Based on the novella The Hellbound Heart, which appeared in an anthology called Night Visions 3 in 1986, Hellraiser was Clive Barker’s first directorial attempt after having seen one of his scripts go objectively wrong with Rawhead Rex a few years prior. Hellraiser has gone on to be one of the most successful horror franchises ever, inspiring many sequels. It is generally cited by horror creators as being a very influential movie, and its reach across its own genre and beyond is sprawling and grand.
Yet one of the most interesting things about the franchise is one of the least addressed aspects of it, and that is its focus on the women at the center of the story. During a time when horror films were known for being graphically violent and sexist toward their female characters, Hellraiser introduced us to our protagonist Kirsty Cotton, who appeared in the sequel and returned years later, first in Hellraiser 6 and afterward in a comic series written by Clive Barker. Kirsty isn’t the only interesting female character in the franchise, though.
In the first film, we are introduced to Frank Cotton, a man seeking out extremes of pleasure who finds the infamous Lament Configuration, a puzzle box said to offer your greatest desire. He figures out how to open it and is immediately surrounded by the demons known as the Cenobites. They take him and torture him. Frank’s brother Larry cuts his hand and the spilled blood creates a portal, allowing Frank to escape from Hell. Larry’s wife Julia had carried on an affair with Frank for some time prior to his death, so when a newly resurrected (and skinless) Frank asks her to bring him victims to consume so that he might regain his strength, Julia obliges by going to bars while Larry is at work, bringing home men and murdering them so that Frank might feed.
Larry’s daughter Kirsty is a student and doesn’t live with him, but when she comes back to visit, she notices that something is very off. Her distrust of Julia becomes a full-fledged antipathy. When Kirsty discovers the Lament Configuration and accidentally summons the Cenobites, she assures them that she can deliver Frank back to them so that she herself can avoid being taken to Hell. Frank and Julia kill her father Larry, and Frank wears his skin, but it doesn’t help him escape the Cenobites. Both he and Julia are dragged to Hell.
The story of The Hellbound Heart only varies slightly from the film, but the most important change is that in the story, Julia is married to a man named Rory, and Kirsty is in love with him. Her feud with Julia is based in jealousy. Changing the details to center on Kirsty’s love for her father and centralizing her as the protagonist opposite to Julia’s antagonist improves the story by refusing to fall into tropes of women squabbling over men. Kirsty’s motivation and dedication to helping Larry comes across as immediately more sound than in the story.
Although Frank Cotton is the ball that sets everything in motion in the Hellraiser franchise, surprisingly little time is spent on him. He is dismissed outright as a hedonist and an extremist, and while he is at the center of the action, every character around him is more important to the story than he is. The focus is not on the tortured men at the center of the story until the fourth film, and the switch doesn’t do the franchise any favors. Although horror sequels are generally dismissed as low quality, Hellraiser specifically seemed to lose its central focus early on and has yet to fully reclaim it.
Kirsty’s disdain for Julia does have its roots in a sense of repulsion toward the way she treated Larry and others in the first movie, but despite Julia’s need to posit herself as the main nemesis of the second film, Kirsty pays comparatively very little attention to her, focusing instead on those she loves. In Hellraiser II, Kirsty encounters a young, deeply withdrawn girl named Tiffany, and she refuses to abandon her even as they face Hell together. Tiffany watched her mother be killed by an evil doctor who later merges with Leviathan, the ruler of Hell. While Kirsty enters Hell with the intention of saving her father, she becomes instead consumed with a need to protect and save Tiffany. In the beginning, Tiffany is mute, but through Kirsty’s gentle coaxing, she not only survives, but becomes vocal again when in danger.
Meanwhile, Julia returns in much the same way Frank had, skinless and manipulating the doctor to return her to Earth and help her escape the Cenobites. When she encounters Kirsty, she refers to herself as the wicked stepmother who became an evil queen. Although this positions her as something between two overplayed tropes, Julia is unquestionably more complicated than that, and so is her relationship with Kirsty. Neither of them particularly focuses on the other as a nemesis, rather both of them simply appear as obstacles for the other in their greater quests. Kirsty saves Tiffany in the end by donning Julia’s skin.
Julia is a mostly unresolved character, although she is referenced later in comics. After Hellraiser II, she vanishes, but Kirsty and Tiffany do not. Kirsty returns as a mostly minor character in the previously mentioned Hellraiser 6, in which her husband sells her to the Cenobites without knowing her impeccable history of wheeling and dealing her way out of Hell. While she traded Frank to them in the first film, in the sixth she trades them several others, showing a ruthlessness that had only been hinted at before.
In Hellraiser III, a woman named Joey is introduced to a scared domestic abuse survivor named Terri and kindly opens her home to her. Terri is mixed up with a nightclub owner named JP who treats her badly, and he finds himself in possession of a Lament Configuration. Like Frank, JP is seeking out new sensations, and he causes doom for himself and for poor Terri when she goes back to him. A major part of Joey’s character arc is her trying in vain to protect Terri from the villains that surround her, and when she fails to do so it traumatizes her to the point of very nearly giving up. Although Hellraiser III is often criticized for being the point in the franchise where Cenobites became more silly than frightening, the basic, elemental human capacity for atrocity stands strong throughout the plotline. It also flipped the dynamic between Tiffany and Kirsty by showing how even dedicated friends can be helpless to protect others from abusive relationships.
Years later, Clive Barker, who had left the franchise with the second film, returned to script a new Hellraiser comic series through Boom! that picked up where the end of the second movie had left off. In this, we discover that Tiffany and Kirsty have stayed in touch. While Kirsty tried in vain to distance herself from the traumas of her past, Tiffany had become more focused on destroying the remaining Lament Configurations. This ended up with both of them returning to Hell. Kirsty, who had long eluded the Cenobites, finally becomes one in Clive Barker’s extended vision, replacing Pinhead in a similarly designed outfit, white instead of black. Even as a Cenobite, her loyalty towards Tiffany is of the utmost importance to her. Their dynamic is at the heart of Barker’s creative vision, if not everyone’s.
Hellraiser as a franchise is a lot of things: gruesome, bloody, horrific, a commentary on gluttony of all kinds, and a warning to keep oneself in check lest we go looking for something we’re not quite ready to find. It’s a cautionary tale to women like Julia who allow their lust to drag them, quite literally, to Hell. It’s also the story of a young woman who puts her relationships at the very center of her life and loses the people she loves again and again to betrayal or death. In the life of Kirsty Cotton, the only truly good parts seem to be the time she spends mentoring Tiffany and the close bond that comes from that. There are a lot of messages you can take from Hellraiser, many of them conflicting, but one of the most positive among them is the importance of female friendships. With them, Kirsty survived, and without them, Julia faded to dust.