The Cenobites are extradimensional beings who appear in the works of Clive Barker, including the novella The Hellbound Heart and the nine Hellraiser films. They are also mentioned, in passing, in the novel Weaveworld, in which they are referred to as “The Surgeons.”
The Cenobites vary in number, appearance, and motivations depending on the medium (film, comic book, etc.) in which they appear. The involvement of multiple parties in the production of Hellraiser films and comics (many eschewing the creative supervision of Clive Barker) has led to varying levels of consistency regarding the canonical aspects of their philosophies and abilities. The only constants are that they take the form of ritually mutilated people with varying degrees of human characteristics, and that they can only reach Earth's reality through a schism in time and space, which is opened and closed using an innocuous-looking puzzle box called the Lament Configuration.
EtymologyThe term cenobite is a word meaning "a member of a communal religious order"; The Hellbound Heart specifies that they are members of The Order of the Gash. The text also refers to them as Hierophants.
Character historyThe Cenobites all have horrific mutilations and/or body piercings, and wear fetishistic black leather clothing that often resembles butchery garments or religious vestments. The clothing also serves to support their piercings and tools. They reside in a monastery in Hell which is governed by an Abbot. They generally transport subjects who they acquire by the opening of the Lament Configuration to the monastery to conduct their 'business'. The monastery has a large bell which can be heard tolling once the puzzle has been solved and heralds their arrival.
In their earliest incarnations, the Cenobites practice, with a religious devotion, a supernatural form of hedonism, manifested through the expansion of sensation to an extremely painful point of sensory overload, and enduring excruciating pain through incessant tortures that transcend traditional laws of physics. They can only obtain access to Earth through an ornately designed puzzle box called the Lemarchand Configuration (called the "Lament Configuration" in the later movie), which opens a dimensional schism. Their leader is identified only as The Engineer, who in addition to overseeing the Order is also responsible for the transformation of individuals into Cenobites. Their presence is occasionally preceded by a herald, referred to in cast lists as either Puzzle Guardian or Vagrant. As the latter name implies, he most often takes the form of a vagrant, offering individuals access to the puzzle box; the Guardian often indicates that the individual's own moral decay preordained them to encounter the Cenobites, informing his "customers" that the box "has always been yours."
The religious aspects of their origins and motivations are ambiguous: despite the presence of the word "Hell" in the franchise, the initial entries in the series — The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser — eschew any overt reference or iconography linking the Cenobites to any traditional Abrahamic or Eastern depiction of damnation, demonic nature, or Infernal origin; the Cenobites' form of "pleasure," and the realm in which they practice it, is simply so awful that it appears to be Hell to those unable to endure it. In Hellraiser, the lead Cenobite informs Kirsty Cotton that the Cenobites have been identified as both angels and demons by those they have encountered, and that the Cenobites merely see themselves as "explorers." They are completely amoral, their dedication to their lifestyle taking priority over any notions of right or wrong.
As the film and comic books series progressed, the Cenobites—particularly Pinhead—began to manifest traditionally evil and sinister traits. In Hellbound: Hellraiser II, the Cenobites' realm is identified as "Hell," although its depiction is removed from most traditional Abrahamic depictions, being presented as a gigantic, three-dimensional maze modeled on the works of M.C. Escher. Rather than Satan, this Hell is ruled by Leviathan, an abstract, ambiguously sentient god that takes the form of a giant, floating silver octahedron at the center of the labyrinth.
In Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth and Hellraiser: Bloodline all references to the Cenobitic order and their devotion to hedonism were completely expunged. Pinhead was instead presented as a demon, intent on the conquest of Earth and the subjugation of all humans. A crucial subplot to Bloodline centers on the premise that Hell has undergone a revolution and has abandoned the traditional Boschian concept of itself in favor of a more austere, militant embodiment of pain and torment. And although the scenes were later removed from the film, Hellraiser: Bloodline did film scenes showing Rococo Cenobites complete with white powdered faces and wigs. This leans toward the belief that the look or fashions of the Cenobites change over time.
Hellraiser: Inferno revised the Hellraiser universe as a morality tale; although they are linked with Hell, the Cenobites are not presented as predatory, but rather as punitive agents tasked with punishing the damned for their sins.
Hellraiser: Hellseeker combines the mythos of the first two Hellraiser films with the moralistic nature of Inferno, as the Cenobites agree to spare the innocent Kirsty in exchange for the opportunity to punish her adulterous husband and his conspirators in a murder-for-money plot.
Hellraiser: Deader nominally utilizes the mythologies of both Hellbound, and Bloodline; a descendant of the puzzle box's creator seeks to access the realm of the Cenobites, believing it is his birthright to rule over them and thus achieve control over the "pleasures" they are capable of giving. When the Cenobites eventually appear, though, Pinhead indicates that they are blatantly demonic, instead of the amoral "explorers" as he described them in Hellraiser.
Hellraiser: Hellworld is a metafilm in which the Hellraiser franchise has spawned a popular MMORPG called Hellworld, and features aspects of the Cenobites derived from many films in the series. The film toys with the idea that the franchise is at least partially grounded in reality, with one character finding a puzzle box that actually functions to summon Pinhead.
Hellraiser: Revelations returns to the depiction of the Cenobites from The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser.