Confronting My Parasitic Paranoia With ‘Hellbound: Hellraiser II’
It’s pretty funny what your mind determines you should be terrified of. When I was young, I never had a major problem with bugs. They could be gross, sure, and I didn’t appreciate it when they popped up out of nowhere. That being said, I could easily ignore them, pick them up to take them outside, or kill them if need be.
Then suddenly, my brain chemistry decided that a major symptom of my obsessive-compulsive disorder should be imagining bugs underneath my skin.
I still maintain a positive relationship with flies, spiders, and other bugs. Hell, I’m the one in the family who can kill a cockroach without yelling. However, it’s an entirely different thing altogether when you feel something skittering underneath your skin. That one fleeting feeling then begins to cascade throughout your entire body. You feel like you’re getting eaten from the inside by pests and bugs, infected by something you have no idea could possibly get inside of you.
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But you’re not. I’m not. I just have intrusive thoughts of parasitosis. It’s defined by the National Institute of Health as
“a delusional disorder where the patient experiences a fixed, false belief that they have an infection with a parasite, worms, mites, bacteria, fungus other types of living organisms.”
I’m thankful that I have a comparably mild case of this bizarre little disorder, as I’ve learned to discern intrusive thoughts from reality over the years. The majority of the time, I know that the sensations I’m feeling are just in my head. I sometimes find myself slipping into a manic episode where everything feels too real, but I can bring myself out of those moments. Unfortunately, there are those with much more severe parasitic delusions, where they are convinced that the bugs they are feeling are real, no matter what doctors or their loved ones say.
Given the innate terror of infection, it’s actually surprising that parasitosis isn’t the basis of more horror films. However, it did get a small spotlight in one of the biggest horror franchises ever made, and that was Hellbound: Hellraiser II.
I’ve been trying to get into the Hellraiser series because it seems right up my alley. Gory practical effects? Gothic aesthetics? Complex anti-villains laced with queer overtones? Sign me up! Unfortunately, the first film just didn’t click for me. Nevertheless, I decided to watch the sequel. I knew deep down that there was something still compelling about the franchise that I needed to explore.
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What immediately set Hellbound apart from its predecessor in my eyes is its sociopolitical commentary. Yes, Hellbound’s message about the carcel influences of modern psychiatric care is a bit heavy-handed. After all, it doesn’t get more unsubtle than Dr. Channing (Kenneth Cranham) leaving the “healthier” patients on the ground floor of his psychiatric hospital while his more ill patients are kept in the boiler room.
One of these patients is Mr. Browning (Oliver Smith). He’s a man with a severe case of parasitosis. It’s so severe that he’s confined to a straight jacket and a padded room downstairs. When the viewer first meets Mr. Browning, he pleads with Dr. Channing to “get them off of him” as the doctor looks on in apathy. There is no doubt that the cruelty of Channing has worsened the man’s condition. After all, how could someone ever truly get better if they are treated as less than human?
That is exactly how Channing treats Mr. Browning, as he sees the poor man as the perfect bait to resurrect the deceased Julia (Clare Higgens). The doctor orders Browning to his office and is given a knife. It’s a wordless order that the two of them understand, albeit very differently. Browning feels that he is finally taking control and ridding himself of the bugs tormenting his life. Channing, on the other hand, is simply sacrificing who he sees as lesser for his own gain. It is that cruel irony that makes what follows so harrowing for casual viewers, and an undeniable nightmare for anyone who experiences parasitosis in any form.
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Browning slides the knife across his chest, allowing the bugs he thinks are underneath his skin to finally leave his body. Of course, that’s not actually what’s happening, as blood quickly begins pouring out. That doesn’t register to Browning, however; in his mania, all he registers is that they are finally out and off of him. How can he think of anything else? He thinks he’s finally free of his misery. Of course, he’s going to revel in it and keep digging the knife deeper and deeper into his skin. It’s a small price to pay for salvation.
At least, that’s how I interpret what Browning is feeling. It’s how I’ve felt when I’m digging at every pore on my arms and legs, squeezing the life out of them until something pops out. Sure, I’m going to end this bruised and bloody. But goddammit, as long as I get these damn bugs out of me, I’ll be fine.
However, going through an episode yourself and seeing another play out on screen are two different things. Seeing Browning release his pain in such a cathartic and tragic way for the first time was like an out-of-body experience. Is this really what I look like when I’m experiencing a manic episode? Am I capable of doing something like this to myself? In the event that I find myself completely encompassed by my paranoia, could I do this?
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The answer is neither yes nor no. I don’t know if I could do this. But the possibility that I could is one that I have to live with. I try not to think about it too much. Yet, in instances such as watching Hellbound, I’m confronted with it head-first. When I first attempted to watch Hellbound, I had to turn it off shortly after Julia’s resurrection and Browning’s death. That did virtually nothing to calm my nerves because the idea that I, too, might be capable of tearing myself open for relief has already been firmly cemented in my mind. Viewing it on screen just made it worse. It made the possibility feel so much more real than it had ever been for me.
However, with most of my delusions, they subsided. I forgot about my episode for a while and went on with my life. It wasn’t until I logged back onto Shudder, looking for something to watch that I saw Hellbound again. It was waiting for me to come back to where I left off. And so, because I’m a completionist and hate admitting when I haven’t finished something, I gave it another shot.
This time, I wasn’t fearful of the sights of Browning carving himself open in a manic panic. The thoughts I had of being capable of doing such acts myself were still there, but I held on. Suddenly, I felt a need to not allow my mental state to dictate such a small part of my life. If I was able to sit through Browning slashing his skin open in an attempt to release all the bugs that he believed festered inside of him, I could really sit through anything. Maybe I could do anything, as well.
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That’s when it clicked for me. What I was searching so deeply for in the Hellraiser franchise, what compelled me to explore it further despite not caring that much for the first film was a combination of fantastical and palpable danger. What makes a good horror movie, for me, is when I feel its effects throughout all of my senses. Horror is a visceral genre. As someone whose mental illness makes everything seem more heightened, I needed to feel the adrenaline pumping through every inch of my body, or else it just doesn’t register as effective to me. While the first Hellraiser is a masterclass of practical effects and embodies the seductive nature of queer desire, I never actually felt scared or disturbed. Just fascinated.
I found what I was searching for in Hellbound. Even if for one scene in a 99-minute film, I actually felt terrified by what I was watching and hearing play out on my television screen. Browning cutting himself open as he screams in both pain and relief was scarier to me than anything in the first Hellraiser. At first, it was so overwhelming to me that I couldn’t stand Hellbound. However, I understand now that it was exactly the thing I needed to see not only to keep myself engaged in the franchise but to come to terms with myself and my unwarranted paranoia in general.
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Needless to say, it might seem weird that I dedicated an entire thousand-word essay to a relatively minor Hellbound character only made to introduce a main character. And yeah, it is a bit weird, I won’t deny that. That being said, mental illness makes you feel and understand things that other people might not entirely understand. While some horror fans might see Browning’s death purely as shocking and terrifying, to me, it’s a mirror of what could’ve been my life if my brain chemistry was just a tad messier. Facing that reality through the lens of a gory horror film put into perspective just how important it is for me to resist giving into my darkest thoughts, no matter how difficult it may be.
I’m not sure whether the other Hellraiser films will have as visceral of an effect on me as Hellbound. That being said, I’m willing to give it another shot now that I know just how capable it is of getting under my skin. Whether I mean that figuratively or literally is up for you to decide.
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