Latest posts by Rebecca Booth (see all)
- Storytelling, Subjectivity and Shattered Memories: Psychological Horror in the Silent Hill Franchise - 21st August 2016
- Alone of All Their Sex: Slashers, Sex and Sisterhood in the Slumber Party Massacre (1982) - 21st August 2016
- We Are Still Here (2015): Colonisation, Curses and Cthulhu - 19th August 2016
“The fear of blood tends to create fear of the flesh.”
With these cryptic words, accompanied by the first rattling notes of the haunting theme song from Akira Yamaoka, fans of horror video gaming knew that Silent Hill was something special. Gamers were captivated by the mystery of the character driven, convoluted story within the introduction. This was something of a rarity in the horror video gaming universe back in 1999 when Silent Hill was released, with earlier examples including: I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1989); Dark Seed (1992); Dark Seed II(1995); Phantasmagoria (1995); Sanitarium (1998); Resident Evil (1996); Dino Crisis (1999) and System Shock 2 (1999).
This list largely consists of point-and-click games that were mostly designed for MS-DOS and/or Microsoft Windows. Special mention must be given to Sweet Home (1989), the Japanese role-playing game based on the horror film of the same name and released for the Nintendo, as a forerunner to the survival horror genre. Many elements from this game – the mansion setting, mystery solving and regular threats to fight or evade – appeared in the hugely successful later Resident Evil series.
Like Resident Evil and Dino Crisis, Silent Hill was developed for the PlayStation console, and utilised a multi-genre approach to create its extensive world; in addition to elements of the metroidvania sub-genre of the action-adventure game, it was considered a staple in survival horror. Specifically, it shaped and developed the growing trend of psychological horror within survival horror video games, which characteristically encompassed a third-person view, some combat and use of weaponry, and a much greater emphasis on puzzle-solving and exploration than previous horror fare.
Though parent company Konami, which had recently been taken over by new owners, wanted to create a game that emulated Hollywood conventions in order to break into the American market, Team Silent within the Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo Studio, under director Keiichiro Toyama, wanted to produce a video game that would affect the player emotionally and psychologically. With influences ranging from films and television shows concerned with psychological horror (such as The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Twin Peaks (1990) and Jacob’s Ladder (1990)) to Japanese horror (incorporating elements of Noh theatre and Japanese horror literature, namely kaidan folktales or ghost stories), the result is a truly affective and immersive gaming experience.
In the first instalment, Harry Mason and his adopted daughter Cheryl are travelling to Silent Hill for a vacation. Swerving to miss a woman on the mountain road, Harry crashes the car and awakens to find Cheryl missing. Entering the town of Silent Hill to search for Cheryl, he finds it deserted as a mysterious fog rolls in. Several roads leading out of the town have crumbled, blocking him in.
Harry pieces together the mystery as he makes his way through the town and meets several characters: Dahlia Gillespie belongs to a cult known only as the Order, worshipping a deity named Samael. Her daughter Alessa possessed supernatural powers and Dahlia performed a ritual, via immolation, to impregnate Alessa with the entity. In her resistance, Alessa survived and lies in a coma of sorts: her soul was bisected, with the ‘good’ portion manifesting in Cheryl at birth, and the dark side haunting the Otherworld. This encroaching darkness, a manifestation of the mental state of Alessa, is bleeding through the cracks between both worlds, as evidenced by the strange symbol that Harry discovers around the imploding town. Often, reality itself caves in and Harry finds himself in this hellish Otherworld of Alessa’s mind, with its monstrous materialisations of her suffering and pain.
Eventually, Harry learns that he must face Alessa, as indicated by the pendant, the Flauros, given to him by Dahlia, which contains magical powers. ‘Flauros’ refers to the name of a demon within the appendix Pseudomonarchia Daemonum / Hierarchy of Demons, in Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Deamonum / False Monarchy of Demons (1577) – one of many references to a myriad of mythologies from around the world within the series. Depending on the choices made throughout the game, Harry’s battle with Alessa could mean several endings, good (Alessa is saved with a magical herb, the pieces of her soul reunited and manifested as a baby – as Cheryl disappeared when Alessa was resurrected – that Harry escapes the town with); bad (Alessa must be fought and killed, in addition to other character deaths, and Harry is also revealed to be dead in the car wreck, with the whole nightmare simply the thoughts of a dying man); or downright weird (Harry is randomly abducted by aliens).
Silent Hill 2 (2001) was conceptually realised by Team Silent’s CGI director, Takayoshi Sato and was reportedly based on the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In this instalment, the storyline is much heavier than in the first: James Sunderland travels to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from Mary, his late wife, who passed away three years before from a long illness.
In the town, which holds special memories for the couple as they once vacationed there, he encounters several people who have suffered pain in their past, or have inflicted it upon others, and are doomed to dwell in their personal planes of punishment for eternity. James himself is caught in a Lynchian plot involving his wife and her death, with a woman named Maria appearing in several scenes – even dying and seemingly being resurrected – that suggest she is his wife. This leads to the realisation that James is in his own nightmarish world and is being punished – specifically by a monstrous manifestation of his guilt regarding his wife’s death that chases him throughout Silent Hill, the infamous Pyramid Head. Again, the batch of potential endings range from pathos to redemption to incredulity (as canine character Mira appears in a ‘joke’ ending, one of many throughout the series to feature the playful pooch). The most philosophical of the series, the game resonated with players and is considered critically to be one of, if not the, best horror video game(s) of all time.
