Silent Hill: The Terror Engine, an academic study by Bernard Perron, reviewed by Jeremy Behreandt



There was a HOLE here.
It’s gone now.
—blood graffiti in Neely’s Bar, Silent Hill 2


I never did get to see Hellraiser, though I’d always pause to look at Pinhead’s gridded face on the VHS box at the grocery store, back when I was young and you could still rent VHS tapes at your local grocery store. My family used to let me watch along with whenever they rented a horror film, masterpieces like Troll 2 or Warlock, but that stopped when one—I can’t recall the name—grossed me out so much I threw up Skittles all over the bathroom floor. I’d watched a scientist spill acid over his forearm, causing the skin to crack like desert sand. In his agony, he bumped into a bank of caged alien specimens and was bitten; he metamorphosed into a threatening inchoate mass. By the time I played the Survival Horror classic Silent Hill, released by Konami for the Playstation in 1999, NIN and Slipknot were in, and blood graffiti and pentagrams and rusty chains and flickering light bulbs were regular ornamentation of the zeitgeist. Still, Silent Hill seemed an altogether different beast.

What I’m saying is I’ve got a bit of catching up to do on what horror was or is or might be or do, and let’s get it out of the way before I venture into Bernard Perron’s astute Silent Hill: The Terror Engine, an academic study of the foggy little resort town. I will, however, be following Perron’s lead on which luminaries to tap. First, Anne Radcliffe, from “On the Supernatural in Literature”:

Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.

And H. P. Lovecraft, from “Supernatural Horror in Literature”:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

Stephen King’s opinion from Danse Macabre is too lengthy to quote in full, but he delineates three tiers of affect: (1) disgust, e.g., at The Exorcist‘s projectile vomit; (2) horror, the perceived strangeness which exposes you to the “most primitive level” within, what you have attempted to deny or distance yourself from; (3) terror, “the finest emotion,” in which nothing is directly perceived, but rather is imagined.

Were I responsible, I’d throw in some Ernst Jensch or Freud on the unheimlich, but this is running on, so I’ll finish with David Foster Wallace on the Lynchian:

An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”

I find it urgent to mod the definition, insofar as ‘containment’ implies that, of the mundane and macabre, one is active while the other is a threatening potentiality; furthermore, the term has a medical connotation which makes it inaccurate. One way I as audience distance myself from and manage the horror is to quarantine it to a magic circle, e.g., the protagonist is unfortunate or foolhardy enough to be locked in a haunted manse on a stormy night, stranded without a spare tire or cell phone; I the audience would never be so vulnerable. In the Lynchian, the horrific is persistently interrupted by the mundanity of pop culture and mass reproducibility, such that no magic circle can fully form. Neither the horrific nor the normal can form a dominant outside by which the anomaly is surrounded.

Who knew? If ever I expected a genre to care neither for good taste nor the dichotomy between high- and low-brow I would’ve expected horror. And yet in this sampler one can already see an attempt to legitimize the finer works that ‘transcend’ the ‘limits’ of genre by stimulating major rather than minor affects. For Radcliffe, terror opens onto the Romantic sublime; for Lovecraft, horror opens onto the metaphysical insofar as it undermines our anthropocentrism and confidence to parse, systematize and predict the world. King values disturbing the imagination over disturbing the viscera. Wallace’s portrait of Lynch emphasizes the director as an artist working within and against Hollywood. This battle for cultural legitimacy is as familiar for gamers as for horror fans, and it lingers at the borders of Perron’s book. One need look no further than the subtitle: The Terror Engine rather than The Horror Engine. Perhaps to attempt to ‘expand’ the soul, as Radcliffe put it, is to risk annihilating it.

No mistake, Silent Hill wallows in disgust, horror and terror alike. The first installment in the franchise begins when Harry Mason swerves off the road to avoid hitting a girl. When he wakes in his wrecked car, his daughter is missing. He explores the deserted, foggy resort town of Silent Hill to find out what happened to her. Upon discovering a corpse crucified on a chain link fence at the end of a blood-streaked alley, he is attacked and knocked out or even killed by homunculi. He wakes up in Cafe 5to2; meets a police officer named Cybil; kills a pterodactyl that crashes through the window; picks up broken pocket radio which crackles static when monsters are nearby. In the second installment, James Sunderland receives a letter from his dead wife, Mary, beckoning him to come to Silent Hill. He picks up a flashlight in the pocket of a mannequin wearing his wife’s dress; peeks voyeuristically through the slats of a closet as Silent Hill‘s most iconic nemesis, Pyramid Head, sexually assaults Bellmer dolls; digs through a bloody or shitty or hardwater-stained toilet for a wallet containing a safe combination; and meets Maria, a hypersexualized doppelganger of his wife. Later installments in the series will further develop the mythos behind a cult’s attempt to resurrect a Chthonic god and Silent Hill’s metamorphosis from a foggy, mostly-vacant resort town to a benighted labyrinth composed of rusty grating and blood-stained walls flaking plaster.

Why care about genre?1 I like to think of it as a tip of the hat to a work whose creative techniques and choices proved particularly evocative. The deferral of major creative choices to a formula allow both audience and creator to maintain and break expectations. It is a way to test the imagination against preceding imaginations by disabling a few of its numerous resources, to demand it remain in a narrow range when it might more easily fly off elsewhere. Alternatively, genre allows direct challenges to the limitations of genre-establishing artworks, for example the racist and sexist tendencies in classic American Westerns, using their own devices against them. But even were we to attempt to recreate, with neither tinkering nor innovation, another Psycho or Dawn of the Dead for the present day and fail to do so, we’d gain insight on how executing and re-iterating in a new context mutates the logos or intention which lay behind it.

To see how horror has had to adapt to videogames, consider the singular monster in relentless pursuit as a basis for many horror movies.2 Cinema can create drama by asking and then answering questions such as: Can it be avoided? Can it be diverted from its purpose? Can it be killed? The tension of the audience is released when the tables are turned by the ingenuity of a makeshift solution such as ‘Trick it into eating a grenade’; or the desperate solution of ‘Lure it in the cargo hold and open the airlock’; or the fuck-all solution of ‘Nuke it from orbit.’ With videogames, the answers to those questions usually have to be pretty either-or for the sake of legibility, i.e., of providing the player clear and swift feedback as to what actions he or she can perform and whether they are effective: the authorial hand weighs heavily if at one point in the game the monster is invincible, or unavoidable, whereas at other points it must be slain to advance. And that’s still assuming a monster, not many (there’s a reason why Cameron’s Aliens has been far more influential on videogames than Scott’s Alien). If repetition forms the path out of ignorant fear to knowledgeable mastery, games often do not have the resources to make every encounter with a kind of monster singular. In all genres of videogame, the same monster may be encountered infinitely many times, in varied environments, and must have behaviors that are neither frustratingly unpredictable nor too-easily understood.

Worse yet, monsters large and small, hideous and cute, harmless and dangerous, are found in just about every genre of videogame, save those that define themselves by having no monsters. In the new medium, horror has to become survival horror. Alone in the Dark, Dead Space, and Amnesia had to find ways to disempower the player through limiting or eliminating resources, adding negatives to the usually positive results of firing a gun or wielding a light (e.g., attracting more monsters), limiting checkpoints, deliberately diminishing the ease of control while still giving the player a goal to achieve. Unlike the audience above, you may well know that you need to shoot off the limbs of this fast-moving monster, but dammit if you can find any ammo; you may well know you can shimmy past this shuffling zombie in a narrow hallway, but your health is so low that if you do get bit, game over.

