Welcome back to another installment of Shocktoberfest, and today we take a look at Clive Barker’s leader of carnal cult of Cenobites, Pinhead.
Drawing inspiration from punk fashion, the Catholic Church and S&M clubs, Barker created the Pinhead as the primary antagonist to his 1986 novel, The Hellbound Heart. His role, however, is much smaller than in the film that came a year later. Pinhead only appears in the first chapter and doesn’t really do very much. In 1987’s Hellraiser–also directed by Clive Barker–he is the leader of the pack and unlike most monsters and slashers from the 1980s, he’s very composed, intelligent and articulate with his approach. Rather than simply killing for fun or out of a sense of duty, he and the Cenobites see themselves as “explorers of the carnal experience.” Like angels of death, they come cross over into other dimensions by way of a portal–in the film’s case, a puzzle box acting as a key–to harvest souls by taking them to hell where they subject their victims to extreme forms of sadomasochism to a point where neither they nor the victims can tell the difference between pain and pleasure.
As the leader of a sadomasochistic cult of demon-like creatures, Pinhead’s design was meant to reinforce the sexual implications of their methods. He is typically dressed in tight leather and the needles drilled into his skull reflect that not only is he the arbiter of the torture he inflicts on others, but he’s also a recipient of it. Of course, by this point, he’s become so accustomed to it that any anguish he experiences is indistinguishable from the pleasure it gives him. What separates Pinhead and company from other monsters from their time is that while they are the de facto antagonists of the films, they aren’t really as villainous as the garden variety slashers. They don’t kill for fun or out of a sense of vengeance. They what they do because that’s their purpose. It’s more like a job to them.
His name, however, was not Barker’s idea. Originally he wanted the character to be called Priest. The character in the novel wasn’t given a name, and seeing as how he was the leader of the cult, it only made sense to refer to him as Priest. Pinhead was a name that the makeup crew coined while working on Doug Bradley. Barker hated the name because he thought it made his character seem undignified. If there’s any saving grace for Barker, it’s that the name “Pinhead” was only ever uttered once in the film series [Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth] and never again. Much like how “zombie” was a term applied to the monsters in Night of the Living Dead by people outside of the film’s contained story, Pinhead is more or less a name that only fans use.
It should be noted that writer/director Clive Barker is gay, so much of the fixation on the sexual flexibility and ambiguity of the Cenobites could be seen as a reflection of his own struggles to come to terms with his own sexuality growing up: feeling external and internal shame for the desire but wanting to experience the pleasure of satisfying it.
Unfortunately, I can’t say too terribly much about Pinhead and the Hellraiser series because I’m not much of a fan and haven’t seen many of the nine Hellraiser films (eight of which star Doug Bradley as Pinhead), and apparently lots of other people haven’t either. As far as major slasher series released in the U.S. are concerned, the Hellraiser franchise is considered to be one of the lowest grossing ever. While the budgets have been small, the U.S. box office for all nine films combined has only grossed $55,864,723 domestically. Worldwide, they’ve grossed about $84 million, so that means that on average, each film has grossed less than $1 million at the box office. That’s pretty bad.
That being said, the poor performance at the box office has not stopped the Hellraiser series. There have been 21 novels including the original The Hellbound Heart and several comic series since 1989. And even if we haven’t seen the movies, we all know who Pinhead is because he leaves such as lasting impression, from his look to his voice. Perhaps he’s become such an icon of the horror genre because he’s a hybrid of the old and new school of monsters. He’s well-spoken and in command of the situation like Count Dracula, yet he’s also disfigured and relishes in causing pain to others like Freddy Krueger. He’s a walking conundrum; he may fillet the skin from your body, but it’ll be the most erotic lathing you’ve ever experienced…assuming you’ve been lathed. That’s why he’s a demon to some and an angel to others.