Seeing Monsters: “Silent Hill” And The Mythos

This post written by Repairer of Reputations.

“When you’re hurt and scared for so long, the fear and pain turn to hate and the hate starts to change the world.” – Alessa, Silent Hill

The Silent Hill films are Lovecraftian.

Silent HillOkay, I’ll wait for everybody to stop laughing before I go on.

Now, bear with me for a few minutes (Spoiler warning kicks in now for those of you who don’t want the movies ruined, as I do go into detail about both).

SPOILERS BELOW.

Silent Hill (2006) is about Rose and Chris (Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean who, shockingly, doesn’t die in this movie).  They’ve adopted a daughter named Sharon (Jodelle Ferland), who sleepwalks and has nightmares about a place called Silent Hill, a ghost town in West Virginia.  Rose resolves to take the girl to Silent Hill, a former mining community that has had a coal fire burning underneath it for years, and figure something out.  In driving to the town, a cop tries to stop Rose, but the mother hits the gas and speeds on, crashing into a gate before she blacks out.  When she wakes up, Sharon is gone and the cop, Cybil (Laurie Holden, now of Walking Dead fame), is quite angry.  Rose tries to explain what she was doing and that they need to find Sharon, but Cybil assumes the worst, handcuffs Rose and tries to drag her back to the police station.

The squabbling women are slow to notice that things aren’t right.  The entire area has taken on a hazy white cast, and the big puffs of white wafting gently from the sky are ashes, not snow.  The road back to town ends abruptly in a cliff and they both begin to realize they’re in trouble.  After a fight with some humanoid things that spew molten goo when shot, Rose manages to escape from Cybil.  She runs to Silent Hill and finds an outcast named Dahlia (Deborah Kara Unger) who claims that Sharon is her own daughter, a group of religious fanatics led by the intimidating Christabella (Alice Krige), and a recurring Darkness that turns the world inside out and threatens to destroy everything it touches.

Rose learns that the inhabitants of Silent Hill were members of a fanatical religious cult obsessed with purity.  Alessa, Dahlia’s daughter who looks exactly like Sharon, was born out of wedlock and was deemed unclean by the community.  She was mercilessly bullied as a witch in school and sexually assaulted by a janitor before Christabella, Alessa’s own aunt, decided that the child needed to be burned to keep the community clean.  But the burning went awry, killed almost everyone in town and started the underground fires.  The Darkness that overcomes the town is a manifestation of Alessa, now referred to as The Demon, and the fear, hatred and pain that overcame her when she survived the fire.  Unknown to Christabella and her followers, they all died in the fire and have been in a form of limbo.  Their blind faith prevents Alessa from destroying them and keeps their souls from moving on.

Where does Sharon fit into all this?  Sharon is the manifestation of Alessa’s innocence; the hopes and dreams she could never achieve having been burned alive.  Alessa expelled them, wanting to keep them safe and untouched while her hatred ran rampant through Silent Hill.  But Christabella only sees Sharon as Alessa returned and sets out to burn the child, leaving Rose no choice but to help The Demon get its revenge to save her daughter.  When we get to the end, Alessa has gotten her revenge, but has Rose gotten what she wanted out of the deal?

Silent Hill RevelationThe second film, Silent Hill: Revelation, starts off by answering that question:  Yes, she has, just not in the ideal way.  Chris, now going by the name Harry (but still Sean Bean) woke up six years ago to find Sharon on the couch, but Rose still gone.  In a dream, Rose tells him that she found a key that let her bring Sharon across.  She leaves behind the key, but the religious cult, which still exists, start to hunt father and daughter to get it back.  Sharon, who now must constantly change her name and dye her hair as she attends a new school every year, has no memory of what happened in Silent Hill.  They arrive in a new town, and Sharon, now going by Heather (and played by Adelaide Clemens) is still having nightmares about Silent Hill.  Thinking she’s being followed, she agrees to meet her father at a shopping mall.  But he doesn’t arrive and she can’t reach him.  It’s then that the world shifts and we realize what Heather doesn’t:  The Darkness has started to seep out into the real world.  Heather stumbles through the mall seeing nothing but monsters and the man who has been following her, a detective (Martin Donovan) hired by the leader of the cult to find her.  The detective warns her not to go to Silent Hill and tells her that the cult wants her there for a reason.  Heather escapes from the mall only to come home to a ransacked house, her father missing and a message in blood on the wall that tells her to come to Silent Hill.  Heather finds her father’s notes talking about the religious cult that ran Silent Hill and now wants Heather back in order to give birth to their god.  He also left her a letter that pleads with her not to go to Silent Hill.

