Fear the unknown
There's a slow, burning dread that accompanies any visit to Silent Hill. The sort that worms its way under your skin, stirs in the back of your head, and leaves you racked with paranoia. You never feel safe. You're always threatened. Everything seems hell-bent on consuming you in some horrible and unknowable manner. It's hard to pinpoint why, exactly, you feel this way, because there is no one thing. Instead, Silent Hill employs several subtle techniques to disorient players.
The alleyway sequence in the first game is a perfect example. Its sinister design takes the familiar setting of Anytown, USA and makes it feel truly alien, with protagonist Harry Mason cast as the hopeless outsider, confused and woefully unprepared to face the challenges ahead. It can take less than a minute to complete, but will leave you feeling anxious, isolated, and confused. Check out the video below to see what I mean, and then follow along as we break down the key scenes in this unnerving sequence.
Scene 1 - Beware of Dog
Arriving at the threshold, you find a metal gate with a sign stating, "Beware of Dog." This is your first hint of danger since arriving in Silent Hill. Until now, you've been safe from harm, but once you squeeze through that gate - which is slightly ajar, beckoning you to enter - all that could change. The sign's wording invokes abstract perceptions of feral, uncontrollable danger, while warning you that, if you get mauled, it's all your fault. The sign itself isn't really a safety warning. It's an implicit threat of harm to interlopers; harm that is ultimately self-inflicted.
The gate squeaks as you pass through. On the other side, you find a big, bloody mess splattered across the pavement. Something has died here, something big. Without having encountered any enemies, you have zero context for what could have done this. Are these the dog's remains, or did the dog cause this? The game offers no answers, but both scenarios are equally unsettling. Better to let your mind swim with images of some horrible, man-eating beast thats on the loose, waiting for you. Already, the game is toying with you.
Scene 2 - The unsteady world
After entering the alleyway proper, you happen upon a very disorienting scene. Harry enters the frame walking towards the camera. As he approaches, the camera tilts to one side and slides up the alleyway wall so that you're now seeing Harry from above. Your control over Harry will probably falter here, so you'll need to take a beat to get him moving straight again. Once Harry passes beneath it, the camera slides back down and sees him exit from behind. The odd way in which this simple scene is shot promotes unease, even if you don't realize it.
Until you entered the alleyway, the camera simply followed Harry around in standard, third-person fashion. Now that you've started your descent into madness, your view of the world changes; perverted with odd-angle, fixed perspectives that signal to your brain: "Something's not right." An unsteady camera introduces visual doubt, and limits your ability to parse your surrounding. This creeping, ambient unease works on an instinctual level to heighten anxiety, and is a recurring technique throughout this journey.
Scene 3 - Sounds of terror
As Harry heads deeper into the alleyway, let's take a moment to talk about the sound. Ever since you discovered the bloody messy a few scenes back, the game has been playing a faint air raid siren in the background. Much like the Beware of Dog sign, the air raid siren is a universal sign of danger. This is yet another way in which the game is telling you, "Something bad is about to happen!" You dont know what or when or how; hell, youve only been playing the game for about 10 minutes. All you know is it's coming, sooner or later.
Today, the air raid siren is classic Silent Hill, heralding the transition to the other world. But if you were playing in 1999 and this was your first time in Silent Hill, you didnt know any better. This use of the siren, at the very beginning, is yet another source of anxiety. Again, like the Beware of Dog sign, it signals imminent danger, without expanding on what that danger entails. Instead, you're left with your own imagination as to what sort of horror lurks at the end of this alleyway.
Scene 4 - Subtle loss of safety
This next scene is real a 'oh crap' moment. As soon as Harry enters, the lights go out; almost as if the sun itself were suddenly extinguished. Harry produces a small lighter before pressing onward, guided by its dim halo of light. Only now, surrounded by darkness, can you really appreciate how vulnerable you've become. Gone are the wide open streets of Silent Hill. Now the city is closing in around you, entombing you in this increasingly narrow labyrinth. Not even daylight can reach you, another layer of safety unceremoniously stripped away.
The intent here is obvious: claustrophobia, isolation, and helplessness. You may have thought some unknown monster was the threat here - and maybe you still do - but the real sinister force at work is the town itself. The game never outright states this, but the choreography of the last few scenes hammers home the idea that Silent Hill is consciously responding to your presence and is pinning you down. Like a fly to honey, it has lured you into its trap, and now that you have transgressed this far there's no point in holding back. You must press onward.
Scene 5 - The long walk
From here on, Silent Hill throws everything it has at you. The game is no longer content with implied danger. It's ready to unleash it in full force, starting with an all-out assault on the senses. This extra-long scene is once again shot using that unsteady, top-down perspective designed to disorient the player. Navigating by the tiny flame of Harry's lighter, you first encounter a squeaking, wrecked wheelchair followed by what looks like a body under a bloody sheet. This is classic haunted house attire; haunting, gruesome, and ambiguous, and packed with unknown, implied history.
Then there's the rain. When did it start raining? Was it not enough to take away the daylight; now the very sky must come crashing down? On top of all this, a new wrinkle enters the soundtrack: heavy, metallic scraping, like an old piece of machinery on its last legs. The air raid siren is gone now, completely drowned out by the industrial noise. There's no longer any need to warn you of danger. You've already found it.
Scene 6 - Terminus
In one final bid to strip away everything familiar, and safe, the very walls of the alleyway are replaced by imposing chain link fences topped with barbed wire. They resemble something you might find in - oh, I don't know - a prison. Everything looks and sounds completely different now. Your entire world has been unmade, and now Harry too will be unmade. Following a trail of blood, you finally reach the terminus of this impossible alleyway: a roundabout, punctuated by a mangled and skinned corpse hanging from the fence.
The game even does a steady pan up the corpse ensuring you get a nice, long look at it. Silent Hill finally wants to show you something explicitly, and this is it. This is also a bit of foreshadowing, as two childlike figures emerge from the darkness and attack. As you scramble to find the attack button you realize, 'Wait, there's been no tutorial, no instruction. I don't even have a weapon. What am I supposed to do?' Nothing. There's no escape. There's no chance of survival. Harry is not in control here. He is not powerful. You are not powerful. There's only one way this scene can end. It is inevitable.
Epilogue - Just the beginning
After that harrowing experience in the alleyway, Harry wakes with a start at Cafe 5to2. There are no demonic children, and the world isn't engulfed in darkness. Everything appears to be normal. This calls into question everything that has happened so far. Did Harry die? Was the alleyway real? Is any of this real? Returning to the alleyway reveals it's now a collapsed ruin, further heightening the mystery. This revelation introduces a tinge of existential dread that will haunt Harry - and the player - throughout the game.
There is no greater fear than the one we create in our own mind. The unsteady camera, industrial soundtrack, and threatening imagery are all there to mercessisally toy with your imagination. Tangible, concrete threats are scary, but they have clearly defined boundaries and limitations. Suggested threats, cultivated in the mind, do not. Harry is suffering the confusion and horror of the abstract, and so is the player. Morbid curiosity takes hold, and you plunge deeper into the depths of Hell, only to realize the answers aren't coming. Just more questions; more phantoms swimming in your head.
Silent Hill isn't a power fantasy. Harry does acquire weapons and is able to defend himself, sure, but you never feel truly safe. The awkward controls reinforce this. Unlike Mario or Sonic or Mega Man - Harry Mason is not built for his world. He is a stranger, an outsider, doing the best he can in a bad situation. He cannot hope to conquer Silent Hill, only endure it.