Only a little over a year ago, fans of the Silent Hill franchise collectively exploded with excitement and anticipation when a mysterious new entry in the series, Silent Hills, promised to combine the critically acclaimed talents of Metal Gear designer Hideo Kojima and film producer Guillermo Del Toro, with Kojima even directing a sort of mini horror game, P.T, to demonstrate the style and atmosphere he could bring to the series.
Unfortunately, most of you interested in reading this article already know what happened next. Offering no official explanation, Konami cancelled Silent Hills earlier this year, and even pulled all copies of P.T. from the playstation network, doing its best to erase the demo's existence and prevent anyone from even playing it again. Why this happened, nobody is quite sure, but it came as an almost comically brutal blow to a fandom that has endured nine years of increasingly hokey, misguided Silent Hill sequels and spin-offs. A franchise once hailed as the smartest, most inventive and most terrifying name in interactive horror has been put through worse this past decade than some of its own protagonists, and just when it looked like a ray of hope had cut through the fog, the rug was pulled out from under it once more.
If only the hole in our hearts were gone, too.
All of this sucks super hard for a whole lot of people, but after so many terrible, awful, no-good very-bad Silent Hill games...could it just be time to let go already? The first four games in the franchise are works of art, yes. They introduced at least a generation or two of new creators and consumers to a certain brand of visceral, surreal horror that was, at the time, fading into obscurity. They brought faceless, twitching meat-creatures into vogue and had legions of nerds lusting after a tubby, shirtless butcher with a giant pointy hat. It was a wild ride, but maybe it was already time to get off. Maybe the series already said everything it needed to say by the time The Room was hastily rebranded as a sequel rather than a spiritual successor, and maybe, just maybe, continuing to pile on sequels never could have accomplished anything but cheapen what made the original trilogy so special to begin with.
For the time being, we're going to forget about Silent Hills, P.T. and literally everything that came after The Room. Though I talked once before about my favorite Silent Hill creature designs - and some of them even came from some of the worst entries in the franchise - I'd like to devote a little piece of Halloween 2015 to looking back at just how good us Silent Hill fans already had it, with a fresh review of every single creepy creature ever to lurch at us from the first through fourth Muted Hummock title.
The Story Thus Far...
So, we're obviously beginning with the very first Silent Hill, and I realize that maybe some of you haven't really played these games or aren't otherwise intimately familiar with them, but we'll be fixing some of that along the way, and you can watch the first ten minutes of the game right here. Our hero, single father Harry Mason, is driving his daughter Cheryl to the resort town of Silent Hill, Maine, when he swerves to avoid hidding a little girl remarkably similar to Cheryl, and wakes up alone...finding the town inexplicably devoid of residents, shrouded in fog, snowing in summer and haunted by strange, disturbing monsters...
The Air Screamer
The very first monster we encounter in the game doesn't seem all that terribly strange and disturbing, but it doesn't seem quite natural, either. The air screamer is shaped a lot like a bird, but its wings are more bat-like, its torso and legs more humanoid and its head somewhere between a horse and a pterosaur. It's an almost perfectly believable animal, but taxonomically vague, and our earliest indication that there's a lot more wrong with Silent Hill than just weird weather, especially when its presence causes an otherwise broken radio to erupt with static. This last detail is such a staple of the games that we've really taken for granted just how fascinating it is. Carrying a radio becomes your best defense against ambush, as the beings of Silent Hill apparently must emit their own distorted signals picked up by man-made electronics. We never do learn precisely how and why, but it's a practical game mechanic that also adds its own level of intrigue and atmosphere.
The Grey Child
Shortly after encountering his first air screamer, Harry goes wandering the town in search of his daughter and finds himself in a dark, filthy, blood-stained alleyway - an alleyway winding and twisting deeper into the city than makes any logical sense, littered with an increasing number of body parts. It is here that we encounter the grey children for the first time, kiddie-sized, faceless entities who wield rusted knives. Harry awakens from this "nightmare" safe and sound, but it serves as only a taste of what he'll really experience later.
The grey children demonstrate what would ultimately become Silent Hill's go-to aesthetic. They're basically human shaped, but covered completely in a grimy, hairless, rubbery skin with no easily recognizable facial features, and their proportions are subtly alien. The gashes in the middle of their faces weren't as visible in-game, and are uncomfortably just as interpretable as either a "natural" orifice or something they carved into themselves with their knives.
Amazingly creepy and effective in their simplicity. There's almost nothing to the mumbler other than a thing with claws. Its massive nails jut out like railroad spikes, and a toothless, nondescript hole is more or less its only other feature at all. This sort of ambiguous figure is one of my favorite aspects of the series; a frightening creature you can't pin directly to a person, an animal or much of a "theme," so minimal in its anatomy it's just sort of an abstract, organic shape, or a rough idea given flesh, which is exactly the point.
