“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
This is an interesting topic that has been going around in my head for several months now like an annoying bug. It was something that deeply fascinated me at the time when I stumbled upon it purely by chance, and I really wanted to write about it if only to satiate my own selfish desire – plus, this way I finally get myself to publish something here after this never-ending drought. I talked about it in my Twitter account with all the limitations that 140-character posts entail and my followers seemed to enjoy it, so I hope this extended version is also well-received.
The title gives the surprise away: this article addresses several issues within the universe of Silent Hill. More specifically, the symbolism attached to the story and its monsters, and the significance this holds on understanding and fully experiencing the story.
Last winter I became suddenly and helplessly obsessed with this franchise. Even though I liked it before, for some reason it called to me like a siren all of a sudden and I couldn’t help but lose myself deeper and deeper into its lore. This would be the perfect theme for a dissertation if I happened to study something related to Psychology but, sadly, that’s not the case.
If you are actually reading this, I will go ahead and guess you are more or less familiar with these games or at least have seen the movies and have a general idea of what is going on here. For those who perhaps are not so acquainted with this universe, I will make a brief summary anyway, just to cover every front.
Before you continue, note that this piece of writing deals with serious and potentially disturbing topics that may make some readers uncomfortable, like gore, torture and rape. Also, there are countless spoilers about the series, obviously. Consider this a trigger warning if you don’t want to read about those things.
Silent Hill is the name of the quaint little town where most of the games take place and to which every single story is related in one way or another. It was a seemingly idyllic tourist attraction located by Lake Toluca (Maine, in the games; West Virginia, in the movies), until the events that led to the first game transformed it into something else. A place between dimensions that seemingly lures lost souls into its realm, so that they face and redeem their greatest sins.
Truth is, this place was never ordinary to begin with, its history being a long one tainted with occultism and blood. Prior to the appearance of the religious doomsday cult known as The Order that would determine the future fate of the town, this place was already related to the paranormal. Native American tribes already noticed the spiritual power on the air and worshiped it as home of a particular deity. They called it “The Place of Silenced Spirits” and Kwekwaxawe Kanesda (“Nest of the Raven”), something that rings a bell in relation to its eventual name and the dark gods worshiped by the cultists. Following the European colonization of North America, the massacre of the natives and the establishment of the puritans on that area, the echoes of the Salem witch trials also reached the town. The cult members were considered witches by the Christians, and a woman that would become a martyr to the Order was burn as such (ironically, it happens to be the opposite case in the movies, were the cultists are the ones to burn “witches”, though they have come to be considered completely different cults). Later on, a penal colony was also established near Toluca Lake for some time, and several more tragedies took place around the area. In summary, the place was always under the influence of a preternatural dark presence related to the spiritual world.
What happened that turned Silent Hill into what it is nowadays? Alessa Gillespie. Seven years before to the first game, there was a terrible fire in which this little girl resulted fatally burned. Her mother intended to sacrifice her to trigger the birth of The Order’s dark deity and the arrival of Paradise, given the especial nature of her daughter, who had showed supernatural skills from birth. Though the ritual succeeded to some point, Alessa managed to fracture her soul to send a baby containing part of herself away (Silent Hill: Origins), the one who was found and adopted by Harry Mason and his wife. Although nearly everyone believed Alessa to be dead, she was secretly kept alive in a dreadful condition while “pregnant” with the God, waiting for her other half to return to Silent Hill and end her suffering (Silent Hill). Caught in a living nightmare, her pain and her hatred nurtured on her psychic powers to recreate that hell both to hide herself and so that others would experience the same torment as her, enshrouding the town in an unnatural fog that created a limbo between the real world and the dark one within her. The monsters found throughout the first game are manifestations of Alessa’s greatest fears and childhood phobias – such as large dogs (cynophobia) insects (entomophobia), worms (vermiphobia), snakes (ophidophobia), fire (pyrophobia) and even adults. She may not be directly related to every single game (mostly Silent Hill: Origins, Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3) but the elongated shadow of The Order looms over them all.
Either influenced by Alessa’s powers or by its own unfathomable nature, Silent Hill clearly has the ability to distort reality, separating it into three parallel dimensions that coexist on the same space – the Real World, the Fog World, and the Otherworld. This strange presence was seemingly strengthened over the centuries due to the tragic events that ensued in the area, until the immolation of Alessa Gillespie acted as a catalyst for all this power, causing Silent Hill to start calling out to people with darkness in their hearts. Like a limbo. It’s uncertain if the town is truly sentient, having a conscience of its own, or if it merely acts as a mirror of the inner world of those tormented individuals. It is, however, implied that innocent people will never pass onto the Otherworld and be attacked by the monsters, as is the case of Laura in Silent Hill 2. The little girl only sees the normal town, not noticing any of the abnormalities everyone is experiencing around her.
Nevertheless, we will not mindlessly delve further into the storyline. I would love nothing more than to narrate the whole story here and now, but it would serve no purpose whatsoever. Instead, let’s address the subject I originally intended to write about: the monsters and their hidden meaning.
