|Beavis and Butt-Head met Eros and Thanatos, recently, on the cover of Femme Fatales— a fateful conjunction, reminding
us (if we need reminding) that we live in strange days.
Femme Fatales is devoted to what an ad calls the "luscious ladies of horror, fantasy; and science fiction" cinema and pitched, presumably; at teenysomething males too young for plain-brown-wrapper fare. The issue in question is emblazoned with "Cenobite Pin-Up" ValentinaVargas in her Hellraiser IV role as a succubus, giving head in the groaningly punning sense, her gooey, gory scalp peeled back in two distinctly labial flaps to reveal the phallic crown of her skull. Her bare shoulders and ample décolletage bristle with vicious hooks, sunk deep in her flesh.
What, if anything, does a Cenobite centerfold say about the moment we live in? Is Hellraiser IV's Angelique Ms. Zeitgeist? When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars and a skinheaded succubus, scalpel and jabbed full of hooks, is enshrined as a B-movie sex symbol, is this the dawning of Yeat's age of "mere anarchy," or at least the "moral confusion" condemned by Bob Dole? Is this is the moment when Freud collects his royalties— the return of the repressed, be it the Bataillean primal shriek stifled by bourgeois modernity or the Monstrous Feminine choke-chained by patriarchal culture or the "obsolete" meat reviled by the Information Age? Or is Femme Fatales' "sexy Cenobite" just another necro-bimbo, an Elvira for Marilyn Manson fans— "gross... yet strangely corn-pelting," as Bart Simpson's buddy Milton memorably observed, on his first exposure to X-rated cable?
Hellraiser, the Cenobites' low-budget 1987 movie debut, was an instant cult hit, spawning a Hollywood franchise, comic books, plastic models, jigsaw puzzles, T-shirts, even tattoos. But in the creatures who inspired this merchandising frenzy; Clive Barker has given pop culture something rich and strange, well deserving of critical inquiry.
For those unfamiliar with the Hellraiser saga, the Cenobites are the heavily pierced sybarites from hell summoned, with the aid of a mysterious puzzle box called the Lament Configuration, by foolhardy humans. In an S&M rewrite of the Faust 1egend, they offer entree, for the usual fee of one mortal soul, to a realm of the senses where the envelope of sensation is pushed to the point where pleasure and torture meet. Punk-rock bondage freaks from the "outer darkness," the Cenobites sport mutilated black leather and Boschian body modifications. Their leader, Pinhead, is an imposing vision in a black leather corset-cum-cassock, his pale, bald head studded with pins. He exudes seductive evil and glacial cool. De Sadean demigods for an age of extremes, the Cenobites are, in Pinhead's words, "Explorers in the further regions of experience — demons to some, angels to others." Actually, it's Pinhead, rather than the thinly drawn Angelique, who merits our serious attention. A brief but unforgettable presence in Hellraiser, he seemed to be tuned to the frequencies of the audience's dream life in some ineffable way, and struck a sympathetic chord that reverberated far beyond horror's core fandom. Barker originally intended Julia, the conscienceless, sex-crazed murderess in the first movie, to dominate the series. "What happened, of course, was [that] the public got in the way;" recalled screenwriter Pete Atkins, in a Cinefantastique interview. "They fell in love with Pinhead and decided that's the core of this series."
It's Pinhead's richly embroidered mythology that sets him apart from cardboard bogeymen such as Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th fame or Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger. To the fans Bradley mentions, he's a potent symbol of divine decadence, a goth-rock update of the Vampire Lestat in Anne Rice's Interview with a Vampire. Inflict, his aristocratic bearing and sepulchral garb cast a powerful spell on goths. On the far hinges of gothdom, one meets nightcrawlers with fang implants and connoisseurs of real-life bloodsucking like the ones described in Norinne Dresser's American Vampires- "explorers in the further regions of experience" with at least one foot over the threshold of Pinhead's world. If Stephen King's novels are the bedtime reading of those who "either have worn or dreamed of wearing a baseball cap backward," as The New York Times Book Review once sneered, Barker speaks to those whose wardrobes cross widow's weeds with fetish gear.
