The Scares of Silent Hill Pt I

Recently we saw Konami confirm that the next installment of the Silent Hill series, Silent Hills has finally been axed. The project had been under speculation for some time given that Hideo Kojima, who had been working on the game, was supposedly leaving Konami at the end of the year. The fact that Norman Reedus’ contract had expired was another nail in the coffin, given that he had lent his likeness and voice to the game. Their decision to remove the playable teaser trailer from the Playstation 4 Store didn’t seem to be a positive step and finally some remarks from Guillermo del Toro, Kojima’s partner on the project, suggested that the game was indeed axed. It took Konami a weekend of vague non statements and assurances that the series was absolutely going to continue but maybe not through this particular game ssh ssh, before they finally threw up their hands and said alright guys, Silent Hills is done, you happy now?

But fans aren’t happy. Because the playable teaser trailer was terrifying. Boring, but terrifying. Frankly I was happy to see the back of Kojima. I’d rather not have a wannabe film maker getting his attention seeking mitts on my favourite video game series, but Gullermo Del Toro is another matter. With some truly spine chilling productions under his belt, specifically Mama or even more unnerving The Orphanage, Del Toro was meant to make a Silent Hill game and we can only hope that he is invited back to continue work on the series, in whatever form that is. Personally, I didn’t enjoy P.T. I thought it was largely boring, characterised with long periods of inaction, frustration and a lack of context which rendered parts of it ineffective. ‘Oh there’s a foetus in a sink? There we go then. I’m sure that’s there for a reason? I guess? Maybe?’ But it did at least effectively draw you in only to smack you in the face with that creepy, ghost-like woman who jumps you out of no where. There were moments of horrifying brilliance present that indicated that the next instalment was certainly one to watch out for, albeit from behind a cushion. The atmospheric conditions rather than the constant repetition of trawling the same corridor over and over again created a truly terrifying experience the likes of which we haven’t seen in a Silent Hill game before, and we can only hope that future games recreate that.

Behind door number one...

Behind door number one…

Because if there’s one thing the Silent Hill games do do, it’s change the way they create horror. Gameplay remains largely the same in all; you play as an everyman character, you pick up melee weapons/guns, you fight your way through certain locations (including the standard hospital/school/sewer level) and you face off against monsters. But the way in which fear is cultivated and the monsters presented is continuously different, so much so that even though the games belong to the same series they at times feel vastly different. The presentation of horror in Silent Hill: Homecoming is considerably more gory than the psychological oppression of Silent Hill 2, while the claustrophobic feel of Silent Hill 4: The Room is in turn far removed from the frantic, chase sequences of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. So join me in a look at the varying ways in which the Silent Hill series has scared the shit out of us, and the changing influences found in the media from it’s titular game released almost fifteen years ago to the most recent, albeit seemingly now largely irrelevant P.T of Silent Hills.

We start with the first game of the series, Silent Hill in which you are cast as Harry Mason who decides to take daughter Cheryl to the sleepy tourist town of Silent Hill at the girl’s request. Bad move on Harry’s part. The two are involved in a car crash which separates them, setting Harry on a quest to find her. Where he might have thought this would take little more than a trip to the tourist information desk, things quickly descend into general survival horror fare as he must contend with monsters, fighting his way through the town to rescue his daughter. It transpires that Cheryl and the monsters are the result of a cult’s ritual to bring forth a God, a ritual which failed just before the time Harry found his daughter on the side of the road and decided to adopt her without a thought for the apparent strangeness of an abandoned baby. Cheryl was summoned to the town to complete the ritual and secure the appearance of a demonic God for whom the present monsters act as a kind of herald.

Although the storyline may be nothing innovative in the world of horror, the game at least is pretty scary. While there was nothing particularly horrifying about the monster design (which isn’t to say they were lookers) the only way to detect their presence was through the white noise generated by your radio. While the radio as a feature has remained constant throughout the Silent Hill games, as time has gone on you haven’t really needed it. You’ve usually clocked the presence of a monster before the radio starts up. In Silent Hill, however, there was no such clocking. Instead the radio really was your first alert system, so much so that when you entered the sewers, and the radio didn’t work, it was an actual hindrance and without it, I was caught out (read: scared out of my life) by monsters, which to add insult to injury, hid above you.
That and the game is dark, like really dark. When the sirens blare and night falls it goes freaking dark. The lights don’t just dim, if you turn your flash light off you won’t see jack shit which of course adds to the feel of impending doom. The sense of relief when you complete a stage and emerge into fog, snow and silence is palpable, not least because you can see further than your flash light’s range but mostly because you have a reprieve from the horror. But the silence itself is creepy because this is a bustling tourist town. It should be anything but silent despite its name. Even the ‘safe’ parts of the game contribute to the atmosphere that there is something very wrong with this town and there’s a touch of agoraphobia to the whole make up, this made a refreshing change from the usual single locale or confined spaces of the survival horror genre.

A number of horror books and films influence the Silent Hill series, so it stands to reason that this would be especially evident within the first game, when sequels weren’t a guarantee. The film Jacob’s Ladder which influences the entire series is most directly referenced in the first game’s bad ending. Here it is suggested that the game’s events were a product of Harry’s dying mind, having lost his life in the introductory car crash. Meanwhile there are obvious allusions to the works of Stephen King. There are striking similarities between the character of Alessa and King’s Carrie, protagonist of the novel of the same name. Both are adolescent girls with powers, the presence of which makes them the target of school bullying, while both are raised by a fanatically religious mother. With regards to the town we find ourselves in familiar territory in King’s novel The Mist. Here a small town is invaded by a strange fog from which monsters attack, notably pterodactyl like creatures. The film of the novel was released many years after Silent Hill but it nonetheless gives visual confirmation of its influence.

