Kaitlin Tremblay is an editor, writer, and new Twine-r who focuses on using horror to discuss mental health issues and feminism. She has a MA in English Literature and Film, and tweets about Godzilla and her own clumsiness a lot.
Why We’re Afraid of the Dark
A Review of Bernard Perron’s Silent Hill: The Terror Engine
When I was given a list of books to review, the note that went along with this book was this: “May not be a great choice if you’re not an SH fan, though.” And so obviously, I chose this one. Not out of spite, but out of sheer, uncontrollable interest. In the introduction, Bernard Perron makes the obligatory reference to the divide in the horror gaming world: some people are Silent Hill fans, and the others are Resident Evil fans. I fall in the RE camp, and as true to my stubborn roots, haven’t strayed from this conviction. Ever. But it’s not something that I’ve ever really given much thought to, honestly.
So I came to this book curious and eager to learn everything that I’ve let my weird-Claire Redfield loyalty prevent me from enjoying. I’ve played Silent Hill games, but always in a detached state (*cough* wanting to be proven right about RE being superior state *cough*). But Silent Hill: The Terror Engine showed me the light. Or the light barely breaking through the fog, if you will.
Before jumping into the juicy bits, it’s worth noting that Silent Hill: The Terror Engine is available for free and online. And at 138 pages, spanning four chapters that cover mostly the first three Silent Hill games, Silent Hill: The Terror Engine is definitely worth the read for horror fans, video game fans, and yes, definitely Resident Evil fans.
Bernard Perron crafts the most thorough love letter, not just to Silent Hill, but to the horror genre in general. He starts with a valuable reminder of how fear is experienced in video games: namely, that despite our own level of control and interactivity with the game world, fear is staged. He refers to creating fear in video games as being “filmlike”: it is what Perron calls the “mise-en-scène of fear.” Camera angles in the game control what you see. It controls how to hide the monsters and when to let them appear. It’s why the choice of third-person perspective matters. It’s all about controlling the way we interact with the staged setting that is designed to elicit anxiety.
Perron investigates just what exactly horror is, and how horror is disseminated differently in video games and films. Horror uses cliché in a way no other medium can: horror thrives off cliché and recognized patterns, and uses it to create an intensified fear. Perron explains that the great fun of recognizing patterns in horror stories is that if you can recognize it, you can fight against it. It gives you a form of agency over your fear.
Coincidentally enough, it is this agency that also becomes the biggest source of fear: if you can control the fear by fighting against monsters and running away from them, then you can also lose that control. For Perron, an example of this loss of control is cut-scenes. You are put at the game’s mercy, the way we typically are with horror films. And that loss of control is when the terror gets amped up. This is why video games are able to occupy a good place in horror, because their effects create situations we are immersed in and must navigate through. Player control gives us agency against fear but it also puts us at fear’s mercy.
To this end, Perron spends a great deal of time discussing “fiction emotions” and “artefact emotions” to distinguish the way interactivity plays with our own sense of fear differently in video games than in films. For Perron, if you are in control and detached (as in, as the player you can fear the monsters in Silent Hill, but you cannot truly experience the same fear as the player character because you are removed and aware that, on some level, you are safe), then you’re allowed more fully to revel in and experience the aesthetics of horror. What he means is that what us horror movie and game fans love, in part, is “the way fear has been designed” (67). Recognizing patterns, delighting in navigating these patterns and fighting back against the fear, is to revel in the design of horror.
Following in this vein, in Chapter 3 Perron spends a long time lovingly exploring the effects of the camera angles in the game, and how Silent Hill draws on the cinematic feeling of The Shining and German Expressionism to create beautiful shots that echo the psychological unraveling and underpinnings of the game’s main themes and characters.
But perhaps the greatest distinction outlined in Silent Hill: The Terror Engine is the nuanced difference between horror and terror. Perron writes that:
“Horror is compared to an almost physical loathing, and its cause is always external, perceptible, comprehensible, measurable, and apparently material, while terror is identified with the more imaginative and subtle anticipatory dread” (31).