Pinhead is more than the patron saint of brooding youth, however. His butcher's apron and belt, laden with carving knives, saws, and apron tools of the trade, hint at the splatterpunk beneath his stolid front- the "animal nature" Georges Bataille argued is deeply sublimated in bourgeois culture, devitalizing it. Appropriately; in his Encyclopedia Acephalica, Bataille favorably compares present-day slaughterhouses to the temples of antiquity and scorns our "flabby world in which nothing fearful remains"; even the killing of meat animals must take place out of sight, out of mind. Pinhead likewise invokes the notion of a return to a pre-civilized "animality" (Bataille) in his obvious resonances with the scarred and safety-pinned punks of the '70s and the pierced, branded, and ritually scarred "modem primitives" of the '90s.
As well, Pinhead suggests a Surrealist parody of a Catholic priest, or a Helmut Newton fantasy of a medieval self-flagellator; the literal meaning of "cenobite," after all, is "a member of a religious convent or community;" In a Cinefantastique interview, Barker comments on Pinhead's "priestly garb" (the vestments beneath his butcher's apron) and the priestly poise which Doug [Bradley] brings to the role." This, together with the formal, faintly archaic poetry of Pinhead's speech, his liturgical delivery; and his role as the earthly emissary of the otherworldly, marks him as a priest, albeit a perverted one, presiding over a Huysmanesque black mass consecrated to the pleasures (and agonies) of the flesh.
In fact, Hellraiser is steeped in the tradition of black, anti-clerical humor that descends from French Decadents like Huysmans and Surrealists such as Dali and Bunuel: in one scene, a crucifix tumbles unexpectedly out of a closet, like a pop-up ghoul in a carnival creepshow, and the nuns who flit through another are birds of ill omen, their black robes flapping like ravens wings. Near the end of the movie, Frank— the depraved pleasure-seeker whose flirtations with the Cenobites have cost him his soul— is torn to ribbons by hooks on chains that lash out of the puzzle box; in the midst of his torment, he manages a sardonic quote from the Bible: "Jesus wept."
Barker is gay, and the connection between his anti-papism and the Catholic church's historical demonization of homosexuals is self-evident. In a 1995 interview with the gay magazine 10 Percent, he described the Bible as a wellspring of myth, "full of extraordinary stories and images," but "a terrible place for the judgmental fiber to run riot. For me, that's one of the cornerstone corruptions of our culture. The Vatican sells lies. [It] tells people terrible things and reconstructs people's lives."
Although Barker officially came out only recently, in a 1995 Advocate interview, his homosexuality has long been a public secret to those who know his work. His novel Everville includes Seth Lundy, a sexually confused teenager, and Gwen Buddenbaum, the dandified decadent who initiates his homosexual awakening. Two of the heroes in Imajica are gay, as well; when one dies of AIDS, his soul takes refuge in his lover's body, The Hellbound Heart, the novella on which Hellraiser was based, features a character who tastes early delights beyond his wildest imaginings but loses his soul in the process— a metaphor, Barker has suggested, for the plight of gay men lost in a Rechy-esque City of Night. "If we have nothing to do but service our own pleasure- because society has taught us that's all we're worth and were exiled from positions of authority from which we could actually shape society- then we just become hedonists," he told an interviewer. "Eventually, despite how great it may look on Saturday night, come Monday morning there's just purposelessness."
His novella, Cabal— adapted for the screen in the muddled and meandering but richly textured Nightbreed— images the world of the gay demimonde in the subterranean warrens of Midian, a pariah utopia located in an abandoned cemetery and inhabited by the Nightbreed, monstrous shapeshifters persecuted by the "Naturals," the "Normals." Barker turns the world of status-quo horror upside-down; his creatures of the night have all our sympathy, in sharp contrast to the forces of normalcy: the brutal, homophobic cop Eigerman; the hypocritical, closeted priest Ashbery; and the psychiatrist Decker, a schizophrenic serial killer whose credentialed professionalism and gold-card lifestyle mask his dark side in the daylit world. Barker pillories the gay community's traditional inquisitors, specifically the psychiatrist, embodiment of the Freudian tradition that branded homosexuality a disease to be "cured" through analysis or, failing that, the gothic horrors of the sanitarium.
If Hitchcock, several of whose mother-fixated, woman-hating psychopaths are (arguably) coded as gay, is the best friend the Oedipus Complex ever had, Barker is one of its staunchest foes. In an interview with Carpe Noctem he suggests that Cabal is on one level a rejection of the return to normalcy at the heart of Freudian psychoanalysis. "It's a book about... giving up normality," he says. "The 'Naturals,' the 'Normals' who seem to have all the answers, who tell us what we should and should not be from pulpits, from behind psychiatrists' desks, and from political podiums, are so often wrong," he says. "They're protecting their own interests, [which] are very often the interests of frightened people." A fan interviewed in a Barker profile produced by the BBC program The South Bank Show offers a heartfelt footnote to Barker's remarks: "There are a great many people out there who are emotionally disturbed and... when they go to the movies they always see themselves as the villain, who ultimately has to be killed. This is very distressing for a lot of people. I have a friend who suffers from a mild form of schizophrenia and she enjoyed Cabal very much, for the precise reason that she could see herself [in the monsters]."
Of course, the obvious problem with turning the mark of the beast into a badge of pride is that it endorses the premise that any who differ from prescribed norms are monstrous. If we're reading Cabal for its gay subtext, Barker's rendering of the novel's "un-people" as slavering cannibals sounds uncomfortably like a fictional echo of Anita Bryant's bizarre contention, in a 1977 Time, that since "the male homosexual eats another man's sperm" and "sperm is the most concentrated form of life," ergo "the homosexual is eating life." Romantic visions of homosexuals as hopeful monsters (to borrow the feminist theorist Donna Haraway's useful term) have to be weighed against pernicious myths of homosexuals as hopelessly monstrous. In one scale pan sits Camille Paglia's defiant assertion that "homosexuality is not normal'... and therein lies its eternally revolutionary character"; in the other, the indelible image of Jame Gumb, the mincing, cross-dressing grotesque who kills women for their skins in Silence of the Lambs.
That said, it's essential to point out that Cabal's gay subtext is only one of several. Barker, an avowed Jungian, is equally concerned with the demiurgic powers of the unconscious unfettered; the novel's real monsters, he told Carpe Noctem, are the enforcers of a moribund normalcy "who want to keep the world as stripped of its visionary content as possible."
Still, the gay subtext just beneath the surface of a movie such as Hellraiser is undeniable, and suggests one last interpretation of Pinhead, perhaps the most obvious of all: that of the lead Cenobite as a gay devotee of S&M, modeled, possibly on one of the leatherbound denizens of New York's notorious Hellfire club in its heyday. Needless to say any series about a "religious community" (the Cenobites and their human acolytes) devoted to the pursuit of what Michel Foucault— himself a habitu of San Francisco's S&M scene— called "limit experiences," where ecstasy and agony melt into one, is transparently a metaphor for the S&M underground. Naturally, S&M isn't gay by definition, although its association with the gay "leatherstream" culture celebrated in Mapplethorpe photos and Drummer magazine, not to mention Pinhead's leather-bar get-up, invite us to interpret the lead Cenobite as a butch "top", cruising for a bruising.
|Then, too, it can hardly be irrelevant that "the leather community has been a part of my life for 20 years,"
as Barker told Carpe Noctem. The deceptively clean scrubbed, boyish-looking keeper of the keys to "the dark
fantastique" (his term) betrays a more than passing acquaintance with Japanese lesbian bondage porn and the
delights of scrotal inflation (injecting the scrotum with saline solution) in obscure L.A. dives. At the same time,
argues Barker, sadomasochism is "subtextually part of horror fiction, and all I did was make [it] text. I
mean, when the vampire bites the woman on the neck, there is a moment where the expression on the victim's face
hovers between pleasure and pain. There is something, even in our response to horror movies in the audience, that
smacks of S&M. We like it, but we don't like it. It's scary but it's fun. It makes us look away and wince,
but then we look back at the screen with smiles on our faces. What does that remind you of?"
