We, as a society, love to be scared.
From folk tales of spirits and goblins told about the fire, to being huddled up in a dark room in front of a TV watching the latest Stephen King adaptation, fear and entertainment have gone hand in hand for a long time. But to be able to actually interact with the creatures on the screen – that’s a whole level up from merely watching a narrative play itself out for you.
The survival horror genre of video games is typically seen as having bloomed to popularity in the 90s, but it split down the middle into two similar, yet distinct styles, each led by a flagship franchise: these two styles are best represented by two very well-known franchises:
Now, “Survival Horror” is a pretty simple genre on its face: you’re in a scary or malevolent environment, and your goal is to survive to the end of the game. The difference between survival horror and the average action game like Splatterhouse or Contra is that, with survival horror, you can’t break out the machine guns and leave a trail of alien splatter across the galaxy. You’re outgunned in every conceivable form, and the resulting atmosphere creates the vaunted ‘horror’ part of the genre tag. It’s how these two styles handle the genre that makes the crucial difference.
Resident Evil and the art of the known:
Resident Evil’s approach to horror is like a shotgun blast to the senses. Zombies lurch along fire-strewn streets, moaning and oozing from their eyes. Some grotesque hybrid of a gorillia and lizard comes lunging at you with claws the size of steak cleavers, while a monstrous ubermensch zombie comes lurching out of a lab tube with a freaking bazooka on its shoulder.
Resident Evil, in other words, shows you the thing that’s going to be feasting on your innards, well before the dinner bell rings. This is a game series where the physicality of the horror takes precedence over the atmosphere created by the horror. In doing so, developers Capcom have crafted a world where the various themes that branch off from knowing the stage take precedence. It’s a very scientific series, theme-wise: card-carrying villain Albert Wesker spouts off in Resident Evil 5 about the betterment of humanity at the cost of the weakest being eliminated, a dark and ominous sentiment which has been echoed anywhere from the notion of under-the-hood white supremacy that has informed far too much American literature, to the halls of the Swastika in 1940 Germany. All this madness, all these zombies and hungry creatures and otherwise nightmares-made-real are a result of the various viral offshoots that Wesker’s Umbrella Corporation has made.
Somewhere between the guts being spilled over the street and the player driving themselves crazy asking why there’s a massive statue puzzle in the middle of a police station, the series does probe at some very interesting and relevant questions about the borders between scientific progress and madness. While it’s a very important question to ask (and given humanity’s potential to wipe whole cities from the face of creation with the push of a button, one well worth asking), it’s a reactionary theme: one that examines our current state as a species, and dares to ask, “What now? You’ve seen what we can do, so what now?” It bases its philosophy on what we do know of the world around us. Resident Evil takes a look around, and what it sees is wholly frightening to behold.
Joan Hawkins kicked off the paper entitled The Art Of Fear, after all, by saying, “It has long been the contention of social theorists, from Aristotle to Gilles Deleuze, that one of the best ways to understand a culture is to study its “monsters”.” How true it is, for both faces of the survival horror genre. Whether they’re right in front of our eyes, or…the alternative. We’ll get to that shortly.
But since I mentioned American literature just a touch there, I’ll say the Art Of The Known brings to mind the many slave narratives that come from the South, or something like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: a novel in journalistic form that reacts to the things it sees day by day, however terrible they may be, and asks questions based on that. It needs not to ponder abstractions, because the things right in front of its eyes are horrifying enough.
The question that reactionary narratives dare to ask is this: now that you’ve seen it, do you want to survive it?
Silent Hill and the art of the unknown:
This is probably an apt way to begin describing the creative mindset of Silent Hill’s developers. In some of the games of the series, there are some empty rooms scattered about. You can go in them, they’re fully interactive, they’re just…empty. They serve no purpose whatsoever to the gameplay or to the narrative. Your every sense as a genre-savvy gamer tells you that there must be some purpose to everything in a cohesive game, that otherwise it’s just wasted space. But don’t drive yourself crazy too hard, because that grotesque monster you bypassed at the last intersection just might have lumbered closer and closer by the time you finish exploring this empty room.
The empty room is there purely to ‘play the player’. It’s a mind-screw. They’re going against your every instinct as a gamer and throwing things at you that you aren’t meant to understand.
It’s the art of the unknown.
Silent Hill thrives on knocking over one mental domino at the front of the pack, and letting your imagination do the rest. Where Resident Evil would gleefully show you the bleeding sores oozing out of the zombie’s face, Silent Hill would prefer to present you with monsters whose proportions are, shall we say, not-quite-right. Their movements are familiar, yet discernibly ‘off’; it’s the corruption of the familiar. It’s Freud’s theory of the ‘Uncanny’, distilled and weaponized against you, the player.
The series’ environments are abandoned, desiccated and generally unkempt – and that’s on a good day. As I mentioned in my article on apocalyptic landscapes, these desolate, unfriendly settings are inherently terrifying. But the developers play with this in a way that plays on far more subtle fears.
Oh, yes, they will break you. By the end of it, you’ll feel no more secure in the world around you than a newborn, and that’s exactly the way they’ve tailored it.
Because that’s exactly what the horror of the unknown does. Silent Hill’s constant paranoia (was that a shadow in the alley, even though there’s nothing there?), monstrous apparitions and truly inexplicable moments all serve a purpose. Yes, even the empty rooms, or that bizarre text on the wall in one Silent Hill 2 room that reads “There was a HOLE here. It’s gone now.” No, it’s never explained. They’re a device meant to unsettle, to discombobulate the senses. Any sense of genre-savviness that you’re holding on to as you play is a defense mechanism to keep that divide between yourself and the surreal horrors on the screen, and Silent Hill knows this. It wants to break this down.
