The Hellraiser Puzzle Box: History and Influence of the Iconic Artifact

Shivering with sweat in a dark room, a man kneels on bare floorboards. Illuminated by candles, he works feverishly to solve the puzzle box in his hands. An ornate construction, made up of sliding panels and mysterious chambers. The air flexes with a distant tolling bell as polished pieces click into place. Out of it, a banal melody plays on a hidden mechanism. The din is reduced to a naked scream as the gates of hell open.

What is your pleasure, sir?

Clive Barker’s horror novella, The Hellbound Heart was first published in 1986. Dissatisfied with other film adaptations of his work, Barker made his directorial debut with Hellraiser in 1987. An almost verbatim adaptation of the novella. The film was the beginning of a multimedia franchise expanding on The Hellbound Heart. With each sequel peeling away more layers of Barker’s dark dreamscape. The doors of which are opened by a 3-inch cube called the “Lament Configuration”.

The box was originally called “the Lemarchand Configuration” in Barker’s novella. Known to most humans as only a rumor on the lips of a derelict. Several boxes were thought to exist but few were willing to track one down. Described as charts of the interface between the real and realer still. A box would break the surface of the trivial delights of human condition. The novella mentions one being locked away in the vaults of The Vatican. Another said to have been used by the Marquis De Sade while imprisoned in the Bastille

All boxes were said to be created by a French craftsman, Philip LeMarchand. Previously famed for creating mechanical birds, he constructed a tool in the form of a toybox. A puzzle that to solve would mean to travel across the schism. LeMarchand’s background would develop later in Epic’s Hellraiser comic series that ran from 1989-1993 with the support of Barker. In them, LeMarchand was described as a mass murderer using human fat and bone in the construction of his boxes. The film Hellraiser IV: Bloodline would portray LeMarchand as an ingenious toymaker hired by an aristocratic occultist. The crafting of lament configuration would curse LeMarchand’s bloodline.

The existence of multiple boxes seems to have found its inspiration by way of the occult world. Some suggest it is reminiscent of the 13 Crystal Skulls mythology. Or more seriously, The Key of Solomon, a Renaissance grimoire of seals that command spirits. Barker once explained wanting access to hell in the book and movie. “Explored by something rather different than drawing a circle on the floor with magical symbols around it.” The idea of a puzzle came from childhood memories of his grandfather. A ship’s cook, having returned from a trip to the Far East with souvenirs. After one particular trip, Barker was given a carved wooden puzzle box.

In The Hellbound Heart, the Lemarchand Configuration was described as smooth, black lacquered faces with hidden pressure points. A surface reflecting faces of souls caught up in the obsession. Inside were the mirrored innards of fluted slots and oiled pegs. The cinematic version of the Lament Configuration was made of polished wood and brass. Special effects designer, Simon Sayce had studied ancient writings and symbolism from North Africa to China. He notes the inlaid characters of box’s brass work were inspired by surgical tools from an exhibit at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Later to be seen in the film as the disembodied torture devices summoned by the box.  

The instructions to solving the Lament Configuration were part pragmatic and part metaphysical. The puzzle requires a cunning mind and nimble fingers. But to truly open it requires a dark desire for knowing. Desperate individuals seeking pleasure beyond mortal understanding. “You have to become aware of the Lament Configurations”, claims Doug Bradley. Longtime friend of Barker and actor that portrayed lead cenobite, Pinhead. “And then you have to find one, and then solve the puzzle. It’s not just the physical act of opening the box. It’s the motivation behind it.”

Barker’s Configuration has lent its inspiration to the modern urban legend/Creepypasta called The Devil’s Toybox. Part of a Halloween roadside attraction in rural Louisiana. It is described as a single room shack with 6 inward facing mirrors. The attraction’s challenge is to step inside for as long as possible without losing your mind. Another inspired object of the same name is used by paranormal investigators. These Devil’s Toy Boxes are much smaller mirrored contraptions. Popularized by Joshua P. Warren on Coast to Coast AM, it is believed to create an endless loop of energy. Some claim it attracts spirits and demons. Others utilize it to trap and remove negative entities.