More generally Barker's theme-and-variations approach to the subject of sadomasochism - his inevitable return to the duality of pleasure and pain, sex and death— is part of a larger obsession with the mind/body split at the heart of the human condition. Poetic speculations about the body overmastered by the mind manifest themselves, in Cabal, in chimera that are equal parts Bosch and Bacon; a creature with "two faces on his lumpen head, the features of both utterly distorted... mouths collided into a single gash, noses slits without bones" and another that melts away like molten wax, "reordering its anatomy... by liquefying its whole self - through to the bone." Ever the Surrealist and the Jungian, Barker told The South Bank Show interviewer that the changeable bodies in his fiction constitute "a nice image of what I'm trying to say [which is] that our imaginations are constantly transforming us in our dream lives and even in our waking lives, in our relation to what we see in the mirror... our relationship to the way we present ourselves to the world."
But we can also read his shapeshifters as queer bodies, playfully dissolving bedrock images of masculinity or femininity and dramatizing the gay cultural critic Frank Browning's assertion that "a queer body is a body whose plasticity use, and presentation are controlled by its inhabitant... [a] body of subversion (of all the roles and behaviors it wants to sabotage)." Thus, Cabal's epigraph, from Domingo d'Ybarrondo's Bestiary of the Soul: "We are all imaginary animals."
Going further, we can imagine Barker's metarnorphs as the point at which Bataillean theories of radical sex intersect with Cronenbergian visions of "uncontrollable flesh" - the alliance, against nature, of the utopian politics of the Foucauldian "limit experience" and "posthuman" fantasies of Darwinian evolution superseded by plastic surgery, cyborgian prostheses, and genetic engineering. Barker's books and the best of his movies (Hellraiser, Nightbreed) can be seen as pop parallels to the Bataillean tradition that flowers in the post-structuralist philosophy of Foucault, who envisioned S&M as a means of "shattering the philosophical subject" - disintegrating the coherent, centered self of Western rationalism in an engulfing "animality." In the Carpe Noctem interview, Barker says, "One of the things that sex does is it makes us less ourselves. [I]n the... height of lovemaking one of the things we want is to be erased, to be subsumed by the other person- to become, in a way so identified with the other person that maybe both personalities disappear. [It's] transformative and extraordinary."
Foucault also saw S&M as a strategy for "desexualizing" sensual pleasure by "inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of [the] body" - over-riding our built-in genital fixation and returning us to the undifferentiated infantile sexuality that Freud called "polymorphous perversity." In his most science-fictional moments, Foucault (like his "anti-Oedipal" comrades-in-arms, Deleuze and Guattari), rhapsodizes about the body "plunged into a volatile and diffused state," "disorganizing itself" through the non-genital eroticism 0f S&M's theater of cruelty. Foucault's "disorganized body" is the conjoined twin of Deleuze and Guattari's anti-Oedipal "Body without Organs," a sort of idealized schizophrenic self that stands in radical opposition to the rational subject of individualism. As Mark Seem notes in his introduction to Deleuze and Guattari's Anti- Oedipus, the authors "urge mankind to strip itself of all anthropomorphic an anthropological armoring... in order to perceive what is nonhuman in man, his desires and his forces, his transformations and mutations." At its outer bound, theirs is a politics of posthumanism: "To be anti-Oedipal... is to be anti-homo," says Seem. Their paeans to the posthuman Body without Organs— amorphous, undifferentiated, fluid— call to mind the monsters of Midian, "transforming, rear-ranging ambassadors of tomorrow's flesh."
Ironically the poet laureate of protean flesh and daemonic sex ("daemonic," not "demonic"— the Romantic term for what Paglia defines as "the dream world where nature reigns, where there is no law but sex, cruelty, and metamorphosis") once confessed that mortality was his worst nightmare: "I don't scare easily but I'm terrified of... the general condition of being flesh and blood, of minds to madness and flesh to wounding." In the South Bank interview, he calls his work "metaphysical fiction," a meditation on "how it might be if our spirits manifested themselves physically" or "if our minds and our bodies were totally separated." Pinhead and the other creatures in Barker's gallery of grotesques have much to teach us about the eternal conundrum that the body is both "I" and "it," that we dream of transcendence but are doomed to putrescence. This is the real Lament Configuration, a puzzle box we'll unlock only too late.
