Originally published November 15, 2016 on horror-writers.com
(This post contains massive spoilers for Silent Hill.)
Flashback, 1999: I was working as an assistant manager at Blockbuster, diligently prepping new games for rental, when bright red lettering caught my eye on one of the cases. “SILENT HILL” was written above a gray and white picture of a man staring to the left with a concerned look on his face while a little girl walked away. I flipped the game over and read the back cover:
“Harry Mason and his daughter Cheryl are driving to their favorite vacation spot. Late that night, a figure suddenly appears from out of the darkness. Harry turns the wheel in panic, and the car careens off the road, knocking Harry unconscious. Awakening sometime later, he realizes that Cheryl is missing. Stumbling out of the wreckage, he heads towards the small town of Silent Hill.”
Well, color me intrigued!
I…well, this is embarrassing to admit, but the statute of limitations has long since passed and Blockbuster Video has gone the way of the Betamax, so I’ll just confess. We weren’t allowed to check out new items for free on our employee accounts, and I was pretty sure I wanted to take my time with it, so I, uh, marked it as used and sold it to myself for $20. (I wouldn’t ordinarily do something like that, but I had recently worked a 16-hour shift because the closing manager never showed up and then I had to open the store the next morning on all of 5 hours’ sleep, so let’s just say I was feeling a little bitter, and getting a brand-new game for half price did quite a bit to salve that emotional wound.)
Fortunately, I had the next day off work, so when I got home that evening, I took my prize down to the basement. At the time, I was living with my dad, and I had turned a section of the basement into my own little corner of paradise: TV, VCR, huge stack of constantly replenished anime fansubs, Playstation, and a beanbag chair. There was a bathroom about 10 feet away, a futon for 15 minute power naps to recharge my batteries during particularly long play sessions, and a mini-fridge stocked with Coke and bottled water. Aside from being (COUGH) years old, still living with my father, and working at Blockbuster, I was living the dream!
I started up the game and flopped into the beanbag chair. The words “The fear of blood tends to create fear for the flesh” popped up on the screen, and even though I had no clue (and still don’t) what that meant, it sent a delicious little shiver up my spine. I thought I knew what to expect because I had logged so many hours playing Resident Evil, but I had no idea what was waiting for me. If Resident Evil’s fun house scares are Friday the 13th, Silent Hill is more akin to Jacob’s Ladder.
The opening cinema, set to absolutely haunting music by composer Akira Yamaoka, is made up of several scenes, most of which don’t make any sense until after the game is completed: a couple finding a baby in a graveyard, a nurse crawling on the ground, an old woman chewing gum in a church, a female cop wearing a uniform straight out of a stripper’s supply catalog. Then the car crash referenced on the back cover occurred, the title screen popped up, and my heart swelled up in anticipation.
When the game begins, our protagonist Harry Mason has just woken up in his crashed car, but the passenger side door is open and his young daughter Cheryl is missing. Harry gets out of the car and sees Cheryl standing there, but when he goes after her, she runs away. Eventually he winds up in an alley, where he finds a mutilated corpse chained up to a fence. A group of skinless, knife-wielding children attacks Harry, and…he dies.
Yes, you read that right. He dies.
Of course, my initial reaction was that I had done something wrong. Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere? No, that couldn’t be it; up until that point, the game had basically held my hand and shown me exactly where to go. Did I miss a weapon?
Oops, no, it was a dream or a hallucination. Harry wakes up with a gasp in a diner with Stripper Cop staring at him. She introduces herself as Cybil Bennett, and she’s from the next town over. She acknowledges that some weird shit is going down in Silent Hill, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it. She tells Harry to stay in the diner while she gets backup, but he wants to look for Cheryl, so Cybil gives him a gun (because, you know, it’s standard operating procedure for cops to give a weapon to a civilian) and tells him to be careful before she heads out.
To detail the plot of the entire game would be lengthy, so I’ll be skipping to the highlights from here on, starting with Harry’s trip to Midwich Elementary. This school was named after John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos, which was the basis for the movie The Village of the Damned, and guess what’s stalking around the school? Why, it’s the skinless knife-wielding children from the beginning of the game. I’ve played dozens of horror games in the 17 years since Silent Hill’s release, and I can honestly tell you that Midwich Elementary remains the most terrifying area in any of them. The children grab at Harry and moan while stabbing him, and there are also creatures called “larval stalkers” that are translucent. They do not harm you, but the first time you see one, you will empty your clip into it out of sheer panic and it will squeak and disappear. (Fun fact: the skinless children were deemed too controversial to be included in Silent Hill’s Japanese and European versions, and were replaced by monsters with a much less childlike appearance.)
