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Why Clive Barker’s ‘Hellraiser’ is an unlikely queer classic

Everything about the the 1987 Brit horror makes it deserving of a place in our hearts, writes Juno Dawson.

By Will Stroude

This article first appeared in Attitude issue 304, January 2019

Unbelievably, some people at Attitude HQ have questioned Hellraiser’s credentials as gay culture. This a blood-splattered hill I will gladly die on.

Exhibit A: Clive Barker, author of The Hellbound Heart, then director and writer of the film it inspired, Hellraiser (1987), is gay. He came out when he was 18 and lives in Beverly Hills with his partner.

He was honoured by GLAAD in 2004, so all of his creative output, it could be argued, should be considered “gay culture.” Barker’s sexuality underpins all his work.

“I worked as a hustler in the 1970s,” Barker told The Guardian in 2017. “I met a lot of people you’ll know and some you won’t: publishers, captains of industry. The way they acted — and the way I did, to be honest — was a source of inspiration later.”

Exhibit B: Hellraiser, if you slice just below the surface, is queer as fuck.

The plot concerns wayward Frank Cotton, a hedonist who performs “small favours” (I’m reading into that “blowies”) to get his hands on a strange puzzle box. He’s told the box contains the ultimate sexual experience of pleasure and pain.

“Sex is a great leveller,” says Barker. “It made me want to tell a story about good and evil in which sexuality was the connective tissue… Hellraiser, the story of a man driven to seek the ultimate sensual experience, has a much more twisted sense of sexuality.”

Frank is somewhat miffed when, instead of sexy ladies, a terrifying quartet of demons come for his soul. Barker explained: “The look of the Cenobites, such as the pins in their leader’s head, was inspired by S&M clubs. But I was emotionally inspired by them, too. On S&M’s sliding scale, I’m probably a six.

“There was an underground club called Cellblock 28 in New York that had a very hard S&M night. No drink, no drugs, they played it very straight. It was the first time I ever saw people pierced for fun. It was the first time I saw blood spilt. The austere atmosphere definitely informed Pinhead: ‘No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering’.”

From hell, Frank enlists his lover and sister-in-law Julia (played by the sublime Clare Higgins) to seduce businessmen so that he can drain their blood until he’s human once more.

The censors made Barker reshoot a scene in which Frank and Julia have anal sex — a very violent and gory vision.

Exhibit C: It’s camp as tits. While Hellraiser is far more stylish and serious than its Eighties contemporaries Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, there’s something very twee about Julia, in yellow satin and shoulder pads, mashing up horny men with a hammer to procure a decent shag. Amen to that, sister.

The S&M vibe of the film has made it a firm favourite with the kink comic-con crowd and the film holds up more than 30 years later.

“I was validating a lifestyle,” Barker reminisced. “It was a celebration of the beauty of these strange secret rituals.”

Also, does anyone else find Pinhead strangely sexy? No? Just me then? OK, I’ll go…