Let's plunge into the heart of things (pun intended). One of the conceptual threads woven throughout your work is the intertwined nature of pleasure and pain. Queer theorists such as Leo Bersani and pop intellectuals like Camille Paglia read S&M dramaturgy and gay sexuality as manifestations of the inassimilable Other - a chthonian counterweight to use Paglias' pet adjective, to the normative world-view of straight, bourgeois culture. Are you heartened by this vision of gay bacchanals and S&M clubs as sublime snakepits? Or should we be wary of this tendency to romanticize the gay demimonde as some sort of leathersex nightbreed?
There's much ambiguity in these areas, which I think gay and straight theorists as well are only now investigating. The truth of it is, a phenomenon like S&M, like most interesting areas, is a mass of contradictions and paradoxes. I've met S&M practitioners who were amongst the healthiest, most centered, most philosophically coherent individuals I've encountered people who were extremely articulate about their sexuality and about the complexities of their responses to all of this. And I've met S&M practitioners who were working out some neurotic/psychotic need which perhaps would have been better addressed through a therapist. But that would be true of any form of sexuality; I don't think it's unique to the S&M scene, although it may be more extreme in the S&M scene. If it's to be of any real use to the psyche, S&M needs to be investigated thoroughly.
In an Advocate interview, you talked about your involvement with S&M have you "investigated it thoroughly?" If so, what have you brought back, into the light of day?
I've brought back ritual, I've brought back the notion that this is an area where you can examine the limits of what you find sexual and maybe expand those limits. One of the things that happens as we are educated in childhood and adolescence is the range of things that we are allowed to find sexual narrows. This is Freud's notion, the idea that the child is polymorphously perverse, looking at the world and seeing sexual possibilities everywhere, and that the series of taboos which are inculcated into the child gradually limit the number of sexual possibilities. It's to do with sensations, with what our eyes and skin tell us, and it seems to me that one of the things S&M sexuality does is say, "Well, now, wait a second, maybe that isn't the whole story, maybe we don't have to live with certain sexual possibilities sewed up and kept from us, maybe we can re-open these doors, maybe we can look again at pure sensation, at what is beautiful and what is arousing. De Sade said that the greatest pleasures are aversions overcome, and aversions are taught."
Are there any ultimate bounds? Do we consider, say necrophilia an acceptable taste in the context of a broad cultural palate?
On the page?
On the page or in real life.
I think "real life," where necrophilia is concerned, is something of a misnomer. (laughs) But on the page, anything is possible. On the page, taboo is de rigueur in the areas in which I write. Everybody draws his lines at different places; I would certainly draw the line at anything that involved children or excrement or animals or dead people.
Although you're a fan of Pasolini, who has no compunctions about coprophagy, for example.
I don't think Salo is the greatest advertisement for shit-eating; by and large, he's selling you the idea that this is fairly horrible. But I would also say that that's within the realm of art. While I'm not saying that there aren't perfectly well-adjusted people around here who will be spending their Saturday nights in front of a steaming plate of shit, that's very far from my personal tastes. But I'm not about to join the Oh-I-wouldn't-do-that-if-I-were-you lobby, because then you're on the slippery slope to Jesse Helms.
In his Advocate piece on you, Charles Isherwood says that you're "tying to get at the dark roots that link [you] prodigious imaginative output and [your] sexuality, "as if gay sexuality is by definition "dark."
Well, I think sexuality is dark, and I think it's important that it be dark, and although there's a lot Camille Paglia and I disagree about, this is an area where I would agree with her. The lightening of sexuality; the desire to drag it into the spotlight and domesticate it, to make it a plausible subject for self-help tapes, is highly regrettable; what it does is effectively bleed power out of sexuality by making it seem controllable. The whole point is that it should not be controllable. Now, this is problematic in light of the issue of AIDS and what's safe and what isn't; how can you be uncontrolled and safe at the same time? There's a whole separate package of issues that need to be addressed, obviously but in terms of telling a story I'm not really interested in sexuality as a product of Dr. Ruth's charming influences; I want it to be what it is in Jacobean drama-a raw, dangerous, powerful force which influences our actions, makes us irrational, takes Apollo out of our lives and puts in Dionysus. It's very, very important for our health that we have that. The way that people are drawn to the emotional power that sexuality has, is a major part of how my characters proceed through their dramas; it's not the only driving force, but it is a driving force because it's tied to a desire for revelation, and sexual revelation is a necessary part of any revelation. When I was writing my last novel, Sacrament, I read a lot of Christian mystical poetry; John the Divine and so on, and so much of it is powerfully sexual.
