Histories of Horror: Pinhead

Welcome to Histories of Horror, a column in which we will be diving into the origins and inspirations behind some of your favourite horror creatures, characters, and more, from the infamous to the more obscure. Join us as we examine the roots and themes that have helped these stories and characters evolve from the humblest beginnings to becoming, in many cases, cornerstones of pop culture.

The ‘70s and ‘80s gave birth to a new crop of cinematic icons that, over time, have proven to rival the Universal Classic Monsters not only in their pop culture prominence and recognizability, but—above all—in their staying power. Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers have spawned countless sequels, spinoffs and reboots. And of that ‘80s crop of monsters, Hellraiser’s Pinhead is certainly one of the most notable, as well as one of the last. Hellraiser premiered in 1987, after Jason and Freddy had already become superstars appearing in retailer promos and music videos. And even though Pinhead barely saw any screen time at all—and had not even yet been given that iconic nickname—he came in toward the end of the decade to become yet another immortal monster of the modern era. Hellraiser was one of the last horror movies of the decade to once again question and subvert what audiences thought horror could be and what it could do. It was fueled by the feverish imagination of Clive Barker. It broke taboos. It was not only gory during a time in the decade when the MPAA had truly begun cracking down, but it also challenged what even the most dyed-in-the-wool horror fan believed the human body could be subjected to. With only a few lines of dialogue, the Lead Cenobite better known as Pinhead became an icon, thanks largely to the character’s striking look, which was plastered on the poster, video cassette and promotional materials.

But despite feeling like a fever dream plucked directly from Barker’s imagination, Hellraiser didn’t come from nowhere, and neither did Pinhead. Like all great stories and characters who have become icons, his origins and inspirations are many. They begin with the whole framework of the story itself, which is an update on the German legend of Faust, though it is as imaginative a Faustian Pact story as you are ever apt to find. While there are many classic versions of the story, the legend actually begins with a real man. There isn’t a great deal of concrete information on the historical Johann Georg Faust, and that includes whether or not his first name was Johann or Georg. He is believed to have been born in either 1480 or 1466 and to have died in 1541, based on the limited availability of records from the time. This Faust was an alchemist and magician, who boasted so highly of his own power that he claimed he could recreate all the miracles of Christ. Faust is believed to have died in a laboratory explosion that left his body in such a mutilated state that rival scholars apparently said that it seemed as though the devil had come to personally collect him. 

The literary tradition of Faust began with a 1587 German chapbook titled The Historia von D. Johann Fausten. This snowballed into many interpretations and retellings, with some of the most famous of them being Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Goethe’s Faust. In all versions, the story essentially deals with a man named Faust (or Faustus) making a deal with a devil named Mephistopheles in exchange for power, wealth and, well, general pleasure. It is, quite literally, the classic “deal with the Devil” story. It created a template, an archetype, one that has been used hundreds of times, at least. It’s not so much the origin of a particular story as it is an entire storytelling convention and tool. 

Hellraiser is a classic tale of a Faustian pact, on paper, but unique in the fact that there is more than one Faust and more than one pact. Frank, solving a puzzle box and giving away his body and soul for the promise of pleasure, is the most obvious example. But after Frank escapes his imprisonment, his body now a mutilated husk not too dissimilar to how Johann Georg Faust’s body was claimed to have looked, he becomes the Mephistopheles in his pact with Julia, who agrees to kill men in order to restore Frank to his former self, so that he can be her lover again. Finally, Kirsty—who solved the box out of idle curiosity—makes a deal with Pinhead to bring him to Frank in exchange for letting her go free, bringing the circle effectively complete and restoring some semblance of balance. 

While the players shift in certain parts of the story, Pinhead is ultimately the central Mephistopheles figure of the piece. He is a cold, commanding presence. And in typical Clive Barker fashion, he is like no devil or demon you have ever seen on screen before, wholly original in design, yet stemming from a long cultural, literary and and historical tradition all the same. Pinhead says it best, summing up he and his brethren as “demons to some, angels to others.” The name Pinhead might be a nickname, something that wouldn’t stick until the sequels, but the name he and his ilk are given, “Cenobite,” is very specific. The Cenobites are the cornerstone of the Hellraiser mythology. They’re what awaits on the other side of the box, the judges of desire who care much more for flesh than for spirit, and rearrange it however they see fit. And the name given to these priests of pain certainly doesn’t come from nowhere. 

“Cenobite” is a historical Christian term which typically describes one who practices cenobitic monasticism. Cenobitic monks, rather than favoring isolation, devote themselves to a communal lifestyle devoted to religious rule. This communal form of monasticism was founded by Pachomius the Great. Pachomius and his monks balanced communal prayer and service with solitude, sleeping in individual cells. Even in their brief screen time, the quartet of Cenobites in Hellraiser serve as a dark reflection of the historical monks from which their name derives. They always appear together, they each preach the same gospel (well, the two who have retained the ability speak, at least) and even if their faith is the corrugation of flesh, they appear wholeheartedly devoted to it. Interestingly, there was a scene cut from Hellraiser that would actually have shown the Cenobites in their monastic cells, depicting what each of them is doing just before the box is opened and the bell rings to call them to action. 

While the otherworldly religious order of Hellraiser (dubbed in the source novella The Hellbound Heart as the Order of the Gash) may devote themselves to torture, that is also not a remotely new concept in Christianity. In that respect, Barker’s torturous demon monks aren’t terribly removed from their historical influence. Sure, most monks have not driven pins through their face or given themselves a tracheotomy, but self-mutilation has a long, nearly bottomless history in the faith. Self-flagellation, stigmata, all are deeply ingrained in Christian history. As is the thing that the Cenobites of Hellraiser find most holy: torture.

Though he may be the Mephistopheles of the story, the deal-maker, he is also the leader of the Cenobites in their devotion to torture and as such, is the Grand Inquisitor. When compared to so many cruel religious figures of history, Pinhead naturally bears most in common with Tomas de Torquemada, figurehead of the Spanish Inquisition. Torquemada was named Grand Inquisitor in 1483 by the Pope, and remained in that position until his death in 1498. This was one of the darkest times in human history, in which thousands were killed and subjected to all manner of horrific torture, all in the name of the Lord. The Inquisition at first targeted Muslim and Jewish people, but before too long began to deliver the same punishment toward any and every person who was critical of the Inquisition itself. Torquemada was committed to his role as Grand Inquisitor until his health began to fail, and spent his last years in isolation. In 1832, Torquemada’s tomb was robbed, only two years before the official end of the Inquisition. Pinhead, in many respects, could be seen as a less evil Inquisitor than the historical Torquemada, as his devotion to torture is not out of racism or fear, but simply out of the love of torture itself.

Religious scarification is also a crucial building block in the development of Pinhead and certainly not limited to Christianity, and should be worth noting as it is crucial to the Cenobites. In fact, in the nicknames that have stuck throughout the series, from Pinhead, to Chatterer, to Deep Throat (the nickname given to the Female Cenobite on the original) the mutilation of their bodies define the Cenobites. Scarification has a long, long history around the world. Many cultures practice scarring their bodies into certain patterns, transforming their bodies by extending their earlobes, their necks, their lips, and of course through piercing. Pinhead has been called the patron saint of piercing and it is certainly an apt description. 

Body modification was rising to counter cultural prominence in the 1980s, when Barker wrote The Hellbound Heart and adapted it into the film Hellraiser. Tattoos and piercings, which had become more and more common in the ‘70s, gave way to bigger and bigger things. You’d be able to enter the right club and see people suspending themselves from the ceiling via hooks through their skin. People piercing any pierce-able part of their body, people with needles in their face, you name it, the experimentation of what could be done with and to the human body was on full display. It’s no wonder that so many people in the community, as shown in the 2000 Hellraiser: Resurrection documentary, have cited Pinhead and the Cenobites as inspirations, as Barker was inspired by these clubs and communities in his creation of the characters in the first place. You don’t say “angels to others” without knowing exactly who the people who think of the Cenobites as angels would be.

