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A Journey into Darkness: The Symbolism of Silent Hill 2 (Part 1)

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(Cross-posted from my tumblr .)

Part One:  Welcome to Silent Hill, Please Enjoy Your Stay

All of Silent Hill is subject to interpretation, and this one is mine. 

In this massive project, I walk through the entirety of Silent Hill 2, connecting imagery, dialogue, level design, puzzles, notes, music, and everything else to certain messages, symbols, and meanings from literature, religion, folklore, and the larger canon of the Silent Hill series.

Since this is my interpretation, that means it is my opinion, and in no way is my word law.  Feel free to critique or question my connections because this was written after a three day Silent Hill spree in which I, obsessed and sleep deprived, refused to stop typing words.

That said, if you are interested, then welcome… to Silent Hill!

Introduction: A Brief Discussion of Themes

What’s in a name?  Sometimes, nothing.  As a writer I know how frustrating it can be to name characters and at times I’ll just slap on a label that seems to fit.  Other times, I do try to include meaning in how I name my characters.  Whether or not Team Silent meant for these names to mean something, I found quite a bit of symbolism in the names of the cast of Silent Hill 2.

Many of the names have origins that are biblical in Christian and Jewish traditions.  James is the half brother of Jesus.  Mary is the name of two very important figures, as is Maria since it is a derivative of Mary; Angela is another word for ‘angel’, and Rachel, the name of the nurse who cares for Mary in the hospital, appears in the Bible as well. 

Mary’s last name, Shepherd, has particular importance: Jesus is referred to as the Good Shepherd.  The combined name, Mary Shepherd, references two very important religious figures who appear in many faiths, but of particular note is the context of Christianity in which Mary is the “virgin mother of God”, someone historically viewed as chaste and almost divine, particularly to some branches of Christianity.  She is one of the most important wives of the Bible.  This reflects back on James: his wife is a divine figure, someone pure, which further demonizes his sexual desires and his murder of her.

James’ last name, Sunderland, has its roots in an Old English word which means ‘separate or divided’ which makes sense given the English word sunder.  This is just the first instance in which this games references duality: people who are somehow divided and incomplete.

This is our first theme:  duality.  It is one of the most important themes of the game and is constantly referenced in puzzles, cutscene imagery, the layout of levels, and even, as stated earlier, in character’s names.

Mary’s full name, Mary Shepherd-Sunderland, is divided, and the extra meaning of the last name may reflect upon Mary’s change from someone holy, untouched by the world, to someone devastated by illness.  The illness itself divides her; the hallway conversation at the end of the game shows Mary having two different reactions to James, one in which she pushes him away and the other in which she wants him.  Her illness has created conflict and division within her.

James is divided as well - between the reality of what he did and the delusion which he clings too.  This is symbolically reflected in the very first scene the player sees him in:  the mirror in the bathroom, in which we do not see his real face, but his reflection, his false face, first.  This is because the player is not seeing the real James, but the James who believes his wife is alive and is deluding himself.

This duality appears in many forms throughout the game, even in smaller side quests and notes.  In the article about the Walter Sullivan murderer, for instance, the criminal is quoted as saying, “I did it, but it wasn’t me!”

The name which stands out as very different from the others is Eddie Dombrowski, who not only has no Biblical or religious connection but is also different in origin and sound.  Eddie stands out in quite a few other ways as well.  He is the first human being in a Silent Hill game to be an enemy, without being possessed or turned into a monster.  Unlike  Angela and James, both of whom are in some way redeemed, Eddie is outright vilified, and his end is not at all ambiguous like the other characters.

Arguably what he has done is also the least justified - that while he has suffered bullying, his reaction was not against the person who hurt him, as with James and Angela, but against an animal who was in no way involved.  Eddie displays a kind of inhumane sadism in his enjoyment of the suffering of others which goes beyond any kind of sympathy.  This ties into our second theme, which is slightly more complicated than the first:  issues of consent and the taking of lives.  

Various other names which appear from time to time in notes and side quests have their place in biblical history, including Joseph and Joshua, two of the three hospital patients.  For that matter, the number 3 appears as a motif in the game in almost every puzzle and level in the game.  This can be vaguely connected to the Holy Trinity of Christianity, or in retrospect, the importance of 3 in the Order (think of the 3 circles with the Halo of the Sun).  

The importance of three begins with James, Angela, and Eddie, the three who come to the town.  Then, the fact that Mary had three years to live, and that James thought she had been dead for three years. There are three names carved into the wall for the clock puzzle, representing seconds, minutes, and hours.  There are three music boxes for the music box puzzle in the hotel.  There are three coins for the coin puzzle in the apartment, three plates for the plate puzzle in the prison, and so on and so forth. 

But let’s go back to Joseph, Jack, and Joshua, the hospital patients. 

[Jack Davis]

He has attempted suicide three times in the past for reasons unknown. Although he is normally a model patient who follows doctor’s and nurse’s orders, he must be watched closely due to his past pattern of sudden and violent suicide attempts.

[Joseph Barkin]

His illness seems to be rooted in the fact that he believes he is guilty of causing his daughter’s death. His symptoms suggest a psychotic break and paranoid delusions. Normally calm, but has a tendency towards violence when excited.

[Joshua Lewis]

History of hospitalization as well as numerous assault, battery and other violent offenses. He has a strong persecution complex and a tendency to solve things through violence. Extreme caution necessary.

These patients all represent facets of James, or are perhaps outlooks of directions he can take - i.e., the suicidal patient reflects James in the In Water ending.  Each can be connected to James’ behavior in some way.  They can also relate to each of the three main characters.

Jack Davis obviously relates to Angela.  One moment, she seems fine, and the next, she panics and lashes out either physically or verbally, and of course is the character most concerned with thoughts of suicide.  James would be Joseph Barkin;  he has manifested massive delusions in the forms of Pyramid Head, Maria, and the letter, and when these delusions are threatened he acts out violently.  The last would be Eddie, who after years of being bullied has become almost paranoid in his belief that everyone is laughing at him, and whose love of violence has transformed into a vicious, almost psychotic behavior.

The theme of three is used in the above manner in almost every level, to reflect upon James, Angela, and Eddie.  The last theme we should mention is truth: the discovery of truth, the obscuring of truth.  Truth and the nature of it appears in many places in the game. 

Entering Silent Hill

The first sight we have in this game is a nasty bathroom and the reflection of James’ face.  The reflection I’ve talked about a little; but why a bathroom?  There is of course something gross and abhorrent about bathrooms in general, particularly a bathroom so nasty.  Japan has a great deal of myths and stories surrounding haunted bathrooms.  But there is something specifically important in how the game chooses to start here.

We don’t see James travel to the town; we don’t see him step out of his car, or walk up to the railing.  He is already in the bathroom.  We see his false reflection, see him sigh and stand back up, then he walks out and approaches the railing, remembering his letter. 

It is my theory that there, in that bathroom, is where James completely repressed his memories.  In the car, he was with the body; it would have been hard to forget.  Only once he was there, out of the car, hiding in a dark bathroom by himself did he suffer a complete breakdown and repress the memory.  There, he created his false image, the one we see in the mirror.  That’s why there’s a hesitation before the letter, that’s why we don’t just see James at the railing talking about Mary.  First, he falters.  He creates the scenario in his mind, forcefully represses the truth, and then walks out of the bathroom fully believing it. 

It’s also important that we see the lake so prominently.  He’s not looking down over the town, he’s looking out over Toluca.  The Hotel is across the lake, of course, and that is his ultimate destination.  The lake is his greatest obstacle.  Lakes are also symbolic of hidden depths and darkness; lakes can swallow things up and they become lost forever. 

So, James looks out over the lake, we hear his letter, and then the game really begins.  James is obviously not in his right mind here.  We know he just suffered a huge breakdown; in retrospect, it’s obvious.  His car is parked maniacally, haphazardly.  He doesn’t lock his car, he doesn’t even shut the door.  James is so utterly devastated and so completely wrapped up in keeping his delusions intact that he is forgetting and ignoring reality and ordinary concerns.

From here, James leaves the overlook and enters the woods.  According to background information on the creation of the games, the long walk through the forest which James takes to enter Silent Hill is supposed to make the player feel isolated, distant from the real world.  That is certainly true.  But I couldn’t help but make another connection:

Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray

from the straight road and woke to find myself

alone in a dark wood.

That is the first canto ofDante’s Inferno , the start of his Divine Comedy, which describes a man’s descent into Hell.  The larger story is that of a man who has fallen into despair in part due to the loss of his beloved Beatrice; he must travel through Hell, and then Purgatory, to make it to Heaven where Beatrice is.  This story starts with him lost in a wood, “midway in life” (middle-aged).  He went “astray from the straight road”, i.e., he is lost and has left normal life or the normal road, and “woke to find myself”, i.e., lost his senses and then was suddenly in this dark, strange place, which is the wood outside the opening to Hell.

This is very similar to James and his situation, in particular the long, dark walk through the wood.  Throughout the woods, James hears dogs and it sounds as if he is being hunted; though the game itself includes no dogs as enemies or monsters.  Dogs have long been associated with hell, particularly Cerberus of Greek myth, who guarded the gateway to the underworld.  The implications here are heavy:  James is leaving the real world and entering Hell.

The first character he meets is Angela, who is standing in a graveyard outside of town.  The graveyard is an apt choice; it is a place that represents death but also loss, because this is where the living go to mourn the dead.  Both James and Angela are looking for people who are already dead or gone. 

These characters each show very strange behavior here.  Angela acts nervously, fidgets, keeps her distance from James and hesitates to speak.  James displays a lack of care for himself after Angela warns him of the danger of the town and he shows no concern.  Here, the game sets the stage for these characters and the truths which will be revealed about them.  Angela’s nervous behavior around men and her anxiety will be explained, as will James’ lack of concern for his own safety.

Something I would like to point out is Angela’s use of “mama” to refer to her mother, and the fact that she quickly corrects herself.  There is a loss of innocence, childhood denied, in Angela’s story.  This appears again and again with her - first here, with her use of the childish ‘mama’, and the way she quickly changes her tone and word choice as if she is embarrassed and ashamed.  Later, we see other symbols near her which imply the same thing:  the ruined teddy bear in the room by the two doors, one of which leads to Angela; the torn family photograph which includes a little girl.

When James enters the town, it is completely empty, and full of fog.  He passes through abandoned construction and long empty roads, and though he has been to the town years before does not seem surprised by the change.  This is a clear sign that he is not quite all right.  This emptiness and abandonment will color his experience in the town, including his version of the Otherworld, which is full of dark, dank spaces that are isolated and cold. 

To me, this is a reflection of the years in which he was isolated from Mary and had only his suffering for company.  It reflects the dark, empty time of his life in which alcohol and unfulfilled sexual desires were his only company.  These are what inform the way his Otherworld and his monsters look:  loneliness, isolation, darkness, sexual repression, anger and pain internalized and buried. 

After wandering through the fog for a moment, James will find a trail of blood which, when followed, leads to the first monster.  There is so much blood present it is hard to believe anyone could survive such a thing.  It must also be wondered how, or why, the trail was left.  How could so much blood be left behind?  The implications are gross and horrific.  It is vastly unlikely the monster James finds is the one behind the blood.  The only kind of weapon which could cause so much damage would be an enormous cleaver, perhaps a Great Knife…

The first monster seen is the creature which appears to be hugging itself, which walks in a strange, broken manner, and spits acid at James.  The creature is distorted, destroyed, forcibly contained and able only to poison others.  This is James’ internalized anger and pain, his feelings repressed, but it could also be Mary and how she lashed out at James when she was in pain.

At this point in the game, James receives the radio.  This is of course a staple of the series, but to James, it is also a connection to his wife.  He hears her voice calling to him through broken static; later, when he has seen the videotape, the radio will allow him to hear his wife’s voice calling again.  But in the hotel, he will hear her clearly, because he has finally remembered the truth.

From here the game is somewhat open.  Players familiar with the town can run right over to Martin St, pick up the Apartment key, and move on.  But there are important sights in the town which shouldn’t be overlooked.  Everything in Silent Hill was placed there on purpose by Team Silent; they must mean something, right?

One of these optional sights is the Blood Swamp monument, which includes a vague, partially destroyed description.  The restored description:: 

"Remains of Blood Swamp.  The x meters of land surrounding this monument was originally swamp, but was later filled in.  From long ago, the swamp was nicknamed Blood Swamp because the executioners poured the water used to wash the execution tools in here.  Perhaps it’s for that reason many people seem to have seen ghosts in the area."

Execution and executioners are an important staple of this game.  Pyramid Head acts as an executioner multiple times, mostly of Maria, but later the creature executes itself.  In addition, Pyramid represents execution in many paintings and engravings in the town.  The prison level includes executions in its stories and imagery of Pyramid Head.  The Valtiel Cult may be the people referenced both on the Swamp Monument and in the prison.  More on that when we get to Toluca Prison.

There is also a dead man who can be found next to a series of warning notes.  There a few lines of significance in these notes.  The writer mentions that his friend doesn’t see anything in the town, further proof that only some people are called to the dark world.  He also says that, whether or not he is hallucinating, he “is beyond all hope”.  This implies some sort of guilt, a feeling of being irredeemable, which is likely why he was called to the town in the first place.  But this is the best line of all:

 I f you want to go on living, you’d be better off just sitting in the dark and staying quiet. But even that probably won’t save you.

If James were to stay in the dark, he would probably live but he would not be saved.  Translation:  if James does not learn the truth, if he “stays in the dark”, he will likely live, whereas the truth is likely to kill him.  But even if he lives, he probably will not be saved - his repressed feelings and delusions will destroy him anyway.

The optional side quest which leads to Martin St starts in a trailer near the lower streets of the town.   In this trailer, James reads a note that says “I’ll wait at BAR Neely’s”.  The strange capitalization is the same as a message James finds a little after this:  “There was a HOLE here.  It’s gone now.”  It’s likely they were written by the same person. 

At Bar Neely’s, James finds a map which leads him to the question mark at the end of Martin St, where a corpse with the Apartment key is found.  This map also shows a cut-through from one side of the town, to the side beyond the apartments.  Likely, this man was trying to get through.  This is the same path James is trying to take.

The person who writes the first note says they will ‘wait’, much like Mary said she is waiting for James.  The character who goes after this person is killed trying to find them, which is a bad omen for James. 

The line about the hole has interested fans of this game for years.  There are many connections to make, from the holes James will use in the prison, to the hole which lets Henry travel the Otherworld in Silent Hill 4.  But what matters is not what the hole is, but the fact that it is gone.

This was deemed important enough to be written by someone, the fact that a hole is gone.  In SH2, holes represent a way forward, an open path to the truth.  They descend into darkness, yes, but they also pull the player closer to the “light”, the truth.  But here, a hole is gone - and soon after, James finds a corpse.  The hole is gone because the person lost, they died, and the truth went undiscovered.

And with that, James has the key to the apartments, and can enter the first real “level” of Silent Hill 2.

Blue Creek and Wood Side Apartments

Each location in this game means something to James.  The town itself was the last place he and his wife were happy; the hotel is where they vacationed; the hospital relates to Mary’s illness.  So what do the apartments represent?

It is my theory that they connect to James’ family and home life.  Think of Silent Hill 4: The Room.  Frank Sunderland is an apartment superintendent, and it is quite likely that James grew up in that apartment complex.  Let’s explore that.

