The next contributor in this year’s Halloween Horrors series is Michael Donovan Horn. I can’t say that I know much about Michael as we’ve only had the minimalist of conversation through email, but I do know that he has a new collection of short stories, entitled Monster Box: Tales, which is scheduled for release at the end of this month. Monster Box: Tales will be available in both paperback and Kindle version. Here’s a pre-order link:

For his debut entry in our Halloween Horrors series, Michael will be taking a look at Clive Barker’s 1987 horror opus, Hellraiser, a film that seems to bring out the best in debuting Halloween Horrors contributors. For his own reflection on this modern horror classic, Michael looks back at not only his own discovery of this tale, but also reflects on the times in which it was unleashed.

While I can not say if Michael’s new book was influenced or not by Hellraiser and Barker’s work, he proves that he was ready to open a box of monsters for this submission.

The Allure of The Damned: Clive Barker and Hellraiser

By Michael Donovan Horn

In March of 1987, I turned four. My parents set a giant box slathered in rainbows in front of me. I tore it apart like a starving man smelling bread to reveal my very own Proton Pack. I wore that hunk of blue plastic everywhere, a pint-sized Peter Venkman in Velcro Superman sandals. One night before singing me to sleep, Dad found it under my bed and gave me a stern look.

“Didn’t I tell you to put your toys away”?”

Channeling Harold Ramis, I answered, “A Proton Pack isn’t a toy. It’s there so I can reach it when the ghosts show up.”

The dark terrified me. I can still recall one night in particular, sweating under my sun-yellow sheet because I knew – I knew – something was out there on the other side, coiled and waiting for its chance to snatch me away.

I was far from alone. With the end of the Cold War and the arrival of easy taxes, the country was enjoying a financial boom. But the resulting laisses faire environment had an unexpected price. Dirty needles, it seemed, were suddenly rampant and people stopped trusting their lover’s blood. The entire affair surged into the 90s as I became a teenager. Sex Ed became a circus act of campfire stories (Step right up, kiddos! See Chlamydia! Teen motherhood! Penile leakage!), and we were halfway through yet another cringe-worthy eight millimeter on genital cleanliness when my friend Josh poked me in the side with a small book.

“Dude. You gotta read this.”

I studied the book’s cover: a naked man sitting crisscross, skin alight in red hue, luscious women hanging off him like extra appendages. The name and title were blazing white on coffee black. CLIVE BARKER’S THE HELLBOUND HEART.

“Sorry, man,” I whispered under the click click of the projector, “I’m not into romance.”

A smile curled across his jaw and he shoved the thing in my plastic blue binder. “Just read it.”

After school, at home on my bed, I pulled it out and gave it a second glance. This time, I noticed the smaller caption on the cover, wedged between the block letters. THE SEARING NOVELLA THAT INSPIRED THE FILM SHOCKER HELLRAISER.

Hellraiser? What was that?

I admit to a touch of trepidation as I peeled back the steamy cover, but I figured the guy who introduced me to Freddy Krueger wouldn’t steer me wrong if he could help it. I finished it that night. The next day, I begged Josh to loan me the movie and he did in a heartbeat.

Like the novella, it was a masterpiece of horror. It still amazes me to this day how many levels exist in Barker’s work. Hellraiser is a thriller. A haunted house movie. A coming-of-age tale. An allegory on Sadomasochism. A serial killer movie. A zombie flick.  And at its center, a volatile Gothic romance. The grotesquely refined Cenobites and their demonic puzzle box astound with originality and always will.

“No tears. It’s a waste of good suffering…”

Doug Bradley’s portrayal of Priest, or as we know and love him, Pinhead, is a truly arresting performance. After years of mute slashers and goofy madmen spouting one-liners, Barker gave us a confident, stoic teacher doling out bloody punishment with practiced ease. His quarry, Frank Cotton (played with smarmy charm by Sean Chapman), is reduced to pus and bone not only by the Cenobites’ torture, but his own hedonistic quest for pleasure. Julia (Clare Higgins) is both Frank’s victim and devilish puppet, driven to kill in order to reclaim the man she loves. Kristy (Ashley Lawrence in a soulful, wide-eyed performance) can only watch the madness until her maturity breaks free, equipping her to fight Frank’s would-be dominance. The fact that Barker, a gay man, conceived and executed such a film in a year like 1987 is amazing; the story of an evil man, supplied with blood by his devoted lover, sewing his body back together in an effort to escape demons trying to rip it apart. Along with his soul.

The simple, stark production design and stunning gore effects aside, Christopher Young’s score is the essence of tragedy, the strings weeping their melodies beneath the romantic horror onscreen. One can easily imagine Pinhead swooning beside a rusted phonograph somewhere among the damned as the voices of his victims roil out of the darkness in harmony. We swoon with him, carried away by a film so violent yet loving that its echoes will last for all time.

Perhaps it was Barker’s intention all along. To give us a dark, brooding fable about his own terrors within a society of many. Mary Shelley told us to revel in what we fear and I believe Clive has done it in spades.  Hellraiser is both cautionary tale and a detailed reflection, reminding us all of a time when voracious excess painted the road to damnation.

To this day, I still watch it in the dark, embracing the shadows as my own, lulled to sleep by the rhythmic tone of a far away bell.