Silent Hill and the Catharsis of Horror

Tuesday, November 5th, 2019

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Silent Hill | Intro

When I was a child, I used to have a recurring nightmare where a man was killed by evil vines in a swamp. They coiled around him until he couldn’t move, then impaled him one by one. It’s an image that I’ve never been able to forget. It was, quite frankly, a very Silent Hill kind of dream.

So you’d think the scariest moment in a video game, as least for me, would be the mirror room in Silent Hill 3‘s hospital. You all know the one. The creepy darkness, the inevitable grasp of the shadows as they wind their way around Heather’s body, suffocating her to death. It so singularly captures the image from that nightmare, how could it not?

But it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I freaked out the moment I walked Heather into that death trap, but it’s a different Silent Hill moment that takes the prize for scariest moment in a video game.

Silent Hill 2‘s prison has that honor.

Silent Hill | Prison

Much like my childhood nightmare, I doubt I’ll ever forget the night I played through that segment of the game. My husband and I lived in a small apartment, and we were crashing on the couch in the living room well after night had fallen. He insisted I play the games at night for maximum effect, and I can’t deny it was the right decision. I’d already tackled Silent Hill 1 in the same way, and with SH2, it definitely made the experience that much more harrowing.

I have something of a love/hate relationship with horror. As a general rule, I find the stories in them entertaining if not outright moving, and the way they tend to lean into personal experience gives them a resonance most other stories never quite reach. Horror is intimate and deep-reaching, especially the most impactful kind. But engaging with that personal aspect of horror makes it difficult to consume sometimes, and that goes doubly so when it’s interactive. It’s one thing to watch a horror story unfold on a television screen or at the movies, but it’s another altogether to experience it happen to the character you’re controlling.

On the other hand, that same intimacy that comes from playing a horror game also brings with it a unique kind of catharsis. Lisa’s death in SH1, or Heather’s defiance in SH3 – those were more impactful because I was Lisa’s friend through Harry, and I lead Heather on her quest to self-actualization. Watching those moments happen passively, I’m sure I would have felt something. But I doubt I’d have felt it so viscerally.

And so it was when I walked James down that impossibly long stairway into the darkness of the Historical Society, every moment the atmosphere growing thicker, the buildup stronger, the unique and disconcerting sounds of Akira Yamaoka’s score emphasizing every second in the best way possible. It was there when I made the decision to jump down an impossibly deep hole when I was already surely in the bowels of the town itself. Something was waiting for me in that place, and I had no idea what it was. More than once I thought about stopping, it was that oppressive. But eventually I made it into the prison itself, with its rows of cells, overwhelming darkness, and unseen monsters scurrying about the gloom. And I cried.

Silent Hill 2 | Open up

It was the monster in the cell. The one you can’t see, but can hear banging on the walls. The one that follows you up and down the cell block. That monster, more than anything else in this game, terrified me to the point I broke down crying. I set the controller down. I had to take deep breaths. Something about the unseen horror behind the bars just set me off. It was an emotional reaction I don’t think I could have ever, ever had from just watching a horror movie play out, because the horror was happening to me.

And then I picked my controller back up and I shot that unseen horror to death with a shotgun. Suddenly the cell block was silent again. The noise was gone. In that moment of terror, I had overcome my fear. It was immensely cathartic.

It’s easy to fear the unknown. It’s easy to let things we can’t see or control overwhelm us, dictate how we feel and react to the world around us. Overcoming those demons is hard and sometimes leaves lasting scars, but in a game, we can have those experiences in safety. In a game, we can overcome horror unscathed. Maybe we cry a little bit, but in the end, we’re the ones in control, and that’s a powerful feeling in its own right.

About Leah McDonald

Leah's been playing video games since her brother first bought an Atari back in the 1980s and has no plans to stop playing anytime soon. She enjoys almost every genre of game, with some of her favourites being Final Fantasy Tactics, Shadow of the Colossus, Suikoden II and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Leah lives on the East Coast with her husband and son.