Editor’s note: Waaaaaay back when I was starting my Consulting Analyst series on Silent Hill, I promised that when it concluded I would show you all a very special little piece of nostalgia: 21 year old Vrai’s senior thesis; or, what you might call the very first Consulting Analyst.
Parts of this are still rough around the edges – it lacks the easygoing tone I’ve developed for analytic discussion in years since, it’s evident I haven’t really learned the complex language to make a truly meaningful discussion of gender-as-spectrum rather than as modified binary, and God help me since it’s an academic paper I felt compelled to mention Freud (in comparison to younger me, I mainly abstain in favor of Lacan instead).
But even still, I’m proud of where I’ve come from. Of my continuing weird and deeply personal fondness for James Sunderland. So please, come enjoy this trip to the past with me.
(Oh, and pack a lunch. This sucker was the capstone of four years of work, and it’s about two and a half times the length of your average Consulting Analyst).
Silent Hill 2 was released in 2001 to great critical success, and it remains one of the most beloved games of the horror genre. The game is revered for the complexity and the ambiguity of both its narrative and its protagonist: what the ‘truth’ of the story is, ultimately, remains up to the player. This paper will analyze that protagonist, James Sunderland, through a Lacanian lens. More specifically, it will argue that James begins the game as a figure of complicated or diminished masculinity, and finishes the game as a figure who has broken through the existing gender binaries in order to create something an identity outside of the traditionally accepted binaries: a physically masculine being who has accepted psychologically ‘feminine’ or maternal traits. This transformation will be explored through a combination of Lacanian psychoanalysis and gender theory.
The narrative of the game begins with James Sunderland, the protagonist, arriving in the town of Silent Hill. He has received a letter from her claiming that she is waiting for him in their “special place,” though she died three years ago from a debilitating terminal disease. James begins his journey through the town, where the couple spent their honeymoon, but finds it overrun with monsters and shifting levels of nightmarish realities. His journey leads him through increasingly surreal and symbolic areas, until finally he comes to the hotel on the lake. There he confronts the truth: that he killed Mary and repressed the memories. The ending, and thus James’ reaction to this revelation, is determined by the player’s actions within the game.
Due to the divergent nature of the narrative and the constraints of performing a thorough analysis, this paper will consider only one of the four possible endings. That ending, “Leave,” involves James coming to term with his actions and moving on with his life, leaving Silent Hill with Mary’s surrogate daughter Laura (who is a recurring character throughout the narrative, a child that she had “wanted to adopt”). More than any other ending this one suggests the successful completion of the “arc” of the narrative, described as being “founded on psychologically driven goal-orientated protagonists overcoming obstacles within a realistic cause and effect-governed filmic universe (emphasis mine)” (“Discursively,” 318). In every ending James breaks down, admitting to a vision of Mary that “that’s why I [killed you] honey. I just couldn’t watch you suffer. No, that’s not true…the truth is I hated you…I wanted my life back” (Konami). Only in the “Leave” ending does this vision of Mary encourage James to “go on with [his] life” (Konami). This sentiment corresponds with the letter written by the real Mary over the closing credits, wherein she says “I want you to live for yourself now” (Konami). This letter is read over the final scene of every ending, and the fact that the “Leave” dialogue supports the sentiments of the letter corroborates its status as the ‘real’ or desired ending. Only “Leave” deals with the fate of Laura (as she leaves with James) while in the other endings she disappears from the narrative after the revelation of James-as-murderer. In those endings she is the only character whose final fate is not in some way addressed. It is also the only traditional narrative ending, involving James’ development as a protagonist and revelation/change of identity, while the other three end respectively in his suicide, his embrace of a false construct of Mary, and his attempt to revive Mary by means of an occult ritual. These are all variants of regression or failure to overcome the obstacle of his character arc. This is the second reason as to why the “Leave” ending will be the primary consideration.