Berninis' Saint Theresa is the poster girl for the eroticism of religious rapture.
Exactly, being probed by any number of little piercing shafts.
And Saint Sebastian is of course a longtime gay icon; Mishima returned, again and again, to the, theme of an androgynous, scantily clad young Sebastian transfixed by arrows.
Well, not only written about but posed as, in that extraordinary photo of him as Sebastian martyred in Thirteen Ways to Die, along with fictive images of him washed up drowned, him in an auto wreck, and so on. Sex and death are both transformative experiences, and one of the things that we do, as a necessary part of living, is rope these things off into separate areas. We can't get on with out lives as wage slaves if sex and death things are constantly obsessing us!
You conjure visions of sex as the gates of delirium- a portal leading beyond the realm of the known, into the unknown, the unthinkable, even the unspeakable. In the first Hellraiser movie, Pinhead describes himself and his fellow Cenobites as "explorers in the further regions of experience- demons to some, angels to others." Don't Lovecraftian visions of sexual excess, especially gay libertinism and S&M, become problematic when reinterpreted by mainstream (read: straight) culture? I'm thinking of the basement scene in Pulp Fiction, where gay S&M is imaged, once again, as a sicko creepshow.
Well, you can't get up in the morning and decide to write something with a political scheme in mind, the desire to do what seems best for your subculture, because then you start to write a kind of partisan fiction which doesn't tell its own truth. What I think a writer does, perhaps more particularly a writer of the fantastique such as myself, is actually access things which are extremely personal and make metaphorical life of them, weaving something into them that's going to arouse contradictory and paradoxical feelings in the reader. So I am aware, powerfully aware, that the work I put on the page or the screen contains images of sexuality which are by no means all positive, but that's part of who I am and also who I am as a storyteller.
The image of gay S&M practitioners in Pulp Fiction is less attractive, but that's what Quentin Tarantino chose to do with that story at that point. A semiotician can read any number of things into not only that but into any piece of fantastique fiction: volumes have been written about the Alien movies, where obvious sexual imagery is offered up in a pretty repulsive form-the phallic monster and the devouring mother. But at the end of the day if I have the choice between doing something which seems "politically correct" and something which seems true to the story I'm telling, I'll choose the latter, since otherwise I've got to shoot down in flames the very thing which takes me flying in the first place: my imagination.
One of the other great dualisms in your work, in addition to the convergence of pleasure and pain, is the mind/body split. You've said that one of life's cruelest jokes is that we're trapped in bodies that decay and die; at the same time, your fiction is animated by a Saturnalian sense of the pleasures of the flesh.
I feel as though I'm locked in a body which has a limited shelf life and so I have to make the best of that in moments of epiphany, which ultimately come from the mind. I thoroughly enjoy sexual revelation, I thoroughly enjoy ritual, but they don't compare to the epiphanies that come from natural phenomena and from art.
What do you as one of our foremost poetic theoreticians of ecstasy and excess make of this weird subtext of body loathing, a creeping contempt fir the "meat," that lies just beneath the surface of cyberpunk science fiction and the writings of Marvin Minsky, Hans Moravec, and other prophets of posthuman evolution?
I'm not repulsed by it at all because we know that we're freest when we're playing with ideas; it's an idealistic vision, a Platonic world in which we are freed from the necessity of bodily complaint and bodily concerns, where we are information in a world of information, ideas in a world of ideas. It brings to mind Plato and Socrates walking the streets of Athens and Plato pointing out a beautiful young man on the other side of the street and Socrates saying, "Please, I'm 70, I've just got free of that, don't remind me." In a way, that's what this whole preoccupation with flying through a world of ideas is: "Don't remind me, let me go, liberated into a place in which I have equal status with the idea I'm viewing."
