Hellraiser, sadomasochism, distributed and dismembered consciousness, and the brain’s experience of pain

Русский: 3D модель Шкатулки Лемаршана
Русский: 3D модель Шкатулки Лемаршана (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Horror films sometimes feature scenes of extreme torture, as well as sadism and sadomasochism (and especially the  subgenre known as “torture porn”, which we will ignore here). I will focus on one horror film – an old favourite of mine – Hellraiser. Hellraiser is a much-acclaimed 1987 British horror film, which focuses on the pleasure to be willingly found in extremes of pain. I saw this film in an old and long-since closed cinema (the much-loved Claddagh Palace) in Galway (my home town). Hellraiser also became a series; unbelievably, there have been eight sequels (including a new film allegedly due some year, soon). Hellraiser is an unusual film. It was scripted and directed by Clive Barker, the British horror and fantasy novelist, based on his novella, The Hellbound Heart. The horrors of Hellraiser are in part how torture is imagined by people to be: the tearing of the flesh, the dismemberment of the body and the causing of pain without end. Pain and suffering are at the core of torture, and Hellraiser provides a convenient prism through which we can take a brain’s eye view of how we experience pain. The torture scenes in Hellraiser are quite remarkable, partly for their realisation on film, and partly for their physical implications and metaphysical suggestions.

The plot is reasonably straightforward, requiring a suspension of belief in conventional physics and physiology. The core story revolves around a dislikeable and dissolute British man, Frank Cotton, who jadedly seeks ever greater extremes of experience. He purchases a Lament Configuration puzzle box (a portal to an extra-dimensional reality, devised and constructed by the fictional Philip Lemarchand) in Morocco. He takes it home to London to solve the puzzle. Sitting in an empty attic room in his house, he attempts to disassemble the box, and succeeds. Chains ended with hooks fly from the box, tearing into his flesh. And Frank’s terrible journey into darkness begins.

Hellraiser introduces a vision of Hell as another reality sought and willingly travelled to from our conventional world. This Hell is populated by the Cenobites – sadistic, humanoid creatures who torture their masochist captives. To be in this Hell is to be tortured without end, or the hope of an end. The brain cannot and does not go into shock or coma, and does not die. The strapline for the film, uttered by the lead Cenobite, Pinhead, is ‘We will tear your soul apart’. This actually would be a welcome relief, implying that the tortures can end.


The Cenobites (from left to right); Butterball...
The Cenobites (from left to right); Butterball, Pinhead, The Female, and Chatterer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Individual consciousness does not end with the destruction and dismemberment of the body and brain in Hellraiser. This is the supreme sadomasochistic extension of Cartesian Dualism: instead of the primal existence proof being ‘I think, therefore I am’, it is rather ‘I hurt, therefore I am,’! Despite his dismemberment, Frank’s unitary but distributed consciousness continues to exist, and feels fully the extremities of pain visited on his own dismembered body parts. The film ends with an extraordinary and appalling image of Frank, recaptured by the Cenobites, his flesh pierced by hooked chains. He looks with an appalling smirk, anticipating the pleasure of the pain to come, utters the shortest verse in the Bible (‘Jesus wept’), licks his lips and is again torn apart. The implication is straightforward: Frank has not escaped the clutches of Hell. His pleasurable suffering will continue for all eternity. The final scene of Hellraiser shows the Lament Configuration puzzle box being inspected by another potential purchaser, who is asked the telling question: ‘What’s your pleasure, sir?

Hellraiser is unusual as film because, despite its esoteric storyline, it is centrally concerned with exploring the pleasures that may be found in pain, and the corresponding extremes this exploration evokes in human behaviour. The tortures in Hellraiser are indeed extreme and unending. Frank is tortured because he willingly wants to explore the extremes of pleasure that he believes to be found in pain. He, as a sadomasochist, exists in a symbiotic relationship with the dominant sadomasochists (the Cenobites). He willingly undergoes tortures of varying extremity as a form of pleasure. His broken and dismembered body continues to feel pain, and will always do so. Torture is here represented as a form of ritualised and stylised violence, inscribed upon the body and desired by the mind. The extremity of sensation offered promises to overwhelm the self – and perhaps this is what Frank seeks. Frank complains that on his hedonistic journey that “It’s never enough.” He rapidly habituates to his experiences, becomes bored and seeks ever greater extremes.

