Hulu’s Hellraiser and the Recuperation of Perversion

There’s a moment from the original Hellraiser that is burnt into my being. It’s when Frank’s liquid flesh is oozing out of the floorboards in the attic. There was something primordial about that, something perverse and erotic in horrible ways. The perverse ooze of Clive Barker’s work has sluiced through my being from that moment onward.

Barker’s work has been a vehicle for the ecstatic rupture of Queer liberation in my own life. I’m Queer both in the sense that I’m bi and genderqueer. The oozing, fomenting perversion of Hellraiser helped to push me through internalized fear and into a space where I could open up about myself, to myself, even years before I could articulate the core of me to anyone else.

Perversity is more than just a surface shock. Like watching a mushroom break through concrete in time-lapse, perversity was always present, always in us, slowly creating the conditions for its emergence through even the most leaden libidinal surface.

Barker’s Hellraiser feels purpose built to interrogate the psychosexual tensions that grease the gears of human interaction. Once we think we are holding the shape of Hellraiser in our hands, its meanings slide through our fingers forcing us to dig, once again, back into the slime of the real. This isn’t just eroticism, it’s a perverse libidinal exercise in knowing.

Hulu’s Hellraiser is de-libidinized and seems to be unaware of both the politics of the original text and the politics of our current moment. While you can feel the faint trace of a libidinal pulse in Hellraiser 2022, it’s barely felt and entirely sedated by a heteronormative hermeneutic.

A few non-missionary positions and some gentle finger sucking is a weary stand-in for the psychosexual mess that captivates our culture. This Hays Code-redux aesthetic is an insufficient ontology for a moment transiting through the wake of #MeToo, trans liberation, and the cresting of a new Queer panic in conservative media.

Barker’s Hellraiser didn’t so much push boundaries as it seeped through them. It was a step ahead of the psychosexual maturity of mainstream culture, but resting safely within the bounds of a Queerer psychosexual context. The echo of Cellblock 28 or Barker’s own experiences as a sex worker seeped through the film.

Hellraiser 2022 feels like a massive concession of psychosexual ground. This is the acid sexuality of queerness watered down through Netflix-normativity like Queer Eye or How to Build a Sex Dungeon.

This movie not only fails to move through its source material, it fails our current moment.

The psychosexual complexities of our moment are boiling over. Trending news cycles become infused with de-libidinized eroticism as conservative politicians build the foundations of a new Queer genocide while simultaneously the “is squirt piss” discourse pulses back to the surface.

However, as we approach this, maybe a sudden rush of disruptive fluids is the hermeneutic we need to escape the gravity well of normativity.

Whether or not squirt is piss doesn’t matter. It’s not important if it is, scientifically, urine. It only matters how we recreate the symbolic taxon into something new. Squirt ascends from trite urine to a holy anointing oil for the perverse. Likewise is Hellraiser a site of something profane. This is no mere horror show, it is a rupture of perversion only if and when we are willing to take it.

If Hulu’s Hellraiser is any bellwether, we’ve become too beholden to the leaden sunset of  capitalist realism to flirt with the liberatory juices of the perverse.

Casting Jamie Clayton as Pinhead winds up being enmeshed into the broad lethargy of Hellraiser 2022. Clayton is dark, dominating, and woefully underused. Doug Bradley’s Pinhead was given the space to grow large within the frame, to menace us with our own reflected perversions, but Clayton’s Pinhead is treated differently.

The eroticism and terror of Hulu’s Pinhead is safely contained in a few brief, restrained scenes. We’re left to marvel at external frights rather than crawl as our own denied shadow claws its way to the surface. Despite having a trans woman take the role of Pinhead and hiring openly gay actors in supporting roles, this is a vision of a Hetero-Hellraiser.

This is a sedation of the frontiers of our psychosexual tensions. We’re lodged into this moment when Queer people the world over stand on the threshold of liberation and one of the premier Queer horror films can only give us a droll tale of addiction with the same conviction as an after school D.A.R.E. program.

One could make the argument that this is just our fate. We’ve solved a cultural Lament Configuration—in the form of rising fascism, environmental collapse, covid, take your pick—and thereby numbed the fictive expressions of ongoing collapse, but I don’t buy it.

Frederic Jameson wrote that “If the ideological function of mass culture is understood as a process whereby otherwise dangerous and protopolitical impulses are ‘managed and defused, rechanneled and offered spurious objects, then some preliminary step must be theorized in which these same impulses – the raw material upon which the process works- are awakened within the very texts that seek to still them.”

I refuse a sedate Hellraiser—a Hellraiser free of its oozing potential.

Inside the raw material of this Hellraiser are the slimy and branching hyphae of potential. As long as oppressive structures remain oppositionally defined against the freedom of the oppressed, the fulcrum of the psychosexual will remain ensconced within the gothic.

Hellraiser was never a vision of Queer euphoria, but it was an attempt at summoning a way through a nightmare. The Cenobites using their freely expressed sexuality to torment a cloistered cis-het couple was the Gay Wrath Month of its time.

In The Principles of Hope, Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote that “The most tragic form of loss isn’t the loss of security; it’s the loss of the capacity to imagine that things could be different.” Hulu’s Hellraiser is a rejection of this capacity to imagine that things could be different. Instead, it recaptures torment not as a rupture, but merely another spectacle?

Hulu’s Hellraiser is a dehistoricized act of cultural amnesia. It’s only in conversation with The Hellbound Heart as a piece of pop culture to reference and only aware of Queer Liberation as de-libidinized assimilation.

Clive Barker is a gay man who survived the height of the AIDS crisis. His work is an act of remembrance, of survival. The Lament Configuration is handed down to us through the agonies of an attempted genocide. Why do we shrink away from the task at hand?

RS Benedict’s astounding article Everyone is Beautiful and No One is Horny outlines the desexualized, well, sex in modern action movies. The same holds true for the sex scenes in Hellraiser 2022.

In Hulu’s Hellraiser, all of the fetishistic glee that the cenobites take in their methodic, eroticized torment has been shifted off screen. Only a few acts of cosmic torture happen before our eyes. The legacy of Bob Keen’s brilliant and cutting effects work now serves a sexless, plasticine affect.

Barker’s Hellraiser exists in time’s bloody river. A river in which we all still, and must, wade through. Hulu’s Hellraiser has been stripped of the acid potential of perversion. It has only a denied history, hidden sexuality, and dulls the glint of utopian potential in the cenobite’s eye.

However, we don’t have to succumb to this Funko-fied libido. Something assertive, something Queer, something free is in the heart of Hellraiser and we will continue to work our hands soar over a Lament Configuration that must one day yield.

Pinhead was right. Tears are a waste of good suffering. We’ve cried enough to be handed anything short of the roaring fury of our freedom. Ours is the rapture of chains—not to shackle, but rattle as the spectre of a coming dawn.