Friday, March 30, 2012

Six Things that make Silent Hill so Wonderfully Scary

"Silent Hill" came out in 1999 and since then the franchise has spawned four games that were true to it's core themes and way too many that aren't. The last three to come out, "Silent Hill: Homecoming," "Silent Hill: Shattered Memories" and "Silent Hill: Downpour" pale in comparison to the original three installments. It's like the game developers read the really, really crappy Silent Hill comics they put out and decided that they were so brilliant that they just had to imitate them.

For instance:

"Silent Hill: Paint it Black" is a trade paperback about an angst ridden artist is sucked into Silent Hill. He comes across a school bus full of cheerleader commandos. I'm not kidding. Here's page 27. Cheryl, head of the cheerleaders knows Seven Schools of Hand-to-hand Combat. And, she has a baseball bat.

So... Yeah.... That's as good as that comic gets. None of the Silent Hill comics have ever really been able to capture the essence of Silent Hill. None that I've read at least.

So, what then, is at the heart of Silent Hill that the current installments in the franchise lack? What is missing? What is the one thing that game developers keep getting wrong?

Well, it isn't just one thing, but six things that are really at the heart of Silent Hill and the Survival Horror genre. And it's these six things that make these video games so scary and so great.

1. The Everyman Character
Silent Hill for PlayStation introduced us to Harry Mason. He's looking for his daughter. Have you seen her?

What made "Silent Hill" so scary was the fact that the characters were average, every day people. Harry was a normal guy looking for his lost daughter. That is what the game is about: a loving father's desperate search for his child.

Harry isn't a highly trained muscle bound commando. He's an average skinny guy who is so clumsy at times that he can trip down stairs. It's his frailty that not only adds to the overall feel of Survival Horror, it makes him a character that anyone can relate to, which in turn makes the game play experience all the more terrifying.

"Silent Hill 2" gave us James Sunderland, a poor bastard that "lost" his wife to a disease and then received a letter from her telling him that she's waiting for him in Silent Hill.

Clues throughout the game lead up the final reveal that James killed his wife to put her out of her misery and to end his own suffering at having to watch the one woman he loved waste away to nothing. His feelings of guilt over his incompetency and his  deeply repressed sexual desires are represented throughout the game, with the overtly sexual manikins, Pyramid Head and the presence of Maria. James was not a soldier. He was just a grieving husband whose guilt over his wife's death drove insane. And his insanity dragged him into Silent Hill.

In "Silent Hill 3," we have Heather Mason- Harry Mason's adopted daughter. He rescued her from the ashes of the final fight in "Silent Hill."

She is a teenage girl who slowly learns the mystery behind her birth and who and what she really is, all the while being terrorized by monsters formed by her own psyche.

Heck, even "Silent Hill 4" is about an agoraphobic shut-in. Then, we get "Silent Hill: Homecoming," in which the reigns were handed completely over to an American gaming team. And it shows.

The focus on combat at the sake of everything else utterly ruined the game experience for me. Of course, so does the direct from the movie to the video game import of the sexy demon nurse and Pyramid Head. The nurses are freaking fast and will stab you to death faster than you can even get a knife up to parry them. Arrrrrgg!!

2. Less Ammo, More Running
Monsters aren't scary if you have an unlimited supply of ammo and really powerful guns. Makeshift weapons, such as rusty pipes, wooden planks with nails in them, etc. do make things a bit more dangerous when you decide to engage in combat. ("Silent Hill: Origins" did not have a lot of guns, but the weapons degraded with each hit and eventually broke. It was annoying and did not improve the game play experience, but detracted from of it.) The whole idea of Survival Horror is that you have to struggle to survive the monsters the game throws at you. Limited ammo makes every encounter a fight or flight experience- which combined with our natural instincts to run or fight when we encounter danger makes Survival Horror all the more terrifying to play.