After his astonishing journey to and from the clutches of the Cenobites, he says, ruefully: ‘I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits… pain and pleasure, indivisible.’ This is a remarkable sensory concatenation. The perception of pain, pleasure, touch – indeed of all sensation – is mediated by a variety of separate ascending sensory pathways, which keep separate the differing aspects of sensation all the way to the brain itself. The implication here – simultaneous and intense activation of all the differing sensory receptors of the body – from touch to pressure to mechanosensation to pain itself – is disturbing indeed, implying a form of sensory overload that would be hard to bear and sustain within consciousness. The metaphysical conceit of Hellraiser – that sensation, perception and conscious experience remain intact through an utterly dismembered body – we can ignore while we instead focus on how the brain experiences sensations and processes pain.

English: Sensory receptors in the human skin.
English: Sensory receptors in the human skin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A hook tearing at the flesh breaks the skin’s surface, causing more or less severe pain, depending on the part of the flesh so inscribed. The hook will drive activity in nociceptors – the specialised receptors that are activated by noxious events. There are sensory receptors scattered throughout the body: in the skin, in the muscles, in the joints, and in the internal organs. A sensory receptor has the job of transforming input from within or without the body into an electrical signal which can be conducted along a nerve pathway to the brain. Think of the relationship of the eyes to the brain, for example; they convert light photons into electrophysiological signals which travel via the optic radiations to the visual parts of the brain. This gives rise to the experience of vision.

There are three general types of sensory receptor. The first are exteroceptive; that is, their job is to bring information from outside the body that arrives on the surface of the body, on the skin or the sensory organs such as the eyes, the ears, the nose, and transform it into an electrical signal so that it can be conducted into the brain. The second class are interoceptive. The job of the interoceptors is to bring information from the viscera, that is, the internal organs of the body, to the brain. The final class of sensory receptors are concerned with proprioception, that is, information about the position of the joints of the body – for example, the position of the ankle, the orientation of the elbow, the position of the hand.  Interoceptors convey two general classes, or categories, of information to the brain. The first is general somatic information. This is information about touch, pressure, pain, temperature, position, vibration, etc.  The second class of information is general visceral information. This is information from the visceral organs which is transferred via nerve conduction from the viscera to the brain.

There are several subclasses of sensory receptors. The first are nociceptors. These are concerned with pain and extremes of temperature and are found in the skin, in muscle and other tissues. Mechanoreceptors are concerned with the sensation of touch, with pressure, and similar phenomena. Mechanoreceptors are found in the deep parts of the skin, the roots of hair, in ligaments, in joints; they are scattered throughout the internal organs as well. The final class is muscle and tendon mechanoreceptors: these are all found in skeletal muscle. These differing receptors perform different functions and transmission of signals from each of these receptors is segregated from transmission from the others. The key job of all of these receptors is to bring vital information from the organs that they service, to the spinal cord, which rapidly travels via the spinothalamic tract, to the thalamus (a deep brain structure which can act as a relay between the spinal cord and higher-order brain areas). Finally, sensation is transmitted to higher brain regions. How the Cenobites achieve such elaborate sensory transduction in a fragmented and dismembered brain and body is something we could speculate about endlessly.

English: Structure of sensory system 4 models ...
English: Structure of sensory system 4 models with English tags (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pain can be decomposed into a number of components. There is a sensory component – the mechanisms by which noxious stimuli are transmitted to the brain. There is an affective component – the emotional response to the experience of the painful stimuli. There is a cognitive component – the evaluation of the painful stimuli. There may also be motor components – as in the rapid withdrawal of the hand when it touches a hot surface. Together these different components are regulated by a complex network of areas in the brain, sometimes referred to as the pain matrix. The pain matrix has been the subject of extensive studies in both animals and humans over the past century or so.

