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‘Pain and pleasure, indivisible:’ Looking back at the queer horror classic Hellraiser

In 1987, Hellraiser was released to an unsuspecting public, and the horror genre was never the same again. The story began with a man constantly craving more — from trips to exotic lands to an ever-deepening hunger for intense sexual pleasure. After acquiring a strange puzzle box, the Lament Configuration, he inadvertently summons demons from hell … the now-iconic Cenobites.

Living in a realm without life and death, the Cenobites have no boundaries between pleasure and pain and are intent on making humans feel the most intense physical sensations possible, often through sadistic torture. Clive Barker’s subversive genre masterpiece has endured decades since its release, with a remake set for release this October. But why? Digital Trends takes a look back at the film’s original release in 1987 when the horror genre had stagnated and American culture was steeped in Reagan Era sexual repression and cultural conformity.

1987 was a tumultuous year for the horror genre

When the film hit theaters, horror was in a very weird place. The late ’70s and early ’80s had brought the slasher boom, with Halloween and Friday the 13th becoming cultural phenomenons. In 1984, A Nightmare on Elm Street was able to breathe new life into the genre by offering a new twist and allowing the kills to become more and more outlandish and sensational since they took place in the realm of dreams.

Pinhead gazes ahead in Hellraiser.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

However, in 1987, the genre was petering out and the endless line of terrible sequels had tainted the reputation of horror as a whole. By the time Hellraiser hit theaters, Halloween had released three films (with a fourth and fifth on the way),  Friday the 13th had released seven films, and Nightmare had released three (with a fourth installment soon to come in 1988). With each passing sequel, the movies were getting worse and worse reviews, and the box-office returns per film were dwindling quickly.

Hellraiser was different. Notably, it wasn’t a standard slasher flick. In fact, the movie’s iconic villain, Pinhead, was only on screen for about eight minutes in the first film, and most of the killing wasn’t even done by the Cenobites. The film wasn’t following the slasher tropes because, despite fitting nicely in the genre, Hellraiser was never a slasher movie.

The basis for the film was Clive Barker’s interest in BDSM

Hellraiser was actually based on Clive Barker’s 1986 novella, The Hellbound Heart, and, according to an interview he did with The Guardian, Barker found himself directing the film adaption because he was unimpressed with how other directors had turned his stories into movies. “By the mid-80s I’d had two cinematic abominations made from my stories,” he told the publication. “It felt as if God was telling me I should direct. How much worse could I be?”

Barker’s original story, The Hellbound Heart, was heavily inspired by his own experiences with sex. In the same Guardian interview, Barker talked about how he used to be a hustler, sometimes even fooling around with the biggest names in Hollywood. He also frequented the BDSM scene, noting one New York fetish club in particular, Cellblock 28.

The Conobites Arrive in Hellraiser.
Image courtesy of New World Pictures

The connections between the two are pretty apparent, with the entire concept of blurring pleasure and pain coming directly from the BDSM scene. It’s also noticeable in the way the Cenobites dress, with their outfits clearly inspired by the leather and latex scenes.

Hellraiser’s barely concealed queer undertones

There’s another influence that feels incredibly obvious, but that Barker has never addressed — Hellraiser feels incredibly queer, and more specifically, it feels like it was surely inspired by gay life in the ’80s. Barker is openly gay and has spent his life living between London and New York City. That, combined with his age at the time, and his interest in the fetish scene, means he would have surely been sexually active, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic likely would have been at the forefront of his mind.

In 1981, otherwise healthy gay men started coming down with very rare diseases normally seen only in patients with severely compromised immune systems. By the end of that year, the term “gay cancer” had established itself and over the next decade, the HIV/AIDS outbreak spiraled into a global health crisis. The effects have been told over and over again in memoirs, plays, and films like The Normal Heart, Borrowed Time, and Angels in America, among others — gay men had to watch their friends and lovers die, often feeling as though there was nothing else to do but wait for their own diagnosis as well.

As a gay viewer, it’s impossible to ignore what Hellraiser says at its core: The hunt for sexual excess can bring pleasure, but also pain, and even death. Now, imagine reading The Hellbound Heart during the ’80s, during the height of the AIDS crisis. It feels too precise to be ignored.

Hellraiser could be inspired by Barker’s own experience

Kristy gives the puzzle box to a man in Hellraiser.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s unknown if Barker has HIV, as he’s never spoken about his status. However, in 2012 there was a failed lawsuit by an ex-boyfriend who claimed Barker had given him HIV. He said that Barker engaged in S&M sex practices and drug-fueled parties with young men, and he even claimed that Barker admitted to contracting HIV after having sex with his own cousin who was HIV positive. The case was dismissed because it lacked hard evidence, but a shadow of suspicion and questions still linger over Barker and his personal life.

On top of that, Barker has had a somewhat bizarre health record that, for someone with a normal immune system, would be very unlikely. At one point, Barker even slipped into a two-week coma, telling Nightmare Magazine it was “due to some toxic problem I had at the dentist.” He also told the publication that he’s never fully recovered from it. Is it possible that Hellraiser was Barker’s creative way of reconciling his life of promiscuity with the potential consequences it could bring?

However, it doesn’t really matter if Barker wrote the story about his experience with HIV or not. As a gay man in the fetish scene in the ’80s, whether Barker contracted the virus or not, it would have certainly been at the forefront of his thought. It would be virtually impossible to be a gay man living in a major city in the ’80s and not struggle with the reality of the AIDS crisis.

A horror film that’s both timely and timeless

Hellraiser 1987 ---Best Part

Throughout Hellraiser, the Cenobites are summoned from the Lament Configuration. Both times they’re summoned in the film, the victim doesn’t fully know what they’re doing. They’re simply exploring.

“The box … you opened it, and we came,” Pinhead says in the film.

“It was a mistake! I didn’t mean to open it!” Kirsty cries.

Like those men in the 1980s, having what they thought was a fun Friday night, not knowing that some of them would be dead shortly thereafter by a disease that ravaged their community. A box was opened that they couldn’t close, even though it was a mistake.

“Pain and pleasure, indivisible,” Pinhead says in the film, which, in this context, could be one of the most loaded and horrifying lines ever delivered in a horror film. It’s horrific not only because of the scary and often grisly images the audience sees on the screen but for the subtext those images bring.

Hellraiser has endured because it both honored and transcended its genre. At a time when most mainstream films refused to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, or even the existence of gay men and their sexuality, Hellraiser did so through its twisted tale of a desire for pleasure gone horribly wrong. It’s a story both rooted in its own time and one that is just as relevant in 2022 as it was in 1987.

Hellraiser will return on October 7 on Hulu with a reimagined story and a new Pinhead, played by trans actress Jamie Clayton, continuing the franchise’s legacy in queer cinema. 

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