Silent Hill: A Retrospective
This article contains major spoilers for Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2, Silent Hill 3, The Mist, Carrie, Jacob’s Ladder, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway, as well as some disturbing images and themes.
In the late ’90s, survival horror was a burgeoning trend on home video game consoles. While there’d been numerous forays into horror gaming previously, it was the enormous success of Capcom’s Resident Evil that proved the genre could be commercially viable as well as critically lauded. The advent of the compact disc as the industry standard for storage had allowed developers to be more adventurous in their games, and Resident Evil, in particular, benefited from the boons of the medium. On a cartridge-based system the full motion video cut-scenes and hours of recorded dialogue would never have been an option, and while the dubious quality of the storytelling and voice acting in the game have been the subject of much in the years subsequent to its release, it was these cinematic qualities that helped Resident Evil stand out against mechanically similar titles like Alone In The Dark.
As is always the case in the wake of an unexpected bestseller, developers around the globe frantically raced to capitalize on the success of Resident Evil and the popularity of the newfangled buzz word, “survival horror.” The point and click adventure series, Clock Tower, was re-imagined as a third person horror game that retained an emphasis on puzzle solving rather than combat, while Squaresoft envisioned an amalgamation of the role playing titles that they were famous for and third person action-horror in 1998’s Parasite Eve. While the roots of most of these games laid firmly in schlocky B-movies and the George Romero zombie flicks of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when Konami decided to throw their hat into the proverbial survival horror ring with Silent Hill in 1999, they sought inspiration in some altogether less conventional places.
Resident Evil’s FMV intro would never have been possible on a cartridge-based system, which is perhaps the best argument for why the Nintendo 64 was designed as a cartridge-based system.
Relying more on the kind of slow-burning psychological terror famously employed by Japanese horror movies rather than the jump scares and gross-out moments typically found in American exploitation cinema, for all of the similarities that Silent Hill bore to Resident Evil in terms of combat mechanics and control schemes, the two games were tonally a gulf apart. Cheesy one-liners and zombie-dogs leaping through windows helped Resident Evil to successfully replicate the feeling of a straight-to-video popcorn shocker, but it was readily apparent almost immediately upon starting Silent Hill that rather than providing a steady supply of fleeting shocks, the game wanted to deeply unsettle the player over a longer period of time.
Perhaps the most ingenious tool used by the developers of Silent Hill in order to upset players was the static-emitting radio. After the radio is found by protagonist Harry Mason in the opening minutes of the game, it begins to crackle with white noise just as a winged creature bursts through the window and attacks him. After battling the monster in a confined diner and ultimately killing it, Harry realizes that the radio he’d picked up produces feedback whenever there are otherworldly creatures nearby; the louder it gets, the closer they are. In a town like Silent Hill, perpetually blanketed in a thick fog, the radio becomes both an ally and a source of torment to Harry and the player alike; whenever you hear the crackle of the radio you know that you need to be on guard because there could be enemies lurking in the shroud of the fog, but not knowing where the creatures are and whether or not they’ll even attack proved disturbing to many gamers.
While most people who have played or even heard of Silent Hill will be familiar with how the radio works, what’s less common knowledge is that the idea for this now iconic feature, present in most of the games in the series, was not conjured by the director, Keiichiro Toyama, or even the composer, Akira Yamaoka, but was lifted practically wholesale from the Stephen King novella, The Mist. In the story of the novel, a small town in Maine is covered in a thick fog which harbors a gaggle of abhorrent creatures, including a pterosaur-like flying monster of startling similarity to the one Harry fights in the opening minutes of Silent Hill. The creatures, like in Silent Hill, cause radio equipment in their vicinity to produce nothing but harsh static.
The guy looks sad because the tentacle is dragging him to the local cinema to see The Mist.
