This article contains spoilers for Hellraiser, Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and Hellraiser: Hellseeker.
Since it was coined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, the term “final girl” has become ubiquitous. Many essays, retrospectives, and listicles have been written about the pantheon of Final Girls, with Halloween’s Laurie Strode, A Nightmare On Elm Street’s Nancy Thompson, and Scream’s Sidney Prescott emerging as the most popular. Even characters who only have one film to their name, like Jess in Black Christmas (1974) and Erin in You’re Next (2011), have been given the spotlight.
One curious omission is Hellraiser’s Kirsty Cotton, played by Ashley Lawrence. To be fair, the Hellraiser films are an odd fit into any category, blending as they do elements of visceral gore, sadomasochism, lurid sexuality, dark fantasy, and Lovecraftian sci-fi. The series is not a simple “slasher” franchise, and that’s why Kirsty is not a typical final girl. Her place in the group is as underrated and unique as the films she’s from, and invites comparison to not just other horror film heroines but other cinematic and literary sources.
One reason Kirsty isn’t a typical final girl is that the movie in which she originated, Hellraiser (1987), isn’t a slasher film. Based on Clive Barker’s novella “The Hellbound Heart,” the story revolves around a washed-up husband, his unfulfilled wife, and the husband’s deviant brother, who is also the wife’s secret lover. When that man, Frank, escapes a group of extra-dimensional beings known as Cenobites (who are called via a puzzle box that promises the user ultimate sensation), he requires blood to be restored, and makes his lover, Julia, provide victims for him. In Barker’s novella, Kirsty is a friend of the sad-sack husband and secretly harbors a crush on him. When Barker adapted his story into a film, Kirsty became the man’s daughter, allowing for a teen to be the heroine and making the movie more marketable while also making the love triangle less complex. The change also sharpened the focus of Hellraiser’s story, making it unmistakably a family drama in the vein of Chekhov or Ibsen. Unlike most final girls, who must deal with a threat from without, Kirsty’s primary threats come from within, in the form of her own family and her inner desires.
It’s this tension — between outward vulnerability and inner strength — that makes Kirsty a well-rounded and compelling character. Throughout the film, Kirsty is shown to be a competent, independent young woman. She’s capable of finding her own job and residence in a new city, not dependent on her father or family members for help, and even picks up a boy she likes, meaning she certainly does not belong to the “virginal” final girl character trope. Yet she’s deeply emotional: she openly mistrusts her stepmother Julia, and is genuinely fearful for her father, Larry, even calling him in the middle of the night after a nightmare worries her. When she confronts the horror that is her Uncle Frank, a skinless ghoul who wastes no time in coming on to his niece, Kirsty is at first an emotional wreck. Seizing the puzzle box (known as the Lament Configuration), though, and seeing Frank’s reaction to it, she turns vicious, tossing it out a window and then absconding with it altogether. Kept at a hospital for observation after being picked up on the street, Kirsty’s not-so-innocent curiosity allows the box to open, and the Cenobites come for her. In order to escape her fate, she cleverly makes a deal with them (through tears, realistically terrified by the Cenobites’ bizarre appearance) to trade Frank’s soul for hers. When, after Frank is captured, the Cenobites break their bargain and attempt to take Kirsty, she finds a way to banish them back to Hell using the box with no assistance from her boyfriend, making the male character in the story functionally useless in a fantastic way that emphasizes Kirsty’s importance.
In her mixture of vulnerability, innocence, worldliness, and cunning, Kirsty recalls the heroines of Italian horror director Dario Argento’s work, specifically Suzy in Suspiria (1977), Jennifer in Phenomena (1985), and Betty in Opera’s (1987). It’s a more European approach to characterization than the American “girl next door” archetype, and Barker’s very English background (as well as his stated love of Argento’s work on the DVD commentary track) is likely a large contributor to that, as is Lawrence’s perfectly pitched performance.
