[The Final Girls Club] The Madonna and the Whore in Hell: Exploring the Duality of Women in ‘Hellraiser’

A still from 'Hellraiser' showing Julia at the top of the stairs looking down at Kirsty. Her arm is blocking Kirsty’s path and she has an angry look on her face. Kirsty has a neutral expression
Logo: Rachel Parker

The Final Girls Club posts on the 1st, 3rd and 4th Monday of the month. It aims to take an analytical and retrospective look at female-led horror cinema and how these films hold up in the context of current issues surrounding gender, sexuality and politics.

Artist Kaija Sabbah said, “If you consider a woman less pure after you’ve touched her, maybe you should take a look at your hands.” This correlation between a man desiring a woman less after being with her is known as the Madonna-whore complex and can be seen vividly in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. There are only two women prominent in the film, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), the fresh-face, dutiful daughter and Julia (Clare Higgins), the discontent, unfaithful housewife. The stark contrast between these two characters as the film’s plot unfolds makes it clear that the audience is meant to view Kirsty as the Madonna and Julia as the Whore. 

The first time Julia is introduced is a shot of the movie which also introduces Larry (Andrew Robinson), a middle-aged widower who is newly married to Julia and recently moved to a new country in the hopes of making their marriage work. This scene helps establish Julia as an unlikable character —a discontent wife, spurning her husband’s attempts to make her happy and pining over his missing brother, Frank (Sean Chapman). As Julia explores the house and finds remnants of Frank’s stay there, the audience is shown flashbacks of Frank and Julia having a torrid affair right before her wedding, cementing her place as the Whore in this narrative.

Contrastingly, in the audience’s first view of Kirsty, she has a literal angelic glow around her face, not dissimilar to the halo of light often seen around Madonna’s head in classic art. She is calling her father to let him know she has found a place to stay and is in the process of finding a job to support herself (Julia, on the other hand, has no job and relies on her husband to support her). The tension between Kirsty and Julia is firmly established when they are together in the house soon after the call; Kirsty attempts polite conversation with Julia who remains silent as she daydreams about her sex with Frank. This dynamic continues throughout the film: Kirsty remains open, bright, and warm while Julia is distant, aloof, and cold. 

A still from Hellraiser showing Julia from the shoulders up. She is looking directly into the camera and there is blood splattered across her face. She has a lustful look on her face and is wearing red lipstick
New World Pictures

The horror of the film begins when Frank’s skinless corpse is accidentally resurrected by drops of blood in the house’s attic. The audience knows he has been torn to shreds previously after solving a puzzle box and summoning the Cenobites —pale, mutilated humanoid monsters— to drag him to his eternal torture in Hell. Discovering Frank, Julia immediately agrees to help him fully rebuild his body by seducing strangers, bringing them back to the attic, and killing them. Despite the marketing of this film showing the Cenobites as the antagonists of the film, it is actually Frank who is this film’s monster. Julia allows her lust for Frank to lead her down a path of depravity, eventually relishing her kills rather than reluctantly accepting them. She is shown watching boxing with a bloodlust for violence and it is implied she has sex with Frank’s skinless corpse.

Between scenes of Julia’s violent seductions, Kirsty has an innocent relationship with Steve (Robert Hines, a boy she recently met). While Julia and Frank’s relationship is displayed explicitly —flashbacks of their sex are shown often throughout the film— Kirsty is only shown kissing Steve. In a scene when she abruptly wakes up from a nightmare, Steve is in her room but sleeping in a separate bed. When Kirsty discovers Julia bringing a random man back to her home, she investigates and stumbles across Frank, killing him. She uses her wits to steal the puzzle box and flee, landing in a hospital from the shock of witnessing her uncle’s bloody corpse drain a man of his life then advance on her. While the opening of the film shows Frank agonising over the solution to the puzzle box, a hospitalised Kirsty is able to solve it almost immediately and summon the Cenobites. Rather than allow herself to be taken by them, she realises that Frank must have escaped Hell and offers to trade him for her freedom.

The film’s conclusion shows Frank, having killed Larry and taken his skin, trying to sexually assault Kirsty when she returns to the home to turn him over to the Cenobites. Kirsty’s quick thinking saves her once again, Julia is ultimately killed by a remorseless Frank, and the Cenobites recapture Frank and drag him to Hell along with Julia. Kirsty re-solves the puzzle box to send the Cenobites back to Hell and she stands in the ruins of her home with Steve. In this final scene it seems as if perhaps the virginal view of Kirsty is going to shift —she is wearing a white t-shirt in the rain— but Steve immediately wraps her in his jean jacket and saves her innocent image.

A still from Hellraiser showing Kirsty from the torso up. She looks pained and has blood smeared across her mouth, blood on her white t-shirt, and bruises under her eyes. Her overall appearance is disheveled
New World Pictures

In examining the ways this film treats its female characters, especially considering Kirsty is a Final Girl, we can see how the author paradoxically views women. Julia is portrayed by a seasoned actress while Kirsty is portrayed by a film virgin, being Lawrence’s first film and only her third credited role. Julia’s costuming puts her in power suits, bright eyeshadow, a severely styled cropped haircut, and a signature bright red lip. Kirsty wears loose-fitting clothes (often white), no makeup, and has long, unstyled curls. While Kirsty has been hailed as a feminist hero because she has a job, lives on her own, and it is implied she has sex with her boyfriend, the film never actually shows them having sex, thereby preserving her Madonna role. Julia and Kirsty solve their problems in extremely different manners, one with sex appeal and one with brains. Frank’s extremely creepy signature line, ““Come to daddy”” elicits severely different responses from the women, Julia reacts to with sexual trembling and Kirsty by screaming, “”Get the fuck off me!”” While most Final Girls are tortured by the villain in some way, the film’s need to protect Kirsty’s purity means she does not face any real danger beyond a light groping. There is no middle ground for either of these women, they are both trapped by the toxically extreme roles in which they have been cast: the Madonna and the Whore, existing not in their own rights but only in their relationship to men, a discontent wife and dutiful daughter.

by CJ Juntunen

CJ Juntunen (she/they) is a writer and graphic designer based in Michigan. When they’re not ranting about the patriarchal double-standards in horror movies to their partner, you can find her fostering kittens, baking bread, and  hiking with her dog. Find her on Twitter @cobwebjr or on Instagram @cobweb.jr and admire her 3 cute cats.

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