Silent Hill pioneered survival horror. Foggy horizons were common to the videogames of the first generation of 3D graphics, since the hardware could draw only so many objects in the distance at a time; without the haze, buildings ‘popped-up’ unrealistically as the camera approached. Pre-rendered cinematic cut scenes might be marred by translation issues, spotty voice acting, or limited to no motion capture. Also common were shitty controls for both moving and aiming at enemies in 3D, especially when the camera was placed outside the protagonist. Poor User Interface (UI) would interfere. Budget and time limitations meant certain buildings had to remain facades, certain rooms unenterable. Silent Hill incorporated all these limitations into its worldbuilding. Harry Mason is not athletic, is forced to use weaponry he’s unfamiliar with. His Twin Peaks-esque encounters with the nurse Lisa Garland culminate in her lurching forward to embrace him as her own blood pours down her face. There is no radar which conveniently displays enemies as red arrows or automatically updates the waypoint. Harry must listen for static in the fog. And every time Harry finds a locked door he has to scribble in red marker on his map. While repeated run-ins with enemies may dull the horror, as the player picks up narrative jigsaw pieces, what these enemies may symbolize gives them a psychological dimension. For example, when the player discovers that James potentially murdered his sick wife, Mary, to relieve her suffering in Silent Hill 2, Pyramid Head becomes a symbol of persecutory guilt. Pyramid Head’s predilection for Bellmer dolls might suggest James has a frustrated libido, which in turn allows for new interpretations of Maria’s flirtatiousness. James may not believe his own excuse for why he murdered his wife; perhaps he was ashamed at being angry with his wife for putting him in the position of caretaker rather than of sexual partner. Maria, if she is a projection of James’s unconscious, could be emblematic of the old horror trope in which we do not know our own desires, or how repugnant they can be, until they are realized.

And while it is important to note how Silent Hill innovates upon shooters like Doom by removing the power fantasy, too often commenters, including Perron, overemphasize that and ignore how Silent Hill along with Resident Evil hybridized the shooter with the point-and-click adventure. While the uses of a shotgun or a first-aid kit are obvious and constant enough, Silent Hill also requires solving item-based puzzles, which typically involve lock combinations, proper placement of various plaques and decoding cryptic messages written in blood. You might read this little gem in an elementary school:

“Alchemy laboratory”

Gold in an old man’s palm.
The future hidden in his fist.
Exchange for sage’s water.

You also find a packet of blood in the hospital, which you might not to think to use until lack of progress drives you to experimentation. Against what I’ve been saying about the importance of legibility in videogames, the pleasure in point-and-click adventures is figuring out clever, unintuitive uses and contexts for items. Because isn’t it obvious in retrospect that you should go to the room where tentacles are squirming through a hole in the wall and distract them by opening the packet? A pleasure, then in Silent Hill‘s horror is the combination of knowing-without-capability and capability-without-knowing. While there’s a sadistic satisfaction in kicking an enemy to ensure it’s dead, you’ve not done anything singular; solving a riddle for the first time, on the other hand, might grant you the illusion that you’re one of the few to figure it out on your own.

I emphasize ‘you’ in the last paragraph because Perron seeks to explore Silent Hill as experienced by the player, rather than as a series of interlocking systems in which

the Insane Cancers, huge and fat humanoid creatures, have 2100-2500 physical strength points in normal action level (2520-3000 on hard level). Knowing that the attack power of one handgun bullet is 100 points, one may calculate that it will take more than 20 bullets to kill those monsters.

The examples Perron gives are rather unfortunate, since they illustrate why the dichotomy between game as experience and as apparatus is untenable—they show how formulae undisclosed to the player are working behind the curtain to create an experience of vulnerability. All the same, Perron’s focus leads him to explore Silent Hill using two concepts borrowed from Ed S. Tan: fiction emotions and artifact emotions. Fiction emotions arise from the player’s simultaneous emotional arousal and awareness that the emotions can be experienced at a safe remove, since the world is fictive. In other words, a player may freely explore emotions he or she might otherwise suppress, wrath for example, because he or she knows vengeance upon a clear badguy is fictively permitted. Artifact emotions arise from the player’s awareness that the emotion he or she feels arises from an intelligent design. In other words, while the player experiences fear, he or she may also experience pleasure on the meta-level about how the fear was evoked and channeled.