At the same time, isn't there a fatal seduction there, in the sense that losing touch with our bodies breeds an eerily Olympian disengagement from the world around us, a tendency to privilege the ethereal over the corporeal, the hereafter over the here and now? In Male Fantasies, Klaus Theweleit's study of the fascist unconscious, the Nazi fantasy of an impregnable masculinity emerges from a shuddering recoil from the soft wet horrors of the "feminine" flesh.
I wouldn't disagree, but I would also say that if you wanted to look for fascism, you needn't look any further than the local gym. The notion of sexualized perfection is very worrying, because in the real world sleeping with someone like that would be like sleeping with RoboCop. It all comes down to the body as something which is untouchable, armored-the belly is a washboard, the pecs are shields, the whole thing is very desexualized, which is very particular to our culture right now.
So I think fascistic tendencies are manifested both in the notion of the mind liberated from the body and in the body freed from the mind. What's really troubling is the idea of liberating ourselves from our animal natures"; in so doing, we liberate ourselves from the comprehension of physical pain and pleasure, from the fruitful paradox of being trapped. In the final analysis, it isn't liberation at all. One of the ideas that follows from this outlook, specifically in Christian belief, is the idea that we are masters of all we survey, including the animal world-that everything has been put here for our use and misuse, which is an idea that repulses me. It feels to me that one of the things that's missing from this whole vision is the idea that we, in our fleshiness, are connected not only to the fleshiness of other people, which is obviously a sexual connection, but to the fleshiness of the world. This tendency to divorce ourselves from the real world, the world of the body has to do with a fear of connection. The dog sitting beside me right now has a very different look in her eyes from me but by looking into her eyes, I can have some sense of what she is and learn more about the world by being with her in a way that I couldn't from the idea of a dog, from a ~ to the question of "taboo" sexual practices,
I can't resist asking: Have you ever encountered-
A man I didn't like? (laughs uproariously)
a one-night stand who presumed that your sexuality was virtually indistinguishable from Pinheads'?
No, but I've had to change the minds of people who assumed they wouldn't want to sleep with me. (chuckles)
How did you disabuse them of that notion?
Oh, with a little abuse. But seriously, the truth of the matter is that I'm a disappointment to people who want to identify me with my work, because I'm to all intents and purposes normal. I took to heart the great lesson of the Surrealists, which is that if you keep all of your willful abnormalities and fruitful perversities on the page or the canvas or the screen, you can still be the perfect bourgeois.
Pinhead an incredibly rich image-polyvalent, as an academic would say interestingly there's a Cinefantastique article where you're quoted as saying that you wanted the female Cenobite to dominate the series but fans clasped Pinhead to their bosom. Clearly this irretrievably weird image- a shaven-headed man, his head bristling with nails, clad in a leather skirt-struck a responsive chord in a word: why?
If I knew, I'd do it again. It shouldn't really work, should it? Timing had a lot to do with it. In an area where the monsters had tended to be rather inelegant, either mute or not particularly articulate, certainly not poets, in steps Pinhead, elegant, curiously beautiful, and extremely androgynous-the first guy in a skirt who ever scared anybody, as I like to say But the interesting thing for me is that his language, which is a very poetic language, was in no small part what attracted people; when I do signings for books, I'm often asked to put a quote from Pinhead in the front of the book. So if he'd wandered around looking like that but hadn't said anything, his power would've been much reduced.
|Does Pinhead attract the S&M crowd?
I would say not. Part of what makes him attractive is that he represents something that the fans would like to do but don't do.
Does he resonate with gays?
I haven't noticed that. He seems to be a primarily heterosexual phenomenon. Women are attracted by his erotic power; men are drawn to his unapologetic evil.
That's interesting; given his shaved head, leather garb, and credo of agony and ecstasy, you'd think the black leather demimonde would enshrine him as their patron saint.
It may very well be that I've simply been keeping the wrong company (laughs) I simply haven't had that articulated to me when I'm signing books in bookstores. The gay audience tends to be much more interested in Nightbreed than they are in Hellraiser, because Nightbreed is a movie made by a gay man which can be read much more readily as a metaphor for homosexuality- the underculture repressed by the police culture, the church culture, the psycho-analytic culture. It was created with the knowledge that that was a legitimate reading of what was going on, just as Lord of Illusions was created in the knowledge that there was a completely homoerotic reading of the relationship between the villains. I'm very conscious that at their best these dark fantastique movies give up much more complex readings than conventional thrillers.
