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Gothic videogames, survival horror, and the Silent Hill series.

This paper explores the survival horror genre, more specifically the Silent Hill videogame series, illustrating the proximity between horror videogames and more established forms of Gothic fiction. Inherent in this analysis is recognition of the Gothic as a trans-media genre, a mode which translates across different cultural forms, as already evident in film and television programmes clearly informed by Gothic literature, and fruitfully explored by scholars employing critical frameworks drawn from its study. Particular attention will be devoted to the ways in which videogame mechanics and conventions facilitate the expression of Gothic themes, aesthetics, narratives, and anxieties, something that becomes particularly pronounced in titles explicitly located in the horror genre. Within videogame studies, a recurring criticism of work of this kind is that in drawing on literature to understand digital games, writers fail to account for the specific qualities of the form which differs significantly in its operation to previous, linear, non-participatory culture. While this paper illustrates the benefits of the so-called narratological approach in understanding the game series which is its focus, an emphasis is retained throughout on the ways in which a Gothic perspective allows greater understanding of those very aspects particular to the videogame. These include the operation of genre, the problematic status of videogame narrative, digital media's relationship with older analogue culture, and the 'uncanny' nature of videogame worlds. As well as reproducing Gothic narratives and iconography, the survival horror series also echoes Gothic themes through functions of the videogame form. Elements possible only within a digital game, such as tension between player agency and game pre-determination, inconsistent narrative worlds which rewrite themselves according to player input, uncanny doubling of avatar as boss battle adversary, scarred game spaces testifying to the inescapable influence of the past on the present, non-participatory digital films intruding on the playable world like moments of psychic disturbance, and game environments designed as traversable architecture analogous to the maternal body, all represent fascinating instances of Gothic aspects mobilised through expressive elements peculiar to the videogame experience. Gothic tropes and preoccupations are not simply translated but transformed in their transition to the digital game, according to the distinct manner in which the medium operates and the artistic possibilities it affords.

While engaging with broad aspects of the videogame--a term which covers an extremely diverse range of digital entertainment--the focus of this paper is the Silent Hill survival horror series. First released in 1999 on the original Playstation console, produced by the Konami games company, Silent Hill is currently in its eighth instalment, with a ninth scheduled for release. Taking place in and around the small American town of Silent Hill, across its various sequels and prequels, the series tells typically Gothic tales of mysterious religious cults, repressed memories, uncanny doppelgangers, murder, betrayal and incest. In terms of aesthetics, locations, and narrative themes the series contains many components of the nineteenth century Gothic which Eric Savoy identifies, including claustrophobic, gloomy settings imbued with a sense of forthcoming violence, spaces such as haunted houses, tombs and prisons, the contaminating influence of family curses, and revenge-driven ghosts. (1) Generically, Silent Hill belongs to the 'survival horror' subgenre, along with such titles and franchises as Resident Evil, Clock Tower, Fatal Frame, Forbidden Siren, The Suffering, Haunting Ground and Rule of Rose. The origins of survival horror are variously attributed to Hunt the Wumpus (1972), (2) Haunted House (1982), Sweet Home (1989), (3) and Alone in the Dark (1992), (4) but the term was first coined in Resident Evil's opening invitation, 'Welcome to the world of survival horror', subsequently being applied by critics and games producers to a cycle of game titles emerging both after and before the series' 1996 debut. Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen et al's definition of the genre as games where 'the player controls a character who has to get out of some enclosed place solving puzzles and destroying horrific monsters along the way' (5) encapsulates key aspects of entrapment, puzzle solution, monstrous creatures, and the struggle to escape. Like the fear generated by Gothic cinema through 'the manipulation of space around a human body', (6) survival horror videogames revolve around the navigation of a vulnerable figure through a three dimensional threat-filled landscape. Consistent with the spectacular visual nature of the Gothic, survival horror relies significantly on dramatic cinematic sequences--cut-scenes--and photo-realistic aesthetics to achieve its effect. Reproducing historical reception of Gothic literature, such elements have been traditionally dismissed by more 'purist' game scholars as unnecessary ornamentation irrelevant to core play. As such, these games can be considered excessive in containing narrative and audiovisual elements unnecessary to the fundamental rules of the game, to which complexly designed avatars, game spaces, and cut-scenes are superfluous.

A defining feature of the Silent Hill franchise is the dark and diabolical Otherworld, a corrupted version of the banal streets and municipal buildings of the lakeside resort. At key points across Silent Hill the game world shifts, often inexplicably, into this corrupted parallel dimension. Here walls are rank and rotten, floors transform into rusty grills falling away into darkness, corroded fan blades rotate menacingly above twisted metal walkways, and grimy corridors are littered with bloody mattresses, spilled hospital documents, and discarded medical equipment. This feature embodies an important Gothic element, being a preoccupation with two co-existing worlds: one the familiar external world of light, the other an unfamiliar internal world of darkness. (7) The Otherworld also relates to Savoy's application of Julia Kristeva's 'abject' to American Gothic literature as signifying 'a domain of impossibility and uninhabitability, associated with betwixt-and-between conditions where death keeps invading life.' (8) Characterised by blood, excrement, vomit, and other bodily fluids, the Otherworld disturbingly transgresses the boundary between inside and outside. In recent games this transformation happens before the player/protagonist's eyes, paint peeling from surfaces, blood oozing up from plug holes, floors, walls and windows assuming the palate and texture of dried blood, realising an uncanny Gothic impression of 'the strange--another order--breaking into the everyday.' (9) The paranoid Gothic ambiguity concerning the actual or psychological source of supernatural disturbances is apparent in the uncertainty Marc C. Santos and Sarah E. White observe as to whether mysterious forces or protagonists' psychoses are responsible for Silent Hill's grotesque worlds, (10) while Petri Lankoski argues that inconsistencies in Silent Hill 3 suggest game events are representative of the central character's mental state rather than external reality. (11) Hallucinogenic qualities of the Gothic, where protagonists and readers experience alternative psychological conditions (12) are evident in the first game's final levels, where players investigate a disorientating dream-like environment, a crude amalgamation of different locations previously visited. Across the series, corresponding with Catherine Spooner's analysis of contemporary Gothic cinema, characters inexplicably re-encounter objects, places, experiences from their past, producing an experience in which 'it is often difficult to tell where the narrator's internal world stops and the external world begins.' (13) Narratives of child abuse, an element Punter and Byron identify in both early (14) and more contemporary (15) Gothic fiction are present in the torments of the series' central sympathetic monster, a young girl nearly burned to death by her own mother, and in the ritualistic child sacrifices in a more recent instalment. Finally, just as Marshall Brown argues that certain kinds of Gothic fiction are not characterised by breathtaking thrills, but rather by gradual development, and long pauses in events, the Silent Hill series is relatively low on action and excitement, full of 'protracted vacancies in the action' (16) as endless empty streets are navigated, plot tangents are endured, and significant objects ferried back and forth from one side of the gamespace to the other.

That survival horror and Silent Hill videogames draw on the Gothic is not surprising, considering parallels between Gothic culture and videogames more generally. Contemporary videogames' grand pyrotechnics, vast architectural spaces and extravagant cinematics constitute a similar assault on bourgeois sensibilities and classical realism as Susanne Becker observes in other Gothic forms. (17) Like horror, romance, and sensationalist literature, videogames are amongst the degraded arts, Fred Botting comparing derision of videogames with that surrounding eighteenth-century Gothic fiction. (18) Criticism of the genre for being emotionally over-stimulating, educationally bereft, regressive and uncivilising, correspond with contemporary attacks on videogames discussed by James Newman. (19) If the cyborg is a Gothic creature--representing a thematic blurring of boundaries between human and machine--various writers, including Jon Dovey and Helen Kennedy, evoke such a figure in theorising the fusion of user and videogame apparatus inherent in the player/game relationship. (20) The melding of player and console, joypad or avatar, not to mention the dystopian science fiction themes frequently informing videogames' content, correspond with the biotechnological rewiring of mind and body, cyborgian monstrosity, and the transitional borderless post-humanity Botting aligns with the Gothic in contemporary (sub-) culture. (21) It is therefore fitting that in the opening paragraph to Botting's chapter on the Gothic nature of postmodernity, the author references the classic videogame Doom (1993), observing a Gothic disposition in the first person shooter's 'labyrinths, ghostly figures, and monstrous mutants ... violent shocks and graphic images ... repetitive structure [which] sacrifices imaginative narrative involvement for more immediate sensational pleasures'. (22)

As Charlene Bunnell notes, many writers have observed a key quality of the Gothic being its 'ability to actively engage the reader's participation in the story.' Comparable to the physical interaction required by the videogame medium, such active engagement is central to the production of 'suspense', 'shock' and arousal attributed, not always positively, to the Gothic genre. Emphasising the degree to which Gothic readers participate in the protagonist's ordeals, reacting as they react, undergoing the same rites of passage as the central character, analogous to the close relationship between player and avatar is Bunnell's claim that '[a]n audience cannot merely read the Gothic story; they must experience it'. (23) Misha Kavka considers the spectacular nature of the Gothic with its language of distinctly visual codes as explaining the mode's easy translatability into cinema, (24) similar arguments applying to the highly visual videogame medium. Gothic fiction, with its established and easily-recognisable repertoire of stock locations, pervasive atmosphere and spatial dimensions, fits well what Henry Jenkins calls the 'environmental storytelling' (25) of videogame narrative architecture. In plundering decontextualised signs, signifiers and iconography, such videogame practices, whether drawing on Gothic literature, Western cinema or superhero comic books, broadly parallel David Punter and Glennis Byron's discussion of Gothic art and architecture as 'theatrical pastiche.' (26) As a postmodern medium, videogames share Allan Lloyd Smith's aspects of postmodern Gothic. The 'aesthetics of the surface' (27) also identified by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, (28) characterised by depthless images, two dimensional characters and a focus on external details over psychological complexity, corresponds with Andrew Darley's description of digital games' marginalisation of characterisation, motivation and narrative. (29) And from a technological point of view, as designer Richard Rouse III observes, generic aesthetics such as darkness and mist accommodate the limitations of videogame technologies, requiring the computer or console to render only part of the game space visible to the player. (30)

