I finally visited the quiet resort town of Silent Hill. I’m now going back there in hard mode (and with a memory card; I wasn’t able to save my game the first time through), trying this time to save Cybil while endeavoring to piece more of the plot together.
I mostly played the game late at night with headphones on. This is one of the scariest experiences I have ever had. Anyone who has ever played the game will know what I mean when I say that the scene in the alternate school locker room made me jump out of my seat. What’s amazing to me is how this tension is created. Silent Hill is a PS1 game (you need a PS1 memory card to save your game, if you’re playing it on a PS2, like I did) and so the graphics are not a nice as those in PS2 games. Still, the fog that doesn’t allow you to see across the street, the shift from light to dark, the shift from blues to golds and reds all make for an incredibly affecting experience.
Also, added to the game play is the fact that the character you play, Harry, is not a fighter. He’s not very fast with melee weapons and he often can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a handgun. This just makes the struggle for survival that much more frenetic.
I think one of the strongest elements that contributes to the eeriness of the game is the sound. The intro music sets the tone, but I don’t mean the music in the game; I mean the diegetic noises. The first of these is the radio and its static. Not only is the sound itself unnerving, but it increases in volume the closer you are to something bad. And since either fog or darkness enshrouds everything, you often cannot see what the radio is trying to warn you of (notice how I keep calling Harry “you”- a sure sign of the kind of immersion this game creates). Other noises, such as loud bumps, sobbing, and sudden sounds of shattering glass serve to make you gasp as you try to make it through the game alive. It’s really incredibly well put together, this game.
What I really want to mention here though is how this game manages to get stuck in your head. The disturbing imagery and events are part of it, but what I want to focus on is the fractured narrative. The story here is very obtuse. What happened to Silent Hill? Who is your daughter Cheryl? What does she have to do with the town? Why does the town keep shifting into an alternate reality?
A lot of these things you can piece together, but many of them only upon reflection. Which means that even after you turn the game off, you have it in your head. You replay certain scenes, compare things a character just said to things you saw earlier. You actively piece the narrative together. You become Harry. Instead of a pocket flashlight that slowly illuminates a transformed schoolhouse, your consciousness slowly pieces together the disparate elements of a twisted story. And just as Harry’s flashlight suddenly alights on something tortured and bloody, so too does your mind suddenly come upon a pain-filled connection of cause and effect. In other words, the shock does not just happen visually as you are playing the game, but mentally when you are thinking about it afterwards. And I think it is this that makes this game so good.
So I want to list some of my insights about the plot. I’ve read some of the plot analyses on-line, but either I disagree with them about something or they assume too much. So here are a few of my insights. I don’t want to comment on everything in the game, so I’ll focus here on who I think is the prime mover in the game: Alessa.
Silent Hill is really the story of a young girl named Alessa. All the horror we see in the game is a projection of her tortured psyche.
The real proof for this comes near the end of the game when Harry discovers a room in Nowhere that is Alessa’s childhood room. We know it’s hers since her school uniform is in it. But the other items in the room show this. Next to the bed are some stuffed creatures (bears?) that resemble the creatures that attack Harry at the school. There are also drawings on the floor like the ones at the school. On the walls of the room are butterflies and moths. At one point in the game Harry is attacked by a large moth-like creature and there are the pterodactyl things that roam the streets. On the bookshelf are fairy tales, which are the origin of the lizard that Harry confronts in the alternate boiler room in the school. We know this for sure, because Harry reads about the lizard in a book in the library at the school and Harry says he remembers hearing the fairy tale as a child. So the room in Nowhere is basically a catalogue of where most of the monsters in the game come from. They come from Alessa. The nurses are obviously the nurses in the hospital that Alessa saw for seven years while she was kept alive (more on this below).
The book about poltergeists that Harry finds in the school tells us that teenage girls have the greatest ability for projecting psychic energy. This points to Alessa as well. Alessa has a terrible power. This is mentioned by Dahlia.
The other proof we have is in Lisa Garland. Her diary, which Harry reads near the end of the game, shows that she was starting to see bugs and blood and puss coming out of faucets. In other words, Lisa was seeing some of the same things that Harry sees throughout the game. And why was Lisa seeing these things? Not simply because she was on drugs, but because she was near Alessa every day.
So why are the images that Alessa is manifesting so tortured and vicious?
First, Alessa didn’t have a good childhood. Whether she was born normally or was brought into being by some strange right performed by Dahlia’s clan, Alessa was seen as a tool to be used, not as a daughter to be loved. The scene at the top of the stairs that Harry sees near the end of the game shows this. Dahlia is dragging the young Alessa by her hair, trying to force her to give her a bit of her power. Alessa says that she just wants to be with her mother. She just wants to be loved like a normal child, but she doesn’t get that. There is also evidence that Alessa was made fun of at school. The fact that the school is first place to transform into the alternate reality is evidence of this. There is also the school desk that Harry finds in Nowhere. The desk is carved with taunts. Since the other things in Nowhere, such as the bedroom, relate directly to Alessa, I assume that this school desk is also hers. The conclusion we can come to from all this is that Alessa was a seven year-old girl who had no love in her life.
And then she was burned alive. Lisa gives the first hint of this: “I heard [Dahlia’s] kid died in a fire and supposedly, she’s been crazy ever since.” Harry later finds a video tape, which tells of a young girl who should be dead, but is being kept alive. When he’s in Nowhere, Harry can finally see the tape fully and it shows Lisa talking about changing Alessa’s bandages, how the blood and pus keep rising as soon as new bandages are put on. She can’t understand what is keeping the girl alive. The last time Lisa is seen (before the very end), she has regained her memory and confirms what Harry saw on the tape. Her diary reveals that Dr. Kaufmann told her to watch over the burned Alessa. So Kaufmann is part of keeping the poor girl alive. We see a scene of him with the other cult members, so we can assume that Dahlia also had a hand in keeping Alessa alive. When Harry finally catches up to Alessa at the carousel, Dahlia shows up. She says that Alessa escaped the spell put on her by the cult. This again implies that Alessa’s own mother kept her alive in pain for seven years. Whether Dahlia caused the burning or whether Alessa was trying to commit suicide is open to debate. Both conclusions are horrible. And either way, Alessa was kept on the edge of death. For seven years. Seven years of torment and inconceivable pain.
This is why the projections of her psyche are so tormented and angry. For instance, before Harry confronts the lizard in the alternate school boiler room, he sees a bandaged body erupt in flame, an echo of Alessa’s torment.
The power to alter reality was fed by her pain and need for revenge. Again, at the carousel, Dahlia comments on this: “mommy didn’t realize how much you’d grown.” Alessa refuses to follow Dahlia, but at this time Dahlia is able to use the Flauros. But Alessa’s power is so strong at this time because she has been reunited with Cheryl. Cheryl is the other half of Alessa’s power. The scene of the cult near the end of the game tells us this. They speak of getting “the other half of the soul.” Dahlia promises to do this, but a member of the cult says it will take time. Dahlia says she will seal Alessa. This is the spell that she mentions above.
But Alessa breaks free of the spell just as Cheryl is about to arrive in Silent Hill. Instead of Dahlia meeting Cheryl, Alessa calls her. This is why Cheryl runs away from Harry. He shouts out her name, but we see her run and hear her footsteps (proof that this is the real Cheryl and not the phantoms Harry encounters later, which float). Harry follows into the alleyway. It is here that Harry finds the wheelchair (it reminds me of the one in the movie The Changeling). Harry sees it at later points in the game. It is Alessa’s. She used it because she was so badly injured from her burns. We see her in it at the end, before Harry confronts the manifestation of Samael. In the alleyway, the wheelchair is knocked over and its wheels are spinning, as if someone has just jumped from it. That’s because someone has. Alessa has met with Cheryl. The two are together, perhaps fused as one. Harry got there a moment too late. The power has been released and the demons have come out. The little creatures that you later see in the school attack Harry. And after this the demon dogs and pterodactyl creatures are roaming the streets of Silent Hill.
Yet while the creatures are vicious, Alessa/Cheryl does not intend to kill Harry. The carousel scene is the best proof of this. Harry tries to run to her and she simply pushes him away. Also, after Harry defeats the lizard we see Alessa looking kindly at Harry. Is this because she has merged with Cheryl and part of her sees him as a father? Or is it because he is defeating her personal demons? I’m not sure Alessa is entirely in control of her demons. I also think she has a fractured personality from her years of pain and recent union with Cheryl.
Dahlia is obviously using Harry after he meets her in the church. Others believe that she has been using him all along, but I don’t agree. I think Alessa/Cheryl leads Harry to the school. I don’t think Dahlia has the power to plant Cheryl’s notebook pages, nor does she have the power to make broken telephones ring and images of Cheryl to appear. These are Alessa’s powers. If Dahlia had such power, then she wouldn’t need Alessa in the first place. Furthermore, when Harry first meets Dahlia in the church, she tells him that he’s moving around too haphazardly, “floundering about at random.” She has stepped in at this point to give him direction, direction that she controls. This implies that his movements before this were not ones that she was controlling.
If you agree with this, then I want to end with one last observation. I only realized the significance of the upended wheelchair in the alleyway–mentioned above–when I began to play the game a second time through. Another creepy thing I discovered on the second play through was the key in the doghouse on Levin Street. I went there since I knew I had to, but it wasn’t there at first. I had to go to the end of the block and read the notebook pages first. Then I went back and the key was there. If we fit this into the diegesis, then Alessa/Cheryl was putting the key in the doghouse while Harry was only half a block away. She is there in the mists, one step ahead of Harry. The daughter he is searching for is right next to him all the time. To put it another way, his goal, his daughter, is the very thing that is setting him on this tortured path.
(written February 7, 2009)