For the purposes of this paper, the town of Silent Hill will serve as a representation of James’ mind, and all events in the game are thus free from the logic of the “real.” The player is led to this conclusion by the opening shot of the game, with James staring hard into a mirror, and further along in the game as the visuals become increasingly surreal and characters appear with knowledge that they shouldn’t possess – it is his own Imaginary. The Imaginary is part of Lacan’s concept of human development. When a baby sees itself in a mirror for the first time (its Image) it at the same time imagines that it is a whole being (Leitch, 1159). This is a delusion and an impossibility, but the Imaginary is then centered largely on the search for this wholeness. The Symbolic, defined as a “structure of relations” (Leitch, 1159) is a term that exists within the realm of the Imaginary. If the Imaginary is the existence of an image that has a deeper or hidden meaning (for example, the phallic symbol), then the Symbolic is how that image relates to an entire network of images – or how ideas are given form and articulated. For James, Silent Hill is an inner state he has retreated to following his murder of Mary: so great is his guilt over his actions, his conflict over his sexuality (repressed and frustrated due to Mary’s debilitated state), and his depression over her loss, that his identity is in the process of suffering a complete breakdown. Silent Hill (the Imaginary) serves as the grounds wherein his ego can safely break down and reform. What it reforms into is the matter of this analysis. The game can be observed as James’ journey through a network of symbolic ideas from masculinity (primarily early in the game) to femininity (in the later areas of the game). The transition from one set of symbolic notions to the other is accomplished by means of the castration complex, which is a concept within the symbolic wherein “the subject has to realize that there is desire, or lack…no ultimate certainty…and that the status of the phallus is a fraud (this is…the meaning of castration)” (Rose, 40). For James this means the alluded to reevaluation of his gender status. In order to accomplish this goal, many of the objects he encounters must be considered symbolically, and interpreted as such.
The traditional view of masculinity in popular culture and particularly in video games has several recurring images, including “power, aggression, strength, and competition” and an extremely muscled physique (“Masculinity”, 165). James, though he has a masculine voice and uses male pronouns, fits none of these expected requirements. Instead he is visibly emotional, compassionate, pudgy, and ill-suited to physical combat. These factors suggest to the player on an unconscious level that James is an incomplete figure. He appears to be masculine but does not match an existing archetype. Ken Corbett’s study in “Feminine Boys” notes the common psychoanalytic assumption that “The dis-eased transfer of femininity to a boy has most often been depicted as coming from an arresting mother” (Corbett, 359). While Mary is the figure of wife rather than mother (though her clothing, a cardigan and unrevealing dress, suggest the Madonna of “mother” role in the narrative), she has certainly “arrested” James. And further, while psychoanalytic diagnosis would suggest the removal of the feminized subject from the mother figure (Corbett, 359), it was this very separation that utterly debilitated James. He became depressed to the point of suicidal tendencies upon losing her, and is willing to face the potential death of Silent Hill in order to get her back. In the traditional view, then, James is the “feminine male,” a diseased or dysfunctional being that must be corrected in order to reach a satisfactory end.
While in an external or “Real” realm James’ status as complicated masculine would be static, in the “Imaginary” it can be changed. Corbett too talks of the potential of a “transforming nexus” wherein the male is not held back by the mother figure but instead grows a sympathetic femininity through a mutual relationship (Corbett, 368). These two concepts together form the role of Silent Hill, and why James is there: he is, prior to the events of the game, a stunted individual. After the events of the game, he both realizes the “status of the phallus as fraud” (Rose, 40) by letting go of the past/past constructs and embraces his transformation by accepting the past. While rejecting him memories of Mary and his actions led to his becoming an “abject young [man] caught in a web of loss… a melancholic condition” (Corbett, 367) accepting them allowed him to move forward.
The idea of James having a sympathetic relation to females over males, while male/phallic association would be the expected state for a ‘normal’ man, is repeated throughout the game. Moreover, it is encouraged by way of the non-player characters (NPCs) that James interacts with over the course of the game. Eddie, a young man that James comes into contact with several time during his journey, could be said to exhibit expected masculine traits: he is undoubtedly the most aggressive member of the cast. However, while aggressiveness would be the expected trait of a male character in most narratives as mentioned in Kirkland’s “Masculinity” article, here it is an antagonistic force. Rather than being perpetrated against monsters by the protagonist, the protagonist is the victim of that aggression. Furthermore, the revelation of this negative aggression becomes increasingly apparent as the game progresses. Eddie is shown twice as being associated with dead bodies: the first time it is in a different room, and Eddie claims it was there when he arrived. The second time Eddie is associated with a dead body it is lying next to him, and he seems to admit to killing the victim. However, seeing James’ disgust he backpedals, saying “I was just jokin’ James. He was dead when I got here” (Konami). This is an echo of his first appearance, and calls into question what happened in both cases. After this conversation Eddie no longer seems frightened of the monsters as he had been during his first (sympathetic) appearance. He is closer to them, a thing for James to fear.