The puzzle box remains an iconic artifact. Possessing an intricate mythology splashed across the pages of books, comics, and the big screen. Inspiring artwork, jewelry, toys, and a wide variety of other replicas. Many online merchants peddle puzzles that might offer access to paradise instead of hell. What kind of doors can you unlock with your own Lament Configuration? What is your pleasure?

Originally published Spring 2021

Additional Links:

http://www.hellraiserbox.net/

http://www.cenobite.com/

The Rise of the Drive-In Mutants

“We are drive-in mutants; we are not like other people.”

In a small hotel conference room that stank of weed, a sea of right hands were raised in pledge. Some hands were parted as Vulcan greetings and others posed as devil horns. The audience was being sworn in by taking the drive-in oath.

“As long as one drive-in remains on the planet Earth
We will party like jungle animals
We will boogie ’til we puke
The drive-in will never die”

Long before I was ever thought of or before the term was invented, my father was a drive-in mutant. A rock n’ roll hippie of the 70’s, that regularly took in the creature features at the local drive-in each weekend. I didn’t know until later in life how much he loved the spook shows and Midnight movies. The very same cult films that I too would come to love in my life. In the mid-90s there was no greater bond between us than to make popcorn on a Saturday night and watch TNT’s Monster Vision. This was my introduction to Joe Bob Briggs, the premier drive-in film critic. Joe Bob would host the double feature and offer obscure trivia and cheap jokes. Usually, my dad would fall asleep before the second movie and I’d be left with my own prepubescent fears in the darkness of our living room. These Saturday nights are some of the happiest memories I have with my old man.

Monster Vision was officially cancelled in 2000 but the man behind Joe Bob, John Bloom, maintained an official website dedicated to his alter ego. His own work had inspired me over the years to continue to pursue writing and film making. Naturally, I did my best to follow his career with mailing lists to stay on top of his columns and events.

A few years back, John Bloom met horror enthusiast, Diana Prince when she attended one of his signings. The two became friends right about the time he was approached for the umpteenth time about a new show. Admittedly going along with it for a free lunch, he was introduced to AMC’s new horror streaming platform, Shudder. The idea was to resurrect the character and continue to host horror films. Unsure at first, Diana Prince encouraged Bloom to accept the offer. Convincing him that the fans were numerous and hungry for a return. When the funding fell through at the last minute, Prince helped secure resources to make the show happen. So as Bloom prepared to get back in the saddle, he asked Prince to be the new mail girl, “Darcy”.

Joe Bob Briggs officially returned in the summer of 2018 with a 24-hour marathon called The Last Drive-In. The response was larger than anticipated, with thousands overloading and ultimately crashing Shudder and AMC servers. Fans were tuning-in to the loading screen of doom, unable to watch the marathon. The few that could log-on got to witness Joe Bob give an emotional sign off at the end. Expressing gratitude to all the fans over the years, as he hung up his spurs. But breaking the internet was good news for Joe Bob, as it prompted Shudder to bring him back with 2 holiday specials and a regular series.

March of 2019 a reoccurring Friday night double feature with Darcy the mail girl. While the first season was airing, Joe Bob hit the road with his one man show, How Rednecks Saved Hollywood. A 2-hour cinematic lecture about the true identity of rednecks and their impact on film, from low budget to mainstream. I caught Rednecks in Milwaukee that spring, learning history of the films my dad loved of hillbillies and moonshiners.

The line to meet Joe Bob was wrapped around the block on that frigid Wisconsin evening. He arrived in a hearse from a local funeral home to a roar of applause from the crowd. When the line finally rotated through, I stood star struck before the man I grew up watching on Saturday nights. He shook my hand and signed my book: To Krystle, a drive-in kind of gal.

