The Hellraiser series of films, books, and comics share a common conceit: that when someone solves an innocuous puzzle box, they become subject to otherworldly pleasures administered by the Cenobites, members of Hell’s Order of the Gash. The box has several names, but it is best known as the Lament Configuration.
Now is a great time to revisit the Hellraiser franchise, with a Hulu reboot film coming in 2022 and an HBO Max series in development. Read on to learn everything there is to know about the gateway to hell!
Lemarchand’s Box in Print
The puzzle box was originally created by the toymaker Phillip Lemarchand around 1784. In the novella The Hellbound Heart, the box is called the Lemarchand Configuration and is described as small and black with few discerning features save for very faint seam lines. Clive Barker describes it like this in the first pages of The Hellbound Heart:
The interior surfaces were brilliantly polished. Frank’s reflection — distorted, fragmented — skated across the lacquer…. Lemarchand, who had been in his time a maker of singing birds, had constructed the box so that opening it tripped a musical mechanism, which began to tinkle a short rondo of sublime banality.
A player might spend the better part of a day getting the first piece to move. As pieces of the box are moved, the music slightly changes, the tune evolving and building, rewarding the player with a richer sound and, according to The Scarlet Gospels, an increasing sense of euphoria. A bell begins to toll along with the music, getting louder and louder until the puzzle is solved. The bell comes from the realm of the Cenobites on the other side of the Schism between dimensions the box forges, and once the gateway is open, the box reassembles itself and the bell stops. By then, the player has far more pressing concerns.
Lemarchand’s Box in Film
The film version differs somewhat from this description. Instead of being completely black, it is decorated with gold patterns of arcane shapes and scripts, and instead of opening completely, it opens in sections and segments. These segments can be seen at the end of Hellraiser when Kirsty Cotton solves the box in reverse to send the Cenobites back to the Labyrinth, as well as in Hellbound: Hellraiser II when Tiffany solves the box for Julia and Dr. Channard.
Origin – Literary and Cinematic
Two different versions of the box’s origin have been told. In comics from the early 1990s Phillip Lemarchand was established as a secretly prolific mass murderer who used human fat and bone to build his boxes. These grisly components were combined with a mysterious material provided by the Cenobite known as Baron to serve as bridges to their realm. The toymaker may have made as many of 270 of his hellish boxes before his death at the age of 94 under mysterious and violent circumstances.
The film Hellraiser: Bloodline presents another origin story. In 1796, Phillip Lemarchand, a toymaker with a young family, was hired by the aristocrat Duc de L’Isle and his servant Jacques, both of whom are obsessed with dark magic, to build a box for their nefarious purposes. De L’Isle and Jacques murder and skin a young woman, then use the solved box to allow a demon princess named Angelique to inhabit the skin and be theirs to command, provided they don’t get in the way of Hell’s plans. Angelique and Jacques then betray de L’Isle and kill him, all while Lemarchand watches. Horrified, he begins working on a method of containing and destroying the demons, but is discovered by Jacques while trying to steal back the original box. Jacques cursed Lemarchand’s bloodline for having built the box then kills Phillip, but his pregnant wife survives.
“Demons to some, angels to others…”
The Box In Print
As depicted in The Hellbound Heart, Frank Cotton is a sadomasochistic criminal who seeks extreme sensual pleasures no matter the cost to himself or others. Hearing rumors of something called Lemarchand’s Configuration which promises untold pleasure, he finds the black puzzle box in Dusseldorf and brings it to his grandmother’s attic in England. Frank opens the box and meets the Cenobites, horrifically scarified beings who appear to be in constant pain. They inform him that he cannot back out on the deal he makes with them to experience their pleasures, and Frank eagerly agrees. Frank is subjected to total sensory overload and realizes that the Cenobites are such devotees to sadomasochism that they can no longer see the difference between pain and pleasure, and that even if he begged them to stop they couldn’t conceive a way to stop. He’s then brought into their realm to experience an eternity of torture.
Some time later, Frank’s brother Rory moves into their grandmother’s house with his wife Julia, with whom Frank had had a tryst prior to the wedding; Julia was subsequently obsessed with Frank. After accidentally cutting his hand in the attic, Rory bleeds onto the floor and his blood mixes with Frank’s remnant fluids forming a Schism which brings an emaciated Frank back from the Cenobites’ realm. Julia promises to restore Frank to full health by seducing men and bringing them to the attic for him to feed off of.