In order to explore in more detail the specific ways in which Gothic conventions inform the Silent Hill games, this paper examines, in turn: narrative processes across the series, the games' expression of the past as imposing an unavoidable influence on the present, and the psychoanalytic resonance of game story and game play. The pre-determined linear nature of survival horror gameplay, its restricted interactivity, the fragmented, diverging, tangential multi-perspective nature of the Silent Hill story, and the process by which that story is uncovered by the player; the sense of past events beyond the player's control contaminating the present interactive experience, personified by the intrusion of chaotic signs of analogy corruption into the digital realm; the psychoanalytic significance of cut-scenes, puzzle objects, monster design, player exploration and game space, all contribute to the Silent Hill series as exemplifying Gothic themes evident in survival horror and videogames in general. That the Gothic is so palpably present across these digital games suggests not only the potential depth and complexity of the videogame experience, but also the durability and morphability of the Gothic mode itself.

Gothic Videogame Narrative and the Shattered Stories of Silent Hill

The issue of storytelling in videogames is a complex and controversial one. Yet a cursory glance at survival horror titles suggests narrative constitutes an important aspect of the genre. Box blurbs, concept art and instruction manuals discuss the avatar--the figure players control--as a character within a story situation. In The Suffering (2004) Torque is a prisoner condemned for murdering his wife and children; in Fatal Frame (2001) Miku Hinasaki is searching for her brother in a haunted mansion; in Obscure (2004) various teenagers investigate a demonic presence within their high school. Play entails piecing together clues about narrative events, such as the activities of Resident Evil's nefarious Umbrella Corporation, or the zombie-infested ship of Cold Fear (2005), as part of the process of completion. The importance of narrative in survival horror impacts upon the degree of interactivity players are permitted within these games. (31) Successful play involves linear progression, encountering cut-scenes, solving puzzles and defeating adversaries in a pre-defined order. This aspect of survival horror is not without Gothic dimensions. Steven Bruhm's suggestion that the main psychoanalytic understanding drawn from the Gothic is that humans are not free agents (32) finds particular resonance in survival horror, with both Tanya Krzywinska (33) and Diane Carr (34) discussing determinism as central to the experiences these games generate. The same sense of unavoidable persecution, inescapability, and the inexorable operation of fate, which Punter observes being suffered by the figures within Gothic fiction, (35) is inflicted upon the videogame protagonist and game-player through the restrictive structure of the game's narrow interactive pathway.

The titles of the Silent Hill series involve different characters and narratives, connected only by their--occasionally tenuous--relationship with the town of Silent Hill. The central story, albeit barely alluded to in some episodes, tells of Alessa Gillespie. A mystic child created by the quasi-satanic Cult of Silent Hill led by the mysterious Dahlia and well-dressed Dr Kaufman, Alessa was magically conceived and destined to birth the god of this demonic religious order. Resembling both Stephen King's Carrie (1974) and Ring's (1998) Sadako, Alessa has a rotten life, is shunned by the other children in Silent Hill for her strange family and unnatural powers which develop as she matures. Eventually Alessa rebels against the Cult refusing to do their bidding. In retaliation, Dahlia tries to burn her to death, setting fire to their home and destroying large sections of Silent Hill in the process. In order to remain alive and to keep the Cult from birthing their god, Alessa transfers part of her soul into a baby. This infant is found on the roadside by a childless couple who choose to adopt her, while Alessa exists in a state of agonising near-death, incarcerated in the basement of Kaufman's Alchemilla Hospital. This story, taking place before the first episode begins, is narrated across several game texts, as characters slide in and out of the main action. The protagonist of the original Silent Hill is Harry Mason, one half of the couple who adopted Alessa's soul twin, Cheryl. Heather, from Silent Hill 3 (2003), is another reincarnation of Alessa, the game's double twist revealing Heather is both Alessa and Cheryl, while her father--found murdered at the game's midway point--is the series' first protagonist, Harry. Silent Hill Origins (2007) opens with Alessa's rescue from her burning house by Travis Grady, a truck driver with his own demons to deal with, who finally intervenes in a religious ritual allowing Alessa to temporarily escape the Cult of Silent Hill.

This dark and excessive tale of sinister religions, family secrets, murder, monstrous mothers, childhood trauma, split personalities and dark doubles, clearly reproduces many tropes of Gothic fiction. Moreover, characterising cybertext formations in which stories are 'sewn' together by the participatory reader, the games of Silent Hill and the twisted tales they tell embody the 'fractured and dismembered' nature of the Gothic which Jason Whittaker sees reflected in 'the disjunctive readings foregrounded by new media.' (36) Like the partially-legible, interrupted, multi-authored, multi-narrative novels described by Sedgwick, (37) the 'story' of Silent Hill involves several games and characters, often with their own tangential plot lines. Many objects within the game diageses--pages torn from books, scrawled notes, paintings and monuments with indecipherable inscriptions--contribute to the story of Silent Hill. In their psychoanalytically- informed reading of survival horror, Santos and White argue that collecting and piecing together these texts, supplying the story with plot, giving narrative meaning to players' actions, is as important as destroying monsters in the player's roles as champion of the symbolic order. (38) Moreover, doctors' reports in hospitals and sanatoriums, writing etched into the walls of secret chambers, journals buried in abandoned prison cells, frequently tell stories which are irrelevant to core gameplay. These constitute the 'narrative digressions, opposition of various stories and registers, disputes of veracity' found by Smith in traditional Gothic fiction. (39) Many games have multiple endings, some of which contradict others. One conclusion to Silent Hill has Harry leaving town with the infant Heather in arms, another sees him dead at the wheel of his car, the entire game having been a post-death hallucination, a revelation which negates the entire series. Most dramatically, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009) appears to rewrite the original game as the recollections of Harry Mason lying on a psychiatrist's couch. By completing psychological tests, the player influences the visual content of game spaces, characters and cut-scenes, meaning there is no definitive story to Shattered Memories, only different versions of the narrative experience.

