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25 October 2012 @ 02:07 pm
silent hill thoughts and things  
 Here's something I find really interesting about (the original four) Silent Hill games: their cross-cultural nature.

Silent Hill, the town, is pretty clearly American. It's a sleepy tourist town by a lake in Maine, full of quaint mom-and-pop stores and old-fashioned houses. There's a rickety little amusement park like you see advertised on billboards on the highway through any mid-sized state. The neighboring town of South Ashfield is similarly American, but reflecting more of a suburban area, with apartments and a shopping mall being key locations. Characters have very plain, American-sounding names, and the majority of them are white, with a small group of minority characters appearing in Silent Hill 4 (as ghosts). Though not everything is perfect, and there's a definite feel that some of the portrayals of locations were filtered through movies rather than directly researched, it's a convincing effect that makes Silent Hill 1-4 give the impression of Steven King-influenced, homegrown horror.

But the inherent concept of Silent Hill as a town is very Japanese. The setup can be seen in other Japanese horror games such as Siren and in animated series like Ghost Hound or Higurashi: a small isolated town that has the trappings of being normal, but is caught in the grasp of a strange local cult worshipping a dangerous god, making the town a location that exists on the border between reality and something much, much worse. This is treated as a different situation and almost an entirely different definition of cult than the other common portrayal in Japanese media, the "new" cults typically centered in urban areas, focused on prophets/predictions of doom and obviously written with the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks in mind. Though both scenarios are centered around what we would call a cult, it is a completely different thing than the small-town traditions rooted in evil, and almost deserves an entirely different term.

In Western media, cults are a different animal. A large portion of portrayals have more in common with the latter version of cults in Japanese media, drawing on Scientology and Jonestown and their ilk for inspiration. These are modern-day religions with roots in Christianity or New Age bullshit, which coexist with the modern world but do not subsume entire populations, rather clinging to their underbelly like an unpleasant infection. Examples of the first model, where a small and out-of-the-way population fall in with a strange and ancient religion are limited to The Wicker Man and few other examples- as cults go, it is not a common structure in Western culture. But even as Silent Hill tries to mimic the look and feel of a Western horror story, it cannot be divorced from the fact that the inherent concept of Silent Hill as a town is not very Western at all.

Silent Hill 4, while built upon a premise very tied to the cult from 1 and 3, does not take place in the town of Silent Hill for the most part, is not structured like the previous games, and was not even planned from the start as an entry in the Silent Hill series, but rather as a tangentially connected gaiden game by the same development team. As before, the visual trappings and characters are outwardly very much American, but on a whole are not in an American horror story. The motif of an individual who cannot leave his apartment is rooted in the concept of "hikikomori", though unlike a genuine hikikomori, Henry Townshend did not willingly shut himself away from the world. He did, however, have to undergo personal trials and emotional growth in order to find his way out of room 302. The entire narrative structure of a man trapped in his apartment by supernatural means, only able to leave via an unearthly portal to worlds born from the mind of a serial killer with a strange connection to said apartment, all the while haunted by unkillable and horrifying ghosts, while strange and convoluted, would not be one out of place with the tone and aesthetics of Japanese horror films.

Silent Hill 2's structure is probably the least coded to Western or Japanese narratives or horror tropes- it's the story of a man who travels to a town from his past to confront painful memories related to the woman he loved. Though it goes in a bit of a different direction, the film The Mothman Chronicles does something very similar, and many non-horror stories both Western and Japanese do the same thing, though all with considerably less sexual imagery and typically with more pleasant protagonists than James Sunderland. This structure less based in Japanese-coded tropes is perhaps why Silent Hill 2 is by far the most well-loved and critically acclaimed Silent Hill game among Western reviewers and critics- it feels the most true-to-life and relevant to the cultural experiences they have.