Book inspires game. Game inspires film of the book. Stop me if I'm getting too meta

Book inspires game. Game inspires film of the book. Stop me if I’m getting too meta

The developers have always been open about their inspirations and the games many homages to the western horror genre. In the first game this is seen in the use of monsters, which are after all a staple of the genre. Silent Hill 2 however takes its inspiration from a different kind of horror film. Taking a more psychological spin on the town, Silent Hill 2 can be seen to draw themes from Event Horizon, where each character is tormented by very personal hallucinations caused by a gateway to Hell, Solaris in which a widower is haunted by a recreation of his dead wife who dies repeatedly only to return moments later and Fatasma d’amore, a film that features a man, convinced his lover is not dead, chasing said lover through foggy streets while she appears to him in two forms; a young, sexy version and an older, haggard form. With such inspirations its not hard to see the influences that caused the series to move away from the havoc wreaking cultists of the first game to the town itself taking on the role of the antagonist. Monsters still attack you from the mist, but the monsters are born of your own tormented psyche, representing your inner demons and unlike the first game, they might not even actually be there.

While in the original the town is the location within which the cultists have wreaked havoc, in the sequel the town itself is the antagonist, turning your own conscience into the enemy. Those who visit the town are treated to an in depth psych evaluation that most doctors would charge a fortune for. All Silent Hill asks is that you run a gauntlet facing down monsters born from your personal dirty little secret and the result is a different hell for everyone. Take Angela for example, I think we’d all agree that the victim of sexual abuse from a parent is hardly in the wrong. When Angela finally snaps and kills her father and her equally abusive brother, she could probably condoned if not forgiven. It is Angela’s own guilt and feelings that she deserved what happened cause the town to punish her further. We could argue that she did nothing wrong, but she felt she did and that’s enough for the town to manifest, based on her experiences, monsters that ultimately drive her to her death.

Warning: flames may be metaphorical

Warning: flames may be metaphorical

Silent Hill 2 really changed the way survival horrors tormented us; the monsters that dogged our steps no where near as haunting as the guilty secrets that created them. And of course no commentary on Silent Hill could fail to mention Pyramid Head who was and remains utterly terrifying. Silent Hill 2 is my go to game when I want to complete a game and not have to spend all that much time doing it. I know it inside and out and it doesn’t scare me all that much, but I remember my very first playthrough being terrifying. Not least because I had found the PS2 my father had bought for Christmas and knew full well that I really shouldn’t be playing it. Silent Hill 2 is all about atmosphere, and clandestine gaming sessions aside, you can’t see very far, the music is oppressive but the most contributing factor is that, unlike the other Silent Hill games, you can actually leave. The other characters have some motivation for staying (Except Travis in Origins but that’s for part 2 of this series) that forces them onwards despite the horrors that await them. If not an unwillingness to leave, they are at least unable to, as the town physically blocks you in until your task is completed. James begins the game next to his car and the road home, he just doesn’t care enough to get back in. Further he leaves the car doors open (not just unlocked) so he obviously doesn’t even care if the car gets stolen.

So much so does the second game make the town itself the antagonist, that it’s almost a disappointment when Silent Hill 3 returns to the cultist villains of the original. This time the player takes on the role of Heather Mason, Harry’s recovered daughter from the first game as she contends with her dual identity of Heather and Alessa. Instead of atmospheric however, the game goes for outright monstrous. The monsters are huge and largely unavoidable as they tend to take up entire corridors, though of course the standard nurses make a return. There is little psychological horror here, except of course for Vincent’s infamous line, “they look like monsters to you?” which strikes at the heart of every fan of the series. But aside from the sole implication that you’re actually butchering innocent tourists, not here will you find a build up of atmosphere, instead you face off against hulking monstrosities who inspire fear just by their very being. Once again we see references to Carrie and Jacob’s Ladder as we did in the first game but this time the game draws more themes from the notion of Alessa’s nightmarish existence than any other popular media. The Otherworld becomes a more rusted and bloody place featuring wheelchairs due to Alessa’s experiences rather than the influence of any contemporary horror films.

Someone really likes Happy Burger

Someone really likes Happy Burger

Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 could be described as nightmarish but it is Silent Hill 3 that embodies this as a concept, as it twists itself according to Alessa’s nightmares. The monsters are massive and due to their sheer size, largely unavoidable. Even the ‘dogs’ are chunkier. The radio and flashlight hardly serve here as an early warning system as monsters of this girth don’t actually need an advance warning. You can’t miss them! On the off chance you wander into an area with a monster around a corner, you don’t need the radio’s static to alert you, they make enough noise themselves. It’s still scary. It’s just a more in your face, lack of subtlety kind of fear than the insidious despair of Silent Hill 2.

While the town does take on elements of Heather’s psyche by creating environments and monsters relating to her dual identity this is less because it wants to torment her a la Silent Hill 2 and more because of the direct link between Heather and the town. Her defeat of the cultists and the remnants of Alessa in the town put an end to that side of Silent Hill, a side which would not be picked up again until Silent Hill: Homecoming although in a very different manner.
Next time we will take a look see at where the series went next as we look at the Japanese horror styles of Silent Hill 4: The Room, the psychological dramas of Silent Hill: Origins and the gore-fest that is Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

 

2102836-adult_alessaUnable to afford the flight to America to seek out the real Silent Hill, fanta decided to live her dream of surviving in a monster ridden tourist trap where ash replaces rainfall by moving to Merthyr Tydfil. Although she combated monsters and inner demons the ash was missing, but her attempts to set fire to the coal mines under the town met with failure when museum security had her removed from the premises and ejected from the town. She is also currently banned from most major high street retailers after a number of “undisclosed incidents” involving their mannequin displays.

 

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