John Fletcher's discussion of female Gothic cinema opens with the claim: 'The search for origins, especially when it takes the form of reconstructing a hidden or forbidden scene, is one of the most seductive of all narratives'. (40) Two games revolve specifically around such themes: Silent Hill 3 and the aptly titled Silent Hill: Origins. Both follow Sedgwick's codification of the 'spatial model' in which a character becomes 'massively blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access' (41)--Heather from her past self as Alessa, Travis from traumatic childhood experiences. Illustrating the ways videogames translate Gothic elements ludically, uncovering these events requires players to solve puzzles frequently culminating in a highly symbolic locked door, the 'key' to which the player must discover to progress. Such aspects reflect the 'forbidden room' of female Gothic, (42) the 'sealed, preserved' chamber in which the truth is 'encrypted or embalmed', (43) or the tendency within Gothic fiction for one space within the house--the attic, a locked room, a crypt--to be the most intense source of ghostly disturbance. (44) The sanatorium and motel levels of Origins conclude with Travis entering a previously-locked door whereupon he encounters monstrous versions of his mother and father, re-experiencing repressed moments from his past where he found the former murderously insane and the latter hanging from the rafters. The search for an absent mother constituting one goal of female Gothic heroines, (45) it is notable that Heather's journey in Silent Hill 3 begins with an attempt to return to her father, then develops into an encounter with the maternal figure of Alessa. As a female Gothic heroine, like the protagonists of Rebecca (1940), Gaslight (1940) and Dragonwyck (1946), Heather is a young girl haunted by another woman who is at the same time rival, doppelganger and mother. Reproducing the 'uncanny and doubling relation between the youthful protagonist and the older woman', (46) and the psychological doubling of the heroine through mirrors and portraits in Gothic cinema, (47) Heather states her discomfort around reflections, is attacked by a series of bloody versions of herself, and, in the game's climactic stage, discovers the truth of her origins in a painting depicting a mother and baby in which both adult and child share her face. The theme of the female Gothic in the heroine's flight from, movement towards, or otherwise engagement with a mother figure who is also the heroine's double, seems exemplified in this iconic moment. For the player, the most dramatic point of doubling constitutes the revelation that Heather is Cheryl, Harry's daughter, the figure players perused in the first game of the series. The survival horror videogame, in the case of Silent Hill 3, thereby dramatises as ludic experience core aspects of the female Gothic.

Silent Hill and the Unbearable Past

Gothic narratives are about protagonists haunted by mysterious secrets of the past, (48) and this structure ideally suits videogames where players piece together embedded narrative fragments, entailing, as Marie-Laure Ryan notes, both 'the story to be discovered, and the story of their discovery.' (49) Structuring gameplay around uncovering events which have already taken place, and which are therefore beyond the player's control, goes some way in overcoming the incompatibility of interactivity and narrative, which, various theorists have argued, by its nature must unfold in a determined past tense manner at odds with the present tense of videogame play. The ransacked buildings of the Resident Evil series, the abandoned research installations of The Thing (2003), and the haunted mansion of Fatal Frame all contain smashed equipment, boarded windows and gruesome audio recordings evidencing previous events which continue to contaminate these often-banal locations. Characterising 'the shadow-play of the Gothic', monstrous creatures and events are often absent from the screen, leaving players only with 'an effect of representation rather than ... its object.' (50) Typifying survival horror's particular relationship with narratives of the past, and the deterministic nature of the genre, each level of the Lovecraft-inspired Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (2002) takes the form of a chapter read by the present day heroine from a book in her grandfather's study, in which various historical figures--a warrior, an archaeologist, a reporter--encounter an ancient evil. As Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith suggest, '[t]he Gothic is the perfect anonymous language for the peculiar unwillingness of the past to go away.' (51) Such a quality perfectly fits the interactive medium and the survival horror genre, with its reliance on storytelling, yet problematic relationship with narrative's temporal dimensions.