Brain imaging studies have explored the brain areas associated with different types of pain. A prototypical experiment might involve asking volunteers to endure a series of systematically-applied electric shocks to the extremities, and then imaging the parts of the brain activated by the intensity and frequency of the electric shocks. This kind of experiment provides a good model of acute and sharp pain. Other kinds of experiments might involve placing small amounts of capsaicin (the active ingredient in chili) via an injection just below the skin of volunteers. This creates a sensation of acute and diffuse burning which can last a considerable period of time. Other experiments again might take advantage of chronic pain conditions – as might be found in patients with back injuries, for example. These and other experiments have allowed the identification of a network of brain areas that support the experience of pain, the “pain matrix”. The pain matrix in the brain consists of a network of interconnected areas consisting of the secondary somatasensory cortex, the insula, the anterior cingulate cortex, a variety of brain areas concerned with movement (in particular, the cerebellum, and the secondary motor cortex), and finally the thalamus and primary somatasensory cortex. These differing areas perform a variety of sensory, cognitive and motor functions during a painful experience from evaluation to attempts at defensive and escape movements.

Seems there are plans for a remake of Hellraiser with a decent budget and Barker as director… time will tell if this is a good idea.

PS: Dick Ahlstrom has a nice piece in the Irish Times on the Physiology of fear: why we love a good scare.

Please consider purchasing my book: 

‘Why Torture Doesn’t Work: The Neuroscience of Interrogation’ which can be preordered from:

Amazon (.com)

Amazon (.co.uk)

Harvard University Press

Torture is banned because it is cruel and inhumane. But as Shane O’Mara writes in this account of the human brain under stress, torture should never be condoned because it does not work the way torturers assume it does.

In countless films and TV shows such as Homeland and 24, torture is portrayed as a harsh necessity. If cruelty can extract secrets that will save lives, so be it. CIA officers and others conducted torture using precisely this justification. But does torture accomplish what its defenders say it does? For ethical reasons, there are no scientific studies of torture. But neuroscientists know a lot about how the brain reacts to fear, extreme heat and cold, starvation, thirst, sleep deprivation, and immersion in freezing water, all tools of thetorturer’s trade. These stressors create profound problems for memory, mood, and thinking, and sufferers predictably produce information that is deeply unreliable—and, for intelligence purposes, even counter-productive. As O’Mara guides us through the neuroscience of suffering, he reveals the brain to be much more complex than the brute calculations of torturers have allowed, and he points the way to a humane approach to interrogation, founded in the science of brain and behavior.

Torture may be effective in forcing confessions, as in Stalin’s Russia. But if we want information that we can depend on to save lives, O’Mara writes, our model should be Napoleon: “It has always been recognized that this way of interrogating men, by putting them to torture, produces nothing worthwhile.”

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Author: Shane O'Mara

Neuroscientist, Psychologist, Writer

5 thoughts on “Hellraiser, sadomasochism, distributed and dismembered consciousness, and the brain’s experience of pain

  1. Excellent piece, I was in the process of writing something about Frank’s dismemberment but I felt conflicted as to whether or not it should be regarded as a torture scene – you seem to have solved this quandary for me.

  2. Glad you liked it – many thanks indeed. I’ve been toying with counterfactual ways of getting across neuroscience – zombies and horror movies are great vehicles for this!

  3. Nice piece. As a huge fan of the Hellraiser series, I could envisage all the scenes you described, and almost feel the razors myself. It was my pleasure, sir 🙂
    btw I used Dr. Channards quote for the introduction of my PhD thesis. […] The mind is a labyrinth, ladies and gentlemen, a puzzle. And while the paths of the brain are plainly visible, its ways deceptively apparent, its destinations are unknown. Its secrets still secret. And, if we are honest, it is the lure of the labyrinth that draws us to our chosen field to unlock those secrets….

  4. Pingback: 94 - Hellraiser

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