When James confronts Eddie about the issue, he finds himself the target of aggression, and must kill Eddie in self-defense. The implications of this scene are that attempting to embody the male archetype is not only unsympathetic but potentially deadly. While in the average society transcending the binary of gender dynamics would be retaliated against with potentially deadly force (Corbett, 357), here the opposite occurs: Eddie, acting within the Masculine construct of aggression, is killed; James, previously shown to exist out of place with predefined masculinity, is the victor and the sympathetic party.
In this same vein of threatening male characters, the monsters that populate Silent Hill are key to understanding the progression of James’ gender status. They are characterized by highly sexualized appearances: monsters in the first half, wherein James still identifies himself as masculine, having overtly feminine sexual characteristics (which academic Ewan Kirkland in his analysis terms the “monstrous feminine” (“Masculinity,” 16); monsters in the second half, after James has begun his progression towards a new identity, appear as being overtly phallic or masculine (by the same token, this is the “monstrous masculine”). There is, however, one monster who is not restricted to one half or the other. That is Pyramid Head, a reoccurring antagonist and the only one that cannot be killed by James/the player. If James, from the very beginning of the narrative, is a diminished masculinity searching to redefine his identity through Silent Hill, then Pyramid Head is an image of stereotypical, exaggerated, or hyper masculinity– the apparent of what “masculine” should be (physically muscular, stoic, sexually dominant of the feminine monsters, and carrying a phallic knife – the Great Knife – so enormous it is a hindrance to his mobility).
But if Pyramid Head is Hyper Masculinity then he is also the unattainability of the masculine and the implied threat of it. His actions in his first several appearances work to equate James as a potential feminine object. He appears in the first formal “level” of the game (an apartment complex) behind a set of bars, and is inactive except for his watching of James. In this instance James is the object to-be-looked-at for Pyramid Head, a feminist term of sexual objectification that Kirkland applies in his analysis to James’ (female, sexualized) companion Maria (“Restless,” 8). His formal introduction in a cutscene shows him assaulting two Mannequins (possibly sexually), and James’ reaction, rather than to fight as it has been in reaction to the monstrous feminine monsters or as would be expected of a traditionally masculine hero, is to hide in a nearby closet. It is only when Pyramid Head notices him and approaches that James fires his weapon, to minimal effect. At no point is the player offered any kind of agency, as the entire scene from discovery to departure is played out in a non-interactive scene. As such, James is coded as helpless. While he drove the monster away he cannot kill it, and neither can the player intervene and produce a winning scenario. It is Pyramid Head who has the agency, leaving of his own choice.
The introduction of Pyramid Head begins a shift of how the player is invited to perceive James. The third encounter with Pyramid Head likewise begins with his (more explicitly sexual) assault of a feminine monster, which he abandons in favor of pursuing James (he and the monster are equally viable as victims, and the defining difference that marks that particular monster as ‘victim’ is its lack of definitive masculinity in comparison to Pyramid Head). James is forced into a conflict, being unable to escape the area, but again (even with player control) cannot inflict fatal damage – he is helpless in the face of the Masculine, and that differentiates him from it. He’s further coded as victim/feminine in that Pyramid Head’s attacks have sexual overtones: the phallic knife that serves a penetrative function (as well as instant death), and a chokehold that also involves a tongue appearing from beneath Pyramid Head’s triangular helmet and licking James(an intimate violation/symbolic rape). James’ only recourse is to avoid being killed until Pyramid Head (the holder of agency) chooses to discontinue his attack and leave. In Lacan’s theory the phallus is key to the formation of gendered and sexual identity: while it is a symbolic object rather than a physical penis it is nevertheless something that one sex possesses and the other does not. To put it another way, “ Lacan speaks of women, not men. Women will take up the feminine position; by fetishizing the male organ women will find the phallus they desire on the body of their male lover” (Moi). Again it must be stressed that Silent Hill is the realm of the Imaginary, wherein symbolic ideas can become physical representations: in this case, the Great Knife that Pyramid Head carries is both the image and the threat of the phallus. As Moi states “the difference between the sexes turns on their different relationship to the penis—one sex has it, the other does not” (Moi). Identity exists as a relational difference, and if James cannot be said to possess the phallus then he must by needs be feminine/female.
In addition to being an agent of Othering (possessing the phallus in contrast to James) Pyramid Head also acts as an agent of castration (and is thus, from a male perspective, the ultimate threat). Late in the game James enters a labyrinth, a symbolic journey to the center of his mind that is reached by first jumping down several holes, and exited by jumping into his own grave. This is the point in which James is left completely without guidance: nothing indicates where he is as previous areas had, and he must create his own map as he goes (thus beginning to rebuild from his previous and erroneous identifications). This is concurrently the only point at which Pyramid Head appears as an ongoing threat, walking the lowest levels of the labyrinth as a ‘common’ monster might rather than being announced by a cutscene. He is seen to have discarded his Great Knife in favor of a spear, and moves much more quickly and without any telltale scraping noise. When James is at him most vulnerable mentally Pyramid Head becomes the most physically deadly: the spear is the phallic symbol fantasized as a weapon against a (potentially) maternal body (Rose, 112). James is fully identified as a maternal body at this point, and the remainder of the game is his process of realizing this and discarding his need for the hyper masculinity that Pyramid Head represents.
When Pyramid Head discards his Great Knife it is possible for James to acquire it while searching the labyrinth. It is the most powerful weapon in the game, able to kill other monsters in one blow and frightening others away with the sound it makes being dragged along the ground. However, its benefits are vastly outweighed by its flaws: James is slowed down to a glacial walk when carrying the Knife, it takes a long time to be raised (during which enemies can inflict damage), it only frightens the other monsters if James turns off his flashlight and loses the ability to read his map, and it cannot be used to kill Pyramid Head. Ultimately it is a cumbersome, ineffectual weapon that James is more efficient without, which codes his desire for masculinity as a burden to be shed. It is a false construct to be discarded in order to reach the game’s ending. James recognizes the predefined masculinity as a falsehood when he confronts Pyramid Head, saying “I was weak. That’s why I needed you…But that’s all over now. I know the truth” (Konami). James acknowledges the constructed nature of Pyramid Head and as such completes the process of the castration complex himself, which results in Pyramid Head impaling himself on his own spear. James cannot, finally, slay the masculine himself but can cease to be tormented by trying to attain it.
While character interaction and narrative form the body of this essay, the game also communicates James’ process of change through particular items in the gameplay proper. In other words, the game space “constitute(s) the material signs or discourse through which the player mentally constructs the game’s story” (“Storytelling,” 71). When James must progress through a portion of the game by drawing his own map, when every other area prior (and every one that follows) provides pre-drawn maps, the player is alerted to a change or moment of significance. In this case, the fact that the level is a labyrinth reached by first jumping down a physically impossible distance, and that Pyramid Head (that apparition of deadly masculinity) freely roams the corridors, suggests a representation of mental state. Progression of levels play into this theory as well: the Silent Hill Historical Society (a receptacle of memory) holds beneath it a prison (a place of entrapment), and beneath the prison is the labyrinth (a space of confusion and misdirection). The labyrinth becomes James’ confused inner monologue as he attempts to navigate his own identity and the events that surround him. The map becomes his complete lack of preconceptions or lost grasp on certainty, brought about by the events of the plot up to this point (including the repeated deaths of Maria and the increasing instability of his memory). When James leaves the labyrinth he jumps into his own grave, signaling a symbolic death and rebirth.
