queerview: “Enough is a Myth” — Kink, Consent, and Trans Representation in Hellraiser

Ley David Elliette Cray
ANMLY
Published in
8 min readOct 31, 2022

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Standing in front of a brick wall, the Priest (portrayed by Jamie Clayton) gazes through blackened eyes with an air of detached curiosity. Her skin is a pale greyish-blue, peeled away along the shoulders and around the throat to reveal red musculature underneath. Circular, golden symbols adorn her throat, along with pearl-tipped pins puncturing the intersections of grid-like lines covering her bald head.

[Spoilers for The Hellbound Heart (1986), Hellraiser (1987), Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) and Hellraiser (2022).]

“We have such sights to show you,” Jamie Clayton’s character (credited only as “The Priest”) says in direct echo of Doug Bradley’s unforgettable line as the lead Cenobite from Clive Barker’s 1987 directorial debut, Hellraiser. Cast in David Bruckner’s 2022 reimagining of Barker’s work — both the film and its source material, Barker’s 1986 novella, The Hellbound Heart — Clayton has offered what has quickly become my preferred version of the character, though neither this new Pinhead nor the film she appears in are immune to potentially substantial criticism from both trans and kink perspectives.

1987’s Hellraiser is a staple of queer horror, despite not featuring any overtly queer characters. The film foregrounds transgressive eroticism and the blurred lines between pleasure and pain, drawing attention to the particular aesthetics of the leather and BDSM subcultures long before such things more-or-less integrated into the cultural mainstream. Frank Cotton (portrayed at various times throughout the film by Sean Chapman, Oliver Smith, and Andrew Robinson) is the sort of masculinist “Domly Dom” who today might be the sort of person you’d run into on Fetlife in the form of repeated unsolicited messages expressing what he’d “do to you” if given the chance. Frank clearly desires what he sees as the truly transgressive, and suffers the unbearable consequences when he receives what he so naively thought he wanted.

Despite the sole femme-coded Cenobite (portrayed by Grace Kirby and regrettably credited as “Female Cenobite”) being the first of these leather-clad explorers—angelic to some, demonic to others—to appear on screen, it is Bradley’s “Pinhead” who takes the lead in delivering Frank’s subsequent and sadistic fate. Bradley’s deep, dramatic tone and detached presence is the stuff of nightmares — less of a character per se and more of an embodiment of the stark realization that you’re getting what you asked for despite having had no idea of what what-you-asked-for really entails.

By contrast, Clayton’s portrayal is less bombastic, more subdued and — ultimately — more effective. Of course, if you knew me, you’d likely expect me to say exactly that: I’m a bald, trans femme BDSM educator, after all. Seeing myself represented in any way on screen is, to understate the matter, rare. And given the history of transgender representation in the mainstream horror genre — whether we consider explicitly trans characters such as Angela Baker in 1983’s Sleepaway Camp or dangerously trans-coded characters such as Norman Bates, Buffalo Bill, and to a lesser extent, some iterations of Leatherface — it’s refreshing to see a non-normatively sensual character portrayed by a transgender actor in a non-villainous role.

(Note, though, how—*ahem*—some will conveniently ignore Clayton’s transgender identity when complaining about how Hellraiser has “gone woke” by casting a woman to play Pinhead, even despite the character being coded as femme in the original source material. Of course, this textbook transmisogyny is unsurprising, with trans woman all too often read as men when it serves to advance transphobic ideology and as women when it suits the misogynists. The inconsistency here would approach the comical, were it not completely unamusing in every single way.)

Wait. Did I really just saying Clayton plays a non-villainous role? I did. Despite Bradley’s version of the character devolving into a rather typical slasher villain cliché by the time of Anthony Hickox’s 1992 Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, I follow the train of thought (gestured at above) according to which none of the Cenobites in Barker’s film, Bruckner’s film, or Barker’s novella are even really characters, much less villains. To be a character in a robust sense is, at the least, to have a sense of agency, and the Cenobites are both deliverers of strictly and severely administered choice-based consequences and recipients trapped by the same. There’s an amoral determinism to their actions not seen to govern other characters in the franchise until their pivotal and decisive actions lock them into a gorily transcendent fate. The Cenobites aren’t agents of consequence: they are consequence.

It’s not just Clayton’s more subdued, eerily inquisitive performance that leads me to deem her Pinhead more effective than Bradley’s, however. That’s part of it, of course, but what makes this Pinhead the definitive Pinhead is the consequence she embodies. Barker’s story was about the insatiable desire for pleasure, presented through grotesquely sadomasochistic trappings. On the surface, Bruckner’s film seems to be going in a similar direction, with a focus on the consequences of desire in general. A closer look, however, reveals a deeper focus not on either desire or pleasure, but instead on power and control.

Whereas 1987’s Frank sought increasing levels of erotic satisfaction by way of escalating carnal pleasures, 2022’s primary antagonist — Goran Višnjić’s Roland Voight — is explicitly identified as fundamentally motivated by a thirst for power. Protagonist Riley McKendry (portrayed by Odessa A’zion) struggles with control over her addiction. The two male characters closest to Riley — boyfriend Trevor (Drew Starkey) and brother Matt (Brandon Flynn) — realize this theme as well, with Trevor controlling Riley through manipulation and the source of conflict between Riley and Matt being a sibling power-struggle in which Riley experiences Matt as perpetually trying to “fix” her.

