“He who fights with monsters must take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Silent Hill. We both know that the sign may as well have read Welcome to Hell. But this is it. Our final journey together. The fog is still thick, but as we walk past the sign it evaporates, and reforms behind us. The first street is blocked and we are forced to detour… Up ahead, a man is coming out of the darkness of a decrepit public restroom. His name is James Sunderland, and- *
Why this place? Why now? An Introduction in Brief.
Silent Hill 2 takes a wealth of inspiration from the film Jacob’s Ladder, which we discussed last time around. And as a video game, we are literally taking this journey. We spend more time in this world, we live in it and as will find out later, we become a part of it.
But why now?
The last few installments of Psychological Horror Drought have taken a more academic turn, looking less at specific elements of psychological horror and more at outside issues of the genre, like remakes of horror or what defines bad horror.
Yet for as much as we have explored upon our journey thus far, we must look at one more elemental topic before concluding.
Psychological horror, as a whole, has a tendency to tell a story within a story, making nearly universal and one of the most important elements of the genre. Just as The Wicker Man was a tale of Christianity versus Paganism, the story of Silent Hill 2 is one of personal hell, regret, damnation and redemption.
“Someone to Punish…”: James Sunderland
James Sunderland is the main character on this particular trip through Silent Hill. As explained in the introduction’s video, James is in Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his wife, Mary.
The only problem is that Mary has been dead for three years.
As we discover later on, it was the town itself that called for James. Silent Hill, a town with a mysterious and fatal past, is inhabited by a vengeful spirit, one that seeks to punish the guilty by reflecting their subconscious fears, bringing their worst nightmares into physical form.
Indeed, just as Jacob Singer saw his demons, James Sunderland has his own monsters and much to pay for.
Monsters, Demons and Femme Fatales: James’s Journey
James sees many things in Silent Hill, so I will focus on three prominent beings.
The monster shown in the video above, is known as the Lying Figure.
The Lying Figure looks to be trapped within a straightjacket of its own skin, with arms writhing beneath, trying to break free.
The Lying Figure is often seen as a physical manifestation of James’s inability to act, forever trapped within his own inadequacy, unable to save his dying wife, only being able to wait and watch as the inevitable occurred.
Pyramid Head, who is seen as the main monster that haunts James throughout the game, is representational of James’s guilt, appearing as both punisher of James for his sins and as executioner, constantly reminding James of his actions.
Note the look of the monster known as Pyramid Head evokes the look of ancient medieval executioners donning a cowl for a beheading.
For the most part, the monsters that James encounters are straightforward and can be simply interpreted.
As James suggests in the video, Maria looks just like Mary, too much so to simply be a coincidence.
But what does it mean?
Maria is sexualized where Mary was reserved. Maria is coy and playful when Mary was sick and dying.
Maria represents James’s guilt by showing his innermost desires, unfulfilled sexual needs/frustrations as well as his temptation to run away.
It is fitting that incarceration is a major theme of the game and that their most important interactions take place on opposite sides of a cell.
James, the Broken Man: Guilt and Damnation
James loved Mary with all his heart. The presence of the monsters only go to show that James is tormented by his actions day-in and day-out. It has been three years since Mary’s death and yet James’s mind still produced monsters to torment him at every turn. We never truly learn much of James, despite the story taking us to deep places within his subconscious thought. I cannot help but feel that our lack of understanding about James’s morale was intentional. Was he ever a truly good man, doing the right thing or his wife? Or was it selfishness that inevitably lead to his actions?
The player is left to make this decision for themselves.
As James said, Mary died with that damned disease, but he never said that she died of that damned disease. He was a man tired of being helpless and useless, tired of seeing his only love suffer day after day.
So, for the first time in a long time, he acted.
James chose to mercy kill his wife to end her suffering and arguably, his own as well.
James was resolved to do the right thing and yet the guilt never left him; he simply repressed it. For James’s denial, Silent Hill summoned him, and forced him to confront his own worst nightmares. To punish the guilty.
Pyramid Head appears, as stated, throughout the game, and when we see it, death is never too far behind. Nearly every time the character appears, we see it kill Maria.
Maria dies, over and over (murdered by Pyramid Head), so that James is forced to relive his own murder of Mary, over and over again.
After fighting off the two incarnations of Pyramid Head, they cease and desist, ending the fight by impaling themselves upon their own spears intentionally, dying with extending hands, offering James the way out.
James, eventually, comes to this realization and is able to fight off these nightmares, having now confronted his own demons and with one final confrontation with Maria in her true form, he is able to end his own dark tale.
