There’s absolutely no mistaking the staying power of the best entries in the Silent Hill series, with the second game, in particular, being lauded as one the greatest achievements in video game storytelling. And it is. The second game really is all that and a bag of chips, with a heartbreakingly good soundtrack and incredibly unique, melancholic storytelling that is done almost entirely through subtext. I’m not here to dispute any of its greatness. However, what I’d like to do is dive headfirst into Silent Hill 3, the penultimate entry in the franchise to be designed by Team Silent before they returned for Shattered Memories, and one of the more underappreciated games in the horror canon.
Both of these games are quite old at this point, but in my opinion are still worth a look if you have yet to play them. With that being said, I’m going to be talking major spoilers for the first three games in the series. And as an extension of that, I will be discussing some very dark subject matter, including sexual assault allegories, abortion, child abuse, and religious fanaticism. You’ve been warned.
Anyways, one of the more intriguing elements of Silent Hill 2 is how it simply used the original as a springboard to tell a wholly unique story personal and specific to its protagonist, James Sunderland. Whereas the original game established Silent Hill as a town plagued with deranged cults, psychic girls, and demonic deities, the second game took its foot off the gas pedal and instead used the town in an entirely different manner. Instead of being a catalyst for supernatural shenanigans, it serves as a metaphor for James’s damaged mind. It jumps into its darkest corners to show how an everyman can be driven to do terrible things.
It’s a common criticism of 3 that it went back to the plot thread of the first game. With 3, the primary conflict involves Heather being stalked by members of The Order, the cult from the first game. The environments around her shift and change into perverse, otherworldly versions of the real world. And she is stalked by relentless nightmares including towering giants with fleshy sacs for arms, a bizarre yellow thing that appears at random times spinning a wheel, nurses with guns, weird little two-legged things with one large eye, and more. Eventually, you come to find out that Heather is actually Heather Mason, the grown-up version of the baby Harry Mason saved at the end of the first game. She’s an incarnation of the good part of Alessa Gillespie, the aforementioned psychic girl from the first game The Order tried to impregnate with their version of God. And Claudia Wolf, a key member of The Order, is deliberately angering Heather by killing those close to her in order to grow the thing Heather doesn’t realize is inside her.
On the one hand, I can see why some people find this return to the cult plot thread to feel like a massive step back after the brilliance of the second game. But underneath the more lore-heavy plotline is a tale of societal pressures and disturbing darkness that easily rivals 2’s narrative, which was groundbreaking for its time for its exploration of human sexuality and other taboo subject matter. While much of the psycho-sexual stuff in 2 is more subtext than explicit, it was still a huge step forward for the medium, which was still seen as being solely for kids. 2 explored some very adult themes, and it did so in a truly mature, intriguing way.
I would argue that 3 does much of the same thing, but does so from a fresher perspective. 2 is told from a man’s POV, while 3 offers a unique look at similar themes from a young woman’s perspective, which arguably leads to even more upsetting interpretations of the game’s events. While on the surface, 3 is shlock about a cult trying to impregnate a teenage girl, its execution makes it a terrifying exploration of the societal pressures of growing up as a woman. And before we continue any further, I will say that this is all my interpretation, and I’m not trying to claim that I know the struggles and challenges that women face. I’m merely trying to examine what the game presents and point out its themes and ideas.
It’s a little more than halfway through the game that Heather discovers she is pregnant with a new version of The Order’s deity. Claudia reveals to her that Heather that her hatred and anger makes this thing stronger, which is why The Order is doing what it’s doing to her. At one point, she says to Claudia, “I don’t believe in your religion.” Claudia brushes her off. She’s so far gone that she doesn’t see that her and the group she believes in have, for all intents and purposes, raped Heather and are forcing her to carry the resulting infant to term.
Don’t believe me? There’s a scene right before the end of the game where Heather realizes the key to her salvation lies in the necklace her late father, Harry Mason, gave to her. Inside is a red pill that she swallows, and, in one of the most genuinely disgusting and upsetting scenes ever put in a video game, she throws up the thing growing inside her. It is, for all intents and purposes, a premature baby, small, skinless, and screaming. She tries to stomp on it to put an end to Claudia’s plot, but Claudia instead ingests the infant deity herself and births a malformed version of their God, which serves as the game’s final boss.
The abortion imagery in this scene is hardly subtle. Heather, seeing no other choice, tried to end the life inside of her to save herself. After all, becoming pregnant with this thing wasn’t something she chose for herself and carrying it to term would have likely resulted in her own death. Claudia and The Order act out of completely blind faith in their ideals, making Claudia a dark, perverted mirror of Heather, who, up to this point in her life, tried to be a decent person. Claudia is the game’s statement about the evils of religious fanaticism and indoctrination.
We learn throughout the game that Claudia was raised by her father, Leonard, in the harshest of ways. He was physically and emotionally abusive towards her if she did anything he thought of as blasphemous, and the lifetime of abuse she suffered at his hands is what lead her down the dark path she takes in Silent Hill 3. That’s already a damning indictment of religion, but the game goes a step further by showing how Claudia is so far gone that she’s willing to commit atrocities in the name of her faith. It shows that blind faith can affect not only an individual but also those around them.
So not only is the overarching plot an allegory for Heather being raped and choosing to abort the resulting fetus, but it also takes extra steps to show how those things affect a young woman. There’s a lot of stuff in the game that seemingly serves no other purpose besides freaking the player out, but they do feed into this subtext. The game’s opening, for instance, takes place at an amusement park, except everything is horribly wrong and twisted. Other sections of the game where reality shifts include a mall, an apartment complex, and the Silent Hill hospital. Heather is familiar with these places, but they’ve taken on a new, sinister air since she was victimized. It reflects her new perception of reality. Places that were once familiar, if not friendly, are now perverse, dark, haunted, terrifying.
Other strange moments reflect Heather’s insecurities and anxieties about the situation she finds herself in. The area where this is most prevalent is in the hospital. Not only are there more evil nurses (though not the sexualized ones from the second game, which the movie and series as a whole would go on to highjack), but there are numerous instances of a stalker contacting Heather through notes and, at one point, a disturbing phone call where he wishes her a happy birthday. There’s even a room with a giant mirror in it where the door locks, and eventually, Heather’s reflection stops moving and becomes more and more corrupted. Eventually, Heather starts taking damage from this reflection, and will continue to do so until you leave the room. This room serves no other purpose than to freak the player out, but it’s also a very literal representation of the shame and fear she feels from her situation.
If we’re continuing with the abortion angle, it makes sense that all of these things are confined to the hospital in particular. The evil nurses are her fearing the judgement of the medical staff around her. The stalker is the anxiety of the male gaze; she was violated by the ambitions of a man (in this case, Leonard Wolf’s dogmatic devotion to his beliefs that he indoctrinated Claudia with). So the men around her all represent a very real danger. And the mirror, I think, speaks for itself; she sees herself as this twisted, corrupted thing, not as the person she is, and if she keeps staring too long, it’s likely to drive her to madness.
Even ignoring all of this extremely disturbing underlying symbolism, though, the game is flat out more viscerally terrifying than the second game. Granted, that’s not to say the atmosphere in 2 isn’t strong, but that the tone it goes for is more sad and melancholy. Silent Hill 3 goes straight for the jugular where Silent Hill 2 preferred to play with its food, to use a weak-ass metaphor. Its environments are even more dimly lit, the rust aesthetic that worked so well in the first game returns, and there are countless small moments of sheer “what in God’s name am I watching” terror that gets under your skin in a different way than the second game. That above mentioned scene where Heather vomits God alone is forever seared into my brain, but the game has a way of messing with players’ heads to truly frighten them, rather than making them feel the intense sorrow of the second entry.
And none of this takes away from the power of Silent Hill 2. The two games exist as separate entities in my eyes, and even though Silent Hill 3 does return to the storyline of the first, it still contains the psychological depths of the most revered entry in the franchise. It arguably has a far more interesting angle in the form of Heather, a young woman who must deal with things out of her control that still impact her directly. It’s a dark, twisted, and brutally honest look at the anxieties and fears of a growing young woman, and for that reason, it is just as good as the game that often overshadows it.