In their final piece for the year, Lachlan Mitchell figures that talking about Silent Hill is the closest Craccum will ever get to having horror material close to Halloween.
When I was seven, my aunt made me watch the Jason movies, along with the first Jeepers Creepers movie where the flying bat-demon ends up stealing Justin Long’s eyes. So while I remember being terrified of my aunt for a couple of years, it meant that afterwards, I was immediately ready to consume horror media like an LCM bar. Not to mention that like… being on social media since the age of 12 has left me pretty desensitized to, like, nearly all gore and sexual content and whatever, lol. Rotted my brain to the point of being hollow. Terminal LiveLeaks Brain. Because of this, there is a special place for content that is still able to scare me and make me feel something, to awaken the Swirling Charybdis Pit of Anxiety inside. It is hard, but it is possible. Just thinking about them makes me shiver. Dino Crisis, and…. Silent Hill.
Dino Crisis is scary because you’re up against fuckin’ rabid velociraptors with pistols and shotguns, and you’re being stalked by T-Rexes with blocky PS1 polygons and just the most terrifying sound mixing!.It’s fucking blood-curdling! Doesn’t need any deeper meaning! But the Silent Hill franchise is… more. From the moment you first hear Akira Yamaoka’s opening theme in the first game, you know you have something different on your hands. It digs inside you, or at least it used to, and lingers within you like a turn of the century tapeworm. It’s an open wound that doesn’t stop seeping, and you think something might be hidden just below the forming scab. You can’t help but pick at it. Silent Hill is a franchise that did something that horror games up to that point had not done previously; it took itself seriously. We had Resident Evil by that point, but while it wasn’t intended to have the schlocky B-movie feel the earlier games are associated with today, it just doesn’t have the same intent of communicating visceral horror like Silent Hill does. If Resident Evil seeks to emulate an ‘80s action movie, Silent Hill seeks to emulate Rosemary’s Baby. It doesn’t just intend to scare you, it intends to make you vomit from what your desires and motivations have been reduced to.
The first game of the franchise is rather aged (they all have a degree of clunkiness to them), but it sets the stage rather well, with the everpresent fog, the crackling radio, and the famous intro where you first understand that you are fucked. The gore, as pixelated as it is, still gives the player pause. The ghost babies in the school. What happened to them? At the time, it gave echoes of the Columbine shootings, even though the dates made such a connection realistically impossible. But even in 1999, there was a distinct sense of environmental storytelling that no horror game had really done before, from the way the occult is slowly teased out, the unsettling nature of all this taking place in a quiet Middle America resort town, to children’s perceptions of the world directly manifesting our surroundings. As the monsters in this game are from the mind of a child, they are somewhat typical fare. It’s the next two games that Silent Hill really derives its fame from: the monsters born from the sexual hang-ups and trauma (Abstract Daddy in particular) of most of Silent Hill’s inhabitants, and a true degree of misery oozing out of every festering wound, every bloodied pore. It is expertly crafted to make you feel helpless, and constantly on the edge of the endless motorway cliff that once extended into the town.
But this makes it sound like an entry into the Saw franchise, all pointless gore with no drive. Which I don’t have a problem with! But Silent Hill strives (or used to) for more than that. The franchise’s roots are as much in, say, Texas Chainsaw Massacre as it is in Naked Lunch, or Junji Ito. There’s an intuitive knowledge of what the real devils of the world are, the pains in our own middling lives, our own lonely environments, that define what horror really can be. Once you acclimatise to the endless moaning fiends, there is a sensitivity inherent, a distinct love for what the world can offer, and a hand on the shoulder for those who have been let down by the world’s cruel actors. Angela in Silent Hill 2 is perhaps the most notable example here: a victim of rape and seemingly lost in her own delusions after murdering her rapist, Angela is portrayed with deep knowledge of the effects of rape. Her pain gives great pause in how it interacts with the self-made hell that Silent Hill is. It’s not tokenistic, it’s not exploitative, it is a well-crafted contrast to the supernatural monsters hanging around. In her final scene, she ascends up a burning staircase to her perceived doom, still thinking what happened to her is all her fault. But not before one last comment, piano dancing around her. For her, the flames have always been like this, long before she ever came to Silent Hill. While the game claims her life, it is clear that it has an utmost empathy for Angela.
One of my favourite games ever made, a 1995 point-and-click adventure PC game named I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, is not cited as an inspiration for Silent Hill, and yet its roots are unmistakable. While the plots couldn’t be more different, there are many similarities; a practically otherworldly and omnipotent reflection of all of mankind’s anxieties and collective misery has the power to shape the world and plunge the nominal protagonists into their own carefully designed hell, often painted with distinctly sexually violent tones, all with the slim possibility that their torture might unintentionally cause a personal change for the better and free the participant from their own self-punishment. I Must Scream is ultimately the more cynical game, given that humans have been almost entirely wiped out and that it comes from the mind of the dearly departed semi-misanthrope Harlan Ellison, but it presents the same choice in its best ending; if you can explore the Jungian hellscape the game has presented and fight for the selfless benefit of others, and learn to forgive yourself for your own hang-ups, maybe humans really are better than all that we let drag ourselves down.
And maybe that’s the real joy of Silent Hill, aside from the obvious adrenaline rush of killing masturbating flesh devils with a block of wood, and the thrill of knowing you have escaped another pitch black basement in your descent into metaphor. The joy that while we may make mistakes we deem unforgivable, or been the victim of unspeakable acts, or been driven by our worst impulses, we are still capable of purging out our internal wraiths if we really try. If we learn to treat ourselves with the empathy we deserve, then we won’t need a visit to Silent Hill to teach us that same lesson, mixed with skinless hounds and occult plots and, quite literally, giving birth to God.