“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and it amazes us so, because it serenely disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies
James Sunderland, like most players guiding him throughout the events of Silent Hill 2, wavers between awe and terror the deeper he traverses into Silent Hill. His early dealings have been fraught with grotesque monstrosities across two grimy apartment blocks, a small appetizer for more bewildering encounters to come later. James only has a vague sense of why he’s in this foggy nightmare world, but he does seem to realize—even if he never speaks to us directly—that there lies something surreal, even dreamlike, beneath the things he’s witnessing. As James Sunderland advances deeper into the punitive realm of Silent Hill, the game teases at something hauntingly beautiful beneath the terrors that lie within.
There’s no denying the genuine horror of Silent Hill 2’s phenomenally lurid imagery of decaying bodies and bloodied environments, but it’s the game’s fleeting moments of dreamlike beauty that isolate the title apart from the generic trappings of macabre survival horror. Recognizing this dreamlike atmosphere makes sense in the context of Silent Hill 2; James’s lost spouse Mary sees the town in “restless dreams,” immediately marking the vague locale as oneiric while never distinguishing the setting as completely unreal.
What’s interesting about Silent Hill 2 is that these restless dreams have two distinct sides that oscillate throughout the game. The nightmarish imagery of monstrous, hypersexualized limbs and cavernous interiors reflects James’s uncontrolled id externalizing an ugly inner conflict of violent desire. This anxiety has only intensified following his spouse’s terminal illness, and what we see is filtered through James’s flawed perspective. But dreams aren’t only nightmares; they can also convey elements of beauty and strangeness. It’s this opposing force of the protagonist’s surreal journey that audiences often overlook, the lighter moments of beauty existing side by side with the nightmare spaces of Silent Hill.
One particularly beautiful stretch of game occurs in relative safety and with a heightened sense of wonder distinct from the scarier nightmares peppered throughout the game. This stretch of Silent Hill 2 consists of the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night scenes, and these locales contain the most normal moments of James’s retreat into restless dreams.
It starts when James meets Maria, the uncanny double of his wife Mary. We don’t know what his wife looks like, so we blindly take James’s word that Maria looks exactly like her, except that her “hair and clothes are different.” Since the entire game is filtered through his unreliable, anxiety-driven perspective, our experience of Silent Hill is rendered suspect. Thus all interactions with her are fraught with an eerie quality, like we’re talking to a phantom that may not exist outside James’s head. He feels the need to reconstruct and project his desires onto Maria like the protagonist of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which casts his interactions with Maria as a kind of lucid dream where he has control over circumstances that may not be real at all.
Maria tags along with James for no substantial reason, and so she serves like a ghost that constantly haunts him, half swallowed in the fog. Maria has a vaguely threatening aura because she’s so unknowable, and her simultaneous familiarity and strangeness to James renders her uncanny. This is the immediate context for the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night sequence; James has already encountered the monstrous dangers of the town and has partnered with a mysterious, potentially dangerous character.
Silent Hill 2’s constant sense of danger is what makes the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night sequence noteworthy because it frustrates our expectations of fear in favor of dreamlike beauty. Maria waits outside Pete’s Bowl-O-Rama, leaving you alone as you enter a shadowy, decaying lobby left completely wrecked and desolate. You anticipate the darkened horror that lies just beyond the tiny radius illuminated by your flashlight, but instead of gruesome monsters, the familiar voice of fellow wanderer Eddie greets you from afar. “Did ya find the lady you’re looking for?”
It’s a moment that should catch us off guard because how could Eddie have known of James’s entrance from another room within the bowling alley? James doesn’t even respond, and the interaction comes off like a hallucination. In lieu of immediate dangers here, Silent Hill 2 presents us with mundane mystery bordering on the magical. The bowling alley is a safe area completely devoid of monsters, and the music that plays during this segment cements this area as a moment of rest. In contrast to the harsh, industrial drone that characterizes most of Akira Yamaoka’s soundtrack, the music here is relaxed and serene, with a moody bassline and sense of airy lightness.
Entering the main area where the bowling lanes are, Eddie acknowledges you a second time, never mentioning the initial inquiry. The scene feels slightly off-kilter because instead of a violent clash with nightmarish monsters in a decaying building, you encounter the surreal sight of plain old Eddie in the dark, sitting and eