We Have Such Sights to Show You: Hellraiser and the Spectrum of Queerness
Much of my adolescence as a bisexual woman coming to terms with her identity was spent discovering all I could about my sexuality, my community, and my place within it. Because my most effective learning happens through the art I encounter, it only further confused me to see how often the queer stories I was presented with, especially on screen, didn’t totally resonate with my own experience. Most queer films I was watching told gay or lesbian stories, which I understood as extremely valuable, but not quite as easy for me to identify with completely. It started to occur to me that maybe I really was confused, or that the things I was excited by weren’t as valid as I wanted them to be, until I finally came across the film that changed what queerness meant to me forever.
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser was the very first film to introduce queerness to me as an unbelievably broad spectrum that went far beyond mere sexual orientation. Sure, it was about other things such as gender and identity, but the film most notably included certain sexual inclinations that fell completely outside of the heteronormative circle. Concepts such as sadomasochism, bondage, and even polyamory are creatively explored in Hellraiser in new and exciting ways I hadn’t seen represented when compared to the sea of other films with such a limited understanding of sexuality and the spectrum it can cover.
The film opens by introducing us to Frank Cotton who obtains a puzzle cube that, upon being solved, summons supernatural beings clad in leather and chains. We later learn that these are the Cenobites, who dwell in a realm of extreme carnal indulgence, subjecting people to severe forms of sadomasochism that include but are by no means limited to limbs being torn apart by hooks and chains. Clearly, this amalgamation of pleasure and pain is extremely hyperbolized for the sake of horror. But it doesn’t feel too far off from the way queer people in the BDSM community are often perceived by those who don’t understand the subculture.
To me, that’s the key variable that makes Hellraiser so special. Barker is entirely aware of heteronormative insecurities, such as versions of polyamory involving Frank and his mistress, Julia. Barker took these insecurities and combined them with imagery derived from the underground leather scene of the time in order to establish a film about the broad spectrum of sensuality and sexuality. He shocked audiences with its subversive, but wildly inclusive, material.
Even more important is the fact that Clive Barker created this film as a gay man, which allows queer representation to transcend the screen into the real world, and almost makes Hellraiser resonate with me even more profoundly. Having always been interested in monsters, it could be safe to assume that Barker was fascinated by outsiders and outcasts like his creations because he could relate to them.
And that’s the thing—I could relate to them, too.
I felt profoundly understood by Hellraiser, as it is the closest a film has ever gotten to not only including characters whose interests I could identify with, but also perfectly portraying how these non-heteronormative behaviors are perceived by others. It’s evident in the way the Cenobites, Frank, and Julia are all seen as deviants by the other characters. The film may not involve any explicitly gay characters, but it broadened my understanding of queerness as a spectrum while helping me feel valid in my own sexuality; a gift for which I am eternally grateful to Barker and Hellraiser.