But Heather isn’t about to let her father go.  Despite the warning, she goes to the doomed town.  She follows the clues to an amusement park, which serves as headquarters for the cult (works on just about every level, doesn’t it?).  The Demon chides her for returning (The Demon expelled Sharon expressly to keep her away from the taint of the town, after all) before Heather and The Demon merge again to fight Claudia (Carrie-Anne Moss), the new leader of the cult and rescue Chris.

The first movie is arguably the best video game movie ever made.  It’s a piece of horror poetry that is one of the best examples of the merging of the elegant and grotesque I’ve ever seen.  Neat, homey, classically American buildings fall into decay, as the gentle fall of ashes coats everything.  There’s a feeling that everyone just left for a few minutes but will be right back.  Then The Darkness comes and you’ve got giant, triangle-headed dudes wielding swords, fire babies and bubblehead nurses wandering through the streets.  But the plot is compact enough that all these monsters grow organically out of their surroundings.  They all make sense given the circumstances.  The story is simple:  A mother is trying to find her daughter.  That’s really it.  One of the reasons Silent Hill works is that it doesn’t try to be more than it is.  Silent Hill: Revelation isn’t so fortunate.  They do a good job of tying the first and second films together and creating an overarching mythology, but not much else.

Both movies were widely slammed by just about everyone.  The general consensus was that they were pretty, but maybe overly ornate, confusing, convoluted and would only make sense to people who played the games.  They were credited as exercises in style over substance.  Sounds rather like how some people describe a certain writer we’re all fans of, doesn’t it?

Obviously, your writer disagrees with that assessment.  And the things I liked about the films are the things that I like about Lovecraft, which is what got me thinking about the connection.

So where are the tentacles in all this?  Well, in Silent Hill for starters.  Silent Hill could be Innsmouth, a small town in a backward area run by cultists that produces monstrosities based on their sins.  The place has its own rules, its own god, its own pedigree, its own brand of justice and none of this has anything to do with the outside world.  Revelation brings in aspects of Dunwich.  A woman is chosen to give birth to a god (which I still have trouble with) that will change the world in its own image.

We can also see Lovecraft in the style of the story.  I have never played the Silent Hill games, but I had no problem understanding the movie.  But the film does require you to pay attention and put pieces together, much as a Mythos story does.  The films are also rather fatalistic:  Both films end with people having to embrace the darkness to succeed, and neither have a particularly happy ending because of that.  The films view the darkness around us as something that simply is and will always be and that we just have to deal with.  In the same way, the Outer and Elder Gods are something that those who become aware of their presence must learn to deal with, though they are a more distant threat.

But where Silent Hill becomes the most Lovecraftian is in The Darkness itself.  Watching the first movie and seeing The Darkness peel back the world for the first time makes you understand how Thomas Malone felt in that Red Hook basement.  Rose is another Randolf Carter, though she has a considerably more urgent mission as she stumbles through her own Dreamlands, which I’m sure Richard Upton Pickman would be just as comfortable in in ghoul form.

Though it is a different – I daresay more modern – form of madness, it still has its roots in the same place Lovecraft put his:  Fanaticism and seeing the things man was not meant to see.  Outsiders are not welcome in Silent Hill, anymore than they are in Innsmouth or Dunwich.  The people there are ruled by their own righteousness and obsession, though rather than wanting to raise Cthulhu from R’lyeh, they want to purify the world.  Either way, forcing your own standards on a world that mostly disagrees with you does more harm than good.  In our time, we don’t have to look to a bunch of nut jobs worshipping a star monster.  We can see the religions we thought were safe and normal being spun off into something terrible.

And, just like Charles Dexter Ward, Richard Upton Pickman and Randolf Carter, Christabella, Dahlia and Rose were all punished for their mistakes.  They sinned, they sinned big and they had to face their mistakes, seeing things that a human wasn’t meant to see.  Their mistakes had larger consequences than the ones we make (I left the milk out on the counter and now it’s rotten.  The horror!) but that’s why they’re fictional characters.

I can’t comment on the games, since I don’t play video games (feel free to educate me below, however).  The films vary in quality in many aspects, but the same can be said for Lovecraft’s fiction:  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.  But you enjoy the ride either way, because it’ll be pretty, it’ll be fun, and it’ll have cool monsters.  And I’m pretty sure Nyralthotep would have approved of the amusement park in Revelation.  I am, however, left wishing Lovecraft had used some mannequin monsters.  That would have been epically awesome on so many levels.

This post written by Repairer of Reputations.

10 responses to “Seeing Monsters: “Silent Hill” And The Mythos

  1. I’m a big fan of Silent Hill, the first 3 video games and the first movie (which has a decent standing with horror fans as far as I can tell… I haven’t seen the second one yet.). I’m also a big fan of Lovecraft… but I don’t see a whole lot of common ground except for strange cults and weird monsters… which is something, but not enough IMO.
    The big difference, I think, is that Silent Hill is very focused on humanity… its stories are about humans confronting their inner demons (or not). Humans are of central important in Silent Hill… their actions brought it in to being and to some extent it is a reflection of them (I can’t help but bring in the mythos of the video games to fill out my opinion). Most of what’s happening in the town has been brought about by Alessa (in the first game and movie), in the second game the town is seen differently by whoever enters it. A character wracked with guilt sees personalized demons out to torment him, but an innocent child doesn’t see any monsters at all.
    The majority of the monsters seem based on human forms to some extent.
    There is some sort of dark god that the old cult of Silent Hill is focused on… its nature is never very clear but it feels a lot closer to old witchcraft/satanism stories… there is some sort of presence… some old power (going back at least to the times the Native Americans inhabited the area)… but it never feels alien and from beyond/outside the way Lovecraft’s beings do. It seems more likely to be some sort of nature spirit, an elemental… or, going by some things mentioned in the 3rd game, a twisted version of the fey… mixed in with Christian/Satanic trappings.
    All in all I think Silent Hill bears a lot more in common with the setting of Hellraiser and some of the other Clive Barker stories… which still keep mankind as an important factor rather than an insignificant speck. There are active spirits and demons and a vague promise that good hearts can overcome in Silent Hill. That element of humanism seems at odds with Lovecraft’s more existentialist horrors were mankind is denied any true significance.

    • All good points, and I can’t fully argue with you, since I don’t know the games (video games drive me nuts), but I think our differences come down to perception. When I read Lovecraft, I see people fighting their demons, they simply have more pronounced forms. I also think that removing the human aspect does a disservice to the subgenre as a whole. If there were no humans fighting the monsters, how would there be any drama at all? Why would it be such a downer that the monsters win? My opinion anyway.

      And everyone here is going to have to hook me with their horror movie fan buddies, because they all have better taste than mine. ;)

  2. I for one never played any of the Silent Hill games, but I love the stories! Simply reading the Wikipedia entries, or the more detailed and in-depth pages on the fan-made Silent Hill wiki, offer some fantastic storytelling and creative monsters– well worth the read for non-gamers.

  3. I love the Silent Hill game series and really liked the first film though I’m not sure as to how Lovecraftian I’d consider them. As for the video games, they were more influenced by films like Jacob’s Ladder and Blue Velvet than any specific literary source- though there are many references to horror authors and filmmakers with street names like Matheson, Carpenter and Navidson (from House of Leaves).

    Alone in the Dark is a classic video game that has far more mythos elements (it was originally intended to be part of Infogames’ Call of Cthulhu series). The games have direct references to Shub-Niggurath, De Vermis Mysteriis, the Necronomicon, Deep Ones, and Night Gaunts. Also, the protagonist’s name is Edward Camby, a reference to Clark Ashton Smith’s John Camby.

    • I think we have another disagreement of perception here. I don’t believe that a story has to have explicit mythos references to be Lovecraftian. Lovecraftian is more of a feel for me, but a Lovecraftian feel in this movie is potentially all in my head.

  4. I can see the connection , it`s more the feel of the stories than the actual content ! they are for lack of a better term ,uncomfortable , and much of lovecrafts wrings had the same feel !

  5. The first Silent Hill movie was just a big, childish tantrum about how “bad” religion is. It was well filmed and sufficiently gross, but it really could have been far more mysterious and tense than it was. While Lovecraftian horror lies in what is possibly “out there” and how incomprehensible what is “out there” is to humanity, Silent Hill is a single-note story with nothing more to say than “Look what your religion hath wrought.”

    • I 100% agree with the tantrum about religion, it totally is. But aren’t there elements of that in Lovecraft (nasty cultists worship things that destroy the world and give themselves over to it completely, much like the people stuck in limbo in the movie)? But I also think Lovecraftian isn’t necessarily about “out there” so much as the stuff we can’t comprehend. How much do we understand about the human brain? About how it works? About how it doesn’t work? Why can’t the things that make us insignificant and isolate us from the rest of universe be internal? Why is it always “out there?” Why isn’t it “in here?” Why doesn’t it have anything to do with us? I do think that is worth thinking about in Lovecraftian terms.

  6. The first movie and the games certainly have a Lovecraftian feel to it – it’s not about tentacles, Older Gods or the “obvious” Lovecraft take … it’s the mood, the weirdness and most certainly, as you pointed out, the “worlds colliding” idea.
    Seeing how one world seeps into the other and how they are kept apart by the sheer will (and hate) of one girls’ mind is quite Lovecraftian to me.

    When I watched the movie for the first time it did feel “familiar”, I just couldn’t put my finger on it – only when I talked about HPL with someone did I suddenly realize just what it was ….

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