Monster of the Week: The Cenobites ('Hellraiser')

The Cenobitic Order of the Gash. (Art by Nick Percival)

"In moments they would be here - the ones Kircher had called the Cenobites, theologians of the Order of the Gash. Summoned from their experiments in the higher reaches of pleasure, to bring their ageless heads into a world of rain and failure." - Clive Barker

The Cenobites are -- quite fittingly -- a rather tantalizing puzzle to decipher. They are beautiful in their own way, yet ghastly beyond imagining. They offer us nothing but pain, yet in doing so serve up otherworldly sensations that we might well interpret as pleasure.

To understand these unnatural creatures, we must turn to the interplay of pain and pleasure in the natural world.

Pleasure and Pain

In the simplest terms, pain and pleasure are of course the negative and positive stimuli that guide us along our genetic missions. Sex and food are pleasurable, while physical injury is painful. We're meant to avoid one and seek the other. It's the very basics of hedonistic philosophy.

(Art by Jamga)

And yet it's not that simple after all. The parts of our brains that respond to pleasure also react to the sensation of pain. The line between the two is sometimes a blur.

For instance, a 2013 study from the University of Oslo found that "the brain changed how it processed moderate pain according to the context and what the alternative was." If the pain was less than anticipated, then the brain transformed the sensation into something comforting or even pleasurable.

It's easy to mistake masochism and sadomasochism as mere human complications. But pain and pleasure factor into the mating rituals of countless creatures. Consider neck-biting among mating horses and sea otters. Consider the "love darts" of slugs. And when contemplating the spiny "torture phallus" of various insect species, remember that a 2011 study found that at some point in our evolutionary history, humans lost a stretch of DNA that would have otherwise promoted the growth of penis spines.

Elevated Consciousnesses via Pain

We humans have a tendency to misunderstand the cenobites, casting them as Hellish tormenters and shoehorning them into a sort of Christian moral universe. But as explored in the primary source, the Order of the Gash are amoral sentionauts, exploring the extremes of sensation both painful and pleasurable in order to achieve higher states of consciousness.

If that sounds like extradimensional madness, then just consider this: A 2014 study from Northern Illinois University linked sadomasochism altered states of mind in keeping with those achieved through yoga or meditation.

The researchers suspect that pain inflicted in consensual sadomasochism alters blood flow in the brain, particularly to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays into our ability to distinguish self from other. As such, intense pain may result in a feeling of oneness with humanity or even the universe.

So think of the Cenobites less as tormenters and more as proselytizers of a pathway to enlightenment.

Monster of the Week is a - you guessed it - regular look at the denizens is of our monster-haunted world. Sometimes we'll focus on the cultural aspects, but mostly we'll look at the possible science behind a creature of myth, movie or legend. Be sure to explore the Monster Gallery as well as the Monster Science video series.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.