Of course, when it comes to the creation of the character and the world, the biggest inspiration lies in Barker himself. Born in Liverpool in 1952, Clive Barker certainly came from humble enough beginnings, but the seeds for Hellraiser were laid very early on. When Barker was a young boy, his grandfather brought him a puzzle box from his travels overseas as a ship’s cook. The boy spent hours trying to crack the box, and it’s easy to think how much time spent on a box like that could lead to one imagine what might possibly happen when it finally opened. In secondary school, Barker paraded through the hallway with a fake severed head to promote a play he had written, catching the eye of his art teacher as well as schoolmates Peter Atkins and Doug Bradley.

This all led to the creation of a fringe theatre group called The Dog Company, consisting of Barker, Atkins and Bradley, as well as Simon Bamford and Nicholas Vince and others. All of these people would be incredibly crucial in the development of Hellraiser. While many of Barker’s plays touch on similar themes, one in particular stands out: The History of the Devil. The play depicts the trial of Lucifer, to determine whether or not he is fit to return to Heaven. In the original production, Doug Bradley played the titular Devil, who refers to himself as a “student of the world.” Interestingly, though this Devil is a far cry from Pinhead in most respects, Barker has often referred to the Cenobite in similar terms.

In 1984, Barker emerged onto the horror scene in the most dynamic way possible, with the publication of The Books of Blood. These stories were, in addition to being simply terrific, wholly unique and ghoulishly imaginative. They were the perfect way for a new author to announce himself, with a sample platter of so many different kinds of fantasy horror. These stories also sewed many seeds for what would become Hellraiser, both in inspiration for the overall story and for the Cenobites themselves. Many of the stories deal with people being punished for bearing witness to sights beyond their own world—or perception of their world, at least—that they should not have seen. In “The Midnight Meat Train” our protagonist Leon witnesses a serial killer on a train, and then beyond that, follows the train to the end of the line to realize that it is this man’s job to butcher people to feed to the cannibalistic city fathers. In his learning of this information, Leon is changed, he is transformed and takes over this sacred, secret duty. In Hellraiser, Frank seeks out the sights the Cenobites have to offer, but makes the mistake of believing that their otherworldly view of pleasure would be the same as his. Kirsty’s treatment by the Cenobites is very similar to Leon’s meeting the city fathers, as she discovered them by accident, but even in doing so, couldn’t simply be let go. 

“The Forbidden,” which became the 1992 film Candyman, also deals with similar themes. The Candyman appears to Helen because she did not believe the stories about him, he wants to claim her as a victim, but not until she wants that as well. There is a central idea that the victim must be a willing participant, which is crucial to Hellraiser as well. You have to solve the box, and even if interpretations may vary, most people are promised at least a some idea of what awaits them. Sights beyond their world, pain and pleasure, indivisible, that’s exactly what the Cenobites provide. Even when they appear to Kirsty, they don’t simply start dragging her to Hell. They explain themselves, they make a sales pitch. And there’s an underlying question as both Kirsty and Pinhead develop throughout the sequels, of this idea that maybe she does want to see the sights they have to offer, more than she would ever probably admit. 

In 1985,  Barker published his first full-length horror novel, The Damnation Game. It’s crucial to mention this book when discussing the development of Hellraiser because it’s another explicitly Faustian story. The Mephistopheles of this novel, Mamoulian, is similar to Pinhead in some ways and very different in others. Like Pinhead, Mamoulian is world-weary, he’s seen it all and done it all. His pursuit of the gambler Whitehead seems almost identical at first to Pinhead’s pursuit of escaped prisoner Frank, on paper. But Mamoulian’s exhaustion with his station allows his views to change somewhat as the novel progresses, whereas Pinhead is singularly focused on the work in front of him, at least in the original film. Mamoulian also, despite his work, cannot stand gore or even the sight of blood, which is certainly not a trait that Pinhead shares.

