The Story and Psychology of Silent Hill
Article by Brian Penaloza
Silent Hill is a survival horror game series set in and around the fictional town of Silent Hill. First released in 1999, the game was one of three series that made Survival Horror into the genre it is today along with Alone in the Dark (1992) and Resident Evil (1996). What made Silent Hill stand out from these other two series is that, while Alone in the Dark is about the occult and black magic and Resident Evil is about a corporation doing illegal bio-organic weapons research, Silent Hill is really about delving into the psyche of the protagonist and pulling the horror from there. One could argue that the real main character of Silent Hill is the town itself. Through the main eight games in the series the only real constant is the town of Silent Hill. While the town itself is not where every game in the main series takes place, it does play an important role in them all. To understand why, we must first understand what Silent Hill even is.
Silent Hill is a small resort town of 30,000 people in Maine and its main draw is tourism. During the time that the games take place, tourism has seemed to be in decline. It is built on the bank of Toluca Lake and is surrounded by woods and wilderness, while underneath the seemingly sleepy tourist town’s veneer is a long history of the occult, rituals, and ceremonies dating back to before Silent Hill was founded.
Before being colonized by the Europeans, the land that Silent Hill was founded on was a holy place to the local tribes of Native Americans. They conducted various rituals and ceremonies there and called the area the “Place of Silenced Spirits”. One tribe worshiped a deity known as Kwekwaxawe, and referred to the area as the Kwekwaxawe Kanseda, or Nest of the Raven. It was believed that the Raven appearing on a battleground was due to the souls of fallen warriors, hoping the spirit would rewrite the battle in their favor.
In the 17th century Jamestown would become the first permanent British Colony and eventually the British would make their way to the holy tribal land, which resulted in the massacre of the Native Americans by the Europeans. Around this time the Salem Witch Trials were happening, a woman named Jennifer Carroll was burned at the stake and would eventually become a saint of the cult known as The Order. In the 18th century the settlement that would eventually become Silent Hill was abandoned due to an epidemic that killed many in the area.
However, in the 19th century the area was resettled and a penal colony was established near Toluca Lake. The area was officially named Silent Hill, and it is speculated that the name was derived from the name the Native Americans gave the area, The Place of Silenced Spirits. During this time the town began to take shape, as the Brookhaven Hospital and Silent Hill Prison were both founded. Brookhaven Hospital saw a lot of use in the early days, as another epidemic threatened the burgeoning town. The Gillespie Coal and Iron Company started working the Devil’s Pit Mine in 1816, and in 1820 Maine officially became a state. Sometime around 1840 the Silent Hill Prison was closed, and then in the 1850s coal was discovered underneath the town which lead to the opening of the Wiltse Coal Mine. The opening of the mine was an economic boon for the town and helped revitalize Silent Hill. In 1853 four families from Silent Hill--the Shepards, Holloways, Fitchs, and Bartletts--left to create a neighboring settlement which would be called Shepard’s Glen. These families were said to be deeply involved with The Order. The first recorded human sacrifices for The Order are reported to have been carried out on September 23rd, 1953 as part of a contract to appease their God. The sacrifices were Daniel Shepard, Ann Holloway, Theodore Fitch, and Helen Bartlett, and they were sacrificed by their families. The Gillespie Coal and Iron Company began extracting ore from the Devil’s Pit Mine in 1860, and then in 1861 the Civil War broke out and Silent Hill changed to reflect the times. The Toluca Prison was created as a camp for POWs in 1862 and then was converted to a regular prison at the conclusion of the war.
The year 1867 saw the first signs of supernatural forces at work in the town, as a Cherokee woman named Inola used a woman named Esther Munroe to give birth to her formally deceased daughter Awinita. It is revealed that Esther’s husband, Jebediah Foster was on a mission to kill the Cherokee and found Inola giving birth. He killed the baby with his knife and, while this may be his darkest sin, it is by no means his only. Jebediah was an outlaw, and left death behind him everywhere he went. Silent Hill was to be his new start, and new lease on life. However, in a trend that will become clearer as we delve into Silent Hill’s history, the sins of the past have a way of coming back to you.
In 1890 Silent Hill experienced a rash of people disappearing. Around this time, Silent Hill began to experience its first spike in supernatural activity. In the early 20th century a cult called The Order began to gain influence. Combining native beliefs with those of their founders, a corruption of power would begin that would only worsen with time. In the early 1900s Toluca Prison was closed for unknown reasons. It was speculated that perhaps it was closed due to water damage and flooding, but no official reason was given. The Silent Hill Historical Society was built in its place, and while this was all happening the Wiltse Coal Mine went dry as well. With its main source of revenue gone, Silent Hill had to find a new one or risk becoming a ghost town. And so, Silent Hill was reinvented as a tourist destination.
The year 1903 saw the second recorded sacrifices by the four families of Shepard’s Glen. The sacrificed were named Rebecca Shepard, Lawrence Holloway, Rusty Fitch, and Patricia Bartlett, and again they were sacrificed by their families in order to appease their God. In 1911, miners for the Gillespie Coal and Iron Company reportedly discovered mysterious symbols carved into the limestone of Superstition Caverns leading some to speculate about witchcraft and occult activity in the area, eventually forcing the company to suspend mining operations in the area. In 1918, a tourist ship called the Little Baroness went missing, and to this day its fate is unknown. This marked the first tourist accident to occur on the lake, but by no means was it the last. Mysterious things kept happening on the lake, and it gained a bad reputation for tourism and sightseeing. In the 1960s staff members of a company that was marketing Silent Hill as a family-friendly tourist destination were found dead, days apart. All deaths were ruled as accidents, but it is suspected that The Order was responsible for the deaths.
