I love movies and games, and I love to talk about them when I can.
A Bit of Backstory
As a child, I always had a fascination with the vast library of horror games the PS2 had to offer, but considering how young and easily frightened I was, I never finished many of the titles. Until recently, Silent Hill 2 was one of those titles that I never truly got to experience in its original form, as it was a bit too mature for me at the time (considering I was probably five when it came out) and I eventually wasn’t able to find easy access to it. My first meaningful experience with the game as an adult had been finding the ill-fated/ infamously poor HD collection “Remaster” bundle for relatively cheap at a local GameStop a few years ago, which was not very flattering, to say the least. So, I never finished the game until recently, when I found a PC copy and an absolutely astounding fan mode called Silent Hill 2 Enhanced Edition. Not only does the mod lovingly recreate the original PS2 masterpiece, but it also ups the graphics and makes it a smoother experience than ever before. Thanks to the hard work of a dedicated fan-base, I was finally able to experience the horror masterpiece I had heard so much about over the years, and it did not disappoint in any way. If anything, I found the game scarier than I truly thought it was before as all my prior knowledge had come from second-hand experiences from friends or simply reading about the game online. What I played was a game that unsettled and unnerved me more than any other horror video game ever has, and I simply was not prepared for the insane nightmare fueled guilt trip that is Silent Hill 2.
I’m certain most people reading this will know what the game is, but to recap those unaware of the plot, you control a man named James Sunderland who’s looking for his wife who wrote him a letter, telling him to find her in their “special place” in the town of Silent Hill. But James Sunderland’s wife Mary has been dead for three years due to an unnamed illness, so the journey starts in an already unsettling place. Over the course of his journey, we get a deep dive into the mind of James, with the reveal at the end of his quest, that James ultimately killed his wife to spare her from suffering through the illness any longer. The entire journey is a personal plea for forgiveness, told through the lens of hatred, anxieties, and fears, all culminating into a narrative that’s equal parts haunting, disturbing, and just purely strange. From the music to the environments, the atmosphere of the game feels ripped right out of a horrible nightmare and the unease never lets up until the games ending. The final piece, is the extremely macabre puzzles that task you with strange solutions for even weirder unsettling results.
Yet as important as the music may be to the game, the lack of music is just as meaningful to the atmosphere. The biggest moments of fear came from the times I was just walking around the Hospital, Apartment or Hotel that were turned into horrific labyrinths, filled with strange puzzles, keys scattered around and unsettling imagery around every corner, hearing nothing but James’ footsteps and breathing, the static from the radio or the many unexplained unseen noises emanating from the surroundings themselves. Mystery is something the game understands more than most horror does. What managed to scare me the most is when the game would just show something strange, like a body in a fridge that you never get to fully see, or a box covered in locks and chains that only hid a few strands of hair, without any explanation. What you don’t see or fully understand is always more unsettling, because without an answer your mind is left to imagine the worst. As a huge fan of this kind of horror, I couldn’t tear myself away from what I was playing. A lot of the horror also comes from the everyday environments being twisted into such grim dwellings, this combination of the familiar and the anomalous, creates that Twin Peaks like feeling, that what you’re seeing is someone’s nightmares.
The Meaning of Monsters
All of these excellent elements wouldn’t work without the games memorably terrifying monsters, which are the stars of the show without a doubt. If the monsters hadn’t been so smartly designed to fit the narrative as strongly as they do, the rest of the game wouldn’t work. This may not be anything new to longtime fans, but it’s still important to bring up. All of the monsters relate to James' psyche in disturbing but understandably ways that help tell the story of his guilt of killing his wife and sexual frustrations he experienced during her illness. The Lying Figures, Bubble head Nurses, and Mannequins all represent the different emotions James felt while struggling with his wife’s illness, from the acid The Lying Figures spew being the verbal abuse James received from Mary, to the latent sexual implications of the nurses wearing revealing clothing with a tendency to die with their legs spread open, and the Mannequins just being two sets of women’s legs in nothing but underwear representing his unsatisfied intimate desires. The most disturbing of all being The Abstract Daddy, the creature may not be entirely of James' mind, as its mostly seen tormenting another character, the same disturbing sexual implications apply. The flesh-like creature looks to be two bodies on a bed or some kind of frame, with the upper body forcefully on top of the other, it’s a horrifying creature to see, but its design is so thoughtfully created, that I cant seem to get it out of my mind.