Items in games can also be utilized as subtle objects of foreshadowing, functioning both as “‘narratives of pre-telling’ which serves the purpose of ‘strengthening the diegetic, rhetorical dimension of the event to come’” (“Storytelling,” 70). Throughout Silent Hill 2 the player is required to collect items in order to solve puzzles, and these items are often coded as feminine objects. Further, these “tasks are given narrative meaning relating to the game environment and the story” (“Storytelling,” 73). The flashlight, without which James cannot progress at all, is found on a mannequin dressed in Mary’s clothing. While James uses the flashlight to lead him to Mary, the flashlight beam does not illuminate the representation of Mary. Instead it emanates from it, making ‘Mary’ the owner of the flashlight. By taking it for himself (and placing it in his front pocket in the same manner as the mannequin) James doubles himself as ‘Mary.’ This provides a very early clue to the finale and James’ overtaking of Mary’s role as mother to Laura. Another item necessary for progression is buried beneath a statue identified as the ‘praying woman,’ which resembles the Madonna (another mother-figure). And in the hotel, one of the final areas of the game, James is required to collect music boxes. Each box is associated with a different fairytale heroine, and these items are the most explicitly gendered in relation to earlier puzzles. They are also objects associated with childhood, connecting James to Laura. And his journey as a whole recalls the relationship of avatar and player, wherein the avatar (James) is “a desired and resented lost object” (Rehak, 107). As the player feels this way about the avatar whom they ‘become,’ so James feels about Mary. These items all, upon closer scrutiny, draw James into association with a feminine identity or performing a role connected with explicit female identity. They help to tie the masculine’s castration complex and the feminine’s doubling of identity together.
Doubling the Feminine
While an important part of James’ journey is casting of his notions of masculinity as described above, the female characters within the game also serve to help James in forming a new identity. There are several moments of doubling (Lacan’s mirror again) between James and Mary and between James and Angela. This is because in the world of the psychoanalytic the self is seeking the “split object” or the Other within the mirror and finally “‘the ego comes to be by taking the place of the imaginary other’” (Rehak, 106). James becomes the reflection of these female characters, which prepares him for the end of the game. Maria, with whom James is never paralleled, serves as a contrast to these other two characters, eventually revealing herself to be a construct and a monstrous being as well.
Angela, like Eddie, appears throughout the game to highlight James’ changing state. But while James and Eddie are always differentiated (James stands while Eddie sits in all meetings but their final one, Eddie wears brighter clothes, etc.), James and Angela are often marked as the same. Both are established to be looking for a woman of extreme importance to them (James his wife, Angela her mother), both wear earth-toned clothing (greens and browns, respectively), and the knife that Angela carries is passed to James (this same knife is also the cursor in the menu screen). And while Eddie at first appears sympathetic and is later revealed to be an unstable killer, Angela goes from unstable woman to sympathetic abuse victim. When James encounters Angela in the labyrinth she is being attacked by a monstrous figure that resembles one figure atop another on a bed, a representation of Angela’s sexually abusive father. When James enters the room the monster makes him the target of its attack, effectively changing Angela for James as victim. The monster attacks by lunging out and engulfing James’ head (resembling oral sex), which also draws James into the sexual violence of the situation. When the ensuing fight is over Angela delivers the final blow to the monster, replacing James for Angela as retributive figure. They preform variations of the same actions within the same scene, making the image a doubling one. In the following area this monster (the ‘Abstract Daddy’) appears as a common monster which James must fight, preserving the connection made between James and Angela. The meeting in the labyrinth is also significant due to its representational status as James’ inner mind. If Angela is not a part of James’ mind then she is lost in the same way that he is, and is also a warning to James as to what will happen if he cannot complete the journey he has started. Her failure to reach closure or self-forgiveness is a potential fate of James’, one that he might suffer should he fail.
Angela also explicitly signals the change in James to the player. In her final appearance she rushes towards James, believing him to be the ‘Mama’ that she is looking for. It is only upon touching his (still masculine) body that she realizes who he is. This shows that James is recognizable as feminine in all but his physical sex. After this scene Angela disappears up a fiery staircase, presumably to her death. The mother revelation propels James further towards the end of the game and his final meeting with Mary.