These two concepts flow into each other, as both involve the incompleteness in suspension of disbelief; this incompletion enriches the aesthetic experience rather than diminishes it. To put it another way, Perron is tickling the old problem of catharsis in Aristotelian drama: how it is that the viewer feels emotionally purged by the play yet does not storm the stage to save the life of the protagonist, nor wonder why the same protagonist is enduring the same events on closing as on opening night. Presumably the awareness of proper conduct towards a fictional character would interfere with complete emotional identification or empathy. Though Perron is aware that cinematic theory is not fully equipped to explore how this problem plays out in videogames, and devotes the fourth chapter of The Terror Engine to that, he seems to assume that there is a linear evolution from one medium to the next, such that cinema is the one, direct antecedent to videogames:

the gamer is a subject who has gotten back, not his/her own body, but a specular body in third-person perspective of the survival horror. As his/her ergodic activity is fundamental to, say, walking through Silent Hill, he/she has in return ‘corporealized pleasures in video games.’ That is the mutation of cinema […] In concrete terms, the gamer has recovered the use of his hands through the DualShock Analog Controller, and of his arms and upper body through the Wii remote and the nunchuk, with the help of which he moves through and around the time and space of the fictional world. Compared to the spectator, he well and truly possesses, via the controls, a repertoire of actions.

The first half of this is so much academese. Even though Silent Hill‘s protagonists fit the Everyman archetype, by the time Silent Hill arrived on the scene, enough gamers—male or female or other—had played as Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft, to use one example, to expect of videogames that the avatar is not simply a substitute body regained. It is an idealized body in appearance and in ability. Depending on the player’s gender and age, and on whether we’re talking of the original Tomb Raider or the reboot, this body is one to be lusted after, one to be punished by (and in the stead of) and one to serve as judgment upon one’s real life body as much as one that is to be identified with.3 In a horror game so focused on linking monstrosity with disability—a prominent NPC in Silent Hill is a severely burned and wheelchair-bound adolescent girl, while monsters appear to strain in the straitjacket of their own flesh—Harry Mason is ideal, even if he’s no Nathan Drake.

Furthermore, Perron’s choice to avoid design and technology prevents him from writing incisively about how a remote control in the audience’s hand is different from a controller in the gamer’s hands. Videogames may register more actions than cinema or literature while still registering fewer than sport, interactive art, or nonstructured imaginative play. Even if the Wiimote weren’t radically different than the DualShock in usage, which it is, the player’s repertoire of actions will be very different in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for the Wii than in the first Silent Hill for Playstation, which Shattered Memories reimagines. Luckily, this limitation doesn’t stop Perron from noting the brilliant plot twist in Shattered Memories, which is dependent upon a switch between first- and third-person perspective.4

Nevertheless, Perron raises a fascinating set of questions: Why do we enjoy horror? How do we enjoy horror videogames differently than horror movies or books? Experiencing fear does not inhibit the relatively passive activity of watching or reading, yet games still require one to keep one’s wits. One of the most tantalizing suggestions Perron explores is that the pleasure arising from fear has a hermeneutic element—interpreting Jacob’s Ladder may inhabit a different emotional nexus than interpreting Middlemarch. This idea Perron borrows from Marc Santos and Sarah White’s “Playing with Ourselves.” In this essay, hermeneutic pleasure

is based on our need to perceive things in terms of ‘ordered’ narration. As we experience narrative’s linear progression, we anticipate the unity of its conclusion – the tying together of its disparate lines. We experience hermeneutic pleasure as mysteries are solved and ambiguities cleared up.[…] Hermeneutically, we act as executors of narrative’s requisite ‘sovereign judge,’ […] our attempts to order the narrative mirrors our actions as Oedipal subjects: following the Law of the Father, we provide a fetishized coherence and illusory linearity to an otherwise fractured narrative.

I recommend reading Santos and White, by the way. Perron’s The Terror Engine has many strengths, such as the inclusion of screenshots, or the willingness to survey much of the Silent Hill franchise and to namecheck and quote several academics in doing so. Any fan of Silent Hill will find in Perron’s bibliography and notes a wealth of resources. The downside is how scattered Perron can seem. Santos and White, on the other hand, are focused. Not only that, it’s fun that their analogy of game as therapy, coined in 2005, is the frame story of 2009’s Shattered Memories. Text feeding theory feeding text!

Ah, how fondly I recall the end of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece Dead Alive, in which our hero is dragged into his mother’s womb and must emancipate himself to become an adult. And have I mentioned my fascination with the eternally unborn monster fetus? Silent Hill 3‘s final boss battle begins when Heather swallows a medicine hidden in the locket she has carried since the game’s beginning, a gift from her father Harry, to abort the fetal God she carries inside her. This kind of ludic closure involves an extreme case of capability-without-knowing—you possess an item which you cannot get rid of yet cannot use until you understand its significance. It’s evidence of how Silent Hill continues to tantalize, and to act as a touchstone for those who work and play in the survival horror genre.