After searching the school and solving classic survival horror puzzles (figure out a riddle, play a piano, get medallions and put them into a pillar), Harry finds himself in the alternate version of the school. This is, of course, Silent Hill’s trademark: an area suddenly becomes rusty, bloodstained, and even more dangerous. The demon babies are out in full force, cockroaches have joined the party, Harry opens a locker to find a cat (who escapes into the hall and is killed, thankfully off screen, by a monster), and Harry gets a phone call from Cheryl, who understandably sounds terrified, but the call is cut off. Harry eventually faces his first boss, an enormous lizard. After defeating the lizard, Harry blacks out and wakes up in the school, which is back to normal…well, at least there are no creatures roaming around. Harry hears church bells in the distance, so he decides to make his way there, and this is where we first meet Dahlia Gillespie, the gum chomping old woman from the opening cinema. She spouts off a bunch of mumbo jumbo, and Harry is frustrated, but she seems to know a lot about Cheryl, so he indulges her. She tells him about an object called the Flauros, which will stop the supernatural events happening in Silent Hill, and tells him to go to the hospital. With no other leads to go on, Harry takes the Flauros and heads out.
When Harry gets to Alchemilla Hospital, he meets a man named Dr. Michael Kaufmann. (Another fun fact: he’s named after cult movie producers Michael Herz and Lloyd Kaufmann of Troma Studios. Toxie would certainly be busy cleaning up in Silent Hill!) Dr. Kaufmann is holding a gun but doesn’t seem interested in using it on Harry, or for that matter, interested in Harry’s predicament, so he takes off.
After doing some exploring, Harry gets into the elevator and goes to the second floor, but he can’t exit. The same thing happens with the third floor, but then a button for the fourth floor mysteriously appears, and that’s where Harry is able to get off. If you’re familiar with Japanese culture, you know that hospitals typically don’t have a fourth floor because the word for four, shi, sounds like the word for death. It’s another big red flag for our hero, but Harry has no choice, and he steps off the elevator to find the alternate version of the hospital, populated with scalpel-wielding doctors and nurses with strange wriggling humps on their backs. He makes his way down to the sub-basement and finds a room with a framed picture of a girl with the name Alessa written underneath. When he leaves the room, he meets a nurse named Lisa Garland, who has no idea what’s going on and says she hasn’t seen Cheryl. Harry blacks out and wakes up with the hospital back to normal. Dahlia Gillespie decides to pop in for a visit, and she explains that the strange mark Harry has been seeing everywhere is the Mark of Samael. She thoughtfully leaves a key for Harry and he heads back out onto the streets of Silent Hill.
Oh look, it’s our friend the stripper cop! How does Cybil fight crime in those pants, I wonder? Anyway, Cybil tells Harry that she tried to get out of town but wasn’t able to leave. She mentions that she saw a young girl walking through town, but the girl disappeared before Cybil could reach her. Harry winds up back in the hospital with Nurse Lisa, who finally comes through with some important information. She tells Harry that Dahlia Gillespie’s daughter died in a fire, and ever since then, Dahlia has not been all there. Lisa thinks Dahlia might be involved in a cult that’s trying to invoke a god, and Harry blacks out.
When Harry comes to again, he’s in an antique shop, and Silent Hill has gone evil again…well, MORE evil. He leaves the antique shop and eventually enters a mall, where he finds a hunting rifle. Of course, anyone familiar with video games knows this means a Big Bad is on its way, and this time around, it’s basically a Dune sandworm that spews toxic gas at Harry and knocks him over. Once the creature is defeated, Harry backtracks to the hospital, where Lisa is waiting for him. He wants to get to the lake, but Bachman Road is blocked off. Lisa tells him that he can get there by going through the sewers, but she doesn’t want to be alone and she doesn’t want to come with him, either. Harry shrugs off her concerns and takes off.
Another boss fight! This time around it’s Mothra. I don’t know if this enormous moth is the mother of the sandworm that Harry killed in the mall, but either way, she ain’t happy. A few shots from the boomstick and a WHOLE lot of dodging, and Harry defeats the beast and goes to the sewers.
Oh my god, the EFFING SEWERS. They are very confusing and filled with reptilian critters. At one point, something crashes down and I just about leaped out of my skin. I was glad to get out of there, but not too thrilled to wind up on a houseboat talking to Cybil and getting interrupted by Dahlia, who’s rambling about the darkness and that the only way to stop it is to use the Flauros, the pyramid-shaped object that she gave to Harry earlier. Cybil heads to the amusement park, and Harry takes a scenic detour to the lighthouse and then heads to the amusement park via the sewers. God, not the effing sewers again! They’re just as confusing as before, and now they’re infested with monsters that look like Gloomy Bear, only not as amusing as that sounds.
