What We Talk About When We Talk About Pinhead: On the Legacy of Hellraiser’s Iconic Villain

Every kid who falls in love with horror quickly discovers their favorite slasher movie mascot. You got your Freddy kids, your Jason kids, your Michael kids, your Leatherface kids. Me, I was always a Pinhead kid.

It was always a little lonely being a Pinhead kid. While the character is by no means obscure, he never enjoyed the cultural ubiquitousness as those other famous monsters of movieland (at least not until recently), and especially not among younger audiences. Not that you’d expect him to: the working title for the first Hellraiser was Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave, after all. The audience for those movies was always going to skew a little weirder and a little more mature.

Or at least, that’s how I preferred to think of it when I was a pretentious kid*. Certainly, when it came to the first run of Hellraiser movies—Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)—I was fascinated by their mix of the gothic romance, eldritch weirdness, queasy body horror, and genuine erotica so unlike what you found in other horror franchises, which relied on more traditional kills and T&A. But, if I’m being fully honest, while those elements got me to dive into the literary oeuvre of the original film’s writer and director Clive Barker, a lot of that stuff—particularly the themes revolving around BDSM— went over my head. When it came right down to it, I kind of just liked how cool Pinhead looked.

Looking back, the same seems to be true of much of the franchise’s fanbase, as there’s nothing else that can explain the defense of any of the movies outside of the first three (and Part III is only defensible as dumb fun), or the impassioned opinions, both pro and against, regarding the gender swapping of the character in David Bruckner’s new reboot. Because here’s the thing I’ve realized after all these years: for as good as those first two Hellraisers are (and I do consider the first one to be among the best horror movies ever made), Pinhead is kind of boring.

This is not to take away from the character’s design, which is as startling, nightmarish, and original now as it was when it debuted 35 years ago, or the regal performance of actor Doug Bradley. But the more the movies zeroed in on him, the more obvious it became that he just isn’t that interesting beyond those two components. Granted, this is true of just about every iconic movie character, as evidenced by the dire examples of filmmakers delving into their origins and  ‘mythologies’ (see: both Rob Zombie and David Gordon Greene’s atrocious spins on Halloween). But whereas those franchises have no choice but to center their villains, Pinhead was never meant to be the focus of Hellraiser.

The first movie, as well as Barker’s original 1986 novella, The Hellbound Heart, is centered on the murderous love affair between hedonistic drifter Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman), who’s returned from imprisonment in hell and needs human blood to fully bring himself back to life, and his prim but extremely horny sister-in-law, Julia (Clare Higgins), who is willing to slaughter however many sad sack losers (her own husband included) it takes to make her secret lover whole again. The Cenobites—an interdimensional race of surgically-disfigured monsters summoned by the solving of an ornate and magical puzzle box, who refer to themselves as “explorers in the further reaches of experience…demons to some, angels to others”—only appear a handful of times throughout the story. Pinhead isn’t even called Pinhead; he’s known only as Priest or Lead Cenobite in the script.

Much the same is true of the following year’s sequel, Hellbound, for which Barker wrote the story and served as executive producer, but did not direct. Here, it’s a returning  Julia and her new lover, the obsessive Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), who are the main villains. While Hellbound greatly opens up the mythology surrounding the Cenobites–including revealing their human origins, exploring their labyrinthian homeworld, and actually showing the all-powerful God they serve–they’re still mostly kept as background players. The movie even goes so far as to kill them all at the start of the third act in a rather unceremonious manner. 

Because the second Hellraiser was released so soon on the heels of the first, the filmmakers weren’t able to calibrate the story around the huge popularity of Pinhead and the other Cenobites, intending instead to make Julia the face of the franchise. Only after the second installment came out, and fans expressed dismay with how they were dispatched, was this plan revised. By the third film, 1992’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Pinhead was back and very much the focal point of the story. He’s also a totally different character from the first one, slaughtering innocent victims at random in a variety of high-concept ways, with no shortage of cackling or puns. Basically, he’s been turned into Freddy Kruger. In the fourth movie, they send him to space.

The movies, including some of the six DTV sequels—which, like every horror franchise, no matter how bad, has its fair share of defenders—continue to explore the mythology surrounding Pinhead, the Cenobites, Larmachand’s Box and the Lament Configuration, the god Leviathan and so on. So too do the copious amounts of literature that’ve come out over the years, including two separate comic book series, one of which Barker wrote, as well as his official sequel to the original novel, 2015’s The Scarlet Gospels. 

What’s funny about all of this is that for as hungry as fans are to delve into the mythology of the franchise, Barker and co. have never seemed interested in making it cohesive. In The Hellbound Heart, there is no Pinhead; or, rather, there are three different cenobites, one of whom has pins stabbed through their face and skull, who served as the basis for the character in the movie. Two of these characters are female—or at least androgynous—which makes the backlash to the casting of Jamie Clayton in the 2022 version all the dumber (although, speaking only personally, I’ve seen far more people complaining online about this supposed backlash than I have actual backlash). However, while the comic book series takes its continuity from the films, The Scarlet Gospels discards seemingly everything that came before it. There, Pinhead—who is even referred to by that name as an insult—is mostly the character as we know him from the films, but shorn of his human origins. Meanwhile, the larger cosmology that Barker introduced in Hellbound has been completely scrapped and replaced by one that more closely resembles Judeo-Christian mythology.

On the one hand, I appreciate Barker’s willingness to disregard canon if it gets in the way of the story he feels like telling, as the modern-day obsession with world building has been extremely detrimental to the actual quality of stories being told. On the other hand, this just shows that he and the producers should have stuck to their guns when it came to their original plans for the movies. The character of Julia is inherently more fascinating than Pinhead, her motivations and developing personality far better able to sustain an actual narrative. Also, as good as Bradely is as Pinhead, it’s Higgins, by far, who gives the best performance across any of the films. Today, fans of the movies have recognized this, and regularly give Julia the character and Higgins the actor their proper due; it’s only too bad it took so long.

That the 2022 Hellraiser has decided to blaze its own trail with a brand new story and characters is a welcome change (especially when you compare it to last year’s awful legacy sequel to another great Barker property, Candyman), even if it is still too focused on the details of the universe’s mythology. That said, while the movie itself is a slightly better-than-average supernatural slasher, that’s still all it is. It’s lacking the qualities—namely, any real sense of decadent romanticism—that made the first one so singular.

That the fans of the franchise seem to love it is to be expected—horror fans are the easiest lays in the world, after all—but also ironically appropriate, considering that the original novel and film are all about gluttons damning themselves by getting exactly what they asked for.

*I want to stress just how young I’m talking here: I once showed up to a Clive Barker book signing straight from a little league baseball game. I was in my uniform when I met him. He seemed…nonplussed.

Zach Vasquez lives and writes in Los Angeles. His critical work focuses on film and literature. He writes fiction as well.

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