1. It is worth quoting Jonathan Culler’s “Toward a Theory of Non-Genre Literature” for two reasons here. The first is that even though Culler aims toward Finnegan’s Wake and other great texts which escape expectations of how to read, he does not dismiss genre as a mere label:

There is, of course, an alternative view of genres: that they are simply taxonomic categories in which we place works that share certain features. Since every work has properties, every work, perforce, could be placed in some genre. If a text seems not to fit, this means only that a new category must be postulated. Thus, non-genre literature would be an inadmissable concept, or if it were to be admitted, would designate only a residue.

This view of genres seems singularly unhelpful. To treat them as taxonomic classes is to obscure their function as norms in the process of reading. If we begin with the assumption that every work must be accounted for in a literary taxonomy, then our taxonomic classes become artifices of description. But taxonomies must be motivated, and if one literary classification is better than another it is because genres are, in some sense, natural classes whose reality is grounded in the expectations and procedures of readers.

The second reason to quote Culler is the important relationship between interpretation and play. I propose that we can riff off of Culler’s passing analogy:

The essence of literature is not representation, not a communicative transparency, but an opacity, a resistance to recuperation which exercises sensibility and intelligence. Just as we would stop playing games if we could master them completely, so our interest in literature depends on what Geoffrey Hartman calls ‘the differential relation of form to consciousness,’ the tension between writing and reading.[…] The text is a region in which characters are placed in relation to one another and inaugurate ‘a play of meaning.’ The job of literary theory is to specify the forms of this game: the procedures used to defer meaning, and the procedures of recuperation.

By recuperation, here, Culler means a work which initially is unreadable in how far it steps beyond the expectation or instruction set of its genre until the genre evolves to accommodate and absorb the anomalous text, in part through the theorist’s work of explication and canonization.

I suspect that players seek the meaning of play, some significance to why they’ve pushed buttons for some ten to twenty hours, but I’ve never found recuperation to be so clean or completable task such that we must fault Silent Hill for not being more ‘experimental’, especially when the price of containing anomaly to preserve genre-purity is that the recuperative mechanisms themselves lead to unforeseeable mutations to the genre’s essence. Internet fandom ensures competing interpretations, and videogames’ frequent sequels and reboots ensure that just when a theorist thinks they’ve got Silent Hill pegged, a new installment comes along which challenges the theory.

2. If you don’t think monsters are central to the horror genre, consider instead this example of how each medium renders the genre differently: Mark Z. Danielewski’s book House of Leaves evokes metaphysical horror with the discovery that a house’s interior measure is larger than its exterior measure. Such horror would be lost to older gamers, since conventions arising from classic videogames ask the gamers to accept that interior scenes often load separately from exterior scenes and that travel through environments varying in scale is as often symbolic as it is realistic. For example, Mario moves across an world map before selecting a node which stands in for an entire level. A movie may use various camera and editing techniques to create a sense of disorientation or panic in a horror film, while conventions of newer videogames often require that the player have control over camera, and that some exploration scenes have temporal and spatial contiguity. To paraphrase Wittgenstein: do not forget that a videogame, even though it is composed in the language of cinema, is not used in the language-game of giving a cinematic experience.

3. Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency is a must for analysis of representations of women in videogames. The gendering of therapy goes without saying, but to see how it plays out in Tomb Raider, see the E3 trailer for Rise of the Tomb Raider and the opening minutes of the 2013 reboot, in which Lara nearly drowns, is knocked out, burned and impaled in the abdomen.

4. I find episode seventy of the Experience Points podcast to be particularly illuminating on Shattered Memories.

Silent Hill: The Terror Engine, by Bernard Perron. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, digitalculturebooks imprint. 172 pages. $25.95, paper.

Jeremy Behreandt was raised in Park Falls, Wisconsin. He received his BA from UW-Eau Claire and his MFA from The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His first chapbook, The Wilhelm Scream, was published by Plumberries Press.

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