In the apartments, we see representations of both James and Mary: James is the body slumped in front of the TV, and Mary’s clothes are on the mannekin in the room with the flashlight.  This ties both of them to the apartments themselves.  In one room is a Silent Hill brochure.  It’s unlikely someone living in Silent Hill would have a tourist brochure, but James and Mary could easily have chosen to visit Silent Hill after seeing just such a brochure. 

Most significantly, the two instances in which Pyramid Head abuses and rapes a monster both occur in these apartments.  More likely than not, any sexual behavior between Mary and James would have happened at home.  When James was avoiding the hospital and mourning Mary, he would have done so at home.  Home is where James would most strongly associate sex and sexual behavior, and would be the place he mostly likely allowed his resentment and anger at being denied sexual fulfillment to be unleashed.  Once he leaves the apartments, Pyramid Head is never again seen sexually abusing any monster, though James sees him multiple times before the end of the game.

What do these scenes of depravity symbolize?  Has James entertained these thoughts, or worse, acted upon them?  No, that is not what I believe.  What he has done, what we know he has done, is murder his wife.  Whatever his motives, she died.  Mary mentions in some lines a desire to die due to her terrible pain, but she never asks James to kill her.  James takes that action without her consent - he kills her without her consent.  It is a violent, evil action, done by husband to wife. 

Pyramid Head’s behavior towards the monsters reflects upon James’ murdering his wife against her will.  Whatever she said aloud to herself, she did not ask James to do anything to her, and can be seen struggling against him in the video tape.  The sexual abuse that Pyramid Head acts in symbolizes both James’ act of murder, and his repressed sexual desires, which were tied into his pain and even perhaps his motive for killing his wife.

The most peculiar room in the apartments is arguably the butterfly room, which is filled with bugs and strange lights and a hole which James must reach into.  Butterflies have particular significance in Japanese culture in relation to death and the afterlife, and can be viewed as bad omens.

Maria has a butterfly tattoo, and this butterfly-filled room is a dimly lit bedroom.  The connection here could easily be seen as a warning, that Maria and James’ repressed sexuality manifesting itself towards her are dangerous, and will lead to his death or downfall.  This happens in the Maria ending, in which it is heavily implied James is doomed by his devotion to Maria and his delusions. 

The hole is a small foreshadowing of the dark pits into which James will leap later: all the holes which James encounters represent his situation.  To move forward, he must use the holes, but he cannot see the way forward through them.  Once he jumps down a hole, it is impossible to move back, much like how it is impossible to unlearn the truth once it is known.  The holes are representative of the fact that learning the truth will probably destroy James, but that he must continue moving forward towards the truth because it is impossible to turn back.

The Clock Puzzle

Here, we have a reference to three:  Henry, Mildred, Scott, the three scratches on the wall.  Note that there are two men and one woman in the trio, just like our three protagonists.  But what is much more interesting is the choice of puzzle here and its place as the first real puzzle of the game.

Silent Hill is a place in which time does not really exist.  So far as it appears, people can exist there endlessly with no food, water, or rest and never die.  In other games, clocks stop and never come back on, and time seems to cease to exist.  As a place outside of normal reality Silent Hill has no need for clocks.

Yet, here is this ornate grandfather clock with a great big chime, with a strange memo. 

The scars from the past shall remove the nail that stops Time.

On the surface, the scars are the marks on the wall, right?  But we’ve said the scratches, the three names, relate to the three main characters.  Every set of three in this game relates to the three characters, never doubt that.  So what does this line really mean?

Angela, James, and Eddie are all stopped in time.  Their lives are over.  What they have faced has stopped them from moving forward, they are incapable of living, incapable of moving on in Time, as they are.  Their ‘scars’, their ‘pasts’, are what keep them immobile.  They are nailed to the ground.

I find the choice of the word ‘nail’ interesting, given how strange it sounds in the sentence.  Now, what has James come to Silent Hill for really?  Persecution.  To suffer for his sins.  To pay for his crimes, essentially, to be crucified.  There are a lot of scenes with crucifixion like imagery, but this line with the nail stands out.  Jesus was nailed to the cross, he paid for the sins of mankind in this way.  Time has been struck with a nail here.  