In Japan, the grey children were considered so inappropriate that they were simply replaced with a whole lot more mumblers.
Canine enemies would get steadily weirder as the series progressed and take on some delightfully nightmarish forms, but I really appreciate the straightforward nature of the groaner. It looks almost "normal" enough that you can't be entirely sure it's anything more than a very hungry, very sickly canine. Nothing about it appears outwardly impossible or unnatural, and we still can't be positive it was never an actual, real dog underneath some sort of corruptive force...but that's not exactly what Silent Hill is all about.
You can't have a horror series without some giant, spoooky insects, adorable to most of us but viscerally unsettling to a certain, strange portion of the human populace, and cockroaches are apparently one of the most controversial. Oddly associated with dirt and disease for some reason, they've continued to be Silent Hill's favorite arthropod to monstrify, though never amount to much more than a minor nuisance. In-game, the creepers were also given a pair of elongated cerci, antenna-like appendages on the tip of their abdomens, and are quite large - about a couple feet long.
The Larval Stalker
First encountered in the town elementary school, the larval stalker is one of my favorite things in the original game, and it's a shame it has no equivalents in later titles. Resembling a stunted, embryonic shadow - almost penguin-like - the sad little thing has no means of causing harm, only waddling in circles, squeaking like a mouse, and falling over if you shine a light on it. Unfortunately for you, it sets off the static on your radio like any other monsters, which can scare the shit out of you if you're not sure where it's coming from...and even once you notice the poor little shadow-baby toddling about its business, there's no telling if it's really the only thing your radio is picking up. It's not an immediately dangerous monster, but it's a hazard in its own way.
In early versions of the game, the larval stalker was actually going to be solid flesh, and even killable. The ghostly, invulnerable version may have been an effort to appease media watchdogs, averting any violence against too child-like a creature.
The game's first "boss" monster is a big, blind, lumbering beast whose lumpy, elongated head can open into an unsettlingly red, raw, toothless maw. It's often likened to a lizard by fans, but look at those feet...this thing is another distortion of a human body, awkwardly crawling around on all fours! It's certainly still possible that it represents a reptile, perhaps, but I always thought the splithead was more symbolic of birth.
The Puppet Nurse
Ah, monstrous nurses, easily one of Silent Hill's most famous icons, but only for how sexual they would become in later titles. Little attention is ever paid to the original nightmare-world nurses, whose bodies seem to be under the control of some tumorous entity just under their clothing, their bodies hunched over for the parasite to loom like a replacement "head!"
The Puppet Doctor
Even male doctors once got in on Silent Hill's gruesome medical worker routine, and the sheer normalcy of their heads and faces always made them feel so uniquely haunting. The puppet nurses and doctors don't need rotten zombie skulls or faceless, twitching tumors for heads; these perfectly ordinary, otherwise healthy looking people steered around by unseen puppeteers remain some of the most nightmarish images in the series.
I'm obviously a big fan of bloodsucker, a giantic, three-headed leech rooted firmly in place like some sort of plant or fungus! Not a regular enemy, but not a "boss" either, only two bloodsuckers are ever encountered, and the only way to defeat one is to simply distract it with a blood pack and sneak on by. As you may have guessed, this occurs in the same hospital where we meet the parasitized nurses and doctors.
The monsters of Silent Hill would become so dramatically gruesome and menacing in later titles, it's almost jarring to look back at bosses as humble as this giant-sized caterpillar. No need for an eyeless baby face, stitched-on breasts or chattering, gummy jaws; twinfeeler is just a big silkworm with fleshy antennae, and sometimes, just magnifying something inoccuous really is a whole lot more frightening than whipping out some psychosexual hellbeast. A giant-sized caterpillar has a more dream-like fantasy feel to it, one that's quite appropriate as we unravel what's really happened to this town.
As Harry comes closer and closer to the truth, the world around him drifts ever farther from normalcy. Where once there were only hairless, subtly ghoulish dogs roaming foggy, abandoned suburbs, we soon contend with these obscenely distorted horrors in a rusted, filth-caked mockery of reality. That's what I love most about the simplicity of the groaners; they really demonstrate how there are levels to Silent Hill's abnormalities. With their heads comprised entirely of tangled, worm-like bodies, there's no longer any question that these creatures, also much bigger than a normal dog, are not at all of this Earth as we know it.
The Night Flutter
Likewise, the air screamers get their own worm-faced "upgrade," less like reptilian bats and more like flapping, fuzzy moth-men. They're actually the creature designer's personal favorite from the first game, and the more I look at the night flutter design, the more I like it myself. They still have the almost horse-like head, but they don't even have any apparent eyes or mouth anymore, their features completely obscured by the "worms" that seem to blend seamlessly with the surrounding flesh. Their bodies are even more human-like than the air screamer, which only makes so much worse, and the wings aren't quite structured like any conventionally winged animal.
