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(Naturally, spoilers for Silent Hill 2 abound).
Silent Hill 2 holds a slightly odd place in video game history. Never a wildly popular game, it is often overlooked in the modern pop culture. Yet among those who remember it, Silent Hill 2 is regarded as the finest example of survival horror in gaming. Some go as far to call it the best game ever made.
What sets it apart most of all in a medium often derided for its story-telling chops is the intelligence, subtlety, and maturity in which it conducts itself. It refrains from heavy handed moralizing. It trusts the player to pay attention to its symbolism.
On the surface this is a solid little ghost story. Dig a little deeper and you will find among the most damning critiques of toxic masculinity around. Not too bad for a game that was released in 2001.
A Letter from Silent Heaven
James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife, Mary.
“In my restless dreams, I see that town.
You promised me you’d take me there again someday.
But you never did.
Well, I’m alone there now…
In our ‘special place’…
Waiting for you…”
Unfortunately for all concerned, Mary has been dead for three years.
Understandably confused, James decides to believe the letter is genuine (the first in a list of increasingly poor decisions). He returns to Silent Hill, a secluded resort town, hoping to find Mary. Instead he finds an eldritch nightmare filled with hideous twitching monsters.
The first game in the series followed a similar structure, with protagonist Harry Mason searching for his missing daughter in the fog-swept town. Silent Hill 2 presents itself as a retread of the first game. The graphics are better, the acting a little more off kilter, but for the most part we appear to playing a standard perfunctory sequel.
That changes when we find out how Mary died.
When Masculinity Goes Bad
Toxic Masculinity is the basic concept of linking the male gender with violence. It is the notion that to be a ‘Real Man’, one must be aggressive, unemotional, and sexually dominant. Such an attitude helps to (consciously or not) reinforce a patriarchal society and is naturally extremely harmful to woman.
Yet men who cannot attain this ‘ideal’ (I am using that word as sarcastically as possible) also become victims of it. They are routinely mocked, shunned and declared to be ‘Not Real Men’.
If the tenants of toxic masculinity are to be followed, then only a man could ever possibly be the hero of a story. There are six principal characters in Silent Hill 2 (seven if we count Pyramid Head, who we will discuss later). Four of these six are female, so they will be set aside for the moment.
That leaves Eddie Dombrowski as James’ only competition for the role of hero. Now Eddie most certainly does not fit the toxic ideal of the ‘Real Man’; He is cowardly, overweight, dim-witted and a constant victim of bullying (we will discuss that later too). In contrast, James is a tall, blonde, white, and even faintly handsome man. Of course this man must be our hero.
The problem is that James is spectacularly unfit to be a hero.
Here is a short list of idiotic decisions that reveal James to be the least competent hero ever devised.
- Upon encountering a monster infested town, his first thought does not involve escape.
- He makes no attempt to help the people he encounters escape from said monster infested town and consistently abandons them.
- James does not even role up his sleeve before sticking his arm down a toilet.
- He yells at a little girl mere seconds after promising not to yell at her.
- He is then easily fooled by the same eight year old girl and locked by her in a room.
- Upon hearing a madman with a gun announce that he will murder anyone who makes fun of him ever again, James asks the gunman “Have you gone nuts?”
- He jumps into a bottomless pit. Several times.
- He fails to save the same damsel in distress on three separate occasions.
We can thusly agree that no one in their right minds would ever cast James Sunderland as a hero.
That last reason deserves particular examination. Said damsel in distress in Maria, a flirtatious and revealingly dressed woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to his late wife. In fact, they have exactly the same face. And the same voice. And James meets her in the exact spot he had expected to find Mary.
Yeah, the reality James is perceiving might not be entirely on the level.
Monsters, More Monsters and Mary
The three most common monsters James encounters are called Lying Figures, Mannequins and Nurses. The Lying Figures are vaguely feminine shapes that appear to be confined in a strait jacket and attack by vomiting. The Mannequins are essentially two bottom halves of mannequins stuck together. The nurses (despite resembling zombies) are dressed in mini-skirts and have exposed cleavage.
Noticing the trend? Each monster is female in shape. Each monster is either associated with disease, is overtly sexualised, or both. James spends the bulk of the game slaughtering these creatures, either beating them with blunt objects or shooting them.
This is probably a good time to mention that James murdered his wife.
We are told from the game’s outset that Mary died of “that damned disease” three years ago. It is revealed in the game’s closing stages that while Mary did indeed contract a terminal illness three years ago, she actually died relatively recently. And James murdered her.
Notice I keep saying murdered. Some would argue that he smothered Mary with a pillow to end her suffering. James himself makes that case. With this in mind, should I not call this act euthanasia? No, for one crucial reason.
