So Fair and Full of Flesh: Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)

I would have taken your two grey eyes and put them in a tree.

So Fair and Full of Flesh: Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)

Welcome back to the Halloween Special! This year, we're doing changelings and bad fairies to celebrate the impending release of The Neighbors in trade paperback.

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Once upon a time, there was a man who would fuck anything that moved. He was a liar, and a heartbreaker, and he was also a thief. No hope for his character. Women were warned about him: If you met this man, you would lose your virginity, or your money, or both. Women did manage to keep meeting him, though, until he got one of them pregnant, and it was to her he told his story: He had been like anyone else, once. He made a mistake, a simple mistake, and was taken by the Others. These Others lived in another world, one that was far underground, and they took people — attractive people, curious people, people who broke the rules — and played with them in terrible ways:

And every once in seven years

They pay a tithe to hell.

I am so fair and full of flesh

I fear it is myself.

He had been seducing women ever since, in the hopes that he might find one who would save him. This woman, the one he’d gotten pregnant, had every reason to do it, but she would have to be brave, because before the Others would let him go, they would twist his body into strange shapes. She would see him undergo horrible transformations right in front of her. Yet if she was truly fearless, she could return him to the living. She, and she alone, could raise him from Hell.

This is the plot of Tam Lin, a Scottish ballad, and one of the oldest extant stories about the fairies. It is also, in many ways, a first draft of the 1987 Hellraiser — a movie in which a dissolute slut of a man is abducted into the underworld by torture-happy beings called the Cenobites, and calls upon his human lover to raise him from the Underworld. Saving him, in this case, means watching while he slowly regenerates from a screaming, gore-encrusted skeleton to a more-or-less human man.

There’s more to Hellraiser than what I just told you, but I want you to recognize the bones (as it were) of the story. It’s an old story. It’s a fairy story. Toward the end — when the man coming back from the faerie realm steals the skin of the virginal heroine’s father in order to pass as human — it’s even a changeling story. If we don’t call it that, it’s only because of how it’s presented: Hard, bloody, ugly, with none of the fluff and gauze we associate with fantasy.

The Cenobites are, famously, a metaphor: For queerness, for BDSM, for AIDS, for the sexual Other lurking at the fringes of Reaganite America and Thatcherite Britain. But they are also just plain monsters — a British monster created by a British man whose culture is rich in myths about otherworldly kidnappers. One popular origin story for the fairies, at least in Ireland, is that they are angels who fell from heaven without joining Satan’s ranks — “not good enough for Heaven and not bad enough for Hell.” Angels to some, demons to others, you might say, and Hellraiser says it a lot.

I’m not confident that these parallels are intended — at least, I’ve never heard Barker say anything on the topic. I wouldn’t necessarily put it past him: I didn’t read Barker’s horror fiction until I was an adult, but I loved his fantasy novels, specifically Weaveworld and Imajica, in high school. The Cenobites do make a cameo in Weaveworld, as just one of the many magical creatures in its Narnia-like universe. Weaveworld is a lot hornier and more violent than Narnia, but the way these monsters slip seamlessly between genres stands out.

The parallels don’t have to be intentional to be real. We all inherit the mythology of the cultures we live in. We learn what a story is by hearing other stories. Seeing the Cenobites as fairies, for me, explains why the story works. It rescues Hellraiser from the trap of about-ness — really about the 80s, really about Thatcher, really about AIDS, really about kink, really about being a gay man processing all of the above, until all the really abouts crowd out the story, until you’re reading the movie as a thesis and not a tale.

Clive Barker has become a patron saint of queer horror, and for good reason, but he deserves more than to be limited to his about-ness. Any queer storyteller, any marginalized storyteller, deserves more than that. What Hellraiser is really about, at its core, is the Cenobites. It’s about their sheer pointless malice, their alien glamour, their irresistible puzzles and riddles that only ever lead to one bad outcome. It’s their literally unfathomable depravity: No matter how awful the on-screen gore gets, we’re always operating with the knowledge that something much worse and much gorier is happening right off-screen.

The Cenobites are truly great monsters. They are also truly queer — not because of their leather outfits, but because of their proud, aristocratic, irreducible Otherness. The Cenobites don’t mutilate people because they hate us, they do it because they’re not us. Their values are so wildly different from ours that any encounter can only end in ruin, and even then, they will sincerely believe they’re doing us a favor. In their own eyes, they are beautiful, and good, and if we look at them long enough, we might even believe it. This, above all, is what the Cenobites have in common with the fey.

That’s the difference between a myth and a metaphor. A metaphor is of the moment. It has one meaning, and once you find it, the whole story is exposed. A myth is its own about, its own reason. A myth seems like a metaphor, but it presents a new metaphor to every person who tries to crack the code. Myth keeps finding new ways to be relevant, new ways to remind you of the world you know. You keep turning it and re-orienting it, opening and closing it, solving the puzzle, until it clicks into its newest configuration, and the eternal thing you’ve summoned comes forth to speak your name.

Hellraiser (1987) is available to stream on Tubi and Amazon Prime. Hellraiser (2022) on Hulu is also worth a watch.

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