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In Defense of Pinhead and the Cenobites, the “Villains” of ‘Hellraiser’

With a reboot of the ’80s classic arriving on Hulu this week, here’s your reminder that the Cenobites are not slasher-film killers—just morally ambiguous sickos

Getty Images/Hulu/Ringer illustration

While you can find great horror movies within any point in cinematic history, there has yet to be a boom period as spectacular as the ’80s. The decade blessed us with countless classics of the genre, including seminal works from beloved auteurs (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession) and timeless B-movies with devoted cult followings (The Thing, Evil Dead II). The ’80s also saw the birth of several slasher franchises and the notorious killers that headlined them: Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Jason Voorhees (taking over from his mother in the Friday the 13th sequels), and Chucky (Child’s Play). Unsurprisingly, each of these properties were revived in the 21st century, though the results have been mixed. (The Friday the 13th and Elm Street reboots might have been disappointing, but Chucky is somehow thriving in an eponymous USA Network series.)

Of course, any discussion of ’80s horror-movie characters would be incomplete without mention of Pinhead, the mutilated face of the Hellraiser franchise that began in 1987. While Pinhead is often associated as a villain in the spirit of Freddy or Jason, it’s a mischaracterization of how the character was portrayed in the original film: a sentiment that hasn’t been helped by Hellraiser’s increasingly mindless sequels. Thankfully, Hellraiser is getting its own 21st-century makeover when Hulu’s reboot—also titled Hellraiser—arrives on Friday. But if Hulu’s Hellraiser wants to stay faithful to its origins, then the franchise must go back to treating Pinhead as a true neutral with a kinky streak.

The original Hellraiser, written and directed by Clive Barker as an adaptation of his novella The Hellbound Heart, introduces audiences to the Cenobites: a group of interdimensional beings devoted to performing sadomasochistic acts on themselves and anybody who summons them. (The Lead Cenobite, played by Doug Bradley, was given the nickname Pinhead by a member of the special-effects team, though Barker prefers calling him the Hell Priest.) The film opens with Frank, a hedonist who believes he’s experienced all that Earth has to offer, solving a puzzle box that’s said to contain otherworldly pleasures. Instead, Frank is ripped apart by chains before he’s sent to the Cenobites’ hell-like dimension to be tortured for eternity. Frank paid the ultimate price for his curiosity: Once the Cenobites show up, there is no safe word that will stop the suffering he invited upon himself.

From there, Hellraiser follows Frank being inadvertently resurrected as a fleshy skeleton after his brother Larry cuts himself in the old summoning room. When Larry’s enigmatic wife Julia finds Frank, whom she once had a steamy affair with, he explains that he needs to feed on others to regenerate his body. Julia agrees to seduce and kill men until Frank becomes whole and they can be together again. (Imagine if this were the original premise of How I Met Your Mother.) The Cenobites come back into the picture when Larry’s daughter, Kirsty, gets her hands on the puzzle box and solves it, unaware of the Faustian bargain that comes with it.

Understandably, Kirsty freaks the fuck out when these otherworldly BDSM enthusiasts materialize before her. Pinhead explains the Cenobites’ MO succinctly: “Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.” The Cenobites have a pretty strict “no take-backs” policy with their puzzle summonings, but Pinhead agrees to spare Kirsty and recapture Frank if she can back up her claim that he managed to escape their realm.

With their leather outfits and gnarly body modifications—as the name implies, Pinhead has pins inserted all over his head—it’s easy to see why the Cenobites made such an impression on moviegoers. But the Cenobites aren’t the actual villains of Hellraiser: Frank and Julia are. The terrible lengths to which Julia will go to restore Frank drives the plot of the film; the Cenobites, meanwhile, complement their twisted romance as the mutilated manifestation of extreme carnal desires. Instead of being brutal killers—Frank shows no remorse while draining Julia’s life force near the end of the film—the Cenobites are painted as intense weirdos abiding by a code predicated on punishment. (Barker based the Cenobites on his experience watching people pierce themselves at an underground S&M club in New York, telling The Guardian that he was “validating a lifestyle.”)