James did not ask Mary if she wanted this to happen. While he did hear her say that she wanted to die, he also heard her say the opposite. James made the decision without her consent. He robbed her of any agency over her own death. He did not consult, he did not think, he just acted.
You know, like how a ‘Real Man’ is supposed to act.
Once the manner of Mary’s death is revealed, it becomes pretty clear that nothing we have witnessed in the game is actually happening in the strictest sense of the word. Rather than just being a death zone, Silent Hill appears to be somewhere that draws people who seek to punish themselves and reflects back upon them their own misdeeds. Laura, the aforementioned little girl, wanders through the town as if nothing were odd. Being a child and thus having nothing to make her feel guilty, she sees Silent Hill as a normal town.
All that James encounters are the thoughts he brought with him. This is particularly disturbing when we remember that all the monsters were female. Not just female, but females robbed of agency and literally objectified. The Lying Figure cannot use it arms to defend itself. The Mannequins are comprised of long legs and nothing else. The Nurses can barely walk in their skimpy outfits.
These are the monster James invents. It seems he can only relate to woman as literal sex objects.
The implication is obvious. James spent years in a state of sexual frustration because of his wife’s illness. He felt immensely guilty over these feelings, and they end up being added to the list of things for which he seeks punishment. However, James is single now after all, and one could easily interpret his slaughtering of the feminine monsters as relieving himself of all that pent up frustration.
Which brings us back to Maria. James creates in his head a woman that is Mary come again, only this time sexier and utterly devoted to his needs. Finally, he gets everything he told himself he wanted.
Only he doesn’t. Maria calls him out when he tries to abandon her. She begs James to protect her, telling him that it is his job. Worse, he is forced to watch her die over and over, utterly powerless to intervene. Maria may have been born to fulfil James’ fantasies, but she lives to remind him his is failing to be a ‘Real Man’.
See, James is not just an enforcer of toxic masculinity. He is also one of its victims.
As I said earlier, Eddie is as far from the ideal of the ‘Real Man’ as one can get. Because of this ‘failure’ (again huge amounts of sarcasm), Eddie has been mercilessly bullied for his entire life. This eventually led him to a snap, kill a dog, shoot one of his tormenters in the leg and flee to Silent Hill.
In a perfect world, Eddie would be able to recover from his childhood traumas (and also atone for his reaction). Unfortunately, Eddie does not live in a perfect world, he lives in a patriarchal one. He reasons that if he is doomed to be tormented by ‘Real Men’, he should respond with the one tenant of toxic masculinity that is not beyond him: Violence.
Eddie is reduced to the crazed gunman mentioned earlier. He evens tries to murder James, but is instead murdered in kind. Notice that when it came time for a real person to die, none of the monsters end up being responsible, again reinforcing the idea that the monsters are all in the mind.
James and Eddie fail comprehensively to be ‘Real Men’. Neither are built to be heroes. To those who believe in toxic masculinity, there can be no greater sin. It is no wonder these two men desire punishment so badly.
However, there is one man (if he truly is a man) that perfectly lives up to the ideal of the ‘Real Man’. His name is Pyramid Head, the iconic monster with the impossibly large and heavy knife he drags behind him (both an obvious Freudian symbol and something more complex, which we’ll get to in a moment).
Let us quickly run through the tenants of toxic masculinity. Is Pyramid Head aggressive? Well he is constantly trying to murder James, so aggression is clearly no issue. Is Pyramid Head unemotional? His entire head is confined in an expressionless helmet, robbing him of any trace of humanity.
Is he sexually dominant? In his first two scenes he appears to be doing something to the other monsters, something many people have interpreted as sexual assault. Add to that the fact that he is the one who keeps murdering Maria and you get the perfect combination of everything that defines a ‘Real Man’.
Pyramid Head is the ultimate representation of toxic masculinity. And unlike in a certain HBO fantasy show I might mention, we are not supposed to relate to him. We are supposed to hate and fear Pyramid Head, because Pyramid Head is truly a monster.
And he exists to punish James.
Suffering and Punishment
“I was weak. That’s why I needed you… needed someone to punish me for my sins…”
So says James in a rare moment of insight. The Pyramid Heads (there are now two, possibly because James has at this point killed two people, Mary and Eddie) have just killed Maria for the third time and now seek to kill James. The world’s most incompetent hero miraculously triumphs against the seemingly invincible beasts, not because of any action on his part, but because the Pyramid Heads commit suicide.
James wins because he is no longer in denial about himself. He knows now that he murdered Mary. He knows now that he is not the hero. Pyramid Head, his great tormenter, ends itself now that James is at last coming to terms with his actions.