While Angela is alien to the town and thus affected by it, Maria originated in Silent Hill. Like Pyramid Head, Maria is a humanoid construction created by the town in order to torment James. She is nearly identical to Mary (James points out that “[she] could be her twin” (Konami)) but has dyed hair, revealing clothes, and a flirtatious attitude. She is killed multiple times only to reappear, and serves to tempt James and to remind him of his failure to save Mary from death (either from her illness or at his hands). Maria and Mary neatly personify the virgin/whore dichotomy, but more than that Maria represents a very masculine view of femininity: she is sexy, compliant, relies on James for protection, and frequently professes that she can be whatever he wants. In Lacan’s theory of sexual development the idea of the phallus converts all beings into matters of crude opposition and “indicates the reduction of different to…a seeming value” (Rose, 42). Maria is very nearly a caricature of the female sex and gender. In one instance she must be protected by the player as they travel across town, but will not defend herself in any capacity. Her supernatural status, evidenced by the repeated death and rebirth, further draws attention to her traits as absurd. She is not truly a female but ‘female-ness’ as defined by the male ideal. The entirety of her existence is a matter of seeming rather than being. Like Pyramid Head, Maria is something that James must reject in order to fully develop. He must realize that “there is no sexual relation” (Rose, 46) between people, that he cannot find fulfillment and identity by accepting her as his lover. When James does reject her (following the defeat of Pyramid Head), she reveals herself to have a truly monstrous form as well. And perhaps because of her status up to that point as a subtle and unrecognizable (to James) force of negativity, she is the most difficult monster to defeat. Killing her is James’ final step to making peace with his wife. While there is much doubling between Mary and Maria, there is none between Maria and James, because she is not and cannot be ‘real.’ James must instead find his new identity through Mary, the woman whose loss drove him to the realm of Silent Hill to begin with.
The doubling of James and Mary began with James’ acquisition of the flashlight and was strengthened by his increasing concern for Laura over the course of the narrative. Much of the game is spent chasing after the little girl with supposed knowledge of Mary, but James’ reasons for doing so change from the self-centered furthering of his goal to honest concern over Laura’s safety (though she does not perceive the monsters in the town). Laura in turn goes from being rude and evasive to willingly including James in her own search for Mary and answering his questions. By the time that James is able to make his peace with Mary, he and Laura have already begun to form a parent-child bond. While he came to Silent Hill as a despondent wreck, directionless and likely suicidal, the majority of his journey pushed towards preparing him for the duty of motherhood. It is motherhood specifically rather than parenthood, as it is only well into the dual processes of castration and female empathy that he begins to show signs of caring for Laura. Thus, when James finally meets with Mary he is prepared to do as he must, forming the ego (the only way to leave the Imaginary Silent Hill) by taking her place as adoptive ‘mother’ to Laura. He lets her go, paradoxically, by living out a course she would have chosen for her life. As the game ends, Mary’s final plea that James move on and live for himself is played over and image of James and Laura, leaving the town as parent and child through the very cemetery where Angela was first searching for her own ‘mama.’
Two concurrent and interacting forces are at work throughout the story of Silent Hill 2. The monstrous Pyramid Head acts as both threat and motivator, stripping James of his Masculinity by means of castration and leaving him to resort his identity. He is a personification of the castration complex, as well as an image of idealized masculinity as threat and ridiculousness – a monstrous and deformed being alongside the feminized but sympathetic James. The equally monstrous but more subtle Maria attempts to muddy the perception of what female identity is or should be, complicating James’ struggle and identification with the ‘real’ female identities of Angela and Mary. The roles of the characters within the game ask the question of how identity is valued, and place the greater credence on those whose identities lie outside of what has been previously established. James’ salvation is ultimately through his fluidity and willingness to accept the changing world around him. Had he been rigid in his perceptions and fallen prey to the exaggerated presentations of either masculinity or femininity, it likely would have ended in his inability to move past his loss of Mary and the death of his body or mind. Instead, he is able to recreate his ego, his very identity, and to atone by acting in the spirit of his lost loved one. The game, though categorized as a horror story, ultimately offers a triumphant result if only the player is willing to follow the necessary actions. The story becomes an advocate for the reassessment of society’s strict gender binary, by illustrating an example of how to grow and flourish outside of those lines.
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