Speaking of the repressive aspects of "church culture," Pinhead seems to be an anti-Papist parody among other things. His speech is almost liturgical and his costume looks tike Sacher-Masochs' idea of vestments from a black mass. Were you raised Catholic?
No, I wasn't, although I have an Irish-Catholic family But Pinhead's power certainly lies, for me, in his priestly performance; this is a fellow who should be in some demoniacal pulpit. There is a very strong anticlerical sentiment in my writing, and I think when you look at what the Catholic church has done- is doing, even now, with the way that it doesn't take any humanistic responsibility for the AIDS plague or population control- you can't help but see it as profoundly fascistic, patriarchal spider.
Are you famitiar with the Sunday painter Clovis Trouille? His sacrilegious art was a big hit with the Surrealists, who embraced him as a comrade-in-arms.
Oh, absolutely! They're extraordinary paintings, with their supersaturated colors, and his wonderful, delirious, throwing-together of elements. Lightning, nuns, and rape are an incredible combination. But my anti-clericism is rooted in Blake, in the desire that I have to rehabilitate the Christ story, to rehabilitate images and ideas which seem to be incredibly rich and healthy and fruitful for the imagination but have been stolen by bad men. Paul is problematical, Augustine is problematical, but then, so, too are Pascal and Aquinas; when you start on that, where do you finish? You can find loathing of the flesh almost anywhere. There are things in the Christ image that speak strongly to me, personally in the way that they spoke strongly to Blake- Christ as the transforming force that comes into our lives.
Do you find the Crucifixion erotic?
No, I don't, and I've stood before altarpieces done in the Spanish realist tradition, where you can see every broken bone, and Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, but I find them unspeakably grim; even when you're in the late Mannerist tradition and everything seems to be pink or blue, it's a still a distressing image.
What's' Pinheads' relationship to the freak-show microcephalon who gives him his name?
None, really; what happened was that when we were putting together the first movie, that name appeared as shorthand for the character in one of those foolish moments that you come to regret forever after, and it stuck. It wasn't my preferred name for the fellow. He was merely the "lead Cenobite" in the credits of the first picture, nor did he have a name in the novella "The Hellbound Heart," on which the movie was based, where he's just the leader of the Order of the Gash. So he was named by accident, which I like in a curious kind of way: he's a self-created demon.
Were the nails in his head inspired by the carnival geek who pounds nails into his skull or by African fetishes?
By the fetishes. I had seen fetishes from a number of sources which used nails as images of transferred rage, the notion of beating nails into a wooden head as a means of empowerment. Jung pointed out that it's a common dream image, frequently dredged up as an image of anger, which I didn't realize until after this creature had started to stalk my dreams.
So there are associations with sympathetic magic as well as with the Crucifixion and perhaps even S&M in its most extreme manifestations.
Yes, and most obviously, punk. Pinhead was created at a time when London, where I was living, was awash with people who had piercings, usually of a fairly crude variety, long before piercing had become the art form that it is now, and you could go down to central London and Piccadilly Circus and see people with mohawks and safety pins through their faces; it was a crude aesthetic and perhaps more interesting because of that. I've always found body modification interesting, not just aesthetically but also in terms of what we choose to do with "the meat"; one of the ways we choose to reinvest our flesh with significance is by transforming it.
Does Pinhead allude, in any way to the prevalence of piercing in the gay community, which of course predates the mainstreaming of modern primitivism?
If he relates in any way, it's only because piercing is sexual. But it relates less to the gay experience than it does to looking at pictures of pierced tribesmen.
Do heavily pierced, tattooed Clive Barker fans embrace Pinhead as an exemplar of body modification?
Yes, they do; I've seen hundreds of Pinhead tattoos on people who are extensively modified.
How does that make you feel?
Tremendous! How could it not!? I've created a household god.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He wrote Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove Press)
and edited Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (Duke Press). He is currently working on The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium:
Madness and Mayhem in Millennial America, an essay collection which will be published by Grove in 1999.
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