The four Cenobites featured in The Hellbound Heart and the first two entries in the Hellraiser film franchise. From left: Butterball, Pinhead, the Female, and Chatterer.
|First appearance||The Hellbound Heart|
|Created by||Clive Barker|
The Cenobites are extra-dimensional beings who appear in the works of Clive Barker, including the novella The Hellbound Heart as well as its semi-sequel The Scarlet Gospels and the ten Hellraiser films. They are also mentioned, in passing, in the novel Weaveworld, in which they are referred to as "The Surgeons".
The Cenobites vary in number, appearance, and motivations depending on the medium (film, comic book, etc.) in which they appear. The involvement of multiple parties in the production of Hellraiser films and comics (many eschewing the creative supervision of Clive Barker) has led to varying levels of consistency regarding the canonical aspects of their philosophies and abilities. The only constants are that they take the form of ritually mutilated people with varying degrees of human characteristics, and that they can only reach Earth's reality through a schism in time and space, which is opened and closed using an innocuous-looking puzzle box called the Lament Configuration.
The term cenobite is a word meaning "a member of a communal religious order"; The Hellbound Heart specifies that they are members of The Order of the Gash. The text also refers to them as Hierophants.
Concept and design
After being disappointed with the way his material had been treated by producers in Underworld, Barker wrote The Hellbound Heart as his first step in directing a film by himself. The book describes a group of sadomasochistic entities who live in an extradimensional realm, where they perform "experiments" in extreme sexual experiences. Although antagonist Frank Cotton believes they will take the form of beautiful women, they appear instead as monsters:
Why then was he so distressed to set eyes upon them? Was it the scars that covered every inch of their bodies, the flesh cosmetically punctured and sliced and infibulated, then dusted down with ash? ... No women, no sighs. Only these sexless things, with their corrugated flesh.
Author David McWilliam identifies the Cenobites as described in more explicitly sexual terms in the book than they are depicted in the film adaptations. The four Cenobites described in the book each present unique mutilations and modifications: one Cenobite has stitches through its eyelids and a system of chains with bells hooked into various parts of its body; another has a grid tattooed to her head with jeweled pins driven into her skull at the intersections; the eyes of yet another are swollen shut and its mouth heavily disfigured; finally, a female Cenobite has undergone elaborate scarification to her pubis. The fifth, lead Cenobite, referred to as "The Engineer", appears briefly in the book's climax as an average human being whose body glows with intense light when he travels between realms.
After securing funding for a motion picture adaptation in early 1986, Barker and his producer Chris Figg assembled a team to design the cenobites. Among the team was Bob Keen and Geoff Portass at Image Animation and Jane Wildgoose, a costume designer who was requested to make a series of costumes for 4-5 "super-butchers" while refining the scarification designs with Image Animation.
My notes say that he wanted "1. areas of revealed flesh where some kind of torture has, or is occurring. 2. something associated with butchery involved" and then here we have a very Clive turn of phrase, I've written down, "repulsive glamour." And the other notes that I made about what he wanted was that they should be "magnificent super-butchers". There would be one or two of them with some "hangers on" as he put it, and that there would be four or five altogether.— Jane Wildgoose on Resurrection, Documentary on the Anchor Bay Hellraiser DVD, 2000
Barker drew inspiration for the Cenobite designs from punk fashion, Catholicism, and by the visits he took to SM clubs in New York City and Amsterdam. Each of the four primary Cenobites from The Hellbound Heart were featured in the film, with appearances based upon their descriptions in the book. The first Cenobite became Butterball, the second Pinhead, the third Chatterer, and the fourth The Female. The Engineer was drastically altered for the film, taking the form of a giant creature with characteristics of different predatory animals.
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The Cenobites all have horrific mutilations and/or body piercings, and wear fetishistic black leather clothing that often resembles butchery garments or religious vestments. The clothing also serves to support their piercings and tools. They reside in a monastery in Hell which is governed by an abbot. They generally transport subjects who they acquire by the opening of the Lament Configuration to the monastery to conduct their 'business'. The monastery has a large bell which can be heard tolling once the puzzle has been solved and heralds their arrival.
