The Undead And Theology

“Fire, Brimstone and PVC: Clive Barker’s Cenobites as Agents of Hell” in The Undead and Theology. eds Kim Paffenroth & John W Morehead. Wipf & Stock

In Clive Barker’s 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart, Frank Cotton’s search for the ultimate carnal experience leads him to discover and open a gateway into hell. Far from the orgiastic pleasures he had hoped for, hell is a site where sensation of all kind is experienced and the lines between pleasure and pain is blurred. He is greeted by undead creatures known as “cenobites” who conduct experimentation on the further reaches of experience. Having summoned the cenobites by opening the portal, Frank is dragged into hell where he becomes their prisoner for an eternity of torture until his lover Julia tried to reincarnate him to his physical form.

Barker’s novella and the film franchise that came of it is laden with theological concepts, particularly through Barker’s modernized conceptions of sin and culpability. His cenobites can be conceived of as contemporary demons, a new and novel take on classic conceptions of “the devil”. This chapter seeks to analyze Barker’s unique mythos of the cenobites and their version of hell with a focus on how they inform/engage with Christian conceptions of heaven and hell, sin and temptation, and the body/soul dichotomy.