Let us back up and talk about his weapon, the Great Knife. Pyramid Head drags it around in the first third of the game, even using it to knock James off a building. Yet every time he kills Maria, he uses a spear. Why not his Great Knife?
The Great Knife symbolises the great weight of James’ guilt. His guilt over murdering his wife, his guilt over failing to be a ‘Real Man’. It is the most deadly weapon in the game, but it also weighs down the user. James can even end up in possession of the knife in the latter stages. It is fitting that the symbol of James’ guilt can only be used to hurt him, and used by him to hurt others.
Another thing that needs mentioning is that Pyramid Head is the same height as James, and makes the same grunts when swinging the Great Knife. It makes you wonder whose face hides behind that mask…
Her White Knight
Why have I made such a big deal out of the Great Knife symbolising guilt? Because weaponised guilt is another insidious form that toxic masculinity can take, and there is one main character I have yet to talk about.
Angela is the first character James encounters in Silent Hill 2. From the outset it is clear she is troubled by some great trauma in her past. (Said trauma is just about the darkest thing in the game, and while I believe the game handles the issue well, I do not feel qualified to address it properly and will thus be avoiding it as best I can).
Her second encounter with James finds her holding a knife and staring at herself in a mirror. The third finds her cowering from a hideous monster she calls “Daddy” (which means exactly what you think it means).
James convinces Angela to give him the knife. He defeats the monster that was tormenting her. Yet Angela does not thank him. She grows angrier with him every time they meet. Then we get to their final encounter, after James has remembered Mary’s murder at his hands, and we get this speech from Angela.
“Or maybe… you think you can save me. Will you love me…? Take care of me…? Heal all my pain…? Hmph… That’s what I thought.”
It always comes back to James trying to be a hero. In this instance he is trying to find redemption, to absolve his guilt over murdering a woman by saving another. Here is the clearest instance of James’ weaponised guilt, trying to use violence to put the world to right.
And Angela sees right through him. By reducing yet another woman to an object in his redemption quest, he is still blind to the lesson that Maria’s deaths should be teaching him. He cannot fix things by following the same rules that led him to murder Mary. Angela (and by proxy the game itself) will not let James off the hook for trying to white knight his way to absolution. At long last, James finally begins to come to terms with the fact that there is no way for him to fix things.
Mary is gone.
Yet coming to terms is not the same thing as forgiveness. There are many ending to James’ story, and only one can be considered a happy conclusion. (I will not be discussing the ‘Rebirth’ ending, as it did not appear in the original version of the game, nor the two joke endings).
The ‘Leave’ ending is considered by many to be the good ending. James is able to live with his murders, if not quite forgive himself, and leaves Silent Hill with Laura in tow. He acknowledges his toxic attitudes were wrong, abandons them and walks away to a better life.
The ‘In Water’ ending is rather less happy, but perhaps more thematically appropriate for a horror story. James ultimately cannot cope with his crimes and commits suicide by driving his car into the lake. He acknowledges that his toxic attitudes were wrong, but is unable to escape from them and dies another victim of a patriarchal world.
The ‘Maria’ ending is perhaps the darkest of the three. James refuses to accept his crimes and latches onto Maria as a solution (who is definitely not real, I should point out, in case that was not clear from her constant Lazarus act). As they leave together Maria coughs, indicating that she too will soon succumb to the same disease as Mary. James may be refusing to acknowledge that his toxic attitudes were wrong, but Silent Hill refuses to let him off the hook.
The point I am desperately trying to hammer home here is that Silent Hill 2 is interested in critiquing toxic masculinity, not just wallowing in it. The consequences of the mind-set are laid bare: Mary dies, Eddie dies, Maria dies repeatedly and in one ending even James dies.
It also goes out of its way to emphasise that there is another way. Compassion is the virtue James lacked when Mary was ill, but (going off the implication that he adopts Laura in the ‘Leave’ ending) it is a virtue that his learning of helps save him. James escapes Silent Hill not through unemotional violence, but by abandoning it as an option.
Or he fails to learn a lesson and is doomed to repeat the same hellish journey again. This is, after all, a horror story.
Silent Hill 2 is a fiendishly complicated game. I could easily write another few thousand words on its mechanics, its voice acting and the means by which you decide the game’s end.
Whenever I do think about the game, I usually fixate on two things. Firstly, I love that James Sunderland utterly fails to be the hero of his story. The game never really presents him in a heroic way; only the oversaturation of certain genre tropes could ever lead you to assume he will save the day.
Secondly, I always fixate on the sheer force of guilt one must feel to literally put themselves through Hell. The fact that this guilt is born from James’ actions informed by toxic masculinity reminds me that while video games can so often stumble when addressing social and gender issues, there are examples where the execution is near flawless.
All images courtesy of Konami.