The horror before words
Halloween is perfect for video games. In a sense, nearly everyone who turns on a video game is putting on a costume to run around as Mario, Master Chief, or a lovingly-crafted World of Warcraft avatar for just a little while.There’s also some scary, scary shit out there. The original Metroid is scary. Fighting hordes of the undead in Resident Evil 4 or Left 4 Dead is terrifying. Games like Manhunt or 2005’s The Punisher are just fucked up. (Hillary Clinton complaining about Grand Theft Auto? She didn’t have a clue.)
Some of the scariest (and fondest) video game memories I have, however, involve watching my roommate play Silent Hill 2 in the basement of our apartment. Part of this is because Silent Hill 2 is a well-constructed, genuinely frightening cinematic game. One of its master strokes is the figure of Pyramid Head, an unpredictable, lumbering Freudian metaphor who slaughters people in front of your eyes, and is, within the game, absolutely invincible. Even at the end, when he acts as the second-to-last boss fight, the player character never has the ability to damage Pyramid Head. All you can do is run, hide, and wait for him to finally destroy himself.This powerlessness — where running is more important than shooting – is what separates the survival horror genre from first-person shooters, where a player may face overwhelming odds, but those odds have more to do with the sheer mass of cannon fodder than with a sense that the enemies that one faces are somehow beyond the capabilities (or even the understanding) of the player character. Sure, the Big Daddies in BioShock are tough, but you kill five of them during the course of the game. You never kill Pyramid Head.
In Silent Hill 2, the question of what Pyramid Head means becomes far more important than figuring out how he can be damaged.
It has to be admitted that the final explanations that survival horror games provide are usually pretty disappointing, but it’s the in-game execution of the encounter with the ineffable that make the experience so frightening, so mind-bending, and so much fun. Pyramid Head is a god, in the old pagan sense of the word. The ending is almost beside the point.Arguably, this is what Silent Hill gets right that even as venerable survival horror franchise as Resident Evil gets wrong. In Resident Evil, there are explanations, and worse, they are, as Tom Bissell memorably notes in his essay “Headshots,” rather stupid. The zombies are the result of a virus, developed by the evil Umbrella Corporation. Why? Because Umbrella is evil. Why are they evil? Because they’re a corporation. As the series progresses, however, it’s increasingly clear that there’s nothing behind the Umbrella Corporation. There’s no there there. Umbrella is a rather lazy invocation of faceless greed, which, as far as I know, isn’t really what makes zombies scary.
In contrast, Silent Hill 2 is famously built on a Freudian psycho-sexual foundation where the player character’s guilt constructs and drives the purgatory he is forced to explore. To the game’s credit, however, Pyramid Head exceeds his role as a walking phallus. He’s not just Freudian, he’s Jungian. More than that, he’s something out of Lovecraft — something that finally cannot be comprehended, or even spoken. This is what horror is — the encounter with that which precedes description. It gets distilled into zombies, plagues, and vampires, but the difference between fear and horror is the difference between being killed and being eaten.
In all honesty, another part of the fondness of my memories comes from the fact that I was watching and not playing the game. I’m a bit of a chicken — I still can’t watch Alien — and the slight insulation that came from watching someone else play instead of playing myself meant that I experienced a game that I probably otherwise would have avoided.
I have toughened up a bit over the years, which is good, because I don’t have a roommate anymore. Now I have to run from Pyramid Head myself.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.