, including a near-death experience that left him in a seven-day coma in 2012, due to toxic shock syndrome contracted during dental surgery. Maybe there’s something of Barker himself in this vision of a demigod gone mad, dedicated to destroying the hell he once served, determined to shake the foundations of the cosmos to rubble. The Pinhead who exists in our imaginations will always be bigger than the Pinhead on the screen or on the page—as they say, he belongs to the ages now. Barker felt the need to rid himself of his own personal version of the creature, a version changed by experience from an anonymous demon with a “light and breathy” voice and the manner “of an excited girl,” to a powerful avatar of cosmic vengeance and anger.
If Barker was done with him, and The Scarlet Gospels is his way of washing his hands, so be it. But the basic economics of contemporary pop culture dictate that Pinhead is almost certainly not done with us. He’ll be back. Hell is always just around the corner.