Dead by Daylight: Why Hellraiser’s Pinhead Is an Unlikely Slasher Icon

Pinhead finally joins Dead by Daylight's roster of legendary slashers, but the character was never really meant to become an icon of '80s horror.

Hellraiser Pinhead
Photo: Entertainment Film Distributors

The Dead by Daylight team recently confirmed that the horror game’s next licensed DLC update will be based on the legendary Hellraiser franchise. While this upcoming update will eventually include multiple assets from the Hellraiser films, the big news at the moment is that Pinhead is finally joining the game’s unbelievable roster of playable killers.

In some ways, this update felt inevitable. After all, Dead by Daylight already stars many of the greatest slashers in horror film history (including Freddy Kreuger, Leatherface, Ghostface, and Michael Myers), so it only makes sense that the developers would eventually find a way to add Pinhead to the game and come one step closer to completing their collection of genre icons.

Then again, it’s always felt a little odd to so casually throw Pinhead into that particular cast of characters considering that he is, in many ways, the most unlikely slasher icon of all time.

If you’ve never read Clive Barker’s 1986 novel The Hellbound Heart (the book that the first Hellraiser movie is based on), you really should. It’s an excellent and inventive piece of horror that combines sex and violence in a way that is pretty much guaranteed to disturb all but the most hardened of horror fans. It’s a unique reading experience, though the movie obviously does a pretty great job of capturing most of the things that make that story special.

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If you’ve only ever seen the Hellraiser movies, though, you may be surprised to learn that the character we now know as Pinhead is only vaguely referenced in the Hellbound Heart book. The character isn’t actually named in that book, but there is a brief mention of a demonic figure whose “head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone.” Interestingly, Barker also notes that the character’s voice is similar to that of “an excited girl.” That’s hardly what we think of when we think of Pinhead today, and it’s also not exactly how you’d describe a character that you’re eventually hoping to turn into the slasher star of an ’80s horror franchise.

Then again, Clive Barker seemingly never intended for Pinhead to be a star. Barker actually wanted Julia (the character played by Clare Higgins in the original film) to become the Hellraiser film series’ main antagonist moving forward. While Barker (who wrote and directed the first Hellraiser) clearly gave the Pinhead character a more prominent role in the movie than they enjoyed in the book, they were obviously never supposed to be a “slasher.”

So how did that happen? Well, it came down to a few factors.

First off, Pinhead’s design is simply amazing. It’s pretty much impossible to look at that character (especially at a young age) and not have the image seared into your brain. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Pinhead is more visually intimidating than Jason, Freddy, Michael, and all the other great horror slashers of that era. I know that I was certainly haunted by Hellraiser‘s VHS cover long before I ever dared to watch the actual movie.

That VHS cover/poster is likely the reason most of us became fascinated with Pinhead in the first place, which is kind of funny to think about given that the character’s “poster boy” status was really just a happy accident. The original plan was for Frank’s skinned body to be on most of the film’s promotional materials, but the studio responded to that idea with a hard “no.” It’s not entirely clear who ultimately made the decision to put Pinhead on the poster instead, but given that he’s clearly the film’s most visually striking character, it’s really not hard to see why someone realized he was the obvious second choice.

Honestly, though, you really have to give actor Doug Bradley most of the credit for making Pinhead such a star. Bradley worked closely with Barker to turn that character into so much more than they were ever really intended to be. Bradley himself never really became a household name, but his interpretation of that character is a big part of the reason why so many of those who were brave enough to watch Hellraiser at the time became so fascinated with the Cenobite. He also won over most of Hellraiser‘s cast and crew who were especially impressed with Bradley’s abilities, commitment, and interpretation of the complex character.

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That might be the biggest point to consider when you’re trying to figure out how Pinhead became a kind of accidental horror icon. While the original Hellraiser wasn’t written and shot with the intention of making Pinhead the next Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger, subsequent Hellraiser films (which were not written and directed by Barker) very much were. Those who eventually took the franchise over clearly recognized that Pinhead’s look had become iconic and that Bradley had gone above and beyond to make the character feel special. While Hellraiser 2 remained fairly true to the spirit and tone of the original film, Hellraiser 3 turned Pinhead into the obvious star of the show as well as a more “traditional” slasher.

In some ways, you could also argue that Pinhead’s rise to fame can be attributed to the fact that he wasn’t designed to be a slasher icon. At a time when the slasher genre was becoming more of a punchline and mainstream horror was looking to reclaim its edge, Pinhead stood apart as a genuinely terrifying figure whose lack of camp and unnerving intellect recalled the original incarnations of some of the greatest horror villains ever. People fell in love with Pinhead largely because they weren’t supposed to love him.

Actually, one of the only people who didn’t really fall in love with Pinhead was Clive Barker himself. While Barker has tried to prevent himself from reaching “old man yells at clouds” levels of resentment towards the Pinhead character, he does seem to absolutely hate the name Pinhead. He prefers for people to call him the “Hell Priest” and even uses the character’s appearance in the 2015 novel The Scarlet Gospels to suggest that Pinhead himself hates being called that. He also used that novel as an opportunity to kill Pinhead in a way that he hopes will ensure even “the most optimistic film producer in Hollywood could never dream of resurrecting him,” so make of that what you will.

Ultimately, though, horror fans get to write the final word about the character, and most of them do seem to put Pinhead alongside the icons of ’80s horror. It’s incredible to think that anyone would want to play as this leather-clad torturer whose very design is meant to unnerve us and invoke our absolute worst fears, but considering that some members of Hellraiser‘s preview audiences apparently told producers that they found the character to be “sexy,” maybe we should just all accept that Pinhead’s popularity has always defied logic.