That’s Silent Hill in a nutshell: the moment you load in the disc and pick up the controller, you’re submitting to its will. You’re submitting to the notion that by the time you’re through, it will have severely shaken any notions of security you’re clinging on to, by severely muddling the way you look at the game world.
Of all things, it brings to mind the Southern Gothic tradition in American literature, from that period post-bellum in which the South saw freedom from slavery, but not from the deep-seated tension, fear and blurring of binaries that accompanied it. Authors like Faulkner and Chesnutt presented narratives that brought the world into focus through murky lenses, letting the reader stew in their own uncertainties. It might seem odd that I’m constantly paralleling these survival horror games with narratives directly informed by slavery in the American South, but look at it this way – I doubt that the fear you get while playing one of these games and being pursued by Nemesis or Pyramid Head, as much as it’ll get your pulse racing, could compare even in a cursory sense to the fear, hopelessness and dread in the average day of a plantation slave. I won’t even dignify the comparison further; just think it over. I’m merely comparing horror shows: one we can interact with, and one which we’re forced to view through the lens of chronological distance.
(I feel I should make a clarification at this point, for those of you who just stumbled in looking for an article about survival horror: at the time this was written, this blog was being done for a university project, hence the comparative cross-genre analysis.)
So back on track, that brings us to exactly why Silent Hill’s “art of the unknown” is so effective. It desires to expand our ignorance, to force us to admit that we know nothing, and that the securities and binaries we thought we could rely on are little more than feebly-constructed defense mechanisms of a finite mind trying to convince itself of its own ability to truly understand the world around it. Silent Hill and the art of the unknown force us to confront our own ignorance, even in matters as seemingly-simple as the perception of the world around us. Perhaps the best example is in Silent Hill 2: if you return to the site of where you killed your first monster, it’s later surrounded by…is that police tape? What? So…are these really monsters you’re killing, or…what exactly did you bludgeon to death back there? Can you even trust the sanity of the main character, who’s supposed to be your looking glass into this demented world?
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”…the art of the unknown says with a derisive smirk, “That’s not good enough.”
You’ll notice I keep saying “Silent Hill wants” or “Silent Hill knows”. I’m not referring to the series itself. I’m referring to the titular town. Because while it’s kept canonically ambiguous (hello, art of the unknown), one of the prevailing theories is that the town itself is an Eldritch entity that would fit right at home in Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos. That sense of vague confusion you just felt is also part of the plan: it’s the hazy discombobulation that comes from breaking down even the deceptively simple binaries of the player and the game environment. Because if even the environment can technically be considered a character…what does that say about the human characters, and by extension the player? Feeling a little small? Feeling a little claustrophobic? You should. You never know from where it’s watching.
And my mention of Lovecraft here is very deliberate, because his body of work plays on the very same principles: the idea that our combined human knowledge is absolutely meaningless, and that there are things in the vastness of the universe that our brains are not even remotely equipped to comprehend. That our entire reality is a construction waiting to be torn down. (As a Rhode Islander, Lovecraft is hardly geographically inclined towards the Southern Gothic tradition, but when it comes to shaking up the senses and forcing us to challenge our notions of the world around us, there’s nobody better on this desolate, forsaken planetary sphere of ours.) Silent Hill plays with these concepts, but on a far more personal scale.
So you can look at the Art Of The Known and Art Of The Unknown as two ways to look at a triangle:
Art Of The Known presents a sharp, protrusive shape, almost like a spear. It is direct, volatile and frightening in its directness, like a flash-bomb that flares the senses. You see it just as clearly in Resident Evil as you do in Norris’s McTeague, where the themes and viscerality bludgeon you over the head. It’s not an inherently bad way to do things, but something that some might find jarring.
Art Of The Unknown, meanwhile, presents the triangle not as something protrusive, but as a gap of knowledge. Imagine you’re looking at it from one of the sharp corners. That tiny point is like the tip of an iceberg. It’s what you know; the rest of the triangle is what you don’t know, and perhaps what you can never truly know: and it’s so, so much wider than that tiny tip. It’s a deconstruction of your very reality, and it’s as prominent in Silent Hill as it is in the Southern Gothic tradition.
Granted, there is considerable overlap between the two series’ styles. In the Gamecube remake of the original Resident Evil, the interplay of light and shadow is such that an atmosphere of constant tension is created: there are points where your imagination is allowed to take a terrifying flight at what might lurk around the next bend, or what might not. While the essence of the horror is still very much rooted in what you DO see, and the anticipation gleaned from knowing that there’s some clawed, mindless horror lurking just out of sight (but you do eventually SEE it), there is certainly something to be said for ambience in the game.
And Silent Hill can absolutely be in-your-face when it wants to be. The best arbiters of surrealist horror know full well that every now and then, you need to remind the viewer or the player that yes, these things are in fact horrifying.
So literature fanatics might want to ask themselves, which is scarier? To have shocking imagery, or ideologies and streams of thought thrust into your face? Or to be confronted with the notion that your every construction about the world around you is ultimately meaningless? That’s why Silent Hill cuts so deep, and why the Southern Gothics were so effective at what they did.
Oh, sure, we can try to dig deeper. Whether it’s in reaction to the horrors we see around us, or those flighty, unsettling ideas lurking just out of conscious thought…we can dig deeper, but we might not like what we find.