Horror Therapy

Two girls burst into a room in a state of apparent terror. The room is pitch black, a darkness that strains the eyes, with the exception of small hazy beams of light sneaking in through scattered holes in the opposing wall. The beams prove futile in relieving the oppressing darkness. Seemingly wet black chains dangle menacingly from the ceiling. Amidst these bloody chains lurk a pair of gruesome pillars, also chained to the ceiling, slowly spinning. Creeping in circles, the pillars morbidly display an array of bloody hooks, blades, and spikes, amongst even more tainted chains. From the shadows enveloping the room, stalk four other horrid forms. One girl tries to turn back but the door had closed, locked behind her.

"Oh, no boxes", proclaims a pale form walking through the chains, referring to small gold puzzle boxes. The boxes act as keys to the doorways of Hell, which could send the vile creatures back. "Such a shame", he patronizes. The demon figure, dressed in black leather, looks to have dozens of nails driven into his head along a grid cut into his scalp and face. His voice is low, powerful, and assertive, but disturbingly calm. The girls are frozen in place, their eyes giving away their horror.

Does this sound anything like the start of a nightmare you have ever had or heard? Would it be such a scene to wake you from slumber, jumping up in a cold sweat? These types of nightmares are the stuff great horror films are made of. And why not? Tim Dirks , a private film historian, points that, "Horror films effectively center on the dark side of life, the forbidding, and strange and alarming events." This scene from Clive Barker's (Hellbound) Hellraiser II (1988) depicts the world of the nightmare rather vividly, and it is but a short excerpt. Many people watch and even crave films that depict the same nightmares that frighten them, but do not understand the implications or even why. According to film historian Stanley J. Solomon , "The nightmare film represents our own subconscious desire to confront our inevitable dread." I believe most people, myself included, desire to confront their fears. Fears can make a person feel weak, so many of us want to overcome them. Some of our greatest fears come from our nightmares. So, how can we overcome our nightmares? Horror films. The detached nature of the movie watching experience can safely frighten us, and thus entertain us. That in which we indulge for entertainment is also therapy.

When my nights are riddled with nightmares, the themes are based around death, horribly disturbing occurrences, or both. When the disturbing visions snatch me from slumber in a panic, I am left engorged with foreboding dread. There I sit in my bed, sweating, laboring for breath, eyes searching the pitch for some tangible source of my fright. The shock of my nocturnal visions leaving me uneasy for the night's duration. My since acquired love of horror films has helped to alleviate the shock of my nightly visions. The gruesome films that bombard my eyes and permeate my brain desensitize my sufferance to these ghastly images. Thus, the mental apparitions of my dreams no longer shock me. I can always say to myself, "Eh, I've seen worse in the movies."

In the before mentioned scene of "Hellraiser II", I witnessed one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen. A former psychiatrist, who had been mutilated and transformed into one of Hell's demons, was slaughtering and overthrowing the four other demons, reverting them back to the mortal humans they once were. The doctor was held in the air by a giant tentacle clutching his head. About six thin wires were stretched across his face, cutting into his pale skin. More bloody snakelike tentacles sprouted and shot from his palms baring sharp blades and other such devices. He had killed two demons already. One more projectile tentacle shot forth, impaling the third demon, vile and deformed- having his bloody face stretched tightly back on either side to the back of his head baring incessantly chattering teeth. He was left hanging upon one of the bloody pillars that hung from the ceiling, spinning menacingly. As the pillar turned once, twice, three times, the hideous demon was again what he once was, an innocent ten year old boy. The boy slumped dead and bleeding against the pillar. The idea that a mere child could be killed and changed into a grotesque hellish demon such as this tears at every sense of moral decency in my being. However, being able to see such a thing in a consequence free environment has allowed me to moderate my horror at such an atrocity. I was given, as Soloman claims, "Protected access to a nightmare world otherwise shunted outside of civilization."

In addition to its nightmarish qualities, "Hellraiser II" deals with a much more potent subject: religion and, more specifically, Hell. These are themes that have riddled my own mind for many years. As a boy, I grew up a Mormon. I have since sought out, researched, and experienced many religions from Buddhism to Wiccan Witchcraft, searching for answers. To this day, I have found none. I can not assuredly say that I believe in God, heaven, the Devil, or Hell; nor can I honestly say that I do not. However, by being aware of the possible existence of it all, the idea of Hell scares me much more than I would ever like to admit. The uncertainty is frightening. Who is to say that Clive Barker, the writer of all five "Hellraiser" movies, has not depicted Hell in its ruthless and gruesome reality? If so, that is a horrid thought. I pity the poor sinning fools sent there, but more so, I fear my own sins may be my one way ticket. This fear has emerged from time to time, usually in my nightmares, leaving me to shudder and weep in shame and guilt. Because this fear thrived on uncertainty, I looked to good hellish horror films, unknowingly, to alleviate the apprehension. The film I have discussed gave me a possible answer to what lies below in the Terrestrial Kingdom, Hell. Being that fear is half apprehension, my fear was consequently diminished. With many known possibilities in mind, I need not worry what awaits, rather whether it even exists and awaits at all.

Solomon claims, "The conjuring up of monsters of the mind and the objectifying of them in the cinema is a symbolic form of exorcism." True to this concept, I believe a good horror film can ease the apparitions haunting your sleep- quell the nightmares. It can desensitize your susceptibility to disturbance through the safety net of the third person. And yes, it can even sooth the apprehensions around religion- comfort the fear of Hell and damnation. It can do all these things while still entertaining us, but we do not give it credence for such. Rather, we see and understand these exorcisms in a much deeper corner of the mind. They are not as effective if we are consciously aware of and, consequently, deliberate with them. We must attack our fears where they reside; for this purpose, Horror films are quite adequate.

Works Cited

1. Dirks, Tim. "Horror Films." Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Longman, 2000. 787-792.
2. Hellraiser II (Hellbound). Dir. Tony Randall. Perf. Clare Higgins and Kenneth Cranham. New World Pictures/Cinemark Entertainment, 1988.
3. Solomon, Stanley J. "The Nightmare World." Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Ed. Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen. New York: Longman, 2000. 793-800.

Pinhead: "The box. You opened it. We came."

British horror film, released in 1987. It was directed and written by Clive Barker, based on his own short novel "The Hellbound Heart." Robin Vidgeon was the cinematographer. The film was produced by Mark Armstrong, Christopher Figg, Selwyn Roberts, David Saunders, and Christopher Webster.

The film's stars included: The plot: Larry and Julia Cotton, along with their daughter Kirsty, move into a new home, and Julia soon discovers something scary in the attic -- Frank Cotton, Larry's half-brother (and Julia's secret ex-lover), who was killed years ago by the demonic Cenobites. Frank has been brought back to life, sorta, by a single drop of spilled blood. But to return fully to life, Frank needs more blood -- a lot more blood -- and he enlists Julia's aid in enticing human sacrifices in the attic. But the Cenobites aren't happy about Frank's escape, and they want him back...

I won't lie to you -- I consider this a deeply flawed movie. Most of the movie focuses on Frank and Julia, and no matter how gory and kinky Frank is, he's just not an interesting person. Julia's only purpose in the movie is to get inexplicably horny for a bloody, skinless zombie, Kirsty is the typically dim horror-movie starlet, and Larry is only entertaining because you recognize him as the Cardassian tailor on "Deep Space Nine." The entire middle portion of the movie will likely bore you to tears.

So what makes "Hellraiser" worth watching? The beginning and the end, which spotlight the Cenobites and the Lament Configuration, the best damn horror movie villains of the 1980s. The Lament Configuration is an evil Rubik's Cube -- a golden box covered in twisting, squiggling symbols, it is a legend among those with decadent appetites. Those who try to solve it can spend hours, days, weeks, just trying to figure out how to trigger any movement in the device. Possibly mechanical, surely magical, its only purpose is to confound, perplex, fascinate, and eventually, damn those who find it.

Kirsty: "Who are you?"
Pinhead: "Explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some. Angels to others."

When someone solves the puzzlebox, it summons the Cenobites, who promise to bring the solver of the puzzlebox the greatest ecstasies ever. But for the Cenobites, ecstasy and agony are the same thing.

The Cenobites themselves are absolutely brilliant creations -- exquisitely disfigured, leather-wearing S&M horrors, simultaneously grotesque and beautiful. Butterball, obese, slobbering, gluttonous. Chatterer, bizarrely twisted, his teeth endlessly rattling. The nameless female, flayed open and pinned like a dissected frog. And Pinhead, Doug Bradley's claim to fame and the role that will typecast him in perpetuity. The four of them are seen at the beginning, they dominate the end, and they leave you gasping for more of them.

