Ginger Nuts of Horror
“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States” (15).
Published in 1962, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique sought to expose the existential crises that forced millions of white, upper-middle class, American women to live in a haze of depression, disillusionment, and despair. As such, the bestselling book was both controversial and critically acclaimed. Its publication and popularity marked a significant turning point in American history, particularly sexual politics. Reactions to The Feminine Mystique fueled the Sexual Revolution of the late sixties and fomented the Women’s Movement throughout the seventies.
While it may seem passé now, Friedan’s work — severely flawed as it is — for the first time provided otherwise privileged women with a way to articulate the deep sense of dislocation and loss experienced while simultaneously ‘having it all’; loving husband, spotless house, doting children, etc. Certainly, it was easy to see why it would be problematic for well-educated women to limit themselves to homemaking and domesticity while their husbands’ were out nurturing careers and socializing. There was a freedom to masculinity that women, no matter how skilled, smart, attractive, or fertile, could ever attain.
Twenty-five years later, after the establishment of Roe vs. Wade, the ratification of the Civil Rights Act, and the ending of the Vietnam War, the world was in significant social and economic upheaval. Conservative regimes ruled much of the Western world and their fiscal policies and cultural ideologies resulted in massive societal unrest. Economic recessions, political corruption, and widespread poverty, were just a few of several interconnected large-scale problems that shaped men and women’s daily lives. Such unrest was most often countered by direct political action but also in the subcultures and countercultures that sought to upend social norms. After the radicalism of the sixties, and the idealism of the seventies, the eighties were all about individualism, excess, and empire. Communism clearly didn’t work, socialism wasn’t much better, and in the unstable neoliberal free market of post-Cold War capitalism, the most rational thing to do was simply, ‘take the money and run’.
Amid this milieu, Hellraiser was born. To suggest that Liverpudlian ‘Imagineer’ Clive Barker intentionally and specifically situated his family tragedy of pain, pleasure, loss, and betrayal among the aforementioned cultural backdrop is a bit presumptuous. However, like all effective speculative fiction, there is something of the real world reflected or refracted in the otherworldly escapades that unfold. In Hellraiser, with its cheeky working title, Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave and the lesser known but all the more significant title, What a Woman Wouldn’t Do for a Good Fuck, Barker gives a wholly transgressive answer to the question of what happens when a woman’s potential is squashed by society’s normative forces. In Hellhound: Hellraiser II viewers are then presented with the consequences of such transgression, consequences that originally suggest the capacity for unlimited (or at least, vast) power, provided necessary sacrifices are made.
Hellraiser, or The Unhappy Housewife Unleashes Hell
In the case of Hellraiser, viewers are asked to consider the existence of one Julia Cotton. At first glance, her background is little more than implication and insinuation, all of it connected to either her oblivious husband Larry or her lover and brother in law, Frank. Initially, this might seem like an oversight on behalf of the writer— the beautiful female character has no real connection to the narrative outside of the two male leads — but considering the sociopolitical context of the time, Barker’s characterization of Julia is a powerful indictment of the empty excesses of the eighties. As Friedan writes in The Feminine Mystique, “American housewives can be given the sense of identity, purpose, creativity, the self-realization, even the sexual joy they lack — by the buying of things” (208).
It is clear from the opening scenes of the film once the Cotton’s arrive at 55 Ludovico Place, that Julia is ill-at-ease in her newly acquired roles of mother and wife. Viewers don’t know what Julia’s life was like before Larry and Kirsty, but the tension between the triad is evident the moment the three interact. Kirsty Cotton clearly despises her (and the sentiment is largely mutual) while whatever closeness she and Larry once shared has been all but shattered after an afternoon spent with Frank atop her wedding dress in their marriage bed. The notorious lovemaking scenes between Julia and Frank show two people completely raw for one another, while Larry’s entreaties for sex only occur when Julia pretends to be scared of the thunder (in an attempt to conceal skinless Frank’s presence in the attic). Certainly, Frank’s sexual appetites are perverse as his desire for Julia is grounded in some level of sibling rivalry, but Frank also enjoys the power of destroying Julia’s cold and reserved facade. It is only with Frank (initially) that Julia is able to experience depths of being and heights of sensation formerly unknown. Frank is attracted to those unseeable, unrecognized aspects of Julia’s personality; Larry is primarily attracted to her girlish vulnerability.
While Larry is dutifully conforming to societal norms concerning masculinity and material gain, Julia is discovering that all those things she previously lacked; a ‘sense of identity, purpose, creativity, self-realization and sexual joy’ are a mere hammer’s swipe away. As Julia’s sexual obsession with Frank grows, so too does her lust for killing. Soon, it becomes clear after the first kill that Julia is no longer seducing strangers just to feed Frank, she is leading them to their excruciating demise because she enjoys it.
