When The Shit Hits The Fan

Before he was interviewing movie stars or producing podcasts, horror fandom stalwart Tom Elliot was sharing his thoughts on the genre with the GeekPlanetOnline community. From grim 1970s slashers to modern CGI murder, if you need the opinion of a gorehound then Tom is your man...

If you mention Clive Barker’s classic Hellraiser to a horror fan, chances are, the first thing they’ll think of is Pinhead, the character who’s small but important role in the film created an instant horror icon who subsequently appeared in seven sequels. 

I could talk at length about my love for Pinhead, and one day probably will, but much as I adore the “Black Pope of Hell”, the real object of fascination in Hellraiser for me is the means by which we may be granted and audience with him: The Box. 

For the uninitiated, the box in question is a small wooden puzzle box with designs etched in brass on each of its faces. To the naked eye it seems solid, but if you have the desire and the patience to solve it, then a passage to hell will literally be opened before you, allowing the passage of beings known as The Cenobites into our world, of which Pinhead is one.  

The Cenobites are described as “Demons to some, Angels to others”. And while the average person may wonder why the bloody hell you’d want to invite Pinhead into your living room, for those hedonistic few who feel they’ve exhausted all of the pleasures this world has to offer, the sensations that the cenobites offer can take them to that next level, though they usually get more than they bargained for. 

Desire is the real key to solving the puzzle; invest enough time and effort and you’ll truly earn your “reward”. 

But the box isn’t the only gateway to hell, and even solving it doesn’t guarantee entrance. In Hellraiser 2, a mute girl with a talent for puzzles is forced to solve the box by her twisted psychiatrist, Dr Chanard. As the Cenobites close in on her, Pinhead alone says “No”. When his female accomplice questions him, he utters the poetic line “It is not hands that call us, it is…desire”, before turning his attention to the Doctor. 

The often excellent Hellraiser comic series that ran from 1989 to 1992 expanded the mythology, and further illustrated how the puzzles are merely a test of desire. It’s really how much you want it that matters.  

In the story Songs of Metal and Flesh, written by Peter Atkins (the writer of Hellraisers 2 - 4), the protagonist, a blind musician, creates a piece of music that leaves his audience literally in pieces. The method used in Frank Lovece’s For My Son is a pattern sewn into the back of a jacket and in Neil Gaiman’s Wordsworth, the titular character tries to solve a crossword puzzle on a train, and as he solves each clue, sinks deeper and deeper into Hell.  

Brilliant as these stories are, it always comes back to the box for me, or to give its full title, The Lament Configuration. The mechanics of the box as shown in the films are physically impossible to create in reality, which gives it that extra bit of magic, because it literally can’t exist. The exquisitely detailed faces at a glance seem symmetrical, but look closer and the patterns turn to chaos before your eyes. Study it for long enough and sometimes you think for a moment you’ve discovered some sort of symmetrical pattern, only for it to disappear when you look even closer. Perhaps there is symmetry somewhere on the box, but maybe it’s not the best idea to discover it. 

I own two Lament configurations, both of which sit proudly in my study, on shelves surrounded by other film memorabilia. While I dust the pieces in my collection regularly, I usually let the dust gather on the glass domes covering the puzzle boxes; it just seems rather fitting that it should. If you want to see the boxes, you should work for it. Slightly obscured by dust, they’re there for visitors to my home to discover, but only if they have the desire.