Kirsty, a friend of Rory’s who happens to be in love with him, suspects Julia is being unfaithful and tries to catch her in the act. Instead she meets Frank who tries to kill her, but she uses the puzzle box as a weapon and fights him off. She later wakes in a hospital after collapsing on the street from exhaustion and opens the box herself, summoning a Cenobite who explains who they are, what the box does, and its intent to take her to its realm. Kirsty tells the Cenobite Frank has escaped and promises to help find him in exchange for her own salvation. The Cenobite agrees tentatively.
Returning to the house, Kirsty finds Rory and Julia who claim that Frank is now dead, but she realizes Rory is the dead one and Frank is wearing Rory’s skin. Following a brief altercation in which Julia is accidentally killed, Kirsty baits Frank into admitting his true identity, and the Cenobites appear to return him to their realm. As she leaves, Kirsty sees Julia’s disembodied head begging for help as the Engineer, the leader of this troupe of Cenobites, drags it away. Kirsty then notices that the Engineer had left the puzzle box in her care, to wait until the next seeker of pleasure comes for it.
The Box In Film
The film adaptation of the novella, 1987’s Hellraiser, follows this story very closely save for a few notable changes. Rory is named Larry in the film and Kirsty is established as his daughter. The Cenobites are still summoned by the box, which gains the gold-accented design from Simon Sayce by which it is most famous. The leader of the Cenobites, credited simply as ‘Lead Cenobite,’ was played by Doug Bradley and became the central character of the franchise to follow, the infamous Pinhead (or Hell Priest as Barker prefers). At the film’s end, Kirsty uses the box to send the Cenobites back one by one, then tosses the box onto a fire where it is then carried off by a skeletal demon creature to be sold to the next pleasure seeker.
1988’s Hellbound: Hellraiser II picks up nearly where the first film left off, with Kirsty a patient of the Channard Institute, a psychiatric hospital. Dr. Phillip Channard is obsessed with the Lament Configuration, having several (possibly inauthentic) examples in his home office, and he plans to use Kirsty to find a functioning box to sate his desire for knowledge beyond limits. Channard allies with a resurrected Julia Cotton and tasks one of his patients, a young girl named Tiffany with an affinity for puzzles, with opening it in his home. With the Schism open, Pinhead and his Cenobites emerge but do not take Tiffany.
Julia and Channard walk through the gateway and enter the Labyrinth, the realm of the Cenobites, where they meet Leviathan, the god of flesh and desire and Julia’s master. Kirsty followed into the Labyrinth to hopefully rescue her father but instead finds the Cenobites, showing Pinhead a picture of Captain Elliot Spencer, his former identity, thus reminding him and the rest that they were once human. Soon after, Channard barges into the room, transformed by Leviathan into a Cenobite, and kills Pinhead and his entourage. Kirsty and Tiffany make their way out, finding the puzzle box along the way, which had been transformed into a diamond effigy of Leviathan itself. Tiffany eventually resolves the new puzzle, changing the Configuration back into its cube form and killing Channard, and she and Tiffany finally escape the Labyrinth.
All is not well, though. From the bloody mattress which facilitated Julia’s rebirth comes a pillar covered in tortured faces and bodies, one of which is that of Pinhead, as well as a familiar looking cube.
Hell On Earth
By the time of 1993’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, the Pillar of Souls had made its way to an art gallery in New York City where it was bought by club owner J.P. Monroe who places it in the penthouse above his club, the Boiler Room. An associate of Monroe’s pried the puzzle box off of the Pillar’s face and was later torn to pieces by hooked chains; this tips off reporter Joey Summerskill to find the Boiler Room with the help of Terri, J.P’s ex-girlfriend. Blood from the box’s removal causes Pinhead to awaken, trapped in the Pillar after being separated from his human side in the previous film. Pinhead convinces Monroe to help him restore his body by feeding him more blood, particularly from Monroe’s sexual conquests.
Joey was contacted by the spirit of Elliot Spencer, who explains what she’s up against and how to defeat Pinhead. After being freed from the Pillar and turning J.P. and Terri into new Cenobites, Pinhead goes on a killing spree, brutally murdering everyone in the Boiler Room and anyone else in his way as he seeks the box to destroy it. This version of Pinhead is far more diabolical and villainous than previous and subsequent depictions, having been split from his “good” or order-abiding side. The key to his defeat is in bringing his two halves back together, which Joey helps make happen then seals the deal by transforming the Lament Configuration into its diamond form and stabbing Pinhead in the chest. The Cenobite returns to Hell and Joey buries the box in wet concrete. Soon after, a building exists on that lot which has an interior design exactly like the Lament Configuration.