As mentioned in the introduction, several months ago I happened to develop a sudden and intense infatuation towards Silent Hill. For weeks, I lost myself in this universe through the games, seeing videos of those I couldn’t play, watching the movies, reading the wiki for hours… Eventually, what drew my attention the most over everything else was something I happened to found while looking for information in Tumblr. For nearly every fandom, there usually exist these sites where people “confess” their personal headcanons or thoughts regarding agame/book/movie, ranging from expressing their loathing towards a certain character to far more complex and intimate reflections. Well, it was in one of those dark corners of the internet that I noticed an interesting coincidence in numerous fans of the Silent Hill franchise.
Not only one, nor two, but at least a dozen people confessed to feel a strange attraction towards the town, to its concept, as if they belonged in that atmosphere and even felt comfortable in what essentially is a dark twisted dimension. Defeating those nightmarish monsters gave them a sense of security. The interesting point is, they all seemed to have something in common, problems of some kind, usually depression and other mental illnesses. Though I didn’t notice it at the time, I was also suffering from a growing anxiety and depression disorder, so it’s certainly interesting that I felt drawn towards Silent Hill at such a time in my life, just like all those people
The symbolism that permeates everything in this universe particularly captivated me. You can find comfort in playing these games because what you are doing is fighting your own demons through the eyes of the protagonists. People who are – or have been – lost in dark worlds of their own creation can relate to battling the demons of their insecurities on a daily basis. That is exactly what these games are about. Those creatures are manifestations of the characters’ innermost fears, their sins, feelings they have buried in the depths of their soul and need to be set free. Silent Hill is a especial place that provides you with the chance to obtain your catharsis; more than that, it’s an invitation to face the darkest part of yourself once and for all and triumph, or surrender and succumb to the darkness. But that it’s not an option.
Every single monsters in the Silent Hill franchise represents something deeper than a mere creature taken out of a nightmare. They are the incarnation of the aforementioned character’s sins and concerns, like was the case of Alessa’s phobias regarding dogs and insects. Thus, some monsters of Silent Hill 3 resemble mightier versions of those of Silent Hill because Heather shares the same phobias as Alessa, his other half. Those seen in Silent Hill 2 are mostly related to the protagonist and his background story (which we uncover little by little throughout the game), or to the secondary characters that also trapped in the town at the same time. Even though it results quite evident in certain cases because of their appearance or name, the hidden meaning behind some monsters may not be so clear unless we analyze their appearance in relation to the bits of information we find around or consult the wiki to read the “official” analysis.
For instance, there’s the case of several Silent Hill: Homecoming monsters which name gives a hint about the character they are associated with. Asphyxia is obviously a representation of how teenager Nora Holloway died: suffocated. Furthermore, its form mirrors the girl’s fondness of the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and one character in particular, the Caterpillar, being created of several female bodies that resemble this insect.
“Asphyxia’s appearance is heavily sexualized, evidenced in both her physical appearance and her sway-like, seductive movement, yet she is still unrevealing (vaginal area and breasts are covered in the same manner as a girl would try to cover herself), perhaps symbolizing how she was nearly a woman full grown but denied it.”
There’s also the case of the Abstract Daddy from Silent Hill 2, first encountered when Angela’s traumatic past is revealed. This monster is the projection of the sexual abuse she received at the hands of her father and brother. Personally, this particular creature disturbs me more than others because it’s the unsettling incarnation of brutal and prolonged rape, as well as the helplessness of a woman that cannot escape from his aggressors but endure the torment. Angela’s fate greatly saddened me. Its shape clearly represents two human figures writhing on a bed frame, one looming over the other, but they are seemingly fused together. Also, the noises it emits clearly are those of a woman’s screams.
As example of a monster whose meaning is not so clearly depicted just based on its appearance, we have a widely known one, the Lying Figure, also from Silent Hill 2. It’s the very first monster James Sunderland encounters when he starts roaming the misty streets of the town; shadows that lurk in the fog, walking with difficulty because their upper body resembles that of someone wearing a restrictive straightjacket of flesh. We cannot possibly know what they represent until knowing all the details behind James’ and Mary’s sad story, though we can deduce they might be related to someone sick. It also holds hints of the recurring theme of sexual frustration, always associated to James’ character due to his wife’s health condition and present in many monsters he encounters, like the Mannequins.
“In Silent Hill 2, Masahiro Ito designed the Lying Figure as reminiscence of Mary Shepherd-Sunderland in her state of terminal illness, which has been speculated to have something to do with physical distortion, as Mary said, “I look like a monster!”. This furthers the evidence that the Lying Figure was meant to be similar to how Mary saw herself. As well, its main means of attack is spitting an acid-like mist at James; this is suggestive of vomiting, alluding further to the theme of illness. However, this may also be suggestive of how Mary spat hateful words at James during her illness. The Lying Figures seem to have zippers on their faces, which could be symbolic of a straitjacket — however, it could also be symbolic of James wanting Mary to “zip it” (her mouth) due to her verbal treatment of him.”
This creature also makes an appearance in the Silent Hill movie when Rose and Cybil first enter the town, credited as Armless Man, but it does obviously not contain any relation to James Sunderland because he doesn’t make any appearance in the movie-verse.