2020 ended up being the revival year of the drive-in with Corona virus closing theaters across the country. Reaffirming what Joe Bob has been insisting all along, the drive-in will never die. The Shudder network was generous to everyone on lock down with a second season of The Last Drive-In. Citing more viewers than ever before, fanfare flooded social media with official and unofficial merchandise. 4 more holiday specials were released and promise of a 3rd season.

February of this year, an invitation was broadcast to fans on all platforms. The first ever Joe Bob Drive-In Jamboree, a 3-day event at the Mahoning Theater in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. Scheduled for later this summer, the Jamboree includes an indie festival for guerrilla filmmakers called “Mutant Fest”. The underfunded and DIY directors were encouraged to submit their horror films. All submissions from low-budget to no-budget welcome.

When Joe Bob and Darcy were announced as guests for the fan convention, Days of the Dead, I decided to attend myself. I was curious what such a gathering would be like for fans and celebrities during Covid. If local numbers stayed low and vaccinations continued to roll out smoothly, this would be the first horror convention in Chicago since the pandemic started.

At the Crown Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, employees were cased in plastic at the front desk. Hand sanitizing dispensers lingered in a few corners but there was minimal direction for convention attendees. The main requirement was wearing a mask properly at all times. An unquestioned rule that very few broke. After ping-ponging back and forth between will-call and volunteers, I found my way to the main room. For a few hours, I chatted up strangers and vendors, waiting for my scheduled photo op with Joe Bob and Darcy.

Considering it had been a while since the last convention, everyone was a little rusty on opening night. The photographers had given me the incorrect time slot but were determined to make it right. Runners and organizers would zip back and forth, reassuring me, “Don’t worry kid, we’ll get you a photo with Joe Bob.”

“And Darcy.” I would add every time.

There would be no Last Drive-In without Darcy.

Thankfully, both guests agreed to reshoot before their scheduled panel. Down to the last minute, here came Joe Bob Briggs, ten miles tall in his bolo and boots. Darcy glided beside him in an ethereal evening dress. Both kept their distance and masks remained on at all times through the convention. As part of convention rules, every guest had the right to set their own boundaries for contact with fans. Joe Bob had previously admitted on Diana Prince’s own podcast, Geek Tawk that he had contracted Covid in the beginning of 2020. An experience I’m sure neither wanted to repeat. They said little if anything during our reshoot before quickly moving on to their panel. I thanked everyone nervously, and followed behind them from a distance, taking a seat in the far back.

Right out of the gate, Joe Bob shared that he and local horror host, Svengoolie had been plotting doing a show together at the Music Box Theater. In summer of 2019, both hosts were hinting on social media that they were working on a project. Plans were put on hold due to the pandemic and according to Joe Bob, “Svengoolie is not coming out of his house until Covid is over.”

Joe Bob goes on to announce he’s looking to produce films and has been reading different horror anthologies that come out each year. While admitting that most are not film material, he examines each “in a certain weird way” that could possibly change them into film material. His Mutant Festival this summer is a manifestation of that, as well as uplifting the underdog film makers.

A few days before the convention, Joe Bob had gone to social media reminding his followers of the upcoming deadline for Mutant Fest. Seeing this, I had considered a short film I had helped create in 2013. Friends and I were inspired by an email received from a Joe Bob mailing list. After years of forgetting, here he was in my inbox asking for screenplays and scripts from his fans. Our short was never finished and years later I am the sole owner of the remaining footage. With a run time of 6 minutes and 51 seconds, I updated the movie the best I could and submitted it to Mutant Fest.

I have no delusions about my humble no-budget horror short, but I’m optimistic for horror in general. During the end of his panel, he marveled at how horror has become mainstream in the last 20 years. Diana Prince is now a regular columnist for Fangoria and John Bloom is a man with a vision for avant-garde directors struggling to get their films made. The Last Drive-In has really helped Shudder take off, and the team behind it will likely do the same for the future of horror movies.

The 3rd season of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs airs Friday, April 16th only on Shudder.