(Editorial note: Worry not, Utena readers, for that series hasn’t stopped. Rather, each time I reach the end of a disc, we’ll take a little one week break to explore one of the games in the Silent Hill series, which is quite dear to my heart)
Which is unfortunate, because that is the foundation of every Silent Hill analysis
Hey, this series is timely now, what with Del Toro and Kojima getting involved! What a pleasant (if unnecessary) coincidence. If you want to play the game yourself it’s available for download on the Playstation Network, or you can watch a most excellent Let’s Play here.
So, Silent Hill. Originally released in 1999 during the death throes of the original Playstation, with its iconic fog designed as a way to work around the system’s graphical limitations. The series also more or less coincided with the rise of Resident Evil (nee Biohazard), which couldn’t have been a more perfect foil if it tried: on the one hand a jump-scare heavy zombie ride with armed to the teeth heroes and writing so bad said so straightfacedly that it’s a kind of marvel of camp; on the other hand, a lonely trek through a slow, crushing atmosphere of dread that is as horrifying for what you don’t see as what you do, helmed by average and often helpless protagonists….with writing so bizarre and occasionally nonsensical that it can be tough to determine whether you should laugh or whimper.
But the enduring quality of Silent Hill is…well, actually it’s that atmosphere and horrible dread. But along with that is the series’ exploration of games as a visual and interactive storytelling device.
The Story: Harry Mason is a single father on vacation, he and his daughter having decided to head to supposed sleepy resort town Silent Hill. Apparently there were no photographers in the 90s, and newspapers were actually as useless as we have all come to suspect. A girl walks out into the highway and Harry swerves to avoid her, waking up from the ensuing crash to find that his daughter has disappeared. The rest of the game is this:
In various locations, to various audiences. Bleeding profusely? Horribly mutated? Creepy old lady? If you stand still long enough, single writer dad Harry Mason has some questions for you.
Of course, the town is full of fog and monsters, not to mention a satanic death cult headed by Dahlia Gillespie. Follow me on this one: the cult wants to ‘birth’ their demonic god, and needs a ritualistic way to bring it into the world. Dahlia volunteers her daughter Alessa to be the host, locks said adolescent in a burning house to immolate her, then keeps her alive for years so that her anger and resentment will store up. The town, which probably has latent sentience and powers anyway, begins to respond to Alessa the magical vessel and reflect her nightmares and internal torment.
Meanwhile, Alessa splits off the part of her soul that’s still uncorrupted and sends it…out, somehow, which becomes the baby Harry found on the side of the road. Half the soul means no demon god ritual, so the cult has to wait for the ‘good’ half of the soul to be drawn back to the town. This also involves Dahlia sending the unwitting Harry around town to dismantle the defenses against the cult Alessa’s put in place, and if you figured all of this out on a single playthrough you are probably a liar.
Yes of course. This vague dialogue makes everything so clear
Also there’s some business about Henry Kaufmann, the doctor who was in charge of Alessa, selling the hallucinogenic drug White Claudia all over the town, but I’m fairly certain we can ignore EVERYONE WAS ON DRUGS as an explanation (except Lisa. Poor Lisa).
Monsters in the Fog: By and large, the monsters population the streets of this Silent Hill are the things of children’s nightmares. The school is filled with faceless children, the small but vicious tormenters of the schoolyard. Dogs and pterodactyls roam the streets, the latter a noisy and outsized threat and the latter the product of too many books and an overactive imagination. The nurses and doctors almost explain themselves – ghastly, shambling mockeries of humanity controlled by pulsating parasites (that’d be Dahlia’s influence).
I promise I did not intend for this shot to look as phallic as it does
The progression of enemies even mirrors Harry’s progression into the ‘heart’ of Silent Hill – from the common, everyday nightmares of school bullying to the deep seated fear of illness and death that exists in the back of all our minds.
And then there’s poor, poor Lisa. The one comforting face who was there after Alessa’s immolation, the only person who appears human and comforting to Harry. But of course, she isn’t. She might be sympathetic, but it’s overwhelmed by her horror, and ultimately what ties her to being Alessa’s caretaker is her addiction to the White Claudia (which is Kaufmann’s fault, because he is scum).
As much as her mind wants to escape, her body is unable to, making it all the more fitting that she’s forgotten what happened to her – much as her living body was debilitated by drug addiction, her ‘nightmare’ body eventually reverts back to the nurse status that has become its warped ‘default.’ And on a certain level, it’s a fitting visage for her. Despite acting as the human face and possessing a genuinely kind heart, Lisa was complicit in something terrible. And it’s a complicated issue – the kind of thing that one spends their adolescence struggling to understand (hence why Lisa shifts from angel to shambling monster, and not some kind of in between state).