Besides the sexuality, the main feature all the monsters share is their lack of defining features. The creatures are all human-like, but they're designed in such a way that they don’t fully resemble humans in any particular way. While a creature like the Abstract Daddy eventually lacks form entirely, the rest of the monsters share one major feature or (lack thereof) in common, they’re all missing a face or its obscured. Bringing to mind that unsettling marriage of reality with nightmares. What’s always shown though is features that could be inherently sexual, such as legs, cleavage, exposed buttocks, but what’s given the most attention is lips. Most of the monsters that do have lips, either have an abundance of them, or they’re in obscure and unsettling places on the monsters. Of course, the defining monster of the game is Pyramid Head, who is used as one of the many opposites within the game as a whole. While he’s a terrifying faceless monster who at first seems to just want to kill and have his way with the other monsters, he actually is benevolent and becomes a major part of James coming to terms with his past actions. For all the cruel acts we witness Pyramid Head commit, his main purpose is to punish James for the act of killing his wife, but when James watches Pyramid Head repeatedly kill her doppelganger, he realizes the benevolent desires within these actions.
A World of Mirrors
The use of opposites is also a huge influence on the game, from its music to its themes, the marriage of opposites can be found throughout the entire journey. For example, the main two themes of the game are sex and death, two experiences that are important to any human being, but obviously in completely different ways. Then there’s the music in the game, it’s a very despondent melody that’s played to a very catchy beat that’s easy to get stuck in your head. This translates over to the environments, as they’re more often than disturbing and twisted, they have an indescribable charm to them, again due to their familiarity. Even the narrative beats to the transitions to the otherworld subscribe to this model, as they’re the places you’ve been exploring and becoming familiar with, yet they’re twisted into strange reflections. Its why the game opens with James looking into a mirror, to set up the main theme of the game. Even the side characters all act as different parts of James psyche, the young girl Laura being his lost innocence, Eddie being a more tortured and twisted version of himself (as Eddie begins to enjoy the act of killing people.), Angela representing James' mistreatment of his wife, and finally Maria as a doppelganger to Mary. Maria is everything James wanted from his wife before her death, but she also still holds some of Mary's tendencies of lashing out at James. Her more revealing clothing draws back to the game's themes with sexuality, as she wants to be protected by James throughout the story.
The Journey's End
In order to keep this from turning into a small novel, I’m going to bring it to a close with my main point being just how meaningful, thoughtful, and objectively frightening Silent Hill 2 was, it’s a journey I’m happy to have finally experienced for myself. I do wish I had played it sooner, but I'm also glad I waited until I was old enough to be able to connect with the story in the way I have. After all these years of anticipation, playing James Sunderland’s story of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and ultimately acceptance and forgiveness, is something I won’t be able to forget for a long time to come.
Erich Kortum (author) on May 24, 2020:
I’m glad I waited to play until I was old enough to connect with its themes honestly. Konami sadly dropped the ball with the franchise and we sadly won’t see anything like this game again. While there’s plenty of horror games out there, none of them really hit in the same way this did. I just wish Konami would make it more readily accessible to modern audiences
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on May 24, 2020:
Silent Hill 2 is one of the most haunting and beautiful games ever made. I watched my uncle play it a lot when I was a kid (I was also very young when it first came out) and finally finished it myself when I was around 17 or so. The music is gorgeous, the story heart-wrenching... they just don't make them like that anymore! I was so happy to see this article pop up on my feed and I'm glad you finally got to play it.