Some time last year, I began a journey through the twisted, brutal and blood-soaked universe that is the seemingly unending string of Hellraiser films. I knew little of these titles going into it other than that the face of the franchise, the notorious Cenobite, Pinhead, was often held in a certain esteem by horror afictionados alongside classic villains such as Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, Chucky and Jason Voorhees.
In watching the first entry into the franchise, Hellraiser‘s Pinhead, in contrast to the aforementioned baddies, surprised me in that he wasn’t quite a typical slasher villain looking to kill teenagers or seek vengeance for some past wrong-doing. No, Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites represented a particular brand of cosmic villainy that more or less acted as a response to the very real evils and the depths of human depravity.
The Hellraiser films – based on writer Clive Barker’s (who also directed the first movie) novella, The Hellbound Heart – follow the various characters who seek out or interact with a puzzle box, known as the Lement Configuration. This puzzle box, when solved, opens the gates to the hell-like dimension of the Cenobites who have dedicated their existence to using humans to further their experiments in sadomasochism and hedonism.
What struck me the most when watching the first few Hellraiser films was their general avoidance of relying on a mythology based off of traditional Judeo-Christian – or generally Abrahamic – depictions of good and evil or heaven and hell (aside from some vague references such as the somewhat iconic and improvised “Jesus wept” line from Andrew Robinson, and vague references to demons and hell). While Pinhead and his band of Cenobites are clearly presented as monsters and antagonists to the main characters, they aren’t exactly the true villains of the story. These first few Hellraiser movies make the case that the true evils are the selfishness, greed and desires of us mortals; the Cenobites, for better or worse, just happen to feed off of those particular human traits in their efforts to blur the lines between pleasure and pain – or, in a sense, just simply do what they do. As Pinhead dramatically monologues in the first film, he and his fellow Cenobits are “explorers, in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.”
The first Hellraiser introduces us to the Cenobites and the specific types of desire and selfishness that lead mortals to seek them out through the puzzle box. It was a much more human story in which the inter-dimensional terror lurked heavily in the background until the final act. Hellbound: Hellraiser II, on the other hand, thrusts us directly into the maze-like, reality-bending realm of the Cenobits themselves. Hellbound gives us a much grander, more cosmic, scope to the mythos by introducing the concept of the god, Leviathan, under whom the Cenobites serve. While the Cenobites are shown to have at one point been human, Leviathan is depicted to be an ancient deity – the “god of flesh, hunger, and desire” – a particularly cosmicist concept.
The literary philosophy of cosmicism states that “there is no recognizable divine presence, such as a god, in the universe, and that humans are particularly insignificant in the larger scheme of intergalactic existence, and perhaps are just a small species projecting their own mental idolatries onto the vast cosmos.” In the universe established in the Hellraiser mythos, the Cenobites represent a small piece of the grander cosmic puzzle. The Cenobites themselves reflect human evils, but the “god” they serve, Leviathan, arguably represents a much laruniversal order – one in which humans and all our hopes and desires are less than trivial.
This concept is by no means new. Cosmiciscm is also often referred to as cosmic horror or sometimes Lovecraftian horror. This type of storytelling – horror that emphasizes the indifference of the universe and the irrelevance of humanity – was popularized mostly by H.P. Lovecraft as well as other notable authors such as Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, and Thomas Ligotti. Lovecraft himself is generally credited with establishing the genre through his works – particularly through his Cthulu mythos. (Note: he is also well known as being a fairly awful human being, something I’ve touched on before in my review of his novella, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.) While the aforementioned authors have undoubtedly pioneered concepts of cosmic horror, a more diverse array of minds have come along to mold and shape the genre into what we know today.
Cosmicism has found its most comfortable home through literature as many of its more grandiose ideas would be quite difficult to pull of on screen. While there are examples of the genre flourishing in film and television (mostly lower budget, independent flicks), Hellriaser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (and to some extent Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth) – while by no means big budget by today’s standards – seem to be some of the few big screen examples that have made a lasting impact on our general pop culture milieu. Sadly, the later entries into the franchise seemed to have abandoned these concepts in favor of lesser-quality storytelling and a greater dependence on more conventional heaven and hell mythologies. Despite this, and even though Pinhead and his crew are most often lumped in with the other famous slasher-horror icons of the 80s, I believe the cosmic elements and subversion of traditional good vs. evil narratives throughout the series’ earlier films allow them to stand apart, or at the very least, warrant a second look.