"Hellraiser" has been followed by a multitude of sequels. All of them put a great deal more focus on the sexy/scary Cenobites, particularly Pinhead. The sequels create a multitude of new Cenobites, all imaginative, all surreal, all gruesome, all kinky. And nearly all of the sequels suck.

Maybe "Hellraiser" got more right than I suspected...

Pinhead: "No tears, please. It's a waste of good suffering."

Some research from the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com)

Horror novelist Clive Barker, when he was a much younger man - wrote a novella called The Hellbound Heart which was about a man, bored of life - having exhausted all the highs and kicks and pleasures in life, including drugs, seducing his own brother's wife, and so forth - finally finding in some backwater of the planet a puzzle box. A puzzle box which, when opened, summoned creatures who would show you the extremes of experience and end all ennui.

To the anti-hero of the novella and the first movie in the series based on the novella, what Frank found was not highly oiled goddesses of sex who were able to push him to limitless bliss, but pale, brutalized creatures whose aesthetic senses led to eternal torture

Horror authors tend to write about the things that worry them. Stephen King was semi-autobiographical, and Barker is an out gay man. The obvious parallels between "not getting what you expect", fetish-wear demons who leave behind nothing more than flensed remains and the experiences of some gay men falling afoul of S&M types or serial killers are obvious. Even if Barker wasn't worried about being a line item in the back pages of the crime section of the Liverpudlian news, given the internet these days you can find any sorts of extreme pornography and personals asking for things that are beyond extreme - and wonder "how on earth could anyone enjoy that?"

The first two films explored the themes of the novella, and there was a comic series as well. Different variants of the story gave different interpretations of what the central characters, the Cenobites, were about. To Barker and some early installments, they were simply those that recognized that extreme pain was more of a sensation than extreme pleasure, and chased the absolute extremes of sensation, regardless of where they lay.

For thoroughness sake, later movies became more like the Saw series, about human beings with plot twists and the Cenobites coming at the end for the "evil" people. Pinhead, the main Cenobite, and his compatriots, the Chatterer, the Butterball, the Wire Sisters and so forth - had become nothing more than medieval morality play demons, come to drag down the naughty person to Hell for their peccadilloes.

There was some decay in terms of the story as well: to solve the puzzle box - in fact to find the puzzle box - you had to have already exhausted all manner of sexual and drug induced kicks and be willing to sit in a darkened room for days forgoing food in order to solve the box and get it open. By the series end, it was "rub the circle on the top curiously and it spontaneously opens itself". 

But the moment you start talking about pleasure and pain, reward and punishment, you start getting religious ideas thrown into the mix. There was some of it in the novella, with Frank having prepared any of a number of tributes for the visiting entities, be it a sacrifice, or pouring urine on himself in debasement. Barker didn't really explore religious ideas until later books - his was a starkly and almost Lovecraftian horror of rationality. There are planes of existence out there you don't want to go to. Period. Full stop.

That Pinhead turned into a punishing demon rather than simply an extra-dimensional entity from the Plane of Sadism was inevitable, given our Christian mythology. 

But other, more appropriate ideas got worked into the mix as well, though - such as the idea that you cannot have pleasure without pain, and that the pursuit of pleasure is a dangerous thing because it is a snare that comes with pain attached. (This is a core idea in Buddhism). In the latest installment of the movie series, a character gasps that the two are interchangeable and intermixed as he has his face de-gloved from his skull. Trapped in a cycle of ever-exapnding torture, as the organism seeks to validate its own ego through the five senses, even if that means jamming nails into the eyeballs and raking the nerves out of the skin from within. In fact, some Eastern religions warn their adherents mercilessly against meditation until you are prepared to ignore the intermediate states of existence which present themselves as bliss. Some have gone off to meditate solo, found a blissful intermediate point, and simply died of dehydration and hunger rather than advance forward, or retreat back into mundane existence.

More than once in the comic series, the idea that the Ultimate Pleasure is when the Cenobites PAUSE FOR A MOMENT - is another interpretation of what it all means.

Having thoroughly mined the horror franchise for all its attendant tropes, and having shown all the signs of a franchise wearing out its welcome - including its "made in Romania" sequel, it's inevitable that the whole thing will be "rebooted" and Doug Bradley will no more be gargling about "Welcome to Hell" in his gravelly baritone.

But it's a franchise that goes beyond the richly visually arresting and the gorily frightening to truly touch on some of the darkest themes of human existence. I look forward to seeing what an eventual reboot does to the genre.




Hallowee'enQuest 2015

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