The Silent Hill games are organised around a traumatic event which continues to poison the present, viscerally depicted through the dark and disturbing Otherworld. Lying comatose in Alchemilla Hospital basement following her mother's attempt to destroy her, Alessa Gillespie transmits grotesque expressions of her torment. Twisted images of rusted wheelchairs, soiled mattresses, faceless doctors and nurses which populate the parallel universe Alessa generates suggest the terrible crime taking place years before the first game's events. Moreover, in gameplay terms, these shifts bring with them new monsters threatening avatars' health, new puzzles challenging player's wits, and new configurations of once-familiar spaces which must be re-navigated. Appropriate, given the series' North American small town setting, such features resonate with a particularly transatlantic tradition of Gothic narrative. A sense of the past invading the present is central to Savoy's analysis of tensions within American Gothic, expressing 'the attraction and repulsion of a monstrous history, the desire to "know" the traumatic Real of American being and yet the flight from that unbearable and remote knowledge.' (52) Identifying traditional Gothic themes within more contemporary slasher movie cycles, Peter Hutchings observes a similar experience of 'the past as a barbaric force which interrupts and threatens a mundane, everyday world.' (53) Dahlia's attempt to murder her daughter, and to hide evidence of that deed by committing Alessa's half-dead body to Alchemilla Hospital basement, constitutes the crime to which Silent Hill repeatedly returns. These Gothic horror monsters, Hutchings suggests, represent 'a marker of a psychologically internalised transaction between the past and present' produced and nourished by contemporary inhabitants' attempts to burry previous events. This is realised in Silent Hill's Alessa, whose pain and outrage 'periodically erupts in violent form into the external world.' (54) As Savoy argues, in American Gothic fiction 'abstract ideas (such as the burden of historical cause) are given a "body" in the spectral figure of the ghost.' (55) The young Alessa who appears fleetingly throughout the series represents such a spirit, an apparition of the former young woman from whose burned and blackened body spring forth alternative worlds and horrifying creations to torment Harry, Heather and Travis.

Monstrous embodiments of the past emerge across the series, even in those instalments only tangentially related to Alessa and her suffering. The protagonist of Silent Hill 4 is haunted by a small boy, a ghost of a serial killer as a child, whose traumatised impressions of places from his past constitute the game's horrifying locations. These spaces are also patrolled by ghosts of the killer's victims, many of whom the protagonist failed to save. While allusions to histories of slavery, which Teresa A. Goddu sees as the central crime of the past which returns to haunt the living within American Gothic, (56) are largely absent in Silent Hill, a sense of the town as a source of repressed--albeit unspecified--evil is evident in the rotting prison beneath the town, and the panopticon-style jail of Silent Hill 4, a place where misbehaving children were sent as punishment. More chilling is Homecoming's suggestion that the neighbouring town of Shepherd's Glen has warded off the evil engulfing Silent Hill by regularly sacrificing its own offspring. In Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland is drawn to the town after receiving a letter from his dead wife. Upon arrival he encounters various ghosts from the past, including a tailor's dummy dressed in Mary's clothes, a young patient from Mary's hospital, and a woman resembling James' wife exactly yet claiming not to know him. As the game progresses, spaces become increasingly associated with the central character's disintegrating mental health, and astute players may come to suspect James' implication in his wife's death. In similar ways the protagonists of Silent Hill 3, Homecoming and Shattered Memories are forced to confront their repressed past, of which they, and the player upon beginning the game, are ignorant. Given the close relationship between player and playable protagonists, the repressed memory trope works well in keeping the degree of knowledge between the two relatively comparable.

Anxieties that primitive pasts have not been successfully superseded, Botting sees in the ghosts and monsters which return to prey on rational civilised society within early Gothic texts. (57) Such concerns are evident across Silent Hill: in Alchemilla Hospital's inability to contain Alessa's contaminating influence; in the supposedly-dead serial killer who returns to persecute the new resident of his childhood apartment in Silent Hill 4; and in Travis' mother who haunts her son's investigation of the now-abandoned site of her incarceration. However, particularly significant given the games' location in digital culture is the degree to which older, non-digital media are frequently implicated in this return, or provide the language through which its presence is experiences. This is most evident in the radio that many Silent Hill protagonists carry and which acts as an early warning system, crackling with static whenever a monster is in range. Given the enveloping darkness of the series, threatening creatures are frequently heard before they are seen, associating the sound, alien to contemporary digital radios, with threats to the player's progress, and creating a dirty, chaotic soundtrack which belies the digital precision of the videogame medium. In the fourth game, the radio is absent, but monstrous proximity is signified by emulated celluloid scratches running up and down the screen, as though the film stock through which the game is realised has become corrupted. Such reproduction of analogue disintegration produces a sense, in particularly stressful moments, of an older outdated medium seeping through into the contemporary digital form. Across the series, analogue media, such as the videotape through which James witnesses his murdering of Mary, the audio tape whereby Travis hears his dead mother's psychiatric interview, mysterious photographs from Alex's childhood in Silent Hill: Homecoming, become associated with the past, the supernatural, the malevolent. Moreover, the emulation of analogue corruption as signifiers of the supernatural represents a medium-specific translation of the Gothic in which previously surmounted technologies return like contaminating zombies to infect the digital media of the present.

The Primal Terror of Silent Hill

Psychoanalytic themes permeate Gothic texts. With games involving repressed memories, searches for origins, and the external manifestation of violent emotions, Silent Hill games continue such traditions. Jerrold Hogle suggests Sigmund Freud's own writings were themselves shaped by Gothic fiction, (58) while Bruhm argues that if traditional Gothic has always been easily psychoanalysed, contemporary examples are characterised by an evident awareness of Freudian themes which frequently become their subject. (59) Typified by the psychiatric framing of Shattered Memories, such knowingness is evident in the earlier Silent Hill 4: The Room where the titular space, a one bedroom apartment within which the protagonists is trapped, becomes explicitly identified as a maternal womb. Homecoming constitutes an Oedipal narrative, being the story of a man haunted by flashbacks of his dead father, gradually adopting the patriarch's role through appropriating his phallic gun and ceremonial knife as weapons. In Silent Hill 3, Heather also searches for her father's home, and comes to avenge his murder by destroying a monstrous mother figure--one of many across the series. In a final capitulation to patriarchal law, the game ends with Heather declaratively adopting the name her father gave her. Mechanics specific to the videogame mode might also be productively considered employing psychoanalytic frameworks. Writing about the repressed traumatic experiences which characterise Gothic protagonists, Bruhm comes close to describing the cut-scenes which intrude upon gameplay when he writes: 'Gothic horrors in these texts are the distortions, hallucinations, and nightmares that proceed from these experiences. Memories of that moment flash before the Gothic hero's eyes only to be inaccessible minutes later.' (60) Across the Silent Hill series, snapshots of traumatic events experienced by playable protagonists, existing outside of interactive space, erupt suddenly and beyond the player's control, disappearing once they have run their course. Furthermore, just as contemporary Gothic protagonists are plagued by unconscious desires to retrieve lost objects, often with maternal, familial, or highly symbolic meaning, (61) playing Silent Hill--and survival horror in general--involves locating psychologically significant items to complete tasks or solve puzzles.

'The uncanny', as discussed by Freud in an essay inspired by a highly Gothic story, features as prominently in survival horror as in Gothic fiction. (62) Silent Hill--and possibly videogames in general--resonate with this unnerving quality of supernatural fiction and human experiences. (63) A slippery term which nevertheless exemplifies the Silent Hill series' ability to disturb rather than horrify, many aspects associated with the uncanny feature across the games. Animism, the sense of inanimate objects being invested with life-like properties, is an aspect of many Silent Hill monsters. Silent Hill 2's manikin creatures, the puppets which attack Travis throughout Origins' theatre level, and the giant Scarlet doll which Alex battles in Homecoming represent the animation of inanimate objects with a human-like appearance. Analogue media in the form of radio static or celluloid scratches represent an intrusion into the digital game of 'long since surmounted' technologies, while the flashlight used to investigate the game space brings to light that which 'ought to have remained secret and hidden.' Alessa can be understood as various manifestations of the uncanny: a double to heroine Heather, a forgotten memory which returns to haunt the protagonist, a mother figure with all the disturbing associations of the maternal womb, and a symbol of the resurrection of primitive beliefs in myths of gods, monsters and demons inherent in the Cult of Silent Hill. Prawer's suggestion that there is something uncanny about the alienating processes of modern industrialisation, the enslavement of men to machines, and the dehumanising experience of the oppressive urban city (64) is reflected in the industrial nature of Silent Hill's Otherworld with its rusted rotating fans, diabolical furnaces and cacophonous sound effects, as well as in the robotic qualities of hospitals' bubble-headed nurses and other automaton-like adversaries.

The home recurs throughout Freud's discussion of the uncanny, a space both familiar and unfamiliar, and ultimately analogous to the body of the mother. Such ambivalence is graphically realised in Homecoming, where Alex returns to his home town to find it strangely changed: deserted, mist filled, plagued by roaming creatures. Entering his childhood home, Alex finds his mother in the living room, drained of life, holding his father's broken revolver. Illustrating the ways Gothic themes are expressed ludically, following a brief cut-scene exchange of dialogue with his mother, the basement door opens allowing players to progress 'downstairs' into the murky depths of the waterlogged garage in which the first of many horrifying monsters lurks. Continuing the analogy between the home and the maternal body, progress involves gradually unlocking and penetrating spaces associated with Alex's mother: the kitchen, the dining room, a sewing room; and the frequent use of knifes to cut open doorways inexplicably covered in a plastic membrane, allowing Alex to climb through the vagina-like slit. The Gothic cinema theme of 'domestic space made uncanny' (65)--significantly heralded by the kidnapping of Alex's mother--sees the Otherworld intrude upon the family home. Suddenly the environment with which players are familiar transforms into something which, while retaining its original form and structure, is horribly, disturbingly changed. An uncanny sense of gamespace being analogous to the maternal womb, something Gillian Skirrow identifies in processes of gameplay even in the medium's early days, is evident in Silent Hill 3.66 As Heather investigates a Silent Hill hospital, the building undergoes a transformation whereby the walls turn a bloody pulsating red. Travelling through this space, as Heather moves towards an understanding of her origins, gives the impression of passing through a human body. A gruesome task involving a bucket of blood, and perverse references to Heather's birthday, emphasise themes of birth and maternity throughout the hospital level.

