The Silent Hill games are notorious for their broad range of psychological themes, present mostly in the presentation of the monsters, which changes from game to game. In the original, the monsters are indicative of a little girl’s fears; in 2, they present the sexual frustrations of the main character; and in 3, they again, represent fears, albeit in a different form entirely. The latter is, of course, linked with the original Silent Hill. In addition to this, the concept of the Fog and Otherworld present interesting thematic material – and how an entire town can be haunted, the literal embodiment of evil. Another question posed in the series is that of the following: is Silent Hill even real or are the monsters you are killing real people, the events within all part of some delusion? The theories surrounding the games themselves are based largely on audience interpretation, and multiple themes come into play in several of the games. Silent Hill practically established the survival horror genre as we know it today, and though the vastly more popular Resident Evil may have paved the way, none is so imitated as Silent Hill.
The lore and mythology of Silent Hill itself is long and convoluted, and a strange mix of Western and Eastern mythology, the child of a Global society where cultures blend into one another. Though the setting of the games is the titular Silent Hill, a stereotypical American town akin to those you may view in films, the lore is much different. Much like the similar franchise, Fatal Frame, Silent Hill features strange monsters inspired by Eastern lore and myths – specifically those of the Yurei, a vengeful spirit that remains in situe long after its death. Whilst Fatal Frame features ghosts, the entire town of Silent Hill has been tainted by Alessa Gillespie, who draws characters into the town, and indeed the entire town itself is often viewed as the embodiment of evil. Alessa Gillespie’s portrayal in the video games – that of a gaunt, long-haired young woman, is the embodiment of the Japanese Yurei, as seen in The Grudge, The Ring, and many other J-Horrors. This mixture of American culture and Japanese horror creates a hybridised horror genre and draws from plot devices, and archetypes, from both. And although many of the themes covered in Silent Hill, those of loss and love, are universal motifs, they are done in a distinctly different manner to the archetypes of American horror. The consequence of this is that it brings further fear into the game, as audiences are lulled to a false sense of security by the familiarity of the setting, which is then turned on its head by the strangeness of the horror and the ambiguity of the scenarios. The fact that there is no one answer to the questions Silent Hill evokes brings further unease to an audience used to straight-cut endings and explanations at every turn.
Perhaps the most obscure of the games is Silent Hill 2, which features many obtuse and strange characters and monsters, as well as a meandering plot and as such, the entire game may well be viewed differently by different audiences. Many theories abound as to the meanings behind monsters, the actions of characters, and this openness to interpretation is what hooked audiences in the first place. Of the many characters, monsters, and settings present within the series, 2 does not continue the storyline of the original, bringing an entirely different set of characters to the table. Indeed, several aspects of Silent Hill 2 go entirely against the canon present in the original instalment. Whilst the original instalment suggested that the entire reason Silent Hill was tainted was because of the actions of a cult, and their abuse of a particular child, the child herself is not present in Silent Hill 2 in any form, and whilst evidence of the cult is present, the plot distances itself from the original. This puts doubt upon the entire narrative, which twinned with the fact that the player character is the embodiment of unreliable narrator, in turn puts doubt upon the entire story.
The presence of evil in the original is justified, and explained, through the presence of Alessa, but she is nowhere to be seen in 2. This creates doubt for the player character, especially considering how James is later presented – is the entire game a hallucination on his part, a delusion? This, twinned with multiple ambiguous endings, makes Silent Hill 2 one of the best instalments in the series, to date.
The protagonist of the game – James Sunderland – and his development as a character throughout the narrative presents much food for thought. We first encounter James in a dingy bathroom, surveying his reflection and contemplating the situation he finds himself in, lost, and very alone; he is even somewhat faceless, obscured in shadow. This as an initial presentation is interesting, as he is at this point, intimidating to look at – glowering at himself, he is presented as damaged, alone, an everyman. The themes of self-reflection, and discovering one’s true self are recurrent in this game, and the series as a whole as every character has ventured to Silent Hill and eventually uncovers something about themselves that they had previously hidden, some repressed memory. The mirror itself could be an apt metaphor for self-reflection, as James looks at himself, yet still hides away from the truth; the James in the mirror is very different from the James we come to discover throughout the game.
James himself is not portrayed as an unreliable narrator right from the very beginning, but there are vague allusions to this present right at the very start. A letter from his dead wife, which eventually fades as the game goes on, is first read here – James even doubts himself, asking himself why he is in Silent Hill, calling himself crazy. The presence of mystery pills, and his insistence that he must go to Silent Hill despite the road being blocked off further allude to his rapidly eroding sanity. He is desperate. The subsequent fading of the letter throughout the narrative further puts into doubt his real intentions, as does the eventual revelation that his wife died three days ago, not three years ago as is stated by him, and at James’ very hand. Could the three years James means really be the three years of Mary’s illness, and she was really dead to him long ago, the statement a justification of a murderer?
Although his actions at the start of the game may not be narrated by someone completely unreliable at this stage, his actions, the actions of us, the players, can be put into question as the game progresses. He slowly becomes more unreliable, and other characters within the game become more aware of this as the time goes by. Other characters are present both to add to the ambiguity, and to contribute to the narrative devices, making things clearly evident for the audience. James is of course a murderer, but that is not something Eddie, who accuses James of being “just as bad”, knows at this point. Neither does the audience, for that matter, so this cutscene is also a narrative device. The ambiguity of the statement puts doubt in the audiences’ mind as to the real status of the “monsters”, especially considering that there are dead human bodies littered throughout Silent Hill. Is James killing monsters, or people? The human cries the monsters emit upon being slaughtered further puts this doubt into the audiences’ mind – and this point is raised by a character in a later instalment. Vincent later says, in Silent Hill 3, in response to Heather’s inquiries about the monsters she has seen, “they look like monsters to you?” This in turn puts doubt upon the sanity of every character within the Silent Hill series.
James becomes steadily more unreliable as the game progresses – Mary’s letter disappears, as does his photograph of her. This further emphasises that the monsters he encounters may be the start of an elaborate break down, or worse, real people he has killed. This status as an unreliable narrator further hits home the point that James is not as innocent as he appears, nor as sane. In turn, this puts the events of the game into question as the time goes by – they become less believable, more strange, more ambiguous, and the game becomes less real, more delusion, as time goes by. Of course, this is only a possible reading.
The idea that the monsters of the game are a hallucination are further emphasised by the presence of dead bodies, all clad in James’ own clothing. James is viewing himself dead, or perhaps, wishing himself dead – this links in with the perceived canon ending, wherein he throws himself into the lake after discovering the truth. A different reading to this could be that one of those bodies is James himself, and he is indeed in a form of purgatory – the presence of religious paraphernalia, in the form of cult objects, backs this up. Several characters exist to antagonise James – Laura frequently teases him and Maria the physical double of Mary also taunts him. Silent Hill, as an entire town, and with the presence of an alternate reality, is a form of punishment for evil sinners – calling them in to punish them.
The alternate reality in question, the ambiguously named “Otherworld”, is full of grotesque imagery, of walls made from skin, bodies strung up in torment, and lots of violent, harsh imagery – such as barbed wire and death is a constant in this world. The presence of the Otherworld is often thought to present the warped dimension that the original residents of Silent Hill are trapped in, as punishment for their treatment of Alessa. This is revealed in the first game, and this idea carries through into subsequent sequels. The idea that the Otherworld is now open, tormenting sinners regardless of their connection to Silent Hill, appears in several sequels. The fact that the Otherworld is full of hellish imagery, and symbolism, backs up the allusion that James is undergoing a form of divine punishment, albeit punishment from the Gods of Silent Hill.
Several other characters in the narrative are also portrayed as insane as the game progresses, so there is the alternate reading that Silent Hill itself turns people mad – the only person saved from this is Laura. Laura is a little girl, the very embodiment of innocence: blonde, blue-eyed, tricked into thinking Mary is still alive, and seemingly unable to see the monsters. Only she escapes by the end of the game (in the canon ending). Indeed, the monsters are different to each character; whilst James sees nurses in low-cut tops that emit womanly cries as he hits them, Angela sees burning fires [also a form of hellish iconography] and embodiments of her father’s sexual abuse. Eddie doesn’t like to talk about what he sees. This further emphasises the point that maybe Silent Hill is a type of purgatory for the characters, their punishment for the evil deeds they committed, before they are all eventually killed. They are all, after all, murderers. The presence of Pyramid Head, a strange and cruel monster who antagonises James throughout, is again testament to this. It would appear that none of the characters within Silent Hill 2 are mentally stable, and all of them equally unreliable. There is no reliable narrator present within the narrative, the entire game is a construct based around unreliable narration and no character can really be trusted, so the events of the entire game are questionable.
The monsters within the game are equally horrific, represent different things to different character and often have something to say about their mental state. The monsters present within Silent Hill 2 are all based around the mindset of the main character, but only because we as the audience see things from their perspective. James sees many monsters that could be construed as sexual [from mannequins made of legs, to nurses in low-cut tops], to represent his sexual frustration and lack of satisfaction during the months leading up to his wife’s death. Later on, when he is sucked into Angela’s delusion, he witnesses her fears – the monster represents her father’s rape of her. There is no one clear-cut form of Silent Hill; it gives different versions of monsters for each character. We can only elaborate upon what other character see.
Perhaps the most interesting monster within the narrative is Pyramid Head, who never directly harms James, only monsters around him. He is portrayed as a large, hulking, angular monster, the very embodiment of violence. One of his first appearances within the game is during a scene in the apartment block – he stands at the end of the corridor, just out of reach, observing James, and from here on, represents James’ judgment. Perhaps James himself incurs Pyramid Head’s wrath, through his relentless guilt regarding Mary’s death. Pyramid Head is thought by many to represent an executioner; clad in a blood-stained apron, wielding a great knife, sent to punish James for his crimes. Indeed, the monsters do not stop harassing James till he accepts that he killed his wife.
The first interaction with Pyramid Head is shown through a grotesque cut scene in which he kills and possibly sexually assaults two “female” monsters, whilst James, a voyeur to this scene, watches. Just as the audience watches the scenario of the game unfold, at this point, James too becomes a voyeur. From here, he attacks James several times, but never kills him, choosing only to kill Maria several times, Maria who is the physical double of Mary, but also the exact opposite. Her death is violent, he pierces her through the heart with his large sword (which could be construed by some as a metaphor for sexual assault), whereas Mary’s death was relatively peaceful; she is smothered with a pillow. Maria acts as the exact juxtaposition to Mary’s constant presence throughout – sexually available to James, healthy, forthcoming, and physically present, and her death too, serves as juxtaposition. The fact that Mary is resurrected, only to be killed again, several times throughout the narrative further intensifies the helplessness James feels, and his inability to protect those he cares about from things that harm them. Mary’s presence could itself be indicative of the punishment James feels he deserves, as in a way he is seeing his wife (or a lookalike, anyway) being murdered over and over.
There are various themes present within Silent Hill 2; one of the most prominent of these is the loneliness present throughout the entire narrative. Although Silent Hill was once a tourist resort, it is now closed down, desolate, and lonely. James, once so full of life and love for his wife, is now alone- he ventures into Silent Hill alone, and though he meets characters along the way, remains alone for the majority of the game. Of the companionship he receives, it is very brief, and culminates in history “repeating itself” in a sense, as he is forced to witness the murder of his wife’s body-double time and time again. The other characters in Silent Hill are also alone. Angela’s parents are dead, Eddie has no friends, and Laura only serves to torment James. One of the first truly engulfing, and lonely, moments of Silent Hill is right at the start, where James runs through the forest, which overshadows and eclipses him. He runs for what seems like hours, right through to the town of Silent Hill; shops boarded up, a place of happiness reduced to a ghost-town. Silent Hill is a literal ghost town – filled with ghosts, and isolated in solitude. This loneliness is prominent throughout the entire game, and often James finds himself in the dark, the literal representation of his madness and solitude. The fog also alludes to the feeling, evoking a sense of claustrophobia, and isolation. It is clear that James will not receive help nor support in the town, and several of the characters work against him, fearful of him.
The theme of rebirth, whilst recurrent throughout the series, is relatively untouched during this instalment. Although in a sense, Mary is reborn through Maria, there is very little else of this theme present in the entire narration – the closest we come to this theme is during the penultimate scenes, where James battles either Mary or Maria, in the form of an angry, vengeful spirit. However, the theme of grief is touched upon more in Silent Hill 2, as it is grief that drives James to Silent Hill initially, grief that eventually drives him to suicide. Grief is also what drove the other characters to Silent Hill. Guilt is also further touched upon, as guilt is prominent throughout as another key motivation for the actions of the characters. Guilt is the reason James is so intent upon uncovering the truth, the reason Pyramid Head relentlessly pursues him, and again, a reason as to why he kills himself.
The canonical ending, in which James kills himself after learning of his murderous side, comes as a shock to the audience. It seems no character within the narrative is safe from the wrath of Silent Hill, which eventually drives all to death. This adds to the sombre tone of the game, and as the full content of the letter is revealed to the audience only as James dies, heightens the emotional impact of the scene. James is revealed to have hidden the truth from himself, and in a heartfelt apology, his wife wrote him one last letter before she died. The emotional connection with James, his questionable motives for killing his wife, and the subsequent emotional “big reveal” only emphasises the grief, as we the audience have bonded with the character we controlled. That he has killed himself (in a possible ending), is made all the more horrific due to the emotional connection we bore with him.