The similarities Silent Hill bares to The Mist don’t begin and end with a radio and a flying monster. Later in the novel, once it becomes apparent that the killer fog enveloping the town isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, different factions arise among the survivors with conflicting ideas on what the mist is and what should be done. One such group led by a fanatical religious woman believe that the hellish creatures that plague them are indicative of the end-times as per the description of Armageddon within the Holy Bible, and they start to believe that the only way to appease their new demonic overlords is through human sacrifice. Silent Hill, too, features a religious cult, and although the grisly fate of the town is actually a result of the machinations of said cult in the game’s story, the similarities are too stark to overlook.
In the story of Silent Hill, the disciples of the religious cult led by the dreadful Dahlia Gillespie have used her daughter as a vessel to birth the dark god Samael, an act which unfortunately requires a hellish amount of pain and turmoil. Never one to shy away from unimaginable suffering, even when it afflicts those with a familial connection, Dahlia has her own daughter set on fire in an act of sacrifice, and then uses an evil incantation to keep the poor girl alive and in a state of perennial agony under the supervision of the drug-addled nurse, Lisa Garland. The dreams Alessa has in her tormented state are the basis for the nightmarish Otherworld that Harry has to battle through while exploring Silent Hill; the physical manifestation of the harrowing thoughts of a young girl, victim to an unspeakable wrong enacted upon her by her own mother. Another of Stephen King’s works, Carrie, features psychic vengeance at the whim of a teenage girl, bullied by her peers and mistreated by her deeply religious mother.
In the best ending for the original Silent Hill, Dahlia Gillespie is ironically, hilariously, burned alive by her God Samael, mere seconds after seeing her plan to birth him brought to fruition.
The developers of Silent Hill have never been shy about their influences when creating the game, and then later the expanded series, including the allusions and homages to some of the writings of Stephen King. In addition to plot points and characters that seem to pay more than a passing nod to those in stories by the famous horror author, there are numerous references to other Stephen King works within the game. Posters can be seen for the movie adaptations of Pet Semetary and Carrie, while the pinball machine in the café was included as a nod to Children of the Corn. As if these weren’t enough, the street on which Harry awakens after crashing his car at the beginning of Silent Hill is named Bachman Road, which King fans amongst you will likely have realized is in reference to Stephen King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman.
The naming of Bachman Road is just one of many references to influential figures, as in each of the games in the Silent Hill series the various streets and locations that the player visits tend to be named in honor of people who were inspirational to the creative minds on the development team in some way. There’s nods to Ira Levin, the author of Rosemary’s Baby, Mary Shelley who penned Frankenstein, and Michael Crichton who wrote the dinosaur-thriller, Jurassic Park, among other things. When Harry reaches Midwich Elementary School – itself named after a street in Village of the Damned – he can read a list of the names of the teachers who work at the school, which includes a Ranaldo, a Moore and a Gordon – the names of the three members of experimental rock band, Sonic Youth. There’s even a street named after the astrophysicist and celebrated author, Carl Sagan. Practically everything in Silent Hill is named in tribute to someone or something.
Everywhere in Silent Hill seems to pay homage to someone who inspired the development of the game. Sonic Youth were one of the most influential rock bands of ’80s. If you’ve not listened to them, check out.
It’s not just the naming conventions that pay homage to novels, bands or movies, though. Some of the sights and sounds within the town of Silent Hill are themselves either references to, or directly taken from other properties. The aforementioned café that Harry Mason visits at the beginning of the first game is named “5 to 2” in reference to a similar diner in the Oliver Stone directed and Quentin Tarantino penned, Natural Born Killers. There’s a poster advertising an album by the British trip-hop band Portishead, who were undoubtedly an influence for series composer, Akira Yamaoka. Their modest 1994 hit, “Sour Times” in particular seems like it may have inspired the main theme of the first game in the Silent Hill series.
The Metropol Theatre is a direct reference to Dario Argento’s Demons, and there are posters featuring an image of the green-goo spewing monsters that appear in that movie just around the corner. A cinema in the town has some posters, too, for upcoming attractions that look remarkably similar to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Die Hard 2. The sepia photograph of Alessa Gillespie that Harry finds numerous times throughout his twisted journey shows her dressed in practically identical attire to Pamela Franklin in The Legend of Hell House, and down one of the dangerous alleys behind the café, he can see that somebody has scrawled “REDRUM” on a shutter door just like in The Shining – a movie directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by, once again, Stephen King.
The 5 to 2 café in both Natural Born Killers and Silent Hill. A newspaper seen in Silent Hill is almost identical to one from The Silence of the Lambs. Scenes from Dario Argento’s Demons alongside their references in Silent Hill. A photograph of Alessa Gillespie found by Harry Mason in the original Silent Hill. Pamela Franklin in The Legend of Hell House.
A horror game liberally borrowing from and paying homage to directors like Dario Argento, or writers like Stephen King isn’t all that surprising, but there are also numerous amusing references within the Silent Hill games that are somewhat less expected. Perhaps most out of left field is Midwich Elementary School in the first game, which is actually quite a faithful recreation of the school from the Arnold Schwarzenegger action-comedy, Kindergarten Cop. Everything from the outward appearance of the school to many of the recognizable features within it are directly lifted from the Arnie classic, leading to some tongue-in-cheek speculation online that the kids from the movie all died terribly, and Silent Hill is actually just a fantastically depressing sequel. Similarly, the characters of Laura and Mary in Silent Hill 2 are wearing outfits that are almost identical to ones worn by Nicholas Cage’s wife and daughter in the ridiculous ’90s action movie, Con Air, while the character of Maria wears an ensemble once worn by Christina Aguilera at an awards show. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Christina Aguilera’s middle name is Maria.
Silent Hill would still be a better Kindergarten Cop 2 than Kindergarten Cop 2. James Sunderland’s wife looking remarkably similar to Nicholas Cage’s in Con Air. Christina Aguilera and Maria from Silent Hill 2.
The protagonist of Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland, wears the same jacket that Tim Robbins wears in the 1990 psychological horror movie, Jacob’s Ladder, but there are more numerous, and more deeply ingrained similarities between the two properties beyond a worn military coat. The story of Jacob’s Ladder, ostensibly an abstruse testimony of the psychological collapse of its eponymous lead, ultimately reveals itself to be a fiction created by Jacob’s dying mind as a means to acquiesce to his own death in the Vietnam War. Each game in the Silent Hill series features multiple potential endings for the story, based on criteria that must be fulfilled but are generally hidden from the player. Perhaps the most dejecting potential conclusion to the original game appears to be in reference to Jacob’s Ladder, and sees Harry Mason dead in his car after the crash at the beginning of the game, with the varying grotesqueries he meets on his journey being little more than apparitions, the result of randomly firing synapses in his brain as his life ebbs away.
There are locations in Silent Hill that seem to have been directly inspired by some of the events of Jacob’s Ladder, most notably the hospital – various incarnations of which appear in almost every title to bear the Silent Hill name – and the Subway station from Silent Hill 3. Interestingly, the subway station prison from Jacob’s Ladder was itself inspired by a vivid nightmare experienced by the screenwriter, Bruce Joel Rubin. Many of the creature designs in the Silent Hill series are, too, similar to those seen in the movie, with the palpitating, paroxysmal movement of monsters like Silent Hill 2’s Pyramid Head and the third game’s Valtiel, the valet of Metatron, being reminiscent of the various monstrosities seen in Jacob’s visions.
Tim Robbins in Jacob’s Ladder, complete with jacket and appalling haircut. James Sunderland complete with jacket and not-quite-as-appalling haircut.
The visual design of many of the hideous creatures that players will go up against in the various Silent Hill games have been inspired by numerous famous works of art. The bulbous, distended Insane Cancer that attacks Heather was inspired by some of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, while Francis Bacon’s famous triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion was used as a starting point for the creatures, Mandarin, Closer and Flesh Lip in Silent Hill 2 and 3. Rembrandt was cited as an influence for much of the design of Silent Hill 2 by the game’s art director, Takayoshi Sato, as was Andrew Wyeth, whose painting “Christina’s World” was also used as inspiration for the outside of Dahlia Gillespie’s home in the first Silent Hill, while the interior of the abode was based on Norman Bate’s home in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Another locale, the squalid strip bar Heaven’s Night where Silent Hill 2‘s Maria works, is almost a brick for brick recreation of a similar establishment in David Lynch’s noir classic, Blue Velvet. In fact, comparisons between Silent Hill and the work of David Lynch are perhaps even more numerous, and of greater thematic significance than even the previously mentioned similarities to the writing of Stephen King, and the many elements the games borrow from Jacob’s Ladder.
The paintings of Francis Bacon served as inspiration for many of the horrors in the early Silent Hill games. Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon.
Lost Highway is, in Lynch’s words, “a jealous man’s state of mind who has indeed committed, and then denies, murder, even to himself,” which for fans of the Silent Hill series should sound evocative of the basic narrative outline for Silent Hill 2, in which James Sunderland believes his deceased wife Mary is actually alive, despite having previously killed her himself. When James arrives in Silent Hill, he quickly meets Maria who is aesthetically identical to his dead spouse, but in stark contrast to his wife, displays an overt confidence as demonstrated by her choice of attire and her occupation as a stripper. When Maria is killed over and over again in increasingly brutal fashion by Pyramid Head, it becomes apparent that she is in fact merely a construct of James’ guilt-ridden mind, her extroversion a direct result of James’ repressed sexual desires during the later, illness stricken months of his dead wife’s life. Her murder, regardless of the ethical and moral case in favor of euthanasia in instances of prolonged suffering through illness, haunts James, and Pyramid Head exists as the physical manifestation of his guilt, murdering Maria time and time again in front of his traumatized eyes.
The use of doppelgangers in order to reflect a character’s guilt over the murder of a loved one is a significant thematic device in Lost Highway, but Lynch also uses doppelgangers in some of his other work, most notably his television show, Twin Peaks. In the show, when agent Dale Cooper is attempting to track down the murderer of Laura Palmer – who worked as a prostitute and was confirmed to have had sexual relationships with a number of major characters – her cousin Maddy comes to stay with the Palmer family, displaying practically identical looks (and portrayed by the same actress) but with an almost entirely opposite personality. Maddy is an introverted, reserved brunette to Laura’s confident, tearaway blonde, but ultimately, Maddy meets her end at the hands of the same person who murdered Laura, which is similar to the fates of both Mary and Maria in Silent Hill 2, killed by James and the product of his guilt, respectively.
Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson in Twin Peaks.
Within the lore of Twin Peaks, there is a structure of supreme evil known as the Black Lodge, itself a counterpoint to an opposite construct of pure goodness known as the White Lodge, which bares some similarities with the Otherworld present in each Silent Hill game. In Twin Peaks, the lodges are home to numerous bizarre, backwards speaking entities of various moral persuasions, including helpful characters like the Giant, and nefarious, destructive ones like Bob. These realms exist on a separate plane of existence to the town of Twin Peaks, and can only be reached under specific circumstances. When asked about the Black Lodge, the Native American deputy, Hawk, tells a story from the perspective of his people:
“The legend says that every spirit must pass through there on the way to perfection. There, you will meet your own shadow self. My people call it ‘The Dweller on the Threshold’ … But it is said, if you confront the Black Lodge with imperfect courage, it will utterly annihilate your soul.”
In Silent Hill, the Otherworld is a nightmarish facsimile of the real world that periodically superimposes itself over the tourist town while an air raid siren sounds to trumpet the transformation. Brick and mortar are torn asunder and replaced by bloody, rusty, chain link fences, and the only illumination one can find amidst the perpetual night comes from a flashlight carried by the player. Monsters are numerous once the Otherworld takes over, and danger lurks around every corner. The origin of the Otherworld changes depending on the game, but in Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3, it’s the result of the demonic god buried within Alessa Gillespie’s womb, transforming her nightmares into reality. The Otherworld in Silent Hill 2 is different depending on which character is observing it, with Angela – a victim of sexual abuse – seeing walls covered in pulsating flesh and phallic pistons constantly pumping, while Eddie – who eventually snapped and murdered the bullies who had tormented him for years – sees constant reminders of the people he has killed. Regardless of its nature, there are scant references to Native Americans originally revering the town of Silent Hill as a holy place, perhaps because of its capacity as a portal to the Otherworld.
The Otherworld, as seen in Silent Hill 3, is a vile place.
Another parallel between the Otherworld and the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks is found in its ability to conjure doppelgangers, known in Twin Peaks as tulpas. There are numerous tulpas in Twin Peaks, including one of agent Dale Cooper that he actually meets within the Red Room towards the end of Season 2, and who eventually goes on to replace him in the real world. Similarly, in the original Silent Hill, the nurse Lisa Garland is herself a fabrication, a tulpa of the real Lisa Garland who died before the events of the game, a fact that she remains tragically unaware of for most of the story. Lisa is only encountered by Harry when he’s traversing the Otherworld, and never within the real Silent Hill, existing only as a tribute to the real nurse Garland who was the only person who ever cared for Alessa during her years of torment, but wound up murdered by the very religious fanatics that had employed her to look after the poor girl. When Lisa realises that her true self was killed months ago, and she’s merely the dream of a tortured teenager, she has a psychological breakdown and begins to bleed profusely, not unlike what happens to doppelgangers in Twin Peaks who become aware of their origin.
The red skirts that the girls are wearing (Silent Hill 3) are a nod to the curtains of the Red Room in Twin Peaks.
Like Twin Peaks, and much of the work of David Lynch, little concrete information is ever given about many of the ideas and themes presented in the various Silent Hill games, with the story told in an almost dream-like fashion by a catalog of bizarre characters. Even in the real Silent Hill, many characters appear to be either oblivious to or unfazed by the strange creatures and occurrences within the town, implying that perhaps only the protagonist is experiencing the horror as the player sees it, much like Dale Cooper seeing visions of the Red Room and the Giant that don’t appear to anybody else. This is further insinuated in Silent Hill 3, when Vincent incredulously asks Heather about the creatures she’s been killing: “They look like monsters to you?”
It wasn’t laziness on the part of the developers leaving so many unanswered questions in Silent Hill. The director, Keiichiro Toyama, sought to create a “fear of the unknown” by deliberately not giving the player all of the information, and in some instances actually giving them contradictory versions of events in order to instil confusion, and generate speculation as to the true meaning of much of the story. Keiichiro Toyama wasn’t particularly familiar with the horror genre when he was put at the helm of Silent Hill, and instead used his interest in UFOs and David Lynch movies as inspiration. Eighteen years after the release of the original Silent Hill, there are still numerous fan-sites on the Internet, containing forums in which devotees of the horror series discuss the lore of the games, and offer different interpretations of the themes explored in each of them. One suspects, when it comes to unexplained phenomena, we’ll likely have answers regarding UFOs before we ever get concrete solutions to the secrets buried within David Lynch’s work, or indeed, the impenetrable darkness of Silent Hill.
But while the deeper meaning behind much of what happens in the hellish town of Silent Hill might forever remain a mystery, what inspired the developers at Konami when creating what is widely regarded as one of the greatest series’ of horror games ever made, is often beyond doubt. The creators of the Silent Hill games don’t hide their influences, but rather, they wear them like badges of honour, with part of the fun of each instalment being in spotting the nods and homages to various movies, books, and other art, as well as in seeing how the amalgamation of those influences has been used to create something new, exciting, and utterly horrifying.