Given the high number of Silent Hill instalments involving protagonists investigating their own origins, it is not surprising that many games feature Freudian primal scenes of one form or another. Across the series, figures of Hollywood cinema which Fletcher identifies as driving such narratives frequently recur: the detective is a role which Santos and White argue all characters investigating Silent Hill's history fulfil, (67) the amnesiac protagonist is evident in Silent Hill 2, Origins, Homecoming and Shattered Memories, and 'the anxious wife of the domestic Gothic' (68) is specifically represented by Silent Hill 3's Heather. Drawing on Laplanche and Pontalis' influential essay, Fletcher explores female Gothic cinema in relation to fantasy. Described by Elizabeth Cowie, in a similarly-inspired analysis, as 'an imagined scene in which the subject is a protagonist' (69) such a formation might correspond with the players' involvement within videogame scenes to an even greater extent than the spectator/cinema relationship Fletcher and Cowie discuss. The shifting sense of identification both writers describe corresponds to the complex process of videogame play where users are clearly participating in the scenario while simultaneously existing outside, or as Steven E. Jones argues, on the threshold of the game world. (70) In narrative and representational terms, Silent Hill 2 features versions of all three primal fantasy elements detailed by Fletcher. (71) The castrating father is Pyramid Head, a muscular figure wearing a butcher's apron and huge metal facemask, dragging a giant knife in his wake. The seduction of the daughter narrative is evident in the tale of Angela Orco, a woman molested by her father--disturbingly represented by a walking four-legged door--who she attacks and kills in a dramatic cut-scene. The father's assault on the mother is presented in Pyramid Head's introductory cut-scene, where he is spied either murdering, raping, or giving birth to a female-coded mannequin creature. Emblematic of the series' intertextual relationship with 'suburban Gothic' texts, (72) this reproduces the voyeuristic closet sequence from David Lynch's Blue Velvet (1986), which is described by Michael Atkinson as 'a primal scene unlike any other in film, or psychoanalytic, history', (73) and similarly conflates images of sex, death and birth. In one terrifying ending to Silent Hill: Homecoming, Alex is clamped in a chair, and forced to wear the mask of Pyramid Head. In a game revolving around a young man's troubled relationship with his father, this cut-scene represents the ultimate stage of the Oedipal narrative, in which the son becomes the father--a moment depicted as a terrifying and agonising invasion of the self which the son is powerless to prevent.

Conclusion: The Transnational Transmedia Gothic

As a digital game series, Silent Hill represents a translation of various narrative, temporal and psychoanalytic themes found within traditional Gothic fiction, transformed according to the requirements, capabilities and conventions of the videogame medium. At the same time, the Japanese origin of the series problematises the application of interpretive frameworks largely drawn from European and North American texts and textual analysis. An appreciation of the Silent Hill series' country of origin provides alternative perspectives on key aspects of the game discussed above, without gesturing to which this analysis would be incomplete. The Otherworld of Silent Hill may relate to Gothic preoccupations with alternative planes of existence, but also continues traditions within Japanese theatre, in which Richard J. Hand observes 'worlds that oscillate between the real and the supernatural', manifested in recent Japanese horror films which involve 'juxtaposing the arcane with the contemporary or the mundane with the extraordinary.' (74) Such a description encapsulates the transformation back and forth between the banal small American town of Silent Hill and its Otherworld dark shadow. The series' use of analogue media may reflect Gothic concerns about the inescapable influence of the past, but this aspect has particular meaning within the context of Japanese culture. Ramie Tateishi sees similar appearances of arcane media in Japanese horror cinema reflecting culturally-specific anxieties about a chaotic and irrational pre-modern past invading an enlightened present. (75) While easily placed within a Western psychoanalytic context, recurring themes of motherhood within Silent Hill correspond with Ruth Goldberg's analysis of the bukimina haha-mono or 'Uncanny Mother' cycle. (76) This does not invalidate the above analysis, only suggests that focussing on the Gothic dimensions of Silent Hill, a videogame series clearly mobilising European traditions of horror, suspense and the supernatural, is to overshadow the national culture of the series' origin.

Concluding her discussion of uncanny motherhood in Japanese films, Goldberg considers three possible scholarly approaches to the nationality of horror cinema: one emphasises the cultural specificity of horror, a second explores universal themes across different countries' film output, while a third combines the two to better understand connections between horror and national cinemas. Goldberg suggests that 'the uncanny' constitutes a trans-cultural concern, but one which is expressed in culturally-specific ways in Japanese horror cinema, and by implication, in the national cinema of other countries. It may be that 'the Gothic', a broad and amorphous term has a comparable universality, providing a structure or repertoire of themes which different nationalities apply according to individual contexts. In their consideration of a seemingly-incongruous post-1980s 'postcolonial Gothic', Punter and Byron similarly argue that the mode might be understood, not as a nationally-rooted genre, but as a perspective on history, expressing 'the recurrent sense ... that the past can never be left behind, that it will reappear and exact a necessary price.' (77) Silent Hill, with its tales of repressed memories, childhood traumas, family and community secrets, and the revelation of horrors from the past--be it Alessa's burning, Travis' father's suicide, or the ritual sacrifice of the children of Shepherd's Glen--expresses such a perspective on time, history, and fate. That such themes are evident in the videogame medium illustrates the extent to which the Gothic mode is not only trans-national, but also trans-media. 10.7227/GS.14.2.8

Address for correspondence:

Ewan Kirkland

University of Brighton



(1) Eric Savoy, 'The Rise of American Gothic', in Jerrold E. Hogle, (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 168.