Terror is more linked to the psychological, horror to the physical. From this point, Perron coins the phrase “survival terror” to describe Silent Hill, rather than survival horror. And this is important because the fear created in Silent Hill is one of atmosphere first, and physicality second.
To this end, Perron spends a long time tracing the filmic influences on the Silent Hill franchise, ranging from The Shining, to Jacob’s Ladder, to David Lynch’s canon of works. He refers to the way that Lynch’s works run parallel to Silent Hill in that both blur imagination and reality, making what happens in the game distortions of the human mind, rather than mere fact. This is fitting, when you consider the monsters of Silent Hill. Perron notes that they are extensions or reflections of the human psyche.
Moving from “fiction emotions” (empathetic emotional experiences for the player character), Perron then delineates what he calls “gameplay emotions.” Perron explains that “gameplay intensifies the emotional experience” because you are interacting and reacting to the world, not just passively observing it (98). He raises the valid point about how controls and controllers influence the effect of fear. We become comfortable with a video game’s controls and we can effectively become masters of our own mediation of fear.
For me, one of the biggest selling points of Silent Hill: The Terror Engine is the delineation between horror and terror. It’s a useful separation to keep in mind because the way we experience scary movies, stories, and games is indeed felt in two different capacities: there’s the physical horror and the mental terror. The idea is that terror expands. It forces us beyond the prescribed limits, and lets us rollick about in unimagined territories with unimaginable monsters. And this is always the most terrifying. In shows like Supernatural or Buffy, the scariest monsters are always the ones that our heroes have no notion of how to kill. Or no notion about how to figure out how to kill.
I find Perron’s usage of “survival terror” in this book helpful rather than groan-worthy, as well. This careful wording establishes the main difference in the fear that Silent Hill creates versus the fear one feels while playing Resident Evil. The fog and radio static create a continual dread that lets us create our own impending monsters. What makes Silent Hill truly terrifying is not just the run-ins with the Nurses or Pyramid Head (although, admittedly, those run-ins do create a visceral fight-or-flight response), but it’s the wandering around thinking that those monsters could be anywhere at anytime that’s the greatest source of fear. It’s why the comparisons to David Lynch’s work throughout the book are so apt. In Lynch’s oeuvre, we see constants testaments to how “imagination is reality.” Like Perron explains of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Silent Hill is a reflection of a mental state, not just simple surrealism.
It’s why the monsters are perfect in Silent Hill. They are unreal and horrifying, but essentially just grotesque modifications or adaptations of human bodies. While I agree with Perron when he explains that modifications of the human body to create the monsters works when you’re considering the fear of Silent Hill as a terror of exploring our own mindscapes, I do take slight issue with his choice of wording. He notes that: “[…] the majority of the foes look like they are disabled beings” (43). While I get his takeaway point, the language here did absolutely trip me up: it’s the association between disability and monstrosity that leaves me a bit cold. A poor choice of words, unfortunately, at the crux of an important argument.
While Perron’s examination of the camera angles and how the “mise-en-scène of horror” works, this isn’t what convinced me of Silent Hill’s assured place in the horror canon. (Although, his breakdown of how the cinematography elicits specific feelings and emotions and creates a sort of manufactured psychological unraveling is definitely worth the read for any film fan. It is nuanced and shows the attention put into every aspect of Silent Hill and the way terror is designed into every element and not just the narrative.) But what convinced me more than the ode to camera angles was the exploration of the relationship between sound and terror in video games. In Silent Hill, the static precedes enemy encounters and works to immediately set you on edge far more effectively than seeing an upcoming monster. You cannot effectively prepare because it is shrouded in visual absence, so your imagination goes to work even harder. And this is the entire realm of Silent Hill’s terror. This use of static and sound has always been one of the most effective tools in creating ultimate terror. From across every medium, this technique is the holy grail of horror methods (and one I incidentally had to play homage to in a survival horror Twine of my own).