“Gentlemen. I AM pain.”
1996’s Hellraiser: Bloodline tells three stories which follow the Lemarchand family. The first segment showed the origin of the Lament Configuration and the curse placed on Phillip Lemarchand’s bloodline. The second involves John Merchant, a descendant of Lemarchand and the architect who designed the building seen at the end of Hellraiser III. The demon princess Angelique finds the Lament Configuration in a cement pillar in the basement and makes a man solve it; he subsequently is killed by Pinhead. The Cenobite wants to make John use the Elysium Configuration, the design Lemarchand conceived before his death, to keep the gateway to Hell open so he can come and go as he pleases. He gets John to deploy the Elysium Configuration, but it does not work, so Pinhead kills John, but John’s wife, Bobbi, sends Pinhead, Angelique, and their monstrous pet Chatter Beast back to Hell using the box.
At Space Station Minos in 2127, Dr. Paul Merchant, the station’s designer, has a robot solve the Lament Configuration, summoning Pinhead, Angelique, and several other Cenobites. A team of soldiers boards the station and arrests Merchant, and in the station’s brig he tells the story of his bloodline. The station itself is the latest iteration of the Elysium Configuration, which uses perpetual light to trap the Cenobites and close the Schism forever. Paul is soon after released and lures the Cenobites to the center of the station with a hologram, then sets off with the remaining soldiers as Minos activates, turning itself into a giant spaceborne puzzle box which obliterates the Cenobites and seals the gateway once and for all.
The rest of the films in the franchise use the puzzle box as a tool to get someone to begin receiving Pinhead’s pleasures or to realize that they are already in Hell under his torturous eye. For the most part, this is because the subsequent films were not originally written as Hellraiser movies, but were adapted from spec scripts Dimension Films had on hand, and the writers simply added the concept of the Lament Configuration to fit into the existing canon.
A New Way to Harvest Souls
An exception to this was in 2018’s Hellraiser: Judgment, in which Pinhead, lacking new souls to harvest because advancing technology has made a simple puzzle box unappealing for most sinners, teams with Hell’s Order of the Effluvium, also known as the Stygian Inquisition, to devise a new method of acquiring souls. This involves cryptic communication with the target which lures them to a house where their sins are confessed in detail to the Auditor, who then provides this to the Assessor. The Assessor consumes the fleshy pages of sins and regurgitates them to the Jury, who then pronounce guilt or innocence. Once found guilty, the sinner is cleaned inside and out then violently skinned by the Surgeon, their soul condemned to an eternity of pain. The puzzle box itself is used at the film’s end by a serial killer who wants his cheating wife and brother to be taken by Pinhead. The killer, ordained by Heaven to continue his work, is tricked into returning to Earth by Pinhead, arriving at the exact time a police officer shoots him in the head. This act earns Pinhead the ire of the angel Jophiel, and after skinning the angel Pinhead is banished from Hell to experience a forgotten pain: living on Earth.
Recently in Print
Clive Barker’s 2015 novel The Scarlet Gospels serves as a sequel to The Hellbound Heart and shows the Hell Priest as he implements a plan to assume complete control of Hell. The Lament Configuration shows up early in the book, with the central character Harry L’Amour being coerced into solving it. The box is described as it appeared in the films, with the added detail of each segment stimulating increasing amounts of pleasure in the solver, enticing them to continue. Most of the story takes place in Hell itself as the heroes follow the Hell Priest’s path of destruction to Lucifer’s palace; by its end, Hell itself is destroyed and Harry serves as a guide for souls trapped on Earth seeking passage to the next world.
In the years since the release of Hellraiser and its sequels, fans around the world have sought the pleasure of possessing their own Lament Configuration. Simon Sayce’s design, which he painstakingly built by hand for the first two films, even going so far as catching the one tossed out of 55 Ludovico Street by Kirsty Cotton to prevent damage, has captured the imaginations of many. The design shows up in prop replicas, t-shirts, posters, and original artwork by those seeking to honor his and Clive Barker’s creations.
In the modern age, websites such as eBay and Etsy serve as locations where fans can buy artwork from the films and shows they adore, and Hellraiser is no exception. Fans can find a variety of Lament Configurations, from simple prop replicas under glass not unlike Dr. Channard’s collection, to functional replicas which split apart like the final iteration of the films’ box.