To conclude this article, I thought pertinent to write a final section dedicated entirely to the most memorable monster of the Silent Hill franchise, the one commonly known as Pyramid Head or Red Pyramid. He also happens to be among my personal favourites (since he is usually referred to as male, I will use those pronouns). He is an extremely powerful character in many ways, thus the relevance he holds over the fandom; and his symbolism is also a strong one, both in the games and in the movies, where he serves very different purposes.
The infamous Pyramid Head makes his first appearance in the Wood Side Apartments. He stands at the other side of a wall of iron bars that separate a dark corridor in two, immobile and emanating a reddish aura when James approaches him, but not reacting in any way. Like every monster in the game, the radio seemingly reacts to his presence by emitting static; however, we later find that the noise apparently came from a television in one of the rooms, so it can be deduced that he is not an ordinary monster. According to the wiki, he represents a long list of things, from James’ desire for punishment, to the executioners from Silent Hill’s history, masculinity and male violence, and sexual frustration.
This association with sexist violence, as well as the intense sexual theme that surrounds his identity, soon becomes evident while playing. We can easily draw such a conclusion from the creature’s behaviour throughout the game: he is seen in several situations that graphically imply sexual abuse, like molesting and raping other monsters, namely Mannequins and a Lying Figure, which hold some resemblance to human women AND are supposedly related to Mary – given his close connection to James Sunderland, it is also suggested that it represents how he behaved towards his sick wife.
Furthermore, this aspect is also distinctively present in his cinematic alter-ego. There is a particular scene in the first Silent Hill movie that plays with the symbolism of sexual violence in a rather graphic manner. It’s brutal once you identify the meaning behind it. Sybil and Rose barricade themselves inside a room in the school, trying to escape from Pyramid Head and the swarm of Creepers that accompany him. The humanoid monster pierces the metal door with his Great Knife in a vivid resemblance of rape, which is made even more evident as the sword – which can easily be seen as a phallic element, as can his alternate weapon in the game, a spear – penetrates the place where the women felt safe, causing the monstrous insects to pour inside with each stab, representing a man’s sperm. The director of the movie himself stated that Pyramid Head’s appearance was conjured from a female perspective on male brutality – namelly, Alessa’s. That this scene takes place in the school, of all places, holds relation to the girl’s traumatic experiences in the building.
On the other hand, we have the recurring idea of self-punishment and self-judgement. Pyramid Head represents James’ desire for punishment, the burning guilt for what he did. Even if he doesn’t remember anything until almost the end of the game because of his repressed memories, in his heart he yearned for this purification. Later on in Silent Hill: Homecoming, we encounter monsters called Boogeymen, which greatly resemble Pyramid Head’ design. They are given this same symbolism of the Executioner, this time in relation to Alex Shepherd and his father, who also carry a heavy sense of culpability within them. Moreover, this family might hold some blood ties to Mary Shepherd-Sunderland, thus establishing a direct connection between the original Pyramid Head and the Boogeymen.
Though Pyramid Head is mainly believed to be exclusive to James Sunderland, he appears in other games besides Silent Hill 2 in one way or another, usually in a painting on the wall (“Misty day, remains of the Judgment”) that illustrates his role as Executioner of Silent Hill. Many fans think his fame has been abused as lure in the movies and other games besides SH2, and that he should have only been shown in relation to James Sunderland to preserve a sense of originality. However, considering that the monsters in Silent Hill are not only perceived by those who conjure them, it would not be rare for Pyramid Head to manifest itself to others with similar ailments, and we should notice James faces several Pyramid Heads in the scene where they “kill” Maria, not only the one he met before. In any case, despite their many physical similarities, the Boogeymen are contemplated as another type of monster entirely, and Pyramid Head is still more or less considered James’ dark alter ego.
Given his underlying importance and raw power, a theory that was later denied by Masahiro Ito identified him as one of the deities of the Order, Xuchilbara (the Red God), just as Valtiel had been suggested to be the Yellow God. The lore of the cult is somewhat obscure at times, giving way to all kind of theories. Subsequently, his connection to Valtiel’s sect within The Order has also been discussed, as his appearance resembles the red hoods of its members, who also acted as executioners. The huge pyramid helmet is supposed to be as much a torture for him as a symbol of intimidation, since he seems to express pain and discomfort about it.
Interesting enough, his role in the second movie is almost being Alessa’s personal protector, even if he clearly attacked Rose in the first film (someone the girl needed in order to ultimately fulfill her revenge). At least, not only the fans have considered him as such, but the director of Silent Hill: Revelation literally described him as a “surrogate father” to Heather, as Harry is kidnapped by The Order. Indeed, he appears to defend her more than once when in danger, because she is the incarnation of Alessa Gillespie.
And… I’m afraid that’s all, folks!
I hope you found this at least a bit interesting and enjoyed reading it. I would like to apologize if I wrote too many examples and useless information, but I seriously love writing and doing research about these topics. I’m already considering writing more about it. If this somehow caught your interest, consider visiting the Silent Hill wiki and finding out more about the Silent Hill universe – or play the games yourself, of course.