Is it too far to connect the nail to a need to be crucified, to pay for ones sins so that one may move forward in Time?  In particular the Jesus reference seems telling, because James does not die for his sins, Maria does.  At one point, she is ‘crucified’ by Pyramid Head, hung upside down and stabbed with a spear (Jesus was stabbed with a spear on the cross).  Being hung upside down on crosses was a thing that did happen as well.  It might be a stretch, but it makes sense to me.

The Coin Puzzle 

Again, we have the number three:  three coins.  This time, we have the Old Man coin, the Prisoner coin, and the Snake coin.  The religious imagery is telling:  the snake is, of course, a reference to the Garden of Eden and is stated directly in the riddles: the “seducer of she”, “creature of Hades”, “further from Man and closer to Lady”.  But the lady in this puzzle is called the Prisoner.  Hmm…

(Did I mention we get another bible name?  This room belongs to a David.)

If these three reflect on our three protagonists, then what do they mean?  Again, we have only one woman.  This woman, in fact, resembles Angela and is found in the mirror room in which Angela hands James the knife.  It is close by a torn photo of Angela’s family.  The mirror in which we see a divided Angela, the torn picture showing a divided family, the two doors in the outer room (one leading to Angela, a bright white, the other dark and boarded over) showing a divided consciousness; all of this returns back to the divided self. 

The actual buildings in which James is currently working are divided:  he spends half his time in the Woodside apartments before crossing over to Blue Creek.  The puzzles in this game are divided between the two buildings, not one.  There will be more of this in later levels:  the hospital will have the Fog World Hospital and Otherworld Hospital; the Historical Society is divided between Toluca Prison and The Labyrinth; and the Hotel is divided between the Fog World and Otherworld as well, and in particular, the Hotel at first appears whole, as it was when James was first there.  But when he learns the truth, he sees that the building has burned down and is in disrepair.

The Old Man must be James.  For one, as we see later, of the three only James and Angela are really fully human.  Eddie becomes something twisted - someone who enjoys killing.  He tries to tempt James to kill as well, saying they are the same, that the town called to both of them for a reason.  Eddie is the tempter here, trying to convince James to revel in the same depravity he does.  He is the snake, the creature which is not human.  In addition, his behavior and attitude would be anathema to Angela should they have met, which works well with the opposition of the Snake and Prisoner symbolically.

What are old men?  Wise, learned, respected, yes, but they are also celibate.  Old men are past their prime, beyond the age at which sex is either possible or considered normal.  In one of the riddles he is described as ‘rotting’, which is hardly a pleasant image and does not invoke an idea of someone who is thriving emotionally or physically.  In the hardest difficult he is referred to as having ‘all hungers sated’ - i.e., no sex drive.

In the hard puzzle, the coins are ordered from least to most sinful: Prisoner is considered the most sinful with the Old Man as least.  In reality, I would find Eddie most guilty and Angela least.  Angela was the victim of years of abuse at the hands of her family, and first attempted to escape when she was dragged back, and then retaliated because she had no other recourse.  But the ordering does reflect a lot of bigoted, very traditional Christian thought in which women are born guilty as the inheritors of Eve’s guilt and blame.

Pyramid Head ‘Boss’ 

Before he can leave the apartments, James enters the stairwell which leads to the exit and comes face to face with Pyramid Head.  He must ‘fight’ the monster to leave the apartment, but there really is no fight.  Pyramid Head can’t be hurt.  The point is for James to survive until the alarm goes off and Pyramid Head leaves.

What matters here is that what this fight means for Pyramid Head.  For one, Pyramid Head does not actually try to kill James, and in fact leaves him alive.  Only if James gets in the way as he is leaving will Pyramid Head strike out at him.  But obviously the point here is not to kill James.  

Then, Pyramid Head exits the building, and James goes after him.   They use the same exit, the implication being that James is following Pyramid Head.  This is the start of Pyramid Head transforming from an enemy, to a guiding force.  He is leading James to the truth.

To Be Continued!

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