Sh*t Pinhead Says: The Pervert’s Guide to the HELLRAISER Movies (Part 1)

To start off an intermittent series of Throwback Thursday posts on the Hellraiser movies, I’m going to focus today on the character of Pinhead as portrayed by actor Doug Bradley in the original Hellraiser (1987, written and directed by Clive Barker). I chose the Hellraiser franchise (which includes nine releases so far) because it began in the late 1980s and evolved to the present. A tenth movie in the series, Hellraiser: Judgment, has been completed and will be released this year. I’m going to approach these films and their principal antagonist from what I call the pervert’s point of view.

Simply defined, ‘perversion’ is a divergence from the prescribed path, literally a turning-around. So, ‘pervert’ is not necessarily a pejorative term, although it is often used as such when a discussion revolves around sexuality. Given the Western social conservatism of the late 80s (when the first two Hellraiser films appeared in theaters) — emblematized by the Reagan Presidency in the U.S. and Thatcher’s government in the U.K. — a ‘pervert’ is anyone who fantasizes about or participates in sexual acts beyond the ‘plain vanilla’ heterosexual norm of missionary-position intercourse. The sadomasochistic bent of Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites certainly satisfies this criterion.

Beyond a literalistic interpretation of the term, however, a pervert can be anyone who challenges the status quo (what film nerds like me have learned to call ‘dominant’ or ‘hegemonic’ ideology). The word’s meaning does not have to be limited to sexuality. Given both the narrower and broader definitions of the term, just who are the perverts in the world of Hellraiser? How has the portrayal of perversion in Pinhead’s world changed over thirty years of Hellraiser movies?


“The box. You opened it. We came.”

As I will explore in more detail in a future post, this statement is an oversimplification of how the box works. It is true that opening the box — specifically the Lemarchand’s box known as the Lament Configuration — summons the Cenobites, but it does not determine what they do. Who opens it does. That person has to be someone who is a ‘pervert’ by 1980s standards.

The film shows the first person to open the box, Frank (Sean Chapman), as into the dominant-submissive flavor of BDSM kink. At first, he craves control but later becomes curious about what he could do with a partner (like Julia) who allows him to do “anything”. His curiosity about the link between pleasure and pain draws him to the box, which he purchases from a dealer in an unspecified ‘Oriental’ land. This gives the box and the desire to possess and open it to reveal its secrets an illusory ‘exotic’ quality that is quickly dispelled when the Cenobites appear to Frank and tear him apart.


In this scene, ‘Final Girl’ Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) unknowingly summons the Cenobites by opening the box. She learns from Pinhead that they are “Explorers . . . in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.” Pinhead further insists, “You solved the box, we came. Now you must come with us, taste our pleasures.” However, Kirsty is able to bargain her way out of immediate danger by offering to lead the Cenobites to Frank, who has escaped from his personal Hell in the Labyrinth.

Why does Pinhead accept this deal? Kirsty’s only sexual experience in the first film is a rather conventional heterosexual one, so she’s not a ‘pervert’ in the sexual sense. Perhaps this is why she is able to convince Pinhead to take Frank instead of her — although the desire to recapture Frank is clearly Pinhead’s primary motivation.

Still, the Cenobites renege on their agreement with Kirsty once they have again torn Frank apart. However, by then it is clear to them that Kirsty’s desire has been to get revenge on Frank for killing her father. Given the “come to Daddy” motif, this goal might be pervy enough in its murderously incestuous implications to motivate the Cenobites to attack her. Yet Kirsty’s main ‘sin’ is her desire to subvert the Cenobites’ power, which she does by means of the puzzle box. However, Kirsty also fails to destroy the box, setting up a sequel in the process:


[to be continued]