In their earliest incarnations, the Cenobites practice, with a religious devotion, a supernatural form of hedonism, manifested through the expansion of sensation to an extremely painful point of sensory overload and enduring excruciating pain through incessant tortures that transcend traditional laws of physics. They can only obtain access to Earth through an ornately designed puzzle box called the Lemarchand Configuration (called the "Lament Configuration" in the later film), which opens a dimensional schism. Their leader is identified only as The Engineer, who, in addition to overseeing the Order, is also responsible for the transformation of individuals into Cenobites. Their presence is occasionally preceded by a herald, referred to in cast lists as either Puzzle Guardian or Vagrant. As the latter name implies, he most often takes the form of a vagrant, offering individuals access to the puzzle box; the Guardian often indicates that the individual's own moral decay preordained them to encounter the Cenobites, informing his "customers" that the box "has always been yours".
The religious aspects of their origins and motivations are ambiguous: despite the presence of the word "Hell" in the franchise, the initial entries in the series — The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser — eschew any overt reference or iconography linking the Cenobites to any traditional Abrahamic or Eastern depiction of damnation, demonic nature, or infernal origin; the Cenobites' form of "pleasure", and the realm in which they practice it, is simply so awful that it appears to be Hell to those unable to endure it. In Hellraiser, the lead Cenobite informs Kirsty Cotton that the Cenobites have been identified as both angels and demons by those they have encountered, and that the Cenobites merely see themselves as "explorers". They are completely amoral, their dedication to their lifestyle taking priority over any notions of right or wrong.
As the film and comic books series progressed, the Cenobites—particularly Pinhead—began to manifest traditionally evil and sinister traits. In Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the Cenobites' realm is identified as "Hell", although its depiction is removed from most traditional Abrahamic depictions, being presented as a gigantic, three-dimensional maze modeled on the works of M.C. Escher. Rather than Satan, this Hell is ruled by Leviathan, an abstract, ambiguously sentient god that takes the form of a giant, floating silver octahedron at the center of the labyrinth.
In Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Hellraiser: Bloodline, all references to the Cenobitic order and their devotion to hedonism were completely expunged. Pinhead was instead presented as a demon, intent on the conquest of Earth and the subjugation of all humans. A crucial subplot to Bloodline centers on the premise that Hell has undergone a revolution and has abandoned the traditional Boschian concept of itself in favor of a more austere, militant embodiment of pain and torment. And although the scenes were later removed from the film, Hellraiser: Bloodline did film scenes showing Rococo Cenobites complete with white powdered faces and wigs. This leans toward the belief that the look or fashions of the Cenobites change over time.
Hellraiser: Inferno revised the Hellraiser universe as a morality tale; although they are linked with Hell, the Cenobites are not presented as predatory but, rather, as punitive agents tasked with punishing the damned for their sins.
Hellraiser: Hellseeker combines the mythos of the first two Hellraiser films with the moralistic nature of Inferno, as the Cenobites agree to spare the innocent Kirsty in exchange for the opportunity to punish her adulterous husband and his conspirators in a murder-for-money plot.
Hellraiser: Deader nominally utilizes the mythologies of both Hellbound, and Bloodline; a descendant of the puzzle box's creator seeks to access the realm of the Cenobites, believing it is his birthright to rule over them and thus achieve control over the "pleasures" they are capable of giving. When the Cenobites eventually appear, though, Pinhead indicates that they are blatantly demonic, instead of the amoral "explorers" as he described them in Hellraiser.
Hellraiser: Hellworld is a metafilm in which the Hellraiser franchise has spawned a popular MMORPG called Hellworld, and features aspects of the Cenobites derived from many films in the series. The film toys with the idea that the franchise is at least partially grounded in reality, and one character finds a puzzle box that summons Pinhead.
Hellraiser: Revelations returns to the depiction of the Cenobites from The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser.
Hellraiser comic book series
In 1989, following the success of the Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II, Epic Comics began publishing a series of comic book spin-offs for the Hellraiser franchise. The comics contained a set of short stories, and Clive Barker acted as a consultant on all of the comics. Epic published twenty regular series comics, from 1989 to 1992. In the graphic novel adaptions, it is revealed that Pinhead is engaged in a cold war between order and chaos, and that much of what the Cenobites do is purposed towards maintaining order.
In written works
- The Hellbound Heart (1986)
- Hellbound Hearts (2009)
- The Scarlet Gospels (2015)
- Hellraiser: The Toll (2018)
- Hellraiser comic books (1989–1992, 2011-2015, 2017)
Julia, played by Claire Higgins, was Barker's choice to carry the series as its main antagonist after Hellbound, reducing the Cenobites to a background role. However, fans rallied around Pinhead as the breakout character, and Higgins declined to return to the series. In The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters, David McWilliam writes that the Cenobites "provide continuity across the series, as the stories become increasingly stand-alone in nature".