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The Cenobites: Fetish Made Flesh

Demons to Some, Angels to Others

If you’ve ever felt overpowering lust at meeting someone for the first time, then perhaps you can understand a little about how the soon-to-be Mrs. Julia Cotton (Claire Higgins) felt opening the door to her fiancee’s brother on the eve of her wedding. It’s a rare phenomenon, I think I have felt it twice in my life, and when it happens it is quite overwhelming. You can’t speak properly, your heart begins to race, your world becomes fuzzy and butterflies go nuts in your tummy. It’s like a schoolboy/girl crush but with no build up— it’s just there…Bang! Hormones and chemicals swarm in the air around you both dragging you towards the dark side.

In most cases (especially if you are already betrothed to another) this is just a fleeting feeling. Sometimes though, you just can’t fight the need to have this person. Right there, right now.

That’s what happened between Frank Cotton and Julia. A spark lit in Julia the second she laid eyes on him. This is what I believe people mistake for love at first sight. Its anything but love, of course, pure lust is what it is. Frank was already in a world of sexual deviance by the time he met Julia; she was ripe for the picking. He never had any true feelings for her, but new he could play the master and she would obey, willingly.

Frank Cotton and Julia touch

“It’s Never Enough”. — Frank Cotton to his brother’s fiancee Julia after they have sex for the first time.

Clive Barker never shied away from admitting that Hellraiser was a BDSM film, it’s undeniable from the second the Cenobites roll in all dressed in leather, their bodies modified to the extreme. In fact, he’d even wanted to go further but the MPAA had given the film an X rating. To bring it down to an R, some scenes were cut.

In an interview for Samhain magazine in July 1987, Barker mentioned some problems that censors had with the more erotic scenes in the film;

Well, we did have a slight problem with the eroticism. I shot a much hotter flashback sequence than they would allow us to cut in…Mine was more explicit and less violent. They wanted to substitute one kind of undertow for another. I had a much more explicit sexual encounter between Frank and Julia, but they said no, let’s take out the sodomy and put in the flick knife.

Barker also said on the commentary for the film that the seduction scene between Julia and Frank was, initially, a lot more explicit; “We did a version of this scene which had some spanking in it and the MPAA was not very appreciative of that. Lord knows where the spanking footage is. Somebody has it somewhere…The MPAA told me I was allowed two consecutive buttock thrusts from Frank but three is deemed obscene!”

So there it is; the beginning of the affair, a dance between pleasure and pain, obsession and power. It can be a beautiful thing when you find your master or servant, but sometimes it can go too far. There has to be a limit to the extremes people go to for pleasure. Those who take things out of the boundaries of sex between two consenting adults, couples like Rose and Fred West, or Myra Hindley and Ian Brady are just pure evil—consumed by their selfish pleasure and joy at inflicting pain and cruelty against children and the vulnerable.

That is not what Hellraiser is about. Barker, as a gay man, was entirely aware of heteronormative insecurities. Concepts such as sadomasochism, bondage, and even polyamory are creatively explored in Hellraiser in new and exciting ways. Barker took these insecurities and established a film about the broad spectrum of sensuality and sexuality. He shocked audiences with its subversive, but wildly inclusive, material.

Frank with no skin, and a somewhat blood-stained shirt.

A World Without Safe Words

Frank and Julia’s affair was discovered, and so they were unable to see each other. Julia had married Larry now, and she told herself that she wanted a stable and normal life. Frank’s desire for the ultimate sexual and violent experience did not lessen without her. During his quest, he learned about the Lament Configuration, a puzzle box created by Philip LeMarchand. It was said that the answer to one’s ultimate heart’s desire was the solution for the puzzle.

He travelled to Morocco where he found and bought it from a dealer. Once you open Pandora’s Box of carnal pleasures, there’s no going back, as Frank learned only too well. Frank opened the box and in doing so, summoned the Cenobites. Demons to some, angels to others, they didn’t waste much time before stringing Frank up with hooks and chains, ripping his flesh off and torturing him in ways only God (or Pinhead) knows. Looking at the size of the dildos attached to the torture walls, I don’t want to know either.

Pinhead, Female Cenobite and Butterball Cenobite

The Cenobites, despite being hideously disfigured and with extreme body modifications, are somewhat beautiful in their powerful, yet serene style. They are meticulous; they have strict rules that must be abided. The Lead Cenobite (nicknamed Pinhead by fans) or Hell Priest, is the poster boy for Masochists.

Pinhead was born Elliot Spencer, an English man who joined the British military in World War I. Captain Spencer saw action at the Battle of Somme, a five-month-long ground battle in which British and French forces pushed into Germany territory. Close to 1,000,000 soldiers lost their lives during the fight.

This bloody loss of life bred the man who would become Pinhead. After losing his faith in the human race, Captain Spencer began to wander India fulfilling every carnal desire he could think of. After getting his fill of sex and violence, he discovered the Lament Configuration and how to open a wormhole to a Hell dimension, where was transformed into a Cenobite. He got a little gang of Cenobites together named The Order of the Gash (no comment) who thought of themselves as explorers in the further reaches of experience.