The Float Stinger
Another boss monster is also another straightforward giant insect, the fully metamorphosed twinfeeler, though the float stinger is a little more than just a big moth. Besides the fact that it has a sharpened, tick-like proboscis and an abdominal sting, it appears to have a double set of wings - four pairs in all - with huge scales almost invoking the feathers of a bird. Of all the giant insects silent hill could have featured as bosses, I'm really glad they went with moths and caterpillars. There's just something so "Alice in Wonderland" about it.
The Hanged Scratcher
Lovably named, these critters can be found only in the sewers, and once again, we have a monster that distorts humanoid anatomy - like the grey children, mumblers and splithead - just enough to be uncanny. These particular creatures behave more like insects than vertebrates, scurrying along ceilings and even possessing a pair of additional, tiny limbs on their backs. What I really like, though, are those "bills" of theirs, not quite a sucking proboscis and not quite a beak, but just a sort of unpleasant, fleshy facial protruberance that may or may not even function in feeding at all.
The last regular enemy ever encountered, the romper is also the one thing in this game I constantly forgot existed. I guess it sort of blends together with a lot of the other enemies, and it has no particularly noteworthy features besides the dangling tubes in its face, which weren't even visible on its in-game model. The romper is really nothing but an ape-like brute, but I do feel like it does a nice job of padding out the bestiary, and its constant laughing gives it a unique personality.
At last, we come to what's sort of the true, ultimate "monster" of this story. Maybe. If you weren't intimately familiar with Silent Hill up to now, you could be forgiven for thinking we've been looking at a bunch of spirits, demons or cosmic abominations, but the truth is much weirder, much sicker, and much, much sadder.
As we learn alongside Harry, the town of Silent Hill has been the central hub of a twisted religious cult for generations; a cult which believes it can induce god to manifest on Earth and cleanse the world of sin. To this end, the cult has spent decades performing deranged experiments on pregnant women and unsuspecting children, which may or may not explain the telekinetic powers demonstrated by one Alessa Gillespie from an early age.
Raised in relative isolation by the abusive cult, Alessa would repeatedly lash out with her growing psychic abilities and presumably trigger the fire that left her body charred to a crisp. This should have killed her, but she would impossibly continue to live and grow into her teens, confined to one bed on a steady intake of drugs as her aberrant brain continued to develop beyond all natural limitations...and something else would begin to develop inside of her, a virginal (as far as we know) pregnancy the cult naturally believed to be the divine manifestation they had longed for.
Together with the monstrous entity growing within her womb, Alessa's powers would advance to the point of outright restructuring the world around her, imperfectly to say the least, as we've been seeing since we looked at the air screamer - a physical manifestation of the fear a younger Alessa felt towards birds, bats and other flying creatures. Every monster in the game is one of this poor girl's phobias, anxieties and obsessions embodied in flesh and blood, a decaying mockery of the "perfect new world" the cult believes their god can create with a thought.
Rompers? Alessa felt helpless against the brute power of adults. Puppet nurses? Alessa knew little more than a sick bed for most of her life. The giant moths? Alessa collected them... and maybe some small part of her felt increasing guilt over killing and pinning creatures even more defenseless than herself. Even the god-baby in her own womb could, in theory, have been something her mind helped to congeal from the cult's passionate faith. Which brings us to...
Again, it's understandable how Silent Hill would later stray into the realm of more traditional "demonic" horror. That's certainly what it can look like, and it's even what many of its characters believe is going on themselves...but evidence is fairly strong that the Incubus here looks the way it does more because the cult just collectively believes that it should. The problem with Silent Hill isn't that demons are real, but that the town is haunted by something capable of making demons real.
...So what, exactly, is doing the haunting? Is it really just Alessa? We don't know. Long before the formation of its modern cult, Silent Hill already had a dark, bloody history of religious fanaticism, killing sprees, mass panics and ghost sightings, but that doesn't necessarily indicate anything paranormal at work. Was Alessa some sort of psychic mutation, giving life to human beliefs, or were her powers themselves a product of something else at work in the town, blurring the borders of mind and matter? These questions would be elaborated upon, yet never fully answered as the series progressed.
When Silent Hill landed in 1999, it was like almost nothing horror gamers had experienced. The genre was long characterized by zombie plagues, vampire counts, nuclear mutants, hell-spawned imps and alien cyborgs; gory, schlocky, gun-toting, brain-bashing action. Silent Hill used the medium of video games to craft an atmospheric, carefully paced psychological mystery, thrusting us into a setting where no line can be traced between the biological and hallucinatory. Every monster magnificently invoked the foggy, grotesque logic of a fever-induced nightmare, and even the order in which they appeared seemed lovingly crafted to emphasize the idea that reality itself was growing sicklier as we progressed, that we were being drawn ever-deeper into someone else's nightmares.
It's almost an insult to our intelligence as an audience that the film adaptation essentially decided a Satan did it.