This was followed by Silent Hill 3 in 2003, which was released for the PlayStation 2 and acts as a sequel to the first instalment. Set 17 years after Harry Mason escaped Silent Hill with the reincarnation of Alessa and Cheryl in the form of a baby, this instalment thus develops one of the ‘good’ endings from the original game. In Silent Hill 3 Heather Mason cannot escape the truth her adoptive father has hidden from her and finds herself magically conjured into the Otherworld by members of the Order. Upon escaping this shadow-world, Heather returns home to find her father has been murdered. Heather journeys to Silent Hill, where she uses the substance within the pendant given to her by her father, the Flauros, to regurgitate the dormant deity Samael, still residing inside her, before defeating it in combat. In doing so, this somewhat straightforward game seemingly closed the initial story arc, opening the door for new plots and players.
However, like the hidden, insidious Otherworld within Silent Hill, symbols and characters from previous instalments frequent the later games in the series: Silent Hill 4: The Room (2004) was the final collaboration from Team Silent in the series; Silent Hill: Origins(2007) is a prequel to the existing story arc and was originally released for the PSP by Climax Studios; Silent Hill: The Escape (2007) was a first-person spin-off designed to be played on mobile phones and later receiving an iOS release; Silent Hill: Homecoming(2008) was created by Double Helix Studios for the PlayStation 3, unusually focussing on a protagonist who resides in Silent Hill as opposed to a visitor to the deserted town; Silent Hill: The Arcade (2008) features a multi-player option in which gamers can switch between the two main characters and a second player can join the game at any point; Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009) was developed initially for the Wii by Climax Studios and released by Konami Digital Entertainment as an alternative version of the first game, retaining the general narrative but introducing new characters and heavily reliant on psychological tests in addition to the usual puzzle-solving approach; Silent Hill: Downpour (2012) was the first instalment to use stereoscopic graphics and released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by Vatra Games; and Silent Hill: Book of Memories (2012) offers a new storyline that incorporates a multi-player mode and isometric projection.
Silent Hill, as a series, is therefore incredibly cinematic in its approach – from the tantalising glimpses of the wider story within the cut scenes to the end sequence depicting the characters as actors having fun with their roles in the first game – and it was no surprise when it was announced that Christophe Gans would be directing a film adaptation in 2006. Starring Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean as Rose and Christopher Da Silva, Silent Hill largely follows the plot of the first game, adding several elements from the second, third and fourth instalments. In the film, the Da Silva’s adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) has terrible night terrors about a town called Silent Hill, so Rose decides to take her there in an attempt to rid her daughter of this affliction. In doing so, the film interestingly renders the father figure, such an integral character in the original game, impotent; he stays at home while Rose navigates through the deserted town of Silent Hill and the manifestations of Alessa’s (Jodelle Ferland) nightmares within the Otherworld, eventually paying the ultimate price for unconditional love.
Sean Bean then returned for a sequel in 2012: Silent Hill: Revelation 3D. The film, directed by Michael J. Bassett, is an adaptation of the third video game. After Rose sacrificed herself to save their adopted daughter Sharon (Adelaide Clemens), Bean’s Christopher Da Silva lives a nomadic lifestyle with his daughter in order to avoid the Order from Silent Hill, using the pseudonyms Harry and Heather Mason. In a playful wink and a nod to fans of the franchise, the film ends by intersecting the narrative of the third game with that of Silent Hill: Origins from 2007 and Silent Hill: Downpour from 2012.
In addition to the many spin-off video games and film adaptations, there are also three novelizations written by Sadamu Yamashita, a series of comic books from IDW Publishing, and several guidebooks to help players to navigate through the franchise. What, then, is it about Silent Hill that keeps drawing us back in, ensuring the longevity of the series across a myriad of media? The answer appears to lie in what Silent Hill actually is: the fractured psyche of our darkest dreams. Each instalment of the series revolves around characters facing their fears and demons, which literally manifest as monsters, in Silent Hill, a remote, fictional town somewhere in the northeastern United States that is imbued with the power to alter reality and imprison people in their personal nightmares. We see this repeatedly in the games; characters have the ability to walk within their own subconscious shadow-world or freely enter the dark dreams of others. The game thus employs themes of morality, guilt, punishment, religion and redemption.
Perhaps this is the strongest, and scariest, aspect about Silent Hill as an interactive psychological horror video game franchise: its subjectivity. Yes, the atmosphere is truly affective in a primal, Jungian sense; the design of the games appeals to archetypical notions of terror across ambient sound (the combination of silence and static from the transistor radio, broken only by our character’s breathing, creates palpable tension) and the murky and dark visuals (initially a clever way to mask the limitations of the 3D-environment in early instalments). But it is the storytelling, and the ensemble cast of characters, each with their own complex backstory, that truly affects the player – particularly as the game allows us to make several choices throughout that have direct consequences for other characters. The player has an emotional response to characters, largely because he or she is responsible for them. When combined with the knowledge that Silent Hill is a personal hell for all of its inhabitants, this response is the most affective, and horrific, of all. The franchise is thus very human in its horror; players empathise in their emotional response, projecting their fears and demons onto the characters within the shared primal Otherworld of the series, and this is the true horror at the heart of Silent Hill as an interactive psychological story of survival: the subjective realisation and confrontation of our own shattered memories.