The extent of the Cenobites’ sadomasochistic practices is such that they no longer distinguish between pleasure and pain—an acquired taste, to be sure, but one they don’t force onto others. In a horror movie era dominated by slasher villains hunting down their victims, the Cenobites were an unexpected treat: fair and frightening purveyors of punishment that had to be sought out. The closest thing amounting to a heel turn is when Pinhead reneges on his promise to spare Kirsty before she reverses the puzzle box and sends the Cenobites back to their world. But even in that moment, Pinhead approaches Kirsty with what can only be described as perverse glee. “We have such sights to show you!” he eagerly says to her, like that one kid in school who wants everyone to check out their insect collection.

The interpretation of the Cenobites—particularly Pinhead—as morally ambiguous sickos extended to the sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, in which Julia is revived in much the same way Frank was in the original film. As Hellbound screenwriter Peter Atkins explained in the movie’s DVD commentary, Julia was initially envisioned to be the franchise’s big bad—someone whose soul was corrupted by the darkest human desires, a poignant theme across the two films. Julia’s moral descent was a stark contrast to Pinhead, who is reminded of his humanity in Hellbound after Kirsty shows him a photo of himself when he was Elliot Spencer, a British officer during World War I. (Pinhead also spares Tiffany, an innocent girl who reopens the box, upon realizing that she was tricked into doing so by the resurrected Julia.)

Establishing that the Cenobites were once human was a fascinating addition to the Hellraiser mythology, turning them into somewhat tragic figures completely detached from their former selves. Unfortunately, Hellbound was the last time the Cenobites were treated with any nuance in the franchise. The Cenobites became one-dimensional killers with Pinhead as their sadistic ringleader—and the rest of the films suffered for it. The fourth entry in the franchise, Hellraiser: Bloodline, was so awful that director Kevin Yagher took his name off the movie, replacing it with the infamous Hollywood pseudonym Alan Smithee. Bloodline was also the last time a Hellraiser film received a theatrical release. (It’s never a good sign when a franchise is relegated to VOD purgatory.)

It wasn’t exactly surprising that Hellraiser’s sharp decline coincided with Barker stepping back from the franchise after Hellbound. Having signed away the story and character rights before the release of the original film, Barker also didn’t have much of a say in the underwhelming direction of the series. But with Barker reclaiming the rights in 2020, the Hulu reboot is the first Hellraiser movie in decades that will have the author’s stamp of approval. (Barker serves as one of the producers of the new film, and is reportedly working on a separate Hellraiser series for HBO.)

While much of the reboot’s details have been kept under wraps, trans actress Jamie Clayton will take over as Pinhead, offering a fresh take on the horror icon. What’s more, director David Bruckner revealed that Goran Visnjic will play a character new to the franchise, one that Bruckner describes as a one-percenter fascinated by the occult: a tantalizing continuation of the franchise’s human antagonists. (Based on the trailer, it appears Visnjic’s character tricks some poor schmuck into solving a new puzzle and being dragged into the Cenobites’ hell dimension.)

God (Satan?) willing, it appears Bruckner’s Hellraiser has all the ingredients to be a return to form for the franchise. But the most critical component of the movie’s success will almost certainly hinge on its portrayal of Pinhead and the rest of the Cenobites. A faithful Hellraiser reboot should treat the Cenobites with fear and reverence, while understanding that their [clears throat] unconventional interests don’t necessarily make them villains. Even if most of us aren’t buying what the Cenobites are selling in their BDSM wonderland, we shouldn’t kink-shame when they aren’t forcing everyone to get on their sadomasochistic wavelength. As long as you don’t solve mysterious puzzle boxes, you’re probably in the clear!

The horror genre is filled with monstrosities, human or otherwise, that won’t hesitate to kill anyone who lands on their radar. What has made the Cenobites resonate in spite of so many terrible Hellraiser sequels is that their mythology is about much more than racking up a body count. These self-mutilating horndogs adhere to a bizarre belief system, and just want to share their passion for punishment with anyone willing to indulge them. Thirty-five years after the original film, here’s hoping Pinhead and the Cenobites still have such sights to show us.