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Silent Hill: Psychological horror at its finest

This post is SPOILER-FREE.

I’ve had Silent Hill on the mind of late. I like to consider myself a fan of the series, although I’ve never played the first game. I have, however, played Silent Hill 2, 3 and 4, which is certainly a good chunk of the titles developed by Team Silent. I’ve also played Homecoming, which wasn’t terrible, but…we’ll just leave that game alone, shall we?

I decided that it would be fun to take a look at the original Silent Hill games and explain why they are such great psychological horror titles. Silent Hill is all about atmosphere—almost every element of the game is designed to create the series’ signature mood, a mood that I believe is most accurately described as “unsettling.” Other synonyms to describe the games include “disturbing,” “creepy,” and “eerie,” but I think I like “unsettling” best. You’ll notice that I did not say “scary.” Sure, the franchise has its fair share of frightening moments, but I don’t think Silent Hill was ever really about scaring the player so much as disturbing and unnerving them. It always seemed to be about presenting a world, characters, and creatures that were just slightly off—just different enough from reality to create an unsettling, creepy sensation. As I said, atmosphere was everything; this is because the games were developed by a Japanese team under the principals of Japanese horror, which (if Wikipedia tells the truth) typically focuses on psychological horror and tension building. Consequently, there was little budget for the gore and cheap thrills that Western horror tends to rely on. The newer Silent Hill games developed by Western studios are unfortunately going further and further away from the style of the original games. The upcoming title, Silent Hill: Downpour, appears to be no exception to this trend.

Anyway, I’ll now examine some of the key elements in Silent Hill that add to the games’ atmosphere and help to create such an unsettling horror experience.

Setting: Most of the Silent Hill games are appropriately set in or near the town of Silent Hill. The town has a long, troubled history that involves a satanic cult and the antichrist (or at least a demon of some sort), but it’s not really the backstory that makes the setting creepy. Most often the game environments are dark, or—more characteristically of the series—foggy. There are also at least two different “realities” at play in each game: the “normal world” and the “otherworld.” The normal world is subtly disturbing because it appears to be—well, normal—at first glance, but closer inspection reveals things that are “off” about it. For one, there are hardly any other people in the town, and sometimes there are corpses lying about. Most of the buildings are also rundown, full of odd types of junk, and just plain creepy looking. When the game switches to the otherworld, it becomes much more obvious that this world is severely screwed up, as walls are replaced by stretched flesh, rust and blood accumulate on almost all surfaces, and the game world is engulfed by darkness. In the otherworld, all the familiarity of the game world is replaced by disturbing images that make the player very uncomfortable. Both “worlds” go far towards creating the mood of the games.

The otherworld hospital as seen in SH2 (left) and SH3 (right).

Characters: Silent Hill games feature only a handful of important characters per installment. Usually the protagonist is a reasonably sane person (or at least seems that way at first), and sometimes there is a supporting character or two who appears to be more or less normal. However, the other characters are always…not. Sometimes their dialogue is stilted or they respond to the protagonist in bizarre or nonsensical ways; sometimes they seem a bit distant from the goings-on of the world. Some players may chalk this up to bad writing (and the voice acting could certainly be better), but I’m convinced that this is done intentionally to create a distancing and alienating effect. Here’s a conversation with Vincent from SH3:

Perhaps a better example, here’s James’ second encounter with Angela in SH2:

Angela is such a disturbed character that I thought she deserved a second clip to illustrate just how bizarrely she behaves toward the protagonist:

Of course, the characters often have some amount of reason for behaving so strangely (in Angela’s case, it results from childhood trauma), but this doesn’t lessen the eerie auras that surround the characters.

Monsters: Of course, there are also plenty of monsters to fight in Silent Hill, and they’re understandably the most disturbing part of the games. Some monsters are humanoid in shape, while others closely resemble dogs or insects, and still others are amalgams of several contradictory body parts. Regardless of their shape, all monsters tend to share some common characteristics: they are covered in blood and disgusting-looking flesh, and they move in very unsettling and unnatural ways. Sometimes they move very rapidly, sometimes they move with an eerie lack of fluidity, and sometimes their movements imply a great deal of pain. However they move, they almost never do so in the way a normal, healthy person would; especially when the monsters are more or less humanoid in appearance, their abnormal movements amplify their unsettling “otherness.” Overall, the monsters are creepy because they are almost always perverted versions of familiar things.

The Lying Figure (left) and Bubble Head Nurse (center) from SH2 and the Closer from SH3 (right).

Sound: No discussion of Silent Hill could be complete without mentioning sound. Sound effects are incredibly important in the games and go a long way toward creating the unnerving atmosphere. I simply must mention the radio, a staple of the series that serves as an early warning when monsters are near. When you hear that static pick up, you tend to stop dead in your tracks, ready your weapon, and peer into the fog in hopes of detecting the unseen threat. It’s a brilliant system that is designed to both aid the player and make the hair on their neck stand up; I have one fond memory of a time when the faintest crackling of my radio made me pause for several seconds and mentally prepare myself to round the next corner. Of course, the monsters all make telltale sounds as well, and they are almost always inhuman and utterly unearthly. Finally, ambient sounds are often used to disturb the player: groaning, creaking, and footsteps heard in the distance put the player on alert even when there isn’t an actual enemy making the sounds. Silent Hill 2 featured a few memorable moments in which footsteps could be heard following the protagonist, ceasing whenever he stopped moving and resuming once he did. It’s just the sort of thing to make you feel like you need to keep your back to a wall at all times.

I think I’ve certainly dug pretty far into what makes Silent Hill so damn unsettling. Much more could be said, especially on a game-by-game basis, but this serves well enough for an overview of the early series. The great thing about Silent Hill is that absolutely everything works toward furthering the atmosphere, and the game never lets up on the disturbing, eerie mood. The effect is so great that you may occasionally wonder if you really want to keep playing the game, but if you’re anything like me you’ll also feel compelled to finish out of morbid curiosity. And these games are certainly worth finishing, if only to experience the wonderful psychological horror they have to offer.

Oh man, I almost went through this whole post without mentioning Pyramid Head. That would've been a tragedy. Here he is, looking menacing.

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2 responses to “Silent Hill: Psychological horror at its finest

  1. Cool! Creepy. Excellent. I love atmospherics in horror writing, as well as movies, so I don’t see why games should be any different. The whole thing does strike me as very unnerving. Almost too unnerving to play.

  2. Certainly not too unnerving to play (though some people do scare much easier than we do). Actually playing the games reveals their ability to freak you out better than any description can. It’s not even the same to just watch it, either; you have to play it for yourself to get the full experience. It was always fun to catch myself getting jumpy at ambient sound effects and hesitantly rounding corners.

    That’s one of the things I can’t help get excited about when it comes to video games: when they affect the player’s behavior. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but other times I can’t shake the feeling that playing a horror game, for example, is a significantly different experience from watching a horror movie or reading a horror novel. It’s a bit different when you yourself have to act in the world…and, to me, a bit more interesting.

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