In 1986, Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart was first published in the Night Visions anthology. It bears many differences from the eventual film, with its version of Pinhead being chief among them. The Cenobites of the novella are more androgynous, and the equivalent of Pinhead, with their face cut into a grid with jeweled pins driven through to the bone, is described as having a voice that is “light and breathy, the voice of an excited girl.” A far cry, obviously, from the deep, hollow, sinister voice that Bradley would make iconic. Barker, at the time, was already setting his sights on making a movie of his own after being less than delighted with the treatment of his work in Rawhead Rex and Underworld (AKA Transmutations.) The Hellbound Heart seemed tailor-made to become a film, and was turned into a screenplay very quickly. After all, as a first-time director working with a low budget, a horror story largely confined to a single house seems like a no-brainer. While Hellbound Heart is a truly exceptional novella, given the time between its publication and Hellraiser and the fact that many of the changes—particularly to Kirsty—are for the better, in some respects Hellraiser feels less like an adaptation of the story and more like a final draft.

While Barker had never directed a feature film prior to Hellraiser, he had directed two 16mm short films, Salome and The Forbidden. The latter, which has no relation to his Candyman-spawning story of the same name, is a major stepping stone toward his debut feature and the creation of Pinhead, as it was perhaps his most explicit Faust adaptation. In the eventual video release of those shorts, Doug Bradley remembered taking note of some of The Forbidden’s imagery, particularly a nail board. Bradley said: “It was a block of wood which he squared off and banged six-inch nails at the intersection of the squares. When I first saw the illustrations for Pinhead, it rang a bell with me. Here was the idea he’d been playing with, the nail-board from The Forbidden. Now, ten or fifteen years later, here he’d actually put the idea all over a human face!” 

When speaking of Pinhead as a character, though, the biggest and most crucial element to that development is naturally Doug Bradley, who nearly turned the role down for the part of one of the moving men, so that at least his face would be seen. In that first movie in particular, he does so much with so little. His presence is stoic but never stiff, his voice hollow, but always chilling. Even though every line is in service to his duty, you can hear the weariness in this character that would go on to define him throughout the sequels.

In many ways, Pinhead is one of the most fascinating horror icons, for reasons that usually go overlooked. He is not simply a jailor with no personality beyond his service to his job, but someone desperate for new experiences, desperate to shake things up to see what would happen—even in his deal with Kirsty, which he accepts in opposition to the other Cenobites—and is ultimately a man desperate to rise above his rank, above himself, always in pursuit of new knowledge, new experience, new power, and often failing. And it is incredibly compelling to have a character so ominous, so regal, yet somewhat endearingly pathetic in his emptiness at the same time. 

For many horror fans, it was love at first sight with Pinhead, to the point that he became the figurehead of the franchise despite having never been intended to be that at all. The image grabbed people, so the character kept getting more screen time, started having more impact on the plot, and eventually became the kind of icon that Freddy and the others had already become by the time he burst on the scene. In 1992, Pinhead was appearing in a skit alongside David Spade at the MTV Movie Awards, he was appearing with Gilbert Gottfried in USA’s Up All Night and playing poker with Lemmy in Motörhead’s “Hellraiser” music video, directed by Barker himself. Over thirty years later, the series has spawned ten entries, numerous acclaimed comic series, action figures, and a television series currently in development. Pinhead continues to be a cornerstone of modern horror, an icon who still, by all accounts, has such sights to show us. And one can hope he always will. 

  1. This was an excellent read.
    Also, as a fan, i gotta say that only with a reader chrome extension was i able to read this whole thing.

    Thin, light grey type on white is very hard to read for longer than a paragraph, might be something to think about; I would hate the medium to kill the message!

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