Silent Hill 2: A Psychoanalytical Reading

1. Putting things in context[*]

The plot in Silent Hill 2 is more complex and has more edges than one would suppose. It all begins when James Sunderland, in a rather depressing scene, in a dirty bathroom, looks at himself in the mirror and recapitulates what brought him here. He has received a letter from his wife, in which she asks him to come and find her in the resort town of Silent Hill. Nothing alarming, true, although strange enough for a video game, an industry where the narrative standard is that of a zombie invasion and a group of agents who must stop it and restore order. But right away comes the first quirk: James recognizes that it is absurd to be there looking for his wife, since she has been dead for three years. But he’s somehow convinced himself that she’s there, and he won’t leave without finding her. Let’s admit it, it’s crazy.

Characters

Throughout his adventure, James will meet other characters who seem to be looking for something in the same town. He interacts briefly with them, but although their relationship doesn’t go very deep, we get to know them quite well.

These characters catch our attention because of their realism and humanity, and the great interest they arouse can only be a representation of how important they are to James and to the story.

James Sunderland

James is the main character, and the one who will be controlled by the player[1]. He also serves as the link between the player and the universe displayed on the screen. He’s not an action hero, but a common man, still young (he’s 29 although he looks older), which allows the player a complete immersion in the plot. In other words, James is an average man who could be any of us.

At the beginning of the game, James makes it clear (to us) that his wife, Mary, has been dead for three years, but also that he’s recently received a mysterious letter written in her handwriting. In this letter she asks James to go find her at their “special place”, somewhere in Silent Hill. When in town, James is confronted by strange, nightmare-like events that force him to question the town, but also, and more importantly, his own sanity, his memories and his relationship with his deceased wife.

Mary Shepherd-Sunderland

James’ wife. The couple had vacationed in Silent Hill some time before, and James made a videotape of them in their room, but when they left, they left the tape behind. Mary liked the town so much that she asked James to take her there again.

Mary suffered from a painful illness that caused the progressive disintegration of her body and marriage. James didn’t visit her in the hospital often, as she had become grumpy and lost her beauty. But in the hospital, Mary found some solace in Laura, a little girl whom she grew to love and whom she planned to adopt when she overcame her illness.

James decided to put an end to their suffering, smothering Mary to death with her pillow. But James has forgotten this event. Throughout the game there are several symbols that have the function of reminding James of the tragic event, but only until we find video footage where the moment of the crime is explicitly seen (the video tape he recorded), James cannot make the repressed memory conscious.

Maria

When James arrives at Silent Hill following the letter Mary has sent him, he thinks he will find her in the park by the lake. In the letter, Mary asks him to look for her in their “special place,” and he assumes it’s there, where they had spent many happy afternoons.

But when he arrives, it’s not Mary but Maria who seems to be waiting for him. Maria not only shares the same name with Mary, she also has the same appearance, except for her hair and clothes (Mary has brown hair, wear light-colored clothes and has a sober style, Maria is blonde—bleached—with red tips, wears bright-colored clothes, sexy style and makeup).

After exchanging a few words she asks James if there might not be another “special place” to look for Mary, and he mentions that perhaps Mary meant the hotel. Maria tells him which way to go there, and as they say goodbye, she asks him not to leave her alone, as the city is full of monsters. James decides to take Maria with him.

Along the way, Maria is killed by an enemy known as Pyramid Head, a monster wielding a gigantic knife. James is shocked and devastated by the loss of Maria, more than what might be considered normal when faced with the death of a stranger. He later finds her again, alive and with no memory of what happened, except that they were separated. This confuses him, but he ends up accepting it without much questioning. Maria is killed several more times. This is, no doubt, a metaphor representing the murder of Mary by James himself. Maria is, of course, a copy or a reflection of Mary. This is clear in the extra scenario included in some versions of Silent Hill 2, called “Born from a wish”, i.e., “that which is born from a wish”: James’s desire to get Mary back, distorted because the sick Mary was not exactly what James wanted; but it’s also the unconscious desire to punish himself by reliving over and over again the crime he committed against his wife.

Mary’s personality is a dense web of complexes[2], at times she seems shy and fearful, at other times she appears confident and even mischievous. There are moments when she uses a sweet or seductive tone, which indicates her tender feelings for James, but she also knows—as seen in “Born from a wish”—that James is a bad man, who has killed his wife, however she “remembers” that underneath it all, he’s a kind and wounded man.