Obsession, Submission & Masochism

Isn’t it funny how seeing Larry Cotton ripping his hand open on a rusty nail is more horrifying than seeing someone pulled into a thousand pieces? I guess it’s because we can totally imagine the pain of the nail. This bleeding wound, dripping over the floorboards of this horrible run-down house somewhere in England begins the reanimation of Frank. I am going to gloss over the fact that it only takes a few drops of blood to make a man who was literally just lumps of dismembered flesh whole again, but then requires the murder of several full-grown humans just to grow some skin.

Julia discovers the walking meat sack that is Frank hiding out in the attic and isn’t totally put off by his new look. God damn, that must have been good sex. You can’t say Julia is shallow, that’s for sure. Obsessed though—100%. She just cannot resist Frank, and obeys his every command, living on the promise that once he is fully restored, they can be together.

Frank is the total opposite of his brother Larry and this is what Julia wanted the most. This man who took complete control of her, made her feel totally different to how other men did, mistreated her in fact, but was anything but vanilla. Larry was just so compliant and reasonable, safe and nice. He forgave her infidelity, even with his own brother. She found it so unattractive. Yet Julia’s character was one of duality and opposition: cuckold and harlot rolled into one. She lures unsuspecting—and pathetic, sexist—men to their deaths by picking them up and bars and bringing them home for Frank to feast upon. She enjoys the power she has over them almost as much as she enjoys the power Frank holds over her.

Julia brushes Franks finger over her lips in Hellraiser

Curiosity

And Julia’s not the only one enjoying new sexual experiences. Larry’s daughter Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence) is our curious heroine. Her story is one of a battle for paternal sovereignty and feminine independence. She is devoted to her father but wants her own space too. She moves to England with her father and his new wife but chooses to live on her own at the University Halls of Residence. She quickly finds a love interest, a man that flirts with her by taking a lit cigarette into his mouth as a party trick. The risk of pain and the mouth and tongue as sex organs is alluring to her and they strike up a relationship.

Being somewhat overly protective of her father, and suspicious of Julia, leads Kirsty to witness Julia taking a man into the house when her father was not home. Suspecting that she’ll find them having sex, she follows them upstairs, only to discover her skinless (and somewhat sore looking) Uncle Frank devouring the man. He attacks her, after making some inappropriate comment about her being all grown up and ripe for the taking (thank god that paedophilia was a step too far even for Frank, incest…not so much), she notices the Lament Configuration Box and throws it out of the window as a distraction. She wakes up in hospital having collapsed with fear.

It is when she’s at the hospital that the Box is brought to her again by a somewhat creepy Doctor. The temptation is there—whether she meant to or not, she summons the Cenobites. Let’s face it, subconsciously she was interested, but was not prepared for the sights the Cenobites could show her. To go from kissing with tongues to being subjected to severe forms of sadomasochism, that include but are by no means limited to, limbs being torn apart by hooks and chains, is a little bit much for one day in the life of a teenager.

The Chatterer Cenobite forces his fingers into Kirsty's mouth

Kirsty is wily enough to make a deal with Pinhead though. This is why Pinhead is a cool baddie. He has rules. He’s cruel yes, but there are strict procedures in place that have to be followed (much like the BDSM culture in itself). He agrees to let Kirsty return home if she gets Frank to admit who he is and that he escaped so he can be dragged back to hell.

She succeeds, but not before Julia and Frank brutally murder her father drain him of blood and Frank dons his skin. Frank accidentally kills Julia, but isn’t bothered really; he was just using her after all. The Cenobites arrive and get their hooks into him again. Literally. He licks his lips as he’s ripped apart for the second time. Yep, Frank wins the award for Mr. Extreme, second year running.

You need to get inside the Box

Hellraiser is best considered as an individual film, in my opinion, not merely an origin point for franchise replication. I’d go as far as to say that sitting through the entire series of films is an act of masochism in itself. But the original Hellraiser is about as perfect a Horror movie out there. It is a fantastically disturbing story about the primal oppositions that animate the human psyche and the essential powerlessness we experience trying to negotiate them effectively. The story seeks no less than to plumb the depths of human subjectivity, and in particular, the human condition we call “desire.”

The Cenobites are often mistaken to be the iconic fetish-demon antagonists of the film, yet they are merely the representation of it. The story’s true villain is the deeply human pursuit of excess enjoyment, as personified here by hedonist par excellence Frank Cotton. By its very nature, abduction by the Cenobites flows exclusively from a voluntary, though quite uncontrollable, thirst for transcendent human experience—as the film phrases it, to seek a state of “pain and pleasure indivisible.” Agony and ecstasy in the perfect partnership.

Julia, Frank


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Written by Laura Stewart

Laura is the Assistant Editor-In-Chief, a Writer and Hand to the Webmaster at 25YL. She has been part of the team since May 2017 when she began writing about her favourite TV show of all time: Twin Peaks. She currently heads the Film, News and Gaming Departments.

Lula Fortune

(Wild at Heart) and Lee Holloway (Secretary) are her spirit animals. Her other hobbies include singing horribly and rarely sleeping.

Laura lives down by the sea in Gower, Wales, with her husband and very special little boy.

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