This is nowhere more apparent than when Julia and Frank re-consummate their relationship while Frank is wearing his dead brother’s skin. Julia, re-invigorated from the encounter, teases Kirsty once she returns from the hospital. Encouraging her to step into the attic to view the skinless body believed to be Frank, Julia is almost giddy once Frank (wearing Larry's skin) begins his menacing pursuit of Kirsty. Once they are all cornered on the steps of the crumbling home, Julia holds Kirsty while Frank attempts to stab her. However, Kirsty maneuvers away from them both and Frank drains Julia instead. As he exsanguinates her, Julia cries, “Not me!” to which Frank callously responds, “Nothing personal, baby.”
Hellbound: Hellraiser II or A Woman’s Place is in the Labyrinth
Julia Cotton returns via the bloodied mattress that held her corpse in the first film. From it, she emerges a skinless horror in a bizarre mockery of birth, orchestrated by occult practitioner and psychiatrist Dr. Phillip Channard. Dr. Channard’s curiosity about the Lament Configuration has lead him to perform several terrible acts; firstly allowing an unstable patient to cut himself repeatedly on the bloodstained mattress to resurrect Julia, then allowing the mute patient Tiffany to solve the puzzle-box and potentially incur the wrath of the Cenobites.
Similar to the events in Hellraiser, for Julia to return to her complete state she must be supplied with living bodies to drain dry. Channard, infatuated with Julia — who is again using her skills at seduction to meet her ultimate goals — kidnaps young women whom Julia is more than happy to deplete. When Julia encounters Kyle she leads him to Channard’s attic, filled with desiccated bodies hanging from the ceiling. Kyle, entirely shocked by the revelations about his beloved mentor, is in the perfectly vulnerable state for Julia to strike. She tells him, “Come to Mother,” and weakened by the horrors around him and unable to resist the gorgeous and dangerous Julia, he does. She empties him, and moments later Kirsty discovers Julia, resurrected.
The two face off, and Julia backhands Kirsty into momentary unconsciousness. Free from potential disruptions, Julia and Channard take Tiffany (who has opened the Configuration) into the void opened by the malevolent mechanism. Channard’s curiosity, coupled with his undeniable attraction to skinless Julia — featured in perhaps one of the most disturbing kisses ever captured on screen — provides him with the opportunity to explore the Labyrinth; home of dark god Leviathan, an oblong shape that blasts black light across an endless maze.
As Channard is drenched in the black light which reveals his early surgical investigations on small animals, his involvement in the murder of Tiffany’s mother, and his experimentations on human subjects, Julia introduces him to “Leviathan! Lord of the Labyrinth!” Still reeling from Leviathan’s power, Julia identifies herself as a servant of the Cenobites’ god, explaining that she was chosen to deliver human souls back to the deity. Channard realizes too late that he has been set up, as the Pillar of Souls arises from the void and begins its agonizing process of turning him into a Cenobite. Throughout this entire sequence, this Julia is much different than the Julia of the first film. Here, she is confident, purposeful, exacting, and calculating. In Hellraiser, Julia Cotton is simply a murderess, killing to bring back her lover from the dead. However, in Hellbound: Hellraiser II she is no longer working on anyone’s behalf but her own, bringing souls back to Leviathan, a god that she has decided to serve. Julia’s purpose is not just concrete, it is now given a spiritual dimension as well, a philosophical motivation that transgresses the basic moral and ethical codes of not just patriarchal society, but civilization itself.
After momentarily dispatching Dr. Channard, Julia encounters skinless Frank. Trapped in a hell of untouchable phantasmic women, Julia meets Frank at perhaps his lowest point. Spurned by Kirsty’s advances, his flesh burned away, he believes that the woman in Julia’s skin is the same lovesick woman he stabbed and left for dead in the house on Ludovico Place.
However, Julia tricks him into believing that she still loves him and instead, literally rips his heart out. After doing so she holds the slow-beating organ in her hands and reassures Frank that it’s, “Nothing personal, babe.”
Later, Julia is destroyed (?) by Kirsty and Tiffany. Yet, in the audio commentary for Hellbound: Hellraiser II writer Peter Atkins states that in the original script Julia’s character was meant to survive and emerge as the fully realized Queen of Hell.
While Clare Higgins’ refusal to appear in any additional Hellraiser films changed the original ending of Hellbound, it is worth noting that both films are only peripherally about the interactions between the Cenobites and the unlucky humans who encounter them. While those exchanges are the most visually arresting, the narrative arcs run parallel to Julia’s transformation from unhappy housewife to infernal assassin. Julia Cotton’s feminine mystique in both films imply that if the world will not allow women the opportunities to realize their full potential, hell has never feared a woman’s scorn.
By Paula Ashe
Follow the links below for our fabulous Scarlet Gospels celebration