You’d think that emerging from a monster-filled (and no doubt odoriferous) sewer into an amusement park would be a welcome reprieve; you’d be wrong, because Harry finds Cybil at the merry-go-round, and she’s been possessed by a demon. Harry has to fight her, and the first time I played, I wound up killing her, which certainly didn’t sit right with me. It turned out that earlier in the hospital, when you see a puddle of dark liquid on the floor, you’re supposed to scoop some up and then toss it on Cybil during this scene, which saves her. Yeah, I don’t know why they didn’t make that more obvious either.
Assuming Harry saves Cybil, she asks him if he knows why Silent Hill wants his daughter. He tells her that Cheryl isn’t actually his biological daughter; he and his late wife found her on the side of the road near Silent Hill and kept her in flagrant violation of about a thousand different laws. Harry thinks Cheryl must have some deep connection to Silent Hill. Alessa, the young woman who stepped in front of Harry’s car and causes the accident, appears, and Harry demands that she return Cheryl to him. Alessa ain’t having it, and she telekinetically pushes him away. But hark! A wild Flauros appears! It rises from his hand and causes Alessa to fall to the ground. Dahlia, who seems to have some sort of magical teleporting abilities, shows up and tells Alessa that it’s time to go home. They disappear, and Harry blacks out yet again.
When Harry wakes up, he’s in an area called Nowhere, and even though it’s relatively safe, it’s one of the creepiest areas in the game, made up of rooms from all of the different areas he’s already visited. One room has rusty metal grating on the floor and the sound of breaking glass; another has an empty birdcage in the middle and the sound of an unseen bird frantically fluttering around. Harry eventually runs into Lisa again, and she’s had a horrifying revelation: she is “the same as them”, a monster created by Silent Hill. She begins bleeding profusely, and Harry backs away from her in horror and runs out of the room, barricading the door with his body as Lisa cries. It’s one of the saddest scenes in the series (and trust me, there is some serious competition), and I generally liked Harry as a protagonist but I thought that was a real dick move on his part to let Lisa die alone and in pain. When the noises finally stop, he goes back inside and there’s no sign of her, aside from a diary she left on the ground. It turns out that Lisa was Alessa’s nurse, and she begged to be relieved of her duties caring for Alessa because she was frightened of the fact that Alessa was so badly injured but couldn’t die. Lisa was addicted to a drug called PTV (a nod to noise band Psychic TV, perhaps?), and withdrawal was causing hallucinations of insects and a faucet running with blood and pus, so she was forced to stay at the hospital in order to gain access to PTV.
As Harry continues through Nowhere, he sees a flashback of people huddled over Alessa’s hospital bed. It turns out that Alessa was ritually sacrificed by the cult in order to bring forth a god. The trauma of being burned alive caused Alessa’s soul to split into two, part of which was reincarnated into a baby…the same baby Harry and his wife found on the side of the road, Cheryl. Cheryl has been irresistibly drawn back to Silent Hill in hopes of completing the ritual once and for all.
And now it’s time to face the final boss: Alessa. There are four endings, not including the joke ending, depending on whether certain conditions were met throughout the game. As it turns out, Dr. Kaufmann was in cahoots with the cult all along, and he wants the deity resurrected once and for all. He throws aglaophotis, the magical liquid that can also be used to save Cybil, at Alessa, which forces the demon Samael out of her body. Once Samael has been defeated, Alessa reappears, manifests a new baby (a combination of both herself and Cheryl), and gives it to Harry. Lisa emerges to drag Dr. Kaufmann to the hell he so richly deserves, and Harry and Cybil escape with the baby and, hopefully, to a happier life.
When the ending credits began to roll, I flopped back against my beanbag, exhausted in the best possible ways. I knew I had just played something that would stick with me for a long time. I have a shirt with the iconic “The fear of blood…” quote on the front, as well as one that says “Harry & James & Heather & Henry & Alex”. When I decided to get a tattoo, I strongly considered getting one based on Silent Hill. My Twitter name is an homage to the series. And I even have a framed picture of Alessa in my bedroom, the same one you find at the side of her hospital bed. I know it must sound strange to have a picture of Silent Hill’s antagonist in my home, but in some ways I consider Alessa a patron saint of the abused and bullied, because she took the pain inflicted upon her and grew to be far more powerful than her oppressors.
Is Silent Hill my favorite game of the series? Not by a long shot; that would be Silent Hill 2, which is also my favorite video game of all time. Its graphics were nothing to write home about even when it was first released, and it looks downright primitive now. But its masterful soundtrack, alternately horrifying and heartbreaking story, and visceral chills remain unblemished by the march of time. It got under my skin the first time I played, and it has never left.
Sairentohiru is an OG horror fan who still has fond memories of perusing the over sized VHS boxes in the horror section of her hometown video store. She’s a big fan of all aspects of the horror genre, but especially video games. She evens out the macabre aspects of her personality with an intense love of cats and candy. You can find her on Twitter here