In several moments, Maria makes it clear that she’s a representation of Mary, as when she exhibits a remarkable concern for Laura, and demands James to look for her and protect her, or when in the hospital she feels sick and lies down in a room to recover, while James continues looking for the girl.

Despite the fact that Maria seems to have the keys to heaven (literally and figuratively speaking; remember that scene where to get from one street to the next they must go through the bar where Maria supposedly works, and which is called Heaven’s Night—a night in paradise?—she pulls out the keys she carries hidden to open the door and enter), James is so obsessed with finding his wife (or at least discovering the meaning of the letter received) that he generally does not pay too much attention to Maria, although after each of her deaths, he remains silent, suffering a real mourning for her death, which is also Mary’s death. In the last of these deaths, at the hands of not one but two Pyramid Heads, James has realized that he no longer needs Maria, for he has recognized his sin and is willing to purge it.

Angela Orosco

Angela Orosco is a young woman (she is 19 years old, but her appearance and voice make her look much older) who is looking for her mother in Silent Hill. She’s been a victim of sexual abuse by her father, Thomas Orosco, who, according to a note in a newspaper that we find, has been killed by receiving multiple stabs in the neck; neither the attacker nor the weapon have been found.

She’s a shy, introverted woman, and her clothes (jeans, white turtleneck sweater, covering her whole body) give her the typical appearance of a person who has suffered abuse in the past (partly because wearing a lot of clothes makes abuse difficult), and the first time we see her, she’s in a cemetery, in a white mist. She also suffers from delusions; on one occasion she mistakes James for her mother, and in another scene, when James has defeated a monster, Angela finishes it off by throwing a television at it, and complaining for the damage it has done to her. The monster is called “abstract daddy”, and represents Angela’s father.

When later James finds Angela in a room holding a knife, evidently contemplating suicide, he tries to help her and talk her out of it. Angela asks him to hold the knife for her in case she needs it later. Elsewhere, James tries to touch Angela’s hand to instill reassurance, and she complains, tells him he’s a liar and that he has surely left his wife to go with another woman (this is important, can Angela see James’s real face?) She also shows her repulsion for all men. Some of her words addressed to James are: “So what do you want, then? Oh, I see… You’re trying to be nice to me, right? I know what you’re up to! It’s always the same! You’re only after one thing!“, “No… don’t pity me. I’m not worth it… Or maybe… you think you can save me. Will you love me…? Take care of me…? Heal all my pain…? …That’s what I thought.”

The last time we meet her, she’s going to the top of a building; the stairs where she is leaving are on fire. We have entered her personal hell, which is not made up of monsters but of burning fire. We can intuit that the only monster she sees is her father. Her delirium would have led her to take literally the idea that her father, the abuser, is a monster; James manages to see this monster, but only in an abstract form (“abstract daddy”). At times Angela seems to be interested in James, and it seems that she tries to seduce him but does not succeed.

James sees himself in Angela, who wants to punish herself for having murdered her father.

Laura

She is an 8-year-old orphan girl whom James frequently encounters in Silent Hill. Unlike the other characters, she doesn’t seem to be afraid of the city, and when he asks her if she’s not afraid of monsters, she looks at him curiously, almost mockingly (monsters? How crazy), since she’s the only innocent person, and therefore doesn’t see monsters or strange things, including Maria (although Maria tells James to protect Laura, we never really see Maria and Laura together or interact in any way. Truth be told, Maria never appears with any other character besides James).

Before the events of Silent Hill 2, Laura and Mary became friends, and during the game’s story, she also seems to be looking for Mary. In the introductory video to the game, we see her with Eddie, and this brief scene indicates that they may have arrived in town together in the van he drives. Laura is a temperamental child, James calls her a liar on one occasion.

Laura also has a dislike for James. But the aversion she feels is due to his relationship with Mary. To Laura, he’s a bad man who has hurt her friend, and near the end of the story, it is she who, indirectly, helps him recognize that it was he who ended his wife’s life.

Although at the beginning she is an enemy of James, in the end she becomes kinder, because perhaps she has gotten to know him a little better and realizes that he isn’t the monster she thought, but a man tormented by his inner demons, by guilt and sadness.

Or, you know, because she’s a little girl and was hoping to find in Mary a mother… and in James a father.

Eddie Dombrowski

Eddie is the least ambivalent of all the characters in Silent Hill. When you first meet him, he’s vomiting copiously in a bathroom, having found a dead body in the refrigerator. He seems like a scary and somewhat ridiculous young man, he dresses like a child and his clothes are too small for him. He also seems to see monsters, but he doesn’t know about “that red pyramid thing” James talks about. Eddie sees his own monsters.

He has arrived in town along with Laura, and on one occasion we see them interacting more or less amicably. Laura insults him, but he doesn’t seem bothered, as busy as he is eating a pizza. There is not much we can know about his life before these events, but it is clear that he has not had it easy and that he’s been a victim of abuse (bullying, probably), on top of that we know that he’s on the run from the authorities, and that’s why he ended up in Silent Hill.

Eddie usually represses his anger (as happens when Laura insults him), but he also manifests some aggressive outbursts, as we can observe in some of his conversations with James.

Every time we meet Eddie, he’s near bodies that have been horribly murdered, and he always insists that he had nothing to do with it (psychoanalysis has taught us that when someone is faced with a fact too uncomfortable to accept, he or she rejects it by insisting that it is not true, even if there is evidence to the contrary. When a person offers a denial without being asked, as Eddy does, it’s a clear indication of this kind of abnegation.)

In one of their encounters, Eddie boasts of having killed the man whose corpse we can see to one side, but then laughs and says it was just a joke, and immediately leaves. Soon after James finds three open graves, each with a name written on it: James, Eddie, Angela: the three sinners who roam the streets of Silent Hill.

In his final encounter, Eddie no longer presents the defensive attitude but is proud of his crimes. He states that he will kill anyone who belittles or mocks him, even with their eyes. James manages to penetrate Eddie’s personal hell, becoming a cold-blooded murderer, which appears as a container of meat. It’s a cold space, with pieces of meat hanging from hooks, the pieces vaguely human-shaped. Although James tries to reason with him, it’s not possible, for Eddie doesn’t listen to reasoning and takes it as an insult, so James will be forced to defend himself against Eddie’s attacks, and must kill him if he is to survive. This shows that James, deep down, is indeed capable of killing another human being.

James sees himself in Eddy, who stops running away from his personal hell to instead embrace it, becoming a murderer and feel proud about it.

Monsters

Monsters are more relevant in Silent Hill 2 than almost in any other video game (and many literary and cinematic works of horror), as they are not creatures thrown around randomly, but serve a symbolic function in addition to their normal function as enemies to fight.

Pyramid Head

He is the main monster in Silent Hill 2. He looks like a burly man wearing a pyramid-shaped helmet that causes him pain (that’s a common thing in the Silent Hill series, the monsters not only cause pain to the characters, but they themselves are victims of some kind of suffering), and he carries a gigantic knife with which he attacks James and Maria, and later, a wooden spear. His first appearance is in a hallway, right in front of James, but there is a grate in between that prevents passage for either of them; at this point, he represents a mirror of James himself. Later he’s found attacking or maybe sexually abusing two mannequins, and James makes him run away with pistol shots. Shortly thereafter, the creature attacks James on a stair landing, from which James manages to escape with his life almost by miracle. In the end it is two identical monsters that James must fight. After causing them a certain amount of damage, the creatures walk to the center of the room and commit suicide.

Pyramid Head represents James himself, tormented by his burden (the metal helmet for the monster, and the guilt for James; the helmet is a kind of shackle but for the head, for the mind). This representation is clear from the first encounter, when James and the monster face each other, as if in a mirror. Pyramid Head attacks James, but also other beings (demon patient, mannequin, Maria), symbolizing James’s own aggressions against Mary (the mannequin seems to symbolize Mary; at one time we find a mannequin wearing Mary’s clothes after all). When he finally recognizes that he’s to blame for everything, he no longer needs Pyramid Head, so the latter kills jimself, which could also be a warning of James’s own suicidal desire.