Barker’s Hellraiser transgresses into queerness by centering sex and sensation. Bruckner’s, on the other hand, transgresses by centering the consequences of power, a component integral to both queerness and kink. At a level deeper than the sensual interplay of pleasure and pain, BDSM subculture tends to revolve around power-exchange — that is, around relations of domination and submission. (Even many sadomasochists — the SM in BDSM — describe deriving satisfaction from the power dynamic inherent in the administering or receiving of extreme sensation.) This new take on the Hellraiser franchise, more than any entry before, brings these elements of domination and submission to the forefront.

Queerness, in turn, connects to power insofar as any queer identity variously involves a resistance to the ubiquitous imposition of cisheteronormativity. Choosing to live out loud as one’s true self, often times despite a deeply affecting uncertainty regarding the potential consequences of that very choice, is an act of radical defiance and subversion.

One might argue that Hellraiser ’22 is, in one superficial sense, “more queer” than ’87 insofar as it actually features explicitly queer characters in the form of Matt and his boyfriend, Adam Faison’s Colin. (As well as, arguably, some implicitly queer ones: despite her “relationship” with Trevor, I absolutely head-canon Riley as aromantic.) But it’s in foregrounding of themes of power, resistance, domination, and submission that I find Bruckner’s film to be queer in a different sense. In one film we see a timely and important advancement of queerness through the presentation (and hence, normalization) of queer aesthetics; in the other, we see a thematic exploration of an existentially queer politic.

As a BDSM educator, however, there are a few things that give me pause while praising either of these films—and as a trans person, Bruckner’s film in particular. Both explore queerness through presentations of BDSM aesthetics and differing levels of interaction with fundamental elements of BDSM subculture. Unfortunately, both also make the same mistake in presenting a misleadingly warped and potentially dangerous notion of consent. In ’87, Frank and Kirsty both face the sadistic consequences of solving the puzzle box despite both initially lacking a clear idea of what is to come upon doing so, with Kirsty narrowly escaping her fate by delegating her “reward” to Frank. Similarly, in ’22, anyone who solves the puzzle box is marked by a painful incision from a blade within the box itself, subsequently doomed to receive the Cenobites’ “gift.” Various lines of dialogue from both films curiously suggest that the choice somehow does ultimately lie with these characters, but there is clearly no sense in which their “consent” qualifies as informed—and hence, genuine—consent.

Tony Randel’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988), a sequel to the original film with a story by Barker, goes some way toward correcting this issue insofar as the Cenobites are shown to spare a woman who solves the box without any idea of what doing so might entail. It’s a disappointing aspect of Bruckner’s film, then, that this aspect of the mythology of the puzzle box reverts to that of Hellraiser ’87. The theme of getting what you ask for despite not having a clear idea of what that really entails has chilling potential; that same theme dressed up in the aesthetics of BDSM runs the risk of perpetuating the same dangerous misrepresentations of consent that we see embedded in unfortunate works such as E.L. James’s Fifty Shades series and the first season of Netflix’s Bonding. The result? At worst increased, and at best, sustained stigma toward the kink community and its participants — a community to which informed consent is as close to sacred as anything could be.

My other worry is this: while Clayton’s portrayal of The Priest strikes me as immediately iconic, some of the implications of the character’s presentation leave me concerned. Through Voight, we see that the Cenobites become the beings that they are as a result of the consequences of their choices. Clayton’s Priest, then, is a femme-coded character — and, while not explicitly trans herself in the film, still notably portrayed by a trans actor — physically and permanently mutilated as a consequence of her own choices. While I’m certain that this was neither Bruckner nor Clayton’s intention, it is implied by events of the film, which gets a bit too close to Tucker Carlson-style commentary on trans-ness than I’d prefer. (Not that I’d prefer any level of closeness to such deliberately oppressive nonsense, of course.) I find some comfort in the counterargument that all of the Cenobites face this level of self-imposed mutilation, but given Clayton’s centrality both among the Cenobites and in the film as a whole, the discomfort lingers.

Despite this ambivalence, I’m going to say something I rarely say when talking about horror franchises: my hope is for a sequel. Clayton’s fascinating portrayal of The Priest cries out for more screen time and further exploration, and just as Hellbound corrected some of the missteps of Hellraiser ’87, another entry in this reimagining of the franchise could do a great deal to course-correct on some of the problematic elements discussed above.

“Enough is a myth,” Clayton’s Priest declares. I agree. I want more—but I hope that more is a bit more careful in its explorations of some of its disproportionately delicate subject matter.

David Bruckner’s Hellraiser (2022) is streaming on Hulu. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) is streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and elsewhere. The Hellbound Heart (1986)—also by Barker—is available through HarperCollins and (hopefully!) at your local bookstore.

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Ley David Elliette Cray
ANMLY

She/they. Sexologist. Feral academic. Professional nerd. Instagram: @transentience.coaching / http://www.transentiencecoaching.com