The title of this paper contains two pairs of apparent contradictions: pleasure tied to pain, sinners turned into saints—but these are contradictions only if these dyadic terms are taken too literally. Seen from another angle, the title presents two paradoxes rather than contradictions, and it is from this angle that I will attempt to explore my ideas. Paradox—para-doxa—literally means outside of accepted opinion, an alternative route to pursuing knowledge. The paradoxical route I shall be taking is an iconological examination of the ‘twilight language’ of Clive Barker’s directorial debut, Hellraiser.
Two terms obviously need to be explained. The iconological method I will be employing is derived from the project initiated in the early 20th century by Aby Warburg and extended by such influential scholars as Erwin Panofsky and E. H. Gombrich. The iconological method excavates the buried history beneath the surface of certain images through an exploration of their connexions with literature, philosophy and other arts (such as music for example). While iconology is not traditionally a method used in the study of cinematographic texts, the study of images, no matter how this study is pursued, is hardly controversial within cinema studies. The notion of ‘twilight language’ however is not so uncontroversial.
The twilight language I am referring to is that which in Sanskrit is called sandha-bhasa. Sandha–bhasa (literally ‘twilight language’) describes the kind of language in which the texts of Hindu and early Buddhist tantric texts were written. Tantra (which literally means text, thread or, by metonymic extension, tradition) is an initiatory tradition. As such, the texts associated with this tradition carried two meanings: an exoteric or literal (doxa) meaning, and an esoteric or obscure (para-doxical) meaning. Traditionally this latter, hieratic, level of meaning could only be understood by an initiate of the tantric tradition.
I should point out that while I have a long and abiding scholarly interest in the tantric tradition, I am by no means a scholarly expert in the tradition of tantric twilight language: I do not possess the secret keys to unravelling this hieratic language. What I am proposing to do however is to try to describe the particular imaginary that one can find in Barker’s film, as if it was a sort of cinematographic tantra. Perhaps even more perversely, I am going to read Hellraiser as if it is aEuropean tantric text, and I will be utilizing the iconological method to substantiate this reading.
But before I do this, I want to return for a moment to my opening gambit in which I called attention to the coincidentia oppositorum of my title. I want to contrast this approach with that of another scholar writing about the transcendental nature of the modern horror film, Will H. Rockett in his book, Devouring Whirlwind.
Taking his initial cue from Aldous Huxley, Rockett notes three traditional vectors for transcendence: upwards, sideways and downward. The first is by far the most difficult path: the path of anchorites, celibates, Zen masters and Dalai lamas. Accordingly Huxley notes our “very natural reluctance to take the hard ascending way” (Huxley, in Rockett, 7). The second vector, the sideways path, is the one most often pursued in the Modern period; it is the path of good works, a path which demands a certain selflessness and a desire to contribute to the greater good. Rockett notes,
The sideward path is humanity’s most common recourse, and human beings are encouraged to pursue it both by personal inclination and by social pressure, so long as they work in moderation. (Rockett, 8)
I will add that it is this “sideward path”, the path of moderation, that one most often sees represented in Hollywood cinema. The story-form of the greater number of Hollywood productions explicates this socially acceptable form of transcendence whereby the key protagonists are transformed into better, more—well, lets face it, more bourgeois—creatures by the close of the story-arc. It is indeed a path of moderation: Hollywood will brook no extremes in terms of its narratives or its imagery.
The third path, that of downward transcendence, is the key idea in Rockett’s take on the horror film. According to him it is a path “taken more often than the ascending one”:
In the case of substance abuse and sexual obsession, the principal reason is that to descend through such artificial means is easier than to climb without them. However, recourse to the demonic has a more complex cause, found in humanity’s long-held predilection for recognising the presence of evil in the world and for experiencing demonic terror before recognising transcendent goodness and experiencing deific joy. (Rockett, 9)
I want to briefly untangle the ideas encapsulated in these two sentences. For Rockett, the common coinage of “substance abuse” and “sexual obsession” utilize a descending movement that is “artificial” and “easy”. The clear implication is that the use of drugs and sex to attain transcendence is somehow inauthentic when compared with the other two vectors. Furthermore these two modalities are inferior to the “recourse to the demonic” in contemporary horror films where, according to Rockett, the experience of demonic terror (i.e., classical panic) is only a prelude to the recognition of “transcendent goodness”, i.e. God. Rockett’s position could not be clearer: transcendence via the downward path is bad, and if it really must be pursued, it should only be seen as a precursor to the ultimate recognition of the Good. His position is thus a modern version of Plato’s view of the aesthetic experience, where contemplation of that which is base leads one inevitably to the realisation of that which is highest, the Good—even if Rockett himself is unaware of this kindred viewpoint.
There are a couple of other things I would like to note here. Rockett’s position vis a vis the narrative structures in the films he examines can be recognised as that of classical katabasis: the protagonist must go down, before s/he can go up. First the terror, then the bliss. From my twilight language perspective, Rockett’s analysis is simplistic and utterly conventional. One needs to recognise that the vectorial relation that holds that God is up and Hell is down is purely a matter of (cultural) convention. Up and down are relative terms, and in the most interesting horror films this convention is outright challenged: up is down and down is up and what the hell is that coming up behind us? Moreover for Rockett “sexual obsession”—by which I take it that he means depictions of the extremes of sexuality—is an inauthentic approach to transcendence. In contradiction to these ideas, a twilight language approach holds that transcendence may well be immanent in any activity and not the result of a path taken while having one’s eyes cast to heaven. It is not a case of polarity, of a tension, a path set up between opposite poles, but rather the possibility of a what one might call a fractalic, many-path immanence—at any rate, that is my contention with regard to Barker’s Hellraiser.
To expedite matters, I will ignore the narrative of Hellraiser (except where it is necessary to explicate my ideas) and concentrate, as I have said, on an iconological examination of the film. That is to say, I will examine a class of images in isolation from the narrative itself.
The class of images I will be examining are the images of the Cenobites, creatures fromelsewhere (neither heaven or hell, but evidently just a stones throw away from quotidian reality) who are summoned into the aforementioned quotidian reality through the operation of an inter-dimensional key in the form of a puzzle box called the Lament Configuration.
There are only seven total minutes of screen time devoted to the Cenobites in Barker’sHellraiser, yet the force of their image is arresting enough to warrant a close reading of their twilight significance. In an on-set interview during the making of the film, Barker, possibly referring to the Cenobites themselves, stated that he wished that the audience would be “stunned by the elegance of the images and at the same time appalled by the subject matter” and that these images would provoke both “tension and paradox” in the viewer (Barker, Hellraiser DVD commentary).
In Hellraiser, the apparent leader of the Cenobites (popularly known as Pinhead, for obvious reasons) states, “We are explorers of the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.”
The result of these explorations in the nether regions of experience is that they are able to offer Frank, a person one might characterise as an “extreme sport” pleasure-seeker and around whom the main narrative thread revolves, “…experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure indistinguishable.” It is this promise of an experience of the infinite through the overcoming of opposites, this coincidentia oppositorum in excelsus, that is the key to my iconological explorations of these figures.
When Barker says that he thought many people would be “stunned by the elegance of the images” for many it would be unclear as to what he could possibly mean by this in a film in which we observe a man torn apart in a netherworld torture chamber, a woman driven to murder because of her overwhelming desire for a demonic lover and the image of a bloody, flayed man desiccating helpless victims—unless, of course, one adopts a twilight language approach to the iconography of the Cenobites, where we can observe the equivalence of pleasure and pain, an excess that assures the transcendence of mundane polarities.
But first let me address the denotative. The exoteric appearance of the Cenobites marks them as curious “signs of the times.” Hellraiser was shot in 1986, with its conception and design predating this by a few years. The look of the Cenobites is no doubt the result of two sub-cultural aesthetic influences: “punk” and the rise of “BDSM” (Bondage-Discipline-Sadism-Masochism) clubs. In fact these two influences can be traced to one particular nexus: Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood’s clothing shop, Seditionaires in Chelsea, London, in the late 1970s. McClaren and Westwood stocked their shop with leather bondage gear imported from the USA as well as their own, unique contributions to bas couture: torn clothing, dog collars and DIY body-piercings in the form of safety pins and fish hooks. It is inarguable that without McClaren and Westwood, the distinctive British punk look of the late 1970s would never have manifested in the manner that it did. If we add to this “look” the strap-and-stud leather of bondage gear associated with the increasingly visible presence of the gay sub-culture of BDSM clubs, then we have the origins of the appearance of the Cenobites. Each of the Cenobites is garbed in some sort of post-industrial leather ensemble, a miscegenation that appears to be a combination of a butcher’s outfit, the flight suit of a Nazi wing commander and a leather straight-jacket. Their flesh is torn, scarred and sutured with hooks, pins and staples. The face of one has been pulled so far back that all that is discernable is a gummy, chattering wound of a mouth. Another reveals a vaginal gash in her throat, the wound held open by surgical pins. And of course Pinhead himself has had his entire head sectioned and gridded by a knife, each interstice marked by a nail driven into the skull. Such is their appearance, but that is not all there is to be discovered.
The term “cenobite” means a member of a religious order living in a community of similar members, as opposed to an anchorite, which is a member of a religious order who lives in solitude. Barker’s name for his other-dimensional creatures is the first key in tracing the twilight, iconological significance of these images. It immediately calls to mind the idea of a world long gone, the medieval world of the monastery and the convent, places of worship, discipline and learning. I am not talking, of course, of the actual medieval world, nor actual monastic orders, but rather of the “shaggy Medieval” (as Umberto Eco called it): the medieval world as evoked in our popular imaginary, an alien world of penitents, martyrs, saints and sinners. Here is also the wheel and the gibbet, the fires of Hell and the streaming light from the hand of God. It is a world of radical alterity, a world which we have imagined and then utilised to distinguish all that is Modern from that which went before.
Our popular medieval imaginary is singularly imbued with a terrifying cruelty. This cruelty is depicted in medieval manuscripts, in court records and in the descriptions of the deprivations of monks and nuns and the abasement of the body undergone in monasteries and convents. There is little doubt that in their time the visual excess of certain forms of medieval imagery performed a normative function, keeping the people in line and maintaining the feudal medieval status quo. Yet, as medievalist Robert Mills has noted,
…sometimes, just sometimes, it also provided spaces in which to work through more subversive possibilities: empathy with, and opposition to, the pain of the punished, fantasies of resistance and empowerment, even forms of eroticism that transgress accepted norms. (Mills , 17)
According to this reading, the inquisitorial, look-out-for-the-wrath-of-the-lord, Dominican (“hounds of god”) world-view was not—could not—be hegemonic, and erotic transgression was one of several possible responses to the imagery of acts of violence and cruelty produced within the medieval period. In an effort to “queer” the middle ages, Mills further proposes a medieval “art of pain”, such that,
The art of pain might also have created spaces for the exploration of certain forms of desire, notably sexual desire, in response to the naked, tormented bodies of the martyrs and Christ. (Mills, 18)
Flagellation was one of the earliest forms of body-debasement practised by cenobites and anchorites alike. As a practice it is a medievalism that has travelled through the centuries up until our own times, making its appearance in religious festivals and Hellfire Clubs  alike. This is a description of self-flagellation from the best-selling memoirs of a life spent inside a Catholic convent in the 1960s:
The cords bit into my flesh, smarted and stung. I felt sweat standing out on my brow and felt myself trembling all over… I looked up at the crucifix on the wall as my numbed neck began to prickle painfully into life, bewildered by the excitement that had possessed me. Where had it come from? Instead of beating my body into subjection the discipline seemed to have roused it to life, touching something in me that left me frightened, tingling and alert. (Quoted in Mills, 147)
Mills states that medieval devotional writings and modern accounts such as the foregoing, “produce a fantasy of affective transformation, a fantasy in which the boundaries between pain and pleasure become manifestly blurred” (Mills, 148). He thus hopes to demonstrate that “medieval pain, when imaged, could be transformed into a signifier of mystical or even erotic pleasure” (Mills, 149).
The esoteric function of Barker’s Cenobites is to provide, “…experience beyond limits. Pain and pleasure indistinguishable”; in other words, an infinity of pleasurepain that transgresses and transcends polarities, an ever increasing excess that withers Freud’s Reality Principle at the very moment it tries to recuperate itself. In this manner the radical alterity of our “shaggy medievalism” is transformed and overcome in Barker’s vision such there is an evaporation of opposites (good and evil, pleasure and pain) and with this transfiguration the recognition of a dark spirituality that has always been with us—in medieval times just as now.
1. I refer, of course, not to Francis Dashwood’s notorious Monks of Medmenham, but to the late 20th century phenomenon of commercial “Hellfire Clubs” devoted to BDSM.
Barker, Hellraiser DVD commentary.
Mills, (2005). Suspended Animation: Pain, Pleasure and Punishment in Medieval Culture(London: Reaktion Books).
Rockett, Will H. (1988). Devouring Whirlwind: Terror and Transcendence in the Cinema of Cruelty (New York: Greenwood Press).