In essence, Pyramid Head is James’s punisher, who believes he deserves to receive punishment for killing his wife, but at the same time he represents James himself, as we see the creature commit the same brutal acts that haunt James’s mind, whether he committed them (such as the death of Maria/Mary) or thought them up (he’s not only a punisher, he’s might be a sexual abuser). Pyramid Head tries to kill James, but at the same time opens the way for him to move on (when he allows him to go down the flooded stairs, and when he throws him over the edge of the hospital rooftop, so he can move on), i.e. Pyramid Head is James’s unconscious mind, which at the same time tries to remind him and hide his crimes from him. It’s the repressed desire that seeks to come to light, and also the resistances that want to keep it hidden.

Demon patient

They look like psychiatric hospital patients trapped in straitjackets, naked and semi-disembodied, but the straitjackets are made of their own skin. There is no doubt that their primary significance is to remind us of James’s madness, both in their aggressiveness (they are slow, persistent, wide-ranging enemies, just like the madness) and in their fragility. Trapped in their own bodies.

Mannequin

It’s a mannequin that, from the waist down, is shaped like a woman, and instead of arms has another pair of female legs, which lack feet. The mannequin is a representation of James’s sexual desires and his frustration related to his wife’s illness. The first time this monster appears, there’s two of them, and both are being apparently raped by Pyramid Head, while James watches the scene, hidden in a closet.

A mannequin is a less-than-human thing that reminds us of a human. Mary’s illness took away her beauty, and this, in James’s eyes, is tantamount to having lost what made her human.

Bubble head nurse

These are nurses who wear provocative attire, but are covered in filth and their faces are bandaged, revealing only jagged jaws. A second class of nurses, found in the dark, have their heads covered with a semi-transparent latex-like material similar to a condom, but which also could be interpreted as a symbols of suffocation. These monsters attack with a rusty tube. They represent, no doubt, James’s sexual desires, but they also remind him of his wife’s condition and her hospitalization. This enemy reminds us that James killed Mary by suffocating her, but at the same time, it’s another reminder of the sexual theme so present in the game. Sex and death, so close to each other.

“Bubble head,” in colloquial slang, is used to denote that someone is stupid (“empty-headed”). James shows a grudge against the doctors and nurses who “let Mary die” during her illness, and killing these monstrous nurses may also be a form of retribution.

Mary

Mary is the last monster that James fights, at the end of the game. Depending on the decisions made during the adventure, James meets either Mary or Maria on the hotel rooftop. If it is Maria (disguised as Mary; a last attempt to convince James to stay with her), James will reject her and she will transform into the monster. If it is Mary we meet, she will reproach James for killing her and immediately attack James.

This monster is a representation of Mary in her terminal stage, she’s lying on a metal frame, her limbs have turned into tentacles and she’s hanging upside down. It attacks James in three ways: by throwing a swarm of moths at him, by hitting him with the metal frame, or by suffocating him with the tentacles. The moths represent death (compared to Maria’s tattoo, which is a butterfly and symbolizes rebirth—a new beginning, perhaps?)

2. The Theme of the Three Caskets

The central motif in Silent Hill 2 is one that comes from ancient tales and legends: the choice of the casket. This theme concerns a person, usually a man, who must choose between three metal caskets (gold, silver, lead), and the one he chooses will seal his fate. The caskets represent women, like any other similar objects (brooches, drawers, trunks, baskets, chests). They’re actually symbols of the vagina, and the vagina represents a woman.

We find this motif in two of Shakespeare’s plays: King Lear (the old king must hand over the kingdom to one of his three daughters, the one who proves to love him the most) and The Merchant of Venice (three men will choose between three caskets, the one who makes the right choice will marry the merchant’s daughter), and also in many folk tales and fables, such as Cinderella (the prince who must choose between the three sisters), or Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (where a man must decide which is the most beautiful among the three goddess sisters), and so on.

James must choose between three women: Mary, Maria and Angela. This is not very clear in the game, but is a very subtle element, related to small decisions that we make throughout the game. For example, when Angela hands over her knife, we can enter the inventory to observe it, and this would be interpreted as James considering the possibility of suicide; when we meet Mary for the first time we can go directly to the hotel or wander the streets, which would be interpreted as a desire to meet Mary or to spend time with Maria; and so on).

This series of decisions will lead to one of the three possible endings of the game, i.e. the different fates for James. Each ending is represented by one of the three women.

Mary

If we or James choose Mary, what happens is the following: James discovers that he killed Mary and therefore felt guilty and sought his punishment in Silent Hill, but now he has forgiven himself and decides to continue with his life. As Mary is dead, it seems that James, regaining his sanity, will be left alone… but this is not the case, as he is soon joined by Laura. Laura becomes the daughter of Mary and James. They both visit Mary’s grave, leave her flowers and leave together, like a father and daughter. Sanity and life has won out, one might say.

Maria

If on the other hand we or James choose Maria, upon defeating the monster Mary, James returns to the lake where he first met Maria, and she’s there, waiting for him. Together, they leave Silent Hill. But, as they walk away, Maria begins to cough, perhaps an indication that her story with Mary is to be repeated. It’s delirium that has triumphed (remember that Mary is not real, but an illusion created by James to remember and hide the fact that he has killed his wife), and the tragedy can be expected to repeat itself. After all, trauma has a tendency to repeat itself over and over.

Angela

Although James doesn’t seem interested in Angela, she is presented as a seductress (in one scene, James finds three tablets, representing the “archetypes” of “the oppressor”, “the gluttonous pig” and “the seductress”. The latter represents Angela and sexual urges). James, though he doesn’t manifest it, might be interested in her in a sexual way (this is inferred only by the presence of this tablet), and it’s sometimes obvious that she thinks that to be the case, but what is clear is that he’s tempted to follow the fate she has outlined by handing him the knife and telling him “You are just like me”: i.e. death. If the choices in the play lead James to choose neither Mary nor Maria, which are the two active choices, that is, if he chooses Angela, which is the passive choice, the non-choice, it means that he chooses death over madness and sanity (life) and ends up committing suicide, throwing himself into the lake.

3. Who are they?

But who are these three women really? In myths, tales and legends, like those mentioned earlier and other similar, the third and younger of the three women (sisters, most of the time) is always chosen. “The third of those sisters, among whom one has to choose, would be a dead one. But it could also be something different: death itself or the goddess of death”[3]. Following this reasoning, these three women represent “the three inevitable relationships with woman: the mother, the companion and the destroyer. Or the three forms that the image of the mother takes in the course of life: the mother herself, the beloved, chosen in her image, and, finally the mother earth, who welcomes us back into her womb.”[4]

Mary is the mother, the one who gives birth, the one who gives James a daughter, though not a natural daughter but an adopted one: Laura. In this sense, Mary is also a mother, James’ wife who was chosen in the likeness of the biological mother (this we can only assume, as there is no reference to James’s parents); moreover, Mary’s name refers to the Virgin Mary, the mother of God and of all men, in Catholic mythology.

Maria is the companion, or the beloved, chosen in the likeness of the mother/Mary; Maria is similar to Mary, even in name, but idealized, modeled after James’s desire.

Angela, whose name is the feminization of the angel, is the destroyer, the corrupter, the seductress; her seduction goes beyond the sexual, it’s above all biological: she’s death, the grave, so seductive to James that it is the most likely ending we will get (and it’s the canonical ending). She wears white and appears for the first time among white mists; this color, in Japanese Buddhism (the game was created by a Japanese team), represents death. Also, as in the stories, Angela is the youngest of the three women, but unlike these stories, here we can choose any of them. We can choose our own fate.

Notes

[*] I wrote this essay as part of a postgraduate course in psychoanalysis applied to works of art, in 2013. Although some concepts have changed over the past 8 years, my thesis on SH2 remains the same. I publish it here because I have no other space where to do it. After all, I have written about video games before.

[1] These two sentences seem obvious, but whoever has played Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (deconstruction of the original game) knows that being a protagonist and being a player character are not necessarily the same thing.

[2] Complex: Organized set of representations and memories endowed with intense affective value, partially or totally unconscious. A complex is formed from the interpersonal relationships of childhood history; it can structure all psychological levels: emotions, attitudes, adapted behaviors. (Jean Laplanche y Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. “Complejo”, en: Diccionario de psicoanálisis. Barcelona. 2004.)

[3] Sigmund Freud. “El tema de la elección de un cofrecillo”, en. Obras Completas 2. España, Biblioteca Nueva. 2003. p. 1871. (en 3 tomos). [English translation]

[4] Ibid. p. 1875.

Author:

Chaos Magick-User, Vagabond, Dork

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