James as the Player: James’s Representation of Us, the average person
James Sunderland is not the average video game character. Notice his gauntness, his looks, his complexion. He is no Nathan Drake or Lara Croft.
James is someone you might see walking down the street. The average person.
This is not to say that a gaunt, pasty white man is representational of the entire population, but it is safe to say that he looks somewhat normal, not a movie star, but someone you may know, certainly when being compared with the unnaturally perfect models of most video games.
This is due to the fact that James Sunderland is portrayed by Guy Cihi, who was not a professional voice actor, and yet provided the physical model, motion capture, voice and looks of James.
James Sunderland (left) and Guy Cihi (right)… For all intents and purposes, Guy IS James.
According to the game developers, this was done intentionally, as experiencing this dark world with someone like James makes the world feel that much closer to home, less so when playing through a game with a character who is perfect in every way.
In this sense, James himself is, for all intents and purposes, an aesthetic feature of the game; which adds to the realism and psychological depth of this world.
The game has been criticized for its use of untrained voice actors (I will provide evidence here). With this in mind, many have viewed the voice acting to be atrocious, but if anything, I feel that this is simply one more element that adds to the game’s genius.
Monica Horgan (left) as Maria (center)/Mary (right)…. Another stroke of genius on the developer’s behalf.
Quivering voices and screams appear to be of true and genuine terror (as a real person might react), adding only to the depth of tragedy as James experiences it, and the aesthetic nightmare world of Silent Hill.
To add to the depth and mystique of this place, we are confronted with the idea that not everything James experiences here is merely a fabrication of his own mind.
James encounters several others characters throughout the game, most of whom seem to experiencing their own version of the town and its demons. For example, James is the only one who can see Pyramid Head, his punisher, and yet other characters seem to see nothing at all.
In one infamous scene, James has a final encountering with a recurring character who remarks with some surprise that James can see “her version” of events, when he sees her enwreathed with flame.
“For me… It’s always like this”.
Up to this point, the voice acting sometimes seems disjointed, as if the two characters are not even on the same plane of reality, something which has been seen invariably as either an amateurish mistake or an act of genius.
Only in this moment of clarity do their voices appear to sync up and for once, they see each other as they truly are, a moment awash with beauty and aesthetics in a dreadful place.
A Summary of Aesthetics and the hidden beauty in Silent Hill 2
As we can see in the opening scene of the game, there is something darkly poetic about Silent Hill 2’s take on aesthetics within its own world. For a video game that is over fifteen years old, it is still rich, vibrant and uniquely personal to the game.
Much like our examination of Arkham Asylum, we are appalled by what we see here and yet we cannot take our eyes away. The town of Silent Hill is rich in detail and texture, making it as much a character as James or Maria or anyone else.
As discussed in our examination of the qualities of Psychological Horror, atmosphere is key and the concept of aestheticism was not lost on the developers here.
In these extended introduction videos, we can witness atmosphere at play, as James makes his way through the town, displaying both the grim realities and intrigue of this darkly twisted nightmare-world.
Thick with fog and despair, we begin to feel James’s isolation, and the sense of imprisonment so common to most works of psychological horror.
James is here, serving his time. And we are right there with him.
Silent Hill 2 and the Community
Silent Hill 2 is beheld as a classic of psychological horror within the horror community. Jonathan Barkan of Bloody-Disgusting wrote at length regarding Silent Hill 2 and his experiences with the game.
Yet he is not the only one, the community itself, with only thinly veiled criticism, is nearly unanimous of the game’s status and place among the great works of the horror genre. Even Razorfist, who you will recall from my post on the issues of the horror genre, spends a great deal of time discussing the importance of the game during his playthrough.
It must be obvious at this point that I cannot help but agree.
Here, the YouTuber Super Eyepatch Wolf (yes, I too was jealous over that awesome name) created a mini-documentary regarding the importance of Silent Hill 2 and why you should play it.
As stated, I can only agree with the community wholeheartedly on this one.
There is only one serious area of strife or contention about Silent Hill 2 and that has been the lack of quality current releases of the game. Silent Hill 2 has been released, in various forms, for the PlayStation 2, Xbox and the PC, as well as having a newer High Definition rerelease on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3; this “HD Collection” bundles Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 on one disc.
For anyone interested in purchasing the game without having to go through massive amounts of hassle should simply purchase the HD Collection and enjoy it for what it is. The HD collection has come under criticism for not including the first and fourth games in the series, an understandable criticism as these were the only games in the series to be developed by Team Silent.