With the option of running away thrown out the window and being stuck with having to fight unavoidable monsters-- not bosses-- just monsters like the Needler monster in the Grand Hotel in "Silent Hill: Homecoming" where all you could do is parry it's scythe arm attacks with a knife and not hit it for the life of you. There are also those that you cannot, in any way run away from, such as the Lurkers that would continue to come after you and will chase you all the way to Alex's house and wait for you to exit to attack en mass. When the choice of fighting or running is ripped away from you and you are forced to fight everything you come across, the Survival Horror experience turns into a frustrating gaming nightmare that totally kills the feeling of foreboding dread that the original three Silent Hill games so brilliantly cultivated.

3. Sound, visuals, and Story work in Tandem to scare the living BEEP out of you.

"One unique innovation to the game play of Silent Hill is the use of sound. Music changes to create tension as you explore, but even cooler than that is how you will hear enemies before you actually see them.... On top of that, the [radio] sound is in stereo, so by rotating in place you can narrow down the direction and number of baddies before you can see them or they see you." Page 26- Totally Unauthorized Silent Hill Strategy Guide by Brady Games.

It's very rare when a game maker can use all three elements of sight, sound and story to conjure up such feelings of dread and uncertainty. So we have non-traditional auditory cues to alert us to the presence of monsters, music that starts up in the presence of other monsters or in certain areas to create this utter sense of foreboding and an overall soundtrack that did not rely on any of the Western traditions of horror music; such as the often over-used and now cliched violin trill.

The visual style of Silent Hill is two-fold. There is the day time style with dilapidated run-down buildings and an oppressive looming fog that threatens to consume you while hiding unspeakable horrors that are lurking in your midst.

Then there is the night time style, with the pitch black darkness, rusted metal chain link fences and steel doors, and more grotesque scenes of carnage with mangled corpses hanging from walls or bound up in an almost fetishistic manner and locked in rusted metal cages.

Overall, the story line of the first three games tackles the idea of a cult living in a town that existed outside of reality, and yet, at the same time, existed right along side it, which leads me to number four on my list.

4. Personal Hell in a Parasite Reality
Silent Hill exists in our world and in the Otherworld (or Otherside or Nightmare realm or whatever you want to call it.). Silent Hill straddles the Veil between the land of the living and the land of the dead. It subsumes other towns and will continue to creep out over the land, swallowing more places and people as it goes. It does not have a reality or its own plane of existence, but rather, sucks life from our own, which is why it is a parasite reality. Silent Hill also appears to have a consciousness as well, which makes me wonder if the parasite reality itself isn't some sort of huge demon.

The psyche of each individual that enters Silent Hill affects the shape and feel of the town and its monsters. A person's fears, anxieties and traumatic past warps the Parasite Reality into something nightmarish and evil. It feeds on fear and pain and blood. It wants you to be scared, even more than it wants you to die. When one or more people are there at the same time, the monsters created from their subconscious minds can clash- with the strongest being the one that was made by the strongest fear from an individual.

The first three installments of the Silent Hill franchise also had unique monsters. "Silent Hill" had monsters that were influenced by Cheryl's subconscious mind. There were evil demon children that represented the kids at school that tormented her and there were monsters based on insects, such as huge months, dogs and other critters. Even though you play as Harry, the monsters weren't created from his psyche, probably because he was emotionally stable and a normal guy.

"Silent Hill 2" had strange grotesque, yet oddly sexual monsters that were drawn from James' subconscious mind. Pyramid Head wielded either a huge sword or a spear and was a direct result of his primal male urge to procreate, which was demonstrated in the now infamous mannikin rape scene.

My oh my! Look at the time!

"Silent Hill 3" started to deviate from the idea of having protean monsters that were shaped by people's fears and obsessions in that the monsters really didn't represent much of anything as they were far too abstract. The creator's reasoning for some of the more stranger creatures being aspects of Heather's repressed fears and obsessions weren't very convincing either.

Speaking of personal monsters, if the character does not have repressed sexual urges, keep Pyramid Head out of the game. If a character does not have a traumatic hospital experience, keep the "sexy" demon nurses out of the game.