Additionally, the argument surrounding fiction emotions and gameplay emotions help to really flesh out the way video games create fear (in a way that horror films and books just cannot do). For example, Perron discusses Silent Hill 2, and Team Silent’s decision to have James walk and walk and walk and walk through the forest at the beginning of the game. They took a risk with this decision to draw out the pace, in order to intensify feelings of impatience as a contrast to impending fear, and it’s a risk that paid off. Slowing down the pace in a horror film absolutely works, but not as effectively as it does in video games. In films, you can disengage, but in video games you are forcing the player character to take each excruciating step. It’s this capability of video games to elicit horror that movies are uniquely lacking. While it’s true that the identification a player shares with the player character is always going to be limited and inhibited by virtue of the fact that you are not the player character, the control you have manufactures your relationship to fear differently. This is why talking about gameplay emotions is such a fruitful concept for me. We can’t talk about identification with the player character because your experience isn’t the same, but we can talk about your experience controlling the character and thus mediating the events that happen.
The great takeaway from this book isn’t necessarily, for me at least, about Silent Hill per se, but how fear is created and perpetuated. Perron uses Silent Hill as a (perfect) vehicle to discuss the ways we interact with horror. He makes a solid case for what sets video games apart from their film counterparts in the horror genre, and adeptly explores how we consume and enjoy horror. As much as Silent Hill is a manifestation of the imagination, this book is a testament to what makes horror great. Undeniably, the Silent Hill franchise is a master of horror and terror, and its adept use of craft and technology to cultivate this fear leaves nobody, even a die-hard Resident Evil fan, unimpressed.
In fact, the way Perron investigates horror fits more aptly for Silent Hill than for Resident Evil (as much as you all need to know that pains me to write). He usefully delineates why the horror and terror in Silent Hill is very much unique to Silent Hill, and can’t be replicated in Resident Evil. It comes down to the atmosphere, which is composed of everything from your playable character, to the monsters, to the setting, and to the narrative. In Resident Evil, the source of the horror, Umbrella Corporation, is a distinct foe, a villain that is essentially separated from us. Umbrella Corporation represents humanity en masse, and how we tread the line of useful versus harmful technological and medical advances. But Silent Hill represents us individually, and the terror inside Silent Hill is a terror of fighting your own psychological projections and imaginings. Silent Hill the town is a place we are drawn to and entrapped within, but this entrapment is paralleled with our own psychological entrapment. In Resident Evil, the settings and foes are external, and this is the essential divide that Perron’s critique illustrates.
It’s this divide that’s also helpful when considering other horror games. For example, take Dead Space. The few minutes I played of Outlast were of an entirely different caliber than the hours I devoted to the Dead Space series. Don’t get me wrong; I love the Dead Space games through and through, but they’re a different type of scary from Outlast and Silent Hill. Yes, necromorphs are horrifying, but even armed with just a plasma cutter and your stasis ability (which is how I play the game) you quickly learn their weaknesses and how to take down hordes of them.
Their threat is lessened from a horrifying puzzle that is going to eviscerate you to, albeit challenging and still frightening, parts of an obstacle course. This isn’t the same terror that’s in Outlast and Silent Hill, I’d argue. It’s horror, yes, a fear of being surprised by baddies and then mauled by those baddies, but it doesn’t encapsulate the same mental terror that Silent Hill does. In games like Resident Evil and Dead Space, you are your best weapon. But in Silent Hill and Outlast, you and your imagination are your greatest foes. I’m not saying one type of fear is better than the other: they’re just different, and this is what Perron’s book is incredibly useful in constructing and understanding.
Silent Hill: The Terror Engine is a great book for anybody playing, writing about, or creating horror games, because it establishes a common language to discuss the spectrum of horror and terror, and how different games create different kinds of fear. Ultimately, the takeaway from this book shouldn’t be about labeling which game or kind of fear is better than another, but about knowing how to achieve a specific kind of fear. All horror isn’t the same, and Perron usefully shows how to think about horror and terror as related, but different, concepts manipulating fear in various ways.