There comes a point where I look at this too long and have to start playing
‘blood or skinless muscle!’
It’s all the sadder for the knowledge that even if Alessa can come to peace with herself, Lisa is trapped in an unnatural state of stasis, much as Kaufmann was (initially) able to separate himself from his monstrous actions while Lisa suffered the fallout.
Disease and Decay: The iconic visual aesthetic of Silent Hill is its nightmarish world of rust, blood, and decaying architecture. And once Alessa’s condition is known, it’s hard not to see traces of her in every surface. The flaking bits of ash like blackened skin; the angry, livid red beneath charred grating; the precarious and damnable way that everything holds together despite every ounce of logic to the contrary; and the way that raging, deadly nightmare vision becomes harder and harder to shake, until the relatively peaceful, foggy streets seem like a dream.
Late in the game, Harry remarks that things seem less like shifting from reality to nightmare and more like reality becoming a nightmare, as all of Alessa’s safeguards dissolve and she becomes the very monstrosity of bitter hatred that her mother wanted her to be all along. That anger becomes the bones of the town, giving it a kind of consistency for future visitors when they’re confronted with the raw and animalistic parts of themselves.
The other Silent Hill hallmark: the Cult of Samael’s insatiable need for locksmith sacrifices
Were I kinder, I’d attribute it to representing things Alessa has ‘blocked off’ mentally due to pain, but….nah
Harry, the Masculine, and the Feminine: Wouldn’t be a proper Tinfoil analysis without this section, would it? But despite the idiotic mouth-dribbling of Christoph Gans (which we will get to – ohhhhhhh will we get to it), there really are some interesting things going on with gender roles and power structure in this story.
The quickly fridged wife in the wordless prologue aside (if the novelizations are to be believed Harry’s quite broken up about that, but you’d never have the foggiest from just looking at the game), our main character is content to be a single father. Not just content – he’s good at it, a loving and devoted parent who would do anything for his daughter. Considering how often single fathers are portrayed as either aggravated by the responsibility, bumbling and ineffective, or well-meaning but constantly absent, this is a breath of fresh air all on its own.
Then on top of that, you add the fact that Harry is surrounded by a female cast. Not just a uniformly evil one either, which would have its own sparkling set of unfortunate implications. You have the lawful, logical observer in Cybil, as eager to get to the bottom of things as Harry (and without whom our protagonist would most certainly be dead); Lisa’s maternal personality, Alessa’s dangerous but perhaps righteous rage and incalculable power, and Dahlia’s smooth manipulative cruelty.
It’s rather telling that you can go the whole game without having much significant interaction with Kaufmann at all…though that also makes it impossible to get the best ending. It gives his existence a kind of sinister omnipresence – one must search it out, thoroughly examine the world outside of the obvious (and controlled) track from A to B, and once you get there it’s sort of impossible not to see a touch of him in everything. Yes, I’m totally implying that Kaufmann works as a stand-in for the concept of a toxic patriarchy (have I made it almost a whole year without using that term, really?). He’s coldly selfish, focused entirely on his own gain, and steps on female characters a-plenty to get there.
But what about Dahlia? She’s certainly a special kind of hellishly evil. And she’s explicitly set-up against Harry – the parent who threw away their child for personal gain and the parent who threw their personal safety away for the sake of that child. In popular fiction this is not an entirely unheard of narrative (hell, it shows up in That Movie), but it’s most often an extremely Female Thing. Maternal instinct is a cheap shortcut to humanizing a morally ambiguous or evil female character, and the lack of it the surest way to show selfsame character’s shocking depravity.
And while that subtext is arguably there (particularly in the deepest level of the ‘other’ world when memory-Alessa is begging for her mother’s mercy), there’s a sort of refreshing degendering of the thing. Harry is ultimately the better parent, the one who’s (ideally, if he’s done that proper examination I talked about before) able to leave with his daughter. His suitability is not as ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy,’ for all that those terms are tossed around, but ‘parent.’
I do enjoy that Harry has chosen to have his moment of clarity about the
wonders of parenting while the WORLD IS ON FIRE (…metaphor?)
Fittingly, his character straddles a line of traditionally gendered traits that Gans saw fit to stomp all over some years later. His appearance is all traditional masculinity, leather jacket and crew cut and all. But he acts as the voice of comfort and reason too, talking characters through things or trying to help rather than charging blindly ahead. He can use a gun (if the novelization is to be believed, he keeps one in his car generally and knows how to shoot), but is never more than a single ill-timed hit away from being overwhelmed and dismembered – a trait Hollywood would never allow in its action heroes. And of course, he loves his daughter more than anything.
And he gets unceremoniously stuffed into the fridge to further someone else’s character development, but let’s not get into things that depress me too quickly.