You don't see Maria showing up in any other game. She's also a product of James' repressed sexuality. Why doesn't she also appear in other Silent Hill games? She is made by the same thing that created Pyramid Head.

The reason why he shows up so much is because Pyramid Head is a fan favorite that has taken over our collective imagination. Personally, I think the strange demonic entity is cool as hell and loved it when he appeared in the Silent Hill movie (in that case, it was explained that he was a manifestation of Alessa's hatred, or some theorize, a demonic avatar and enforcer of Silent Hill itself). But, honestly, he doesn't belong in any other game because James isn't there. The only way I could accept it is if James makes an appearance in another Silent Hill game, then the appearance of his personal demons would make sense.

It's as simple as that. Silent Hill is shaped by our Shadow- all of the negative stuff in our subconscious mind. If a character does not have these traits lurking in the back of her mind,  Pyramid Head and sexy demon nurses do not belong in the game.

5. J-Horror Themes
Vengeful Ghost
In Japanese Horror, a person who suffers greatly becomes a vengeful hungry ghost who holds a grudge against the living. It cannot be placated, it just wants living people to suffer and die. There is also a theme of psychic projection in a lot of Japanese horror and anime where a comatose patient can send an avatar of themselves out into reality to interact with living people and objects as if they are really physically there. Creepy.

In "Silent Hill," that is what Alessa became. Cheryl was an avatar of Alessa, a projection of her desires to live a normal life. When Alessa could no longer escape the truth, Cheryl was brought back to Silent Hill. She influenced Harry, and he took her there.

Ghost in the Machine
In Japanese folk beliefs, ghosts can manipulate electronic devices. They can mess with the lights, your TV, your radio, your computer and so on. A classic example of this is "The Ring." Samara could curse VHS tapes. She always knew when they were being played and could see who was watching them because they were an extension of her existence. This is also why she could crawl out of the well and then directly through the TV screen and into the room where her victims are sitting, watching in abject horror as she walks towards them. Ghosts are literally in our machines.

Silent Hill Radio Interference
In J-horror, ghosts are believed to be able to manipulate computers and electronic devices. That is why there is so much radio interference when the monsters of Silent Hill get close to a radio, or a person that is carrying a radio, such as the main character of the game.

6. The FOG
One of the things that makes the original three installations of Silent Hill so creepy are the figures and silhouettes lurking in the fog. While it was originally done in Silent Hill for PSX because of limitations in the gaming console that caused a short "draw" distance (how far ahead the scenery could be produced by the gaming computer while you ran or walked), it was kept because it's creepy as hell.

I can assure you, if you ever get the chance to walk in a thick fog, you will spot figures that you can't quite make out. This is what makes it so scary, because you can't really see what's out there. The monsters are literally hidden from you and their shapes are only hinted at in the dense foggy streets. Removing the fog, or lightening it up to reveal more of the streets, as what happened with the glitchy Silent Hill 2 in the HD Collection ruins the mood of the game and makes it less scary.

If game creators in the future could manage to just hit these six things when they make another Silent Hill game, they'll put the heart right back into that creepy looming monstrosity and give us a true Survivor Horror game play experience.


  1. Nicely written, and I agree with you completely!
    Good job :D!

  2. Pyramid head wasn't imported from the movie into Homecoming, Pyramid head was introduced in Silent Hill 2..

  3. Gage,

    What I meant was that the character design from the first "Silent Hill" movie was used in the Homecoming game, not that the monster originally showed up in the movie and then was used in Homecoming. Sorry for the confusion.

  4. Thank you for posting this because I now have another source of info for my informative speech on Silent Hill in Debate class. Yeah, my teacher can be pretty lenient with the subjects we partake of. SO THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! :) (Imagine thumbs up here)

  5. You're welcome Ender Wiggin! I think that's pretty awesome that you can use my post as a source for your speech in Debate class! Good luck man! :)

  6. WOW you actually made sense!😮. Most idiots would just say bullsh*t they heard from a friend and say that's how the game went. I like how your evidence was actually correct. GG Cassie, GG😊