In an article by popular gamer-site Destructoid, the HD collection was lambasted for its lack of true High Definition content and for offering a version of Silent Hill 2 that simply did not feel truly remastered in any way, shape or form.
My opinion is that while the PC version (being the Director’s Cut) is the superior version, but this version has been out of print for many years and the only way to obtain the PC version would be to pay over a hundred dollars for it online or to illegally pirate the game (which I strongly discourage!). Most of the differences between the HD collection and the original versions of the game are purely cosmetic. According to eurogamer.net, the game itself runs far more smoothly on the PlayStation 2 version than the newer HD version of the game, which is entirely true and entirely counterproductive to what they were trying to do.
Eurogamer.net’s conclusion is that a general lack of effort has been put into most modern HD rereleases and this may very well be true, but there are some issues which have not been accounted for.
At around twenty minutes into this video, Guy Cihi himself discusses the issues of the game. Ultimately, what happened was that Konami used some very shady business tactics to take advantage of the actors (including Cihi) and avoid paying them. The legal battles are complex and are still ongoing.
The HD Collection gets a lot right, but legal battles over Silent Hill 2 have prevented Konami from rereleasing other versions of the game, such as the Director’s Cut version on wide release. The game is still a masterpiece, regardless of which form you play. Every version of the game still features the same mechanics, voices, stories and endings.
But what is the Ending? Player Choice and the Brilliance of Silent Hill 2
Silent Hill 2 is a game all about making decisions. Throughout the game, these are decisions you don’t even know that you’ve made. Team Silent, the game developers behind the first four Silent Hill games created methods of immersing a player more so than any games before them or since.
Essentially, when you play the game, the game itself begins to analyze decisions you make, such as how long it took you to confront a monster, or if you saw a monster, did you run the other way? How much time did you spend in your inventory, reading over the letter that Mary sent you? Which weapons did you use, charge headlong into battle, or did you avoid the monsters altogether?
With these decisions, the game utilizes its unique algorithm to psychoanalyze the choices you made without ever telling you, and alters itself based upon your playing style, optimizing itself for the player.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of playing a video game that plays you as much as you play it is a terrifying thought in and of itself.
From this, as many as six different endings can be achieved when the end of the game arrives, all of which have different consequences for James. One ending depicts Silent Hill as satisfied with James’s internal strife and redemption; Silent Hill allows him to leave.
Another ending implies that James commits suicide.
As in the game’s opening scene, the story is holding up a mirror here… Do you like what you see?
End of the story: Final Thoughts and Final Post
(Leave – James’s Redemption Ending)
As I said, there are multiple endings, but these are my two favorites. These two endings are different, and yet they offer something in common that the others do not… Resolution.
In these two endings, James is free to leave Silent Hill. Being sufficiently punished, James will do one of two things. James can either find redemption and leave the town after a moment of retrospective catharsis, or he will drive off a bridge, plunging into the depths of the lake below; resolution is not a guarantee for every ending.
Another ending shows James finding Maria once more, taking her to his car and driving off down the road; the fog never clearing. The blanket of fog remaining over Silent Hill tells us that James never found his resolution, never learned his lesson and never left the town. Ultimately, an ending where James is left to wallow in his madness is far less satisfying than an ending where James is free to leave.
One way or the other, James’s story comes to an end, as must now do the same.
Silent Hill 2 is, as it was inspired by Jacob’s Ladder, an excellent addition to the canon of psychological horror and a journey that we can learn a great deal from.
(In Water – Suicide Ending)
“We’ll withdraw now… We can only learn so much and live”. – Thomas Harris, Hannibal
Next week, after much elaboration on defining psychological horror, great examples and poor ones, I will relate my views on the solutions of the issues facing the horror genre in depth.
There. As Thomas Harris suggests, we’ll withdraw now, safe as safe can be, but not unchanged, I would hope. We find ourselves luckier than most of the characters we have examined at this point. Sgt. Howie perished in the fires on Summerisle and Batman is wallowing in own insanity, yet we can walk, confidently out of the graveyard, somewhere just ahead of James, into the coming dawn of a new day. *
I hope you enjoyed the journey we’ve taken and consider joining me for the conclusion.
*A note on the italicized material: This blog follows a tight narrative on a variety of aspects of the Psychological Horror genre and the Horror Community. As a method of keeping with a narrative, I include brief bites of creative writing, a sort of short story that bleeds in to the next post, beginning with the ending of the first post on this site. Consider it our metaphorical journey through these dark works, to accompany the literal one.
** All mentions of previous posts will be hyperlinked, and all URLs will be properly embedded within the final draft/published version of this post