One of the other elements that makes Kirsty unique in the final girls’ club is the fact that her main homicidal adversary isn’t a man but a woman. Kirsty and her stepmother, Julia (played with regal cunning by Clare Higgins), begin as secret rivals for Larry’s affections, but after Julia turns murderous to help her lover Frank, she becomes a real physical threat to Kirsty. In the second film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), Julia is resurrected just like Frank had been, brought back to life via victims provided by a twisted psychologist. During the course of the film, Kirsty and Julia venture into Hell for disparate reasons (Julia to bring the soul of the psychologist to sacrifice to the god of Hell, and Kirsty to confront Frank, who had tricked her into believing her father was trapped in Hell) yet meet again, continuing their struggle. Kirsty emerges as victor, tearing Julia’s new skin off and sending the skinless woman away into the bowels of Hell.
That is far from all she accomplishes in Hellbound, however: she also burns Frank alive, frees the human soul of the lead Cenobite, Pinhead, and helps kill the Cenobitic form of the psychologist by wearing Julia’s discarded skin to distract him, a feat that visually represents the ultimate defeat of her foe.
Kirsty’s role in the story is made clear by screenwriter Peter Atkins’ dialogue. When she and Julia first re-encounter each other, Julia exclaims, “They’ve changed the rules of the fairy tale. I’m no longer just the wicked stepmother. Now I’m the evil queen. So come on … take your best shot, Snow White!” This pointed invocation of fairy tales makes Kirsty’s status as a heroine in fairy tale tradition much easier to appreciate. And it fits: according to writer Theodora Goss’ analysis of fairy tale heroines, Kirsty fulfills nearly all the steps of the journey, including receiving gifts, losing her home, entering the dark forest (Hell), finding friends, enduring temptations, wearing a disguise, and having her tormentor(s) punished. Seen in this way, Kirsty’s character feels much more rich and literary, tied to classical traditions and tropes that make her stand out.
While she has a brief cameo in Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992), Kirsty’s next proper (and, to date, final) onscreen appearance comes in the seventh installment, Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002). One of the numerous direct-to-video sequels produced by Dimension Films, Hellseeker began as a spec script unrelated to the Hellraiser series. When the story was retrofitted into the franchise, one of the elements screenwriters Carl Dupre and Tim Day got right was Kirsty’s character. At first, it doesn’t seem to be the case, as Kirsty is shown to not only be married to a wooden bore of a guy named Trevor, but is unceremoniously killed off in a car accident at the beginning of the film. An hour and ten minutes later, however, it is revealed that it is Trevor, not Kirsty, who has been dead and in Hell the whole time. When Trevor’s marriage to Kirsty soured (a falling out that included Trevor taking several lovers as well as tracking down a Lament Configuration to kill Kirsty with in order to inherit her family’s money), Kirsty made another deal with Pinhead to bring him five souls in exchange for hers, including Trevor’s.
As a movie, Hellseeker is a letdown, especially as Kirstynonly has about twenty minutes of total screentime. As a story, however, it manages to fulfill a few more elements of Kirsty’s fairy tale journey (she finds a temporary home, receives another gift, and “dies” only to be resurrected) as well as highlighting the darkness within her, implicitly revealing her to be a willing murderer, albeit of people who may have deserved it. It leaves the character on a compelling note, as she is given the Lament Configuration to keep by the authorities at the end, implying that she is now one of the mortal keepers (and thus “pushers”) of the box.
Sadly, none of the subsequent Hellraiser films picked up on this thread, failing to involve either Lawrence or Kirsty in any way. Instead, they followed a different path, ending up at a new direct-to-video film being released this month, complete with a new actor playing the iconic Pinhead. But Kirsty has carried on in the realm of comic books, where in the Boom! Studios publications from 2011-2015 (written by Barker himself along with Christopher Monfette) she underwent many new developments, including becoming a Cenobite herself, and Pinhead’s successor. The fact that this is a logical destination for her character speaks volumes about her uniqueness as a Final Girl. Hopefully we’ll be able to see her do battle with (or perhaps join) the forces of Hell on screen one more time in the future.
Bill Bria raises hell in New York City.