Six years after that event, Alessa Gillespie would be born to Dahlia Gillespie. This may in fact be the most important moment in Silent Hill’s history as Alessa would be the catalyst for many future happenings in Silent Hill. She had a strong connection to the paranormal, and it is said that she was the reason that Silent Hill was stricken with what many call a curse. Two years later Claudia Wolf is born, and she plays an integral role in later happenings in the town. Seven years after Alessa’s birth bring about the events of Silent Hill Origins and where we see the introduction of two parallel versions of Silent Hill; Fog World and Otherworld.
Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, a trucker named Travis Grady is driving past Silent Hill on an unusually foggy day. A cloaked pedestrian steps in front of his truck and he skids to a halt to avoid hitting them. Upon exiting the truck, he searches for the cloaked figure but cannot find them. While searching for the person, Travis comes across a burning house and, hearing screaming from inside, he rushes in and rescues an immolated Alessa, thus kicking off Silent Hill: Origins. However, Travis is no stranger to Silent Hill. In fact, he grew up there with his mother and father. His mother attempted to gas herself and Travis, claiming that beings from a “Mirror World” told her that he was a Devil Child. She was admitted to the Cedar Grove Sanitarium where she would later die of unknown causes. Travis’ father brought them to the Riverside Motel, but unable to cope with the grief of prior events he hung himself while Travis was playing at an arcade at the motel. Upon finding his father’s body Travis locked himself in the room and talked to the corpse until cleaners found him there in the morning. Not much is known about what happened to Travis after that before his return to Silent Hill.
After rescuing Alessa from the burning building, Travis made his way to the Alchemilla Hospital to check on her. Travis meets Michael Kaufmann, who claims Alessa isn’t there yet Travis goes to the second floor anyway and finds an unharmed Alessa there who teaches him how to use mirrors to traverse between the Fog World and Otherworld of Silent Hill. Travis also meets a nurse named Lisa Garland who tells him that she plans to meet Kaufmann at Cedar Grove Sanitarium. On his journey through Silent Hill, Travis rediscovers the fact that his mother was committed to the sanitarium and that his father committed suicide, which he had apparently blocked from his memory. He is forced to confront his personal demons in the form of an entity known only as the Butcher, as well as evil incarnations of his dead parents, finally gaining a sense of peace. However, due to his past Alessa enlists Travis as an unwitting helper in preventing the birth of God from her. He collects pieces of an item called the Flauros and interrupts a ritual by The Order to bring about the birth of God. Unfortunately, he is sedated by Kaufmann and enters a nightmare state where he is greeted by the Demon in Alessa’s dream. He manages to bind the demon inside the Flauros, thus sabotaging the ritual and freeing Alessa to split her soul in half, giving birth to Cheryl Mason who would be adopted by Harry and Jodie Mason prior to the events of the first Silent Hill. At the end of Origins, Travis gets back to his truck under a blue shining sky above Silent Hill. As he looks in the rear-view mirror, he sees a content Alessa holding the baby as he drives away. Around this time Harry and Jodie Mason find an abandoned baby on the side of the road and rescue her, eventually adopting her and naming her Cheryl.
These events set the stage for Silent Hill as it is widely known. A protagonist finds themselves in the town, drawn there for one reason or another. In Silent Hill, it is Harry Mason, drawn there by Cheryl for a vacation when his car crashes and she goes missing. In Silent Hill 2, it is James Sunderland, drawn to the town because of a letter he received from his dead wife telling him to meet her there. In Silent Hill 3, it is Heather Mason who, unbeknownst to her, is the result of both halves of Alessa coming back together after the events of the first game, and is drawn to the town because of her father’s murder. With eight games in the main series, only one real thing ties them all together and that is the influence of the town of Silent Hill over their lives. Silent Hill is not a great game series because of the gameplay, or even the individual stories per se. Silent Hill is a great series because of the overarching theme of facing the darkness within yourself and overcoming it. When the endings of every game are examined, the canonical endings always end with the protagonist overcoming the darkness within themselves. Be it a past intrinsically linked to the town itself or personal demons, Silent Hill forces you to come to terms with your past in a tangible way.
Harry Mason is forced to come to terms with the grief of his wife’s death and embrace the life he has with Cheryl. James Sunderland is forced to come to terms with his wife’s death and the role he played in it. All the side characters you meet in Silent Hill 2 are there for similar reasons. To come to terms with some sort of darkness in their own hearts, whether it is something they did or something that was done to them. Heather Mason is there to face her own destiny and to deal with her feelings of revenge, and so on and so forth for every other protagonist of these games. Silent Hill is grotesque, twisted, and deadly. But ultimately, if you strip away the cults, the rituals, and the sacrifices, Silent Hill is an extreme form of therapy.
The reason it resonates so hard for players is because we all have our own darkness in our hearts. Things we have done, or things that were done to us. Silent Hill makes that darkness manifest in tangible ways where the real world never will for players. And that is the allure of the games. Being able to face your demons, overcome them, and move on with life with a weight lifted. That is why its specific brand of horror is so different than so many other survival horror games. It is all psychology.
And what is scarier than what resides in our own hearts?