(2) Ewan Kirkland, 'Restless Dreams in Silent Hill: Approaches to Video Game Analysis', Journal of Media Practice, 6/3 (2005), 172.

(3) Carl Therrien, 'Games of Fear: A Multi-Faceted Historical Account of the Horror Genre in Video Games', in Bernard Perron, (ed.), Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play (London: McFarland, 2009), pp. 34-5.

(4) Jason Whittaker, 'Gothic and New Media', in Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy, (eds), The Routledge Companion to Gothic (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 272.

(5) Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen, Jonas Heide Smith and Susana Pajares Tosca, Understanding Video Games: The Essential Introduction (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 184.

(6) Misha Kavka, 'The Gothic on Screen', in Jerrold E. Hogle, (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 210.

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(8) Savoy, 'The Rise of American Gothic', p. 170.

(9) S. S. Prawer, Caligari's Children: The Film as Tale of Terror (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), p. 136.

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(13) Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), p. 54.

(14) Punter and Byron, The Gothic, p. 289

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(22) Botting, 'Aftergothic', p. 277.

(23) Bunnell, 'The Gothic', p. 80-1.

(24) Kavka, 'The Gothic on Screen', pp. 209-10.

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(36) Whittaker, 'Gothic and New Media', p. 271.

(37) Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, p. 14.

(38) Santo and White, 'Playing with Ourselves', pp. 69-79.

(39) Smith, 'Postmodernism/Gothicism', p. 8.

(40) John Fletcher, 'Primal Scenes and the Female Gothic: Rebecca and Gaslight', Screen, 36/4 (1995), p. 341.

(41) Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, p. 12.

(42) Helen Hanson, Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), p. 68.

(43) Fletcher, 'Primal Scenes', p. 344.

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(45) Punter and Byron, The Gothic, p. 279.

(46) Fletcher, 'Primal Scenes', p. 346.

(47) Kavka, 'The Gothic on Screen', p. 220.

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(50) Kavka, 'The Gothic on Screen', p. 227, emphasis in original.

(51) Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, 'Introduction', in Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, (eds), Modern Gothic: A Reader (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 4.

(52) Savoy, 'The Rise of American Gothic', p. 169.

(53) Peter Hutchings, 'Tearing Your Soul Apart: Horror's New Monsters', in Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith, (eds), Modern Gothic: A Reader (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), p. 94.

(54) Hutchings, 'Tearing Your Soul Apart', p. 99.

(55) Savoy, 'The Rise of American Gothic', p168.

(56) Teresa A. Goddu, 'American Gothic', in Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy, (eds), The Routledge Companion to Gothic (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 63-72.

(57) Botting, 'Aftergothic', p. 278-9.

(58) Hogle, 'Introduction', p. 5.

(59) Bruhm, 'The Contemporary Gothic', p. 262.

(60) Bruhm, 'The Contemporary Gothic', p. 268.

(61) Bruhm, 'The Contemporary Gothic', p. 263.

(62) Sigmund Freud, 'The Uncanny', in The Penguin Freud Library, Volume I4--Art and Literature (London: Penguin Books, 1990), pp. 339-76.

(63) Ewan Kirkland, 'Horror Videogames and the Uncanny', in The Proceedings of The Digital Games Research Association 2009 Conference--Breaking New Ground: Innovations in Games, Play, Practice and Theory (2009), viewed on 19 October 2011,

(64) Prawer, Caligari's Children, pp. 127-9.

(65) Kavka, 'The Gothic on Screen', p. 219.

(66) Gillian Skirrow, 'Hellivision: an Analysis of Video Games', in Colin MacCabe, (ed.), High Theory/Low Culture: Analysing Popular Television and Film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), pp. 115-42.

(67) Santos and White, 'Playing with Ourselves', pp. 69-79.

(68) Fletcher, 'Primal Scenes', p. 341.

(69) Elizabeth Cowie, Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis (London: Macmillan, 1997), p. 127.

(70) Steven E. Jones, The Meaning of Video Games: Gaming and Textual Strategies (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 14.

(71) Fletcher, 'Primal Scenes', p. 343.

(72) Bernice M. Murphy, The Suburban Gothic in American Popular Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

(73) Michael Atkinson, Blue Velvet (London: BFI Publishing, 1997), p.46.

(74) Richard J. Hand, 'Aesthetics of Cruelty: Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film', in Jay McRoy, (ed.), Japanese Horror Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 27.

(75) Ramie Tateishi, 'The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarakk, in Steven Jay Schneider, (ed.), Fear Without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe (Godalming: FAB Press, 2003), pp. 295-304.

(76) Ruth Goldberg, 'Demons in the Family: Tracking the Japanese "Uncanny Mother Film" from A Page of Madness to Ringu, in Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett, (eds), Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2004), pp. 370-85.

(77) Punter and Byron, The Gothic, p. 55.
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Date:Nov 1, 2012
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