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Shattered Memories: Psychological Horror in the Silent Hill Franchise

Wednesday, February 6, 2019 | Opinion

By: Rebecca Booth

“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 (1999) was something special. Gamers were captivated by the mystery of the character-driven and convoluted story within the prologue. This was something of a rarity in the horror video gaming universe when Silent Hill was released, with earlier examples including:  Dark Seed (1992); System Shock (1994); Dark Seed II (1995); I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (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 CrisisSilent Hill was developed for the PlayStation, and utilized 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 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 wakes to find Cheryl missing. Entering the town of Silent Hill, he finds it deserted; as a mysterious fog rolls in, he discovers that all of the roads leading out of the town have crumbled, blocking him in.

Harry unravels the mystery of the town as he meets several characters in his search for Cheryl. 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 the hellish Otherworld of Alessa’s mind, with its monstrous materializations of her suffering and pain.

Eventually, Harry learns that he must face Alessa, as indicated by a magical pendant, the Flauros, given to him by Dahlia. ‘Flauros’ refers to the name of a demon within the appendix Pseudomonarchia Daemonum / Hierarchy of Demons, in Johann Weyer’s De Praestigiis Deamonum / On the Tricks of Demons (1563)—one of many references to a myriad of world mythologies explored within the series. Depending on the choices made throughout the game, Harry’s battle with Alessa could lead to 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—Harry is also revealed to be dead in the car wreck, reducing the whole nightmare to the final thoughts of a dying man); or downright weird (Harry is randomly abducted by aliens).

Silent Hill 2 (2001) was conceptually realized by Team Silent’s CGI director, Takayoshi Sato, and was reportedly based on the novel Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In this instalment, the storyline is much heavier than 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 great pain, or inflicted it upon others, and therefore are doomed to dwell in personal planes of punishment for eternity. James himself is caught in a Lynchian plot involving his wife and his relationship with her death; a woman named Maria appears in several scenes—even dying and seemingly being resurrected—suggesting that this character is a version of Mary. This leads to the realization that James is in his own nightmarish world and is being punished for his past. He is physically haunted—and hunted—by a monstrous manifestation of his guilt that chases him throughout Silent Hill, the infamous Pyramid Head. Again, the batch of potential endings range from pathos to redemption to incredulity (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 by many to be one of the best horror video games 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 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 Flauros, the pendant given to her by her father, 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 and featured a protagonist trapped in his apartment and at the mercy of interdimensional and supernatural horrors, using locations from previous games to expand the hellscape; Silent Hill: Origins (2007) is a prequel to the original story arc and was initially released for the PlayStation Portable by Climax Action—the game mirrors several elements of Harry’s journey from the first game, as well as providing some backstory as to the power of the Flauros; Silent Hill: The Escape (2007) was a first-person spin-off designed to be played on mobile phones that allowed players to choose from several characters and resurrected original horrors such as Pyramid Head and the undead nurses; Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008) was created by Double Helix Games for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Microsoft Windows—with the protagonist unusually residing in Silent Hill, as opposed to the series’ usual convention of following a visitor to the deserted town, this instalment dives deeply into the motives of the Order; Silent Hill: The Arcade (2008) featured a multi-player option in which gamers could switch between two main characters, with the option for a second player to join the game at any point, and used recurring locations and monsters as a backdrop for a plot straight out of a 1980s American slasher film; 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 was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 by Vatra Games—the game in many ways echoes the second instalment, with a prisoner protagonist seeking redemption; Silent Hill: Book of Memories (2012) offers a new storyline that incorporates a multi-player mode and isometric projection—regarded as a spin-off from the canonical series, it features similar philosophical and existential themes via an ensemble cast who must choose whether or not to change the text in a mysterious book that connects their reality to the Otherworld. The series was set to continue: Kojima Productions, using the pseudonym 7780s Studio, developed a free download for the PlayStation 4 in 2014 titled simply P.T. (playable teaser). Directed and designed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo del Toro, the teaser was critically acclaimed for its convoluted storyline and genuinely terrifying first-person perspective. After solving the final puzzle, players were rewarded with the announcement that the download was a taste of the forthcoming Silent Hills. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be.

As evidenced by del Toro’s (sadly limited) involvement with the series, Silent Hill is incredibly cinematic in its approach—from the tantalizing glimpses of the wider story within cut scenes, to end sequences depicting the characters as actors having fun with their roles. It was therefore 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. 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. 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 pseudonyms taken from the games: Harry and Heather Mason. In a further playful nod to fans of the franchise, the film ends by intersecting the narrative of the third game with that of Silent Hill: Origins and Silent Hill: Downpour.

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 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—literally manifesting 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 franchise: characters have the ability to walk within their own subconscious shadow-world or freely enter the dark dreams of others, encountering acute manifestations of morality, guilt, pain, punishment, religion and redemption.

Coming back to where it all began, 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 the 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 emotionally—particularly as the game allows us to make several choices throughout that have direct consequences for these characters. The franchise is thus very human in its horror: Silent Hill is a personal hell for all of its inhabitants and players empathize in their emotional response, projecting their fears and demons onto the characters within the shared primal Otherworld of the series. This is the true horror at the heart of Silent Hill as an interactive psychological story of survival: the subjective realization and confrontation of our own shattered memories.