Aug 13, 2012

What can Hellraiser teach you about writing?

A puzzle box that opens doors and summons torturers from another world.

A polygonal god that watches over an Escherian maze, where pleasure-seekers are punctured, bled and reinvented as genderless odalisques.

“This is a holocaust waiting to wake itself.”

A concise overview: the horrors began with a novella by Clive Barker, The Hellbound Heart. This book would serve as the basis for the 1987 film, Hellraiser. I'll try to keep the spoilers to a minimum.

In the film, one Frank Cotton travels to Morocco where he finds a puzzle box, the Lament Configuration, built by a French toymaker centuries ago. Returning to his grandmother’s house in England with the box, Cotton sets up an altar in a vacant room and goes about the business of luring the Cenobites into our dimension. Once the puzzle is solved, the misshapen entities walk into reality through cracks in the walls, with their panoply of hooks, needles and chains.

The Cenobites, “the Order of the Gash,” do not appear as demons initially, though looks might deceive. As the lead Cenobite later tells Kirsty Cotton (Frank’s niece), they are

Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others.

Kirsty Cotton, portrayed by Ashley Laurence.
Larry Cotton, Frank’s brother, moves to England with his wife Julia and his daughter Kirsty, who finds a room for herself. It appears that her relationship with Julia is strained.

Larry and Julia get rid of Frank’s belongings, believing him dead or incarcerated in some exotic location, and settle into the very home where Frank conducted his summoning ritual. Larry accidentally cuts his hand on a nail as he lugs a mattress upstairs. He goes to Julia in a near-panic and the blood he spills on the floorboards allows Frank to come back from the truly exotic location where he was imprisoned.

So, what can the Hellraiser films teach you about writing?

The world of Hellraiser revolves around parody and deconstruction. Not just of the body organic but also that of the social and political. We’re not dealing with a nihilistic universe; rather, with a pessimistic one.

“It is not hands that summon us,” Pinhead says. “It is desire.”

The true message of Hellraiser is one you don’t want to hear: that unchecked pleasure leads to pain, that nothing withstands the corrosive power of time and, worst of all, by embracing such truths you allow darkness to engulf your innocence. Pleasure corrupts and destroys. But it also lays bare the worst in you. We want too much and we're getting carried away -- too much pleasure is dehumanizing.

Kirsty, when she first realizes the Lament Configuration is of value
to her uncle Frank

Once again we take the bones of Red Riding Hood and clothe it in new vestments. Once again the storyteller arches her eyebrows and tells the children not to stray from the path. The Cenobites are wolves. They are the digestive system of the universe, complete with iron fangs.

William Blake once warned his readers that “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” As a franchise, Hellraiser tries to prove this dictum over and over again. In Hellraiser II, the surgeon Channard contemplates the exposed, living brain of a patient and comments,

The mind is a labyrinth, ladies and gentlemen, a puzzle. And while the paths of the brain are plainly visible, its ways deceptively apparent, its destinations are unknown. [I]f we are honest, it is the lure of the labyrinth that draws us to our chosen field to unlock those secrets. [W]e, as explorers of the mind, must devote our lives and energies to going further… We have to see, we have to know…

Channard collects puzzle boxes similar to the Lament Configuration and any memorabilia that might be connected with the Cenobites. He acquires the mattress on which Julia Cotton, Kirsty’s stepmother, died an agonizing death. (Julia’s lover, Frank, had partially consumed her.)

Julia Cotton, portrayed by Clare Higgins

Channard’s egotistic search for knowledge gets him the ultimate punishment/reward — an infernal machine turns him into a Cenobite. Julia has led Channard to hell and, in the shadow of Leviathan, god of the labyrinth, Channard finally sees, he finally knows. Wisdom is terrible.

The Labyrinth

The Hellraiser universe also includes the notion of a bespoke hell, your own slice of maggot-ridden pie. In Hellbound: Hellraiser II Kirsty would visit the underworld to rescue her father, Larry, but she’s no Orpheus —

Kirsty Cotton: I've come for my father!
Pinhead: But he is in his own Hell, child, and quite unreachable.
Kirsty Cotton: I don't believe you!
Pinhead: But it's true. He is in his own Hell, just as you are in yours.

The abode of the Cenobites resembles Tartarus as a place for creative punishments. One scene in the same film shows that Kirsty’s hell centers on the destruction of inner truth and familial love. When her mother died and Larry married Julia, Kirsty’s childhood ended. Toward the end of the second movie, Julia calls Kirsty “Snow White.”

Yet Kirsty is not whiter than snow. Her almost immediate reaction to the Cenobites is to sell out her uncle and, several movies later in the franchise, she turns against her wayward husband, causing him a world of trouble. (Again, the betrayal of loved ones comes to the fore as something inescapable; which is why I stated above that the Hellraiser universe is pessimistic.)

The Leviathan

The Leviathan – a name which owes as much to the Bible as it does to Thomas Hobbes – is the reigning deity of a supernatural gulag, where your crimes don’t really matter; you’re a prisoner and that’s all that counts. It’s not personal.
Larry Cotton’s only sins were marrying a woman who didn’t love him and not helping Frank overcome his reckless pursuit of pleasure — should he have been his brother’s keeper? Apparently so. Larry’s failure comes back to eat him and, guess what, he goes to hell for being a victim.

Frank Cotton, portrayed by Sean Chapman

At times, the moral principles of Hellraiser seem inconsistent, but you must bear in mind this is also a story about predation. Kirsty works at a pet store and, while she deals with a rowdy customer, a filthy vagrant wanders in, heads over to a box of live crickets, reaches into the box and starts eating crickets by the handful. This scene is not gratuitous. It typifies one of the larger truths in Hellraiser: big things eat little things.   

A parting shot:

These films aren’t masterpieces. The acting is uneven and the writing leaves a lot to be desired. As works of cinematic art, they haven’t aged very gracefully, either. What they do give you is a rich tapestry of symbol and a claustrophobic narrative that can and will infect your mind if you let it. The conceptual joining of sex, mutilation and punishment makes for a volatile mix. Why watch Hellraiser if not for reassurance that we’re not completely fucked up?

Chains spring forth from the puzzle box to ensnare a new victim.
Here’s what I call horror -- take something apparently harmless and turn it inside out until the shadow takes over. I know of an artist who chars and mutilates Barbie dolls and sells them online and those dolls disturb me because I know what they used to look like. An attack on the image of the human body is a symbolic attack on the body itself.

POST-SCRIPTUM: There are nine Hellraiser movies. I own five of them on DVD and have watched them multiple times. As you could tell, I focused on Hellraiser I and II. Writing about all five would require splitting this post into several parts, yet it wouldn't add much relevant detail. As far as I'm concerned, I and II are definitive and establish all you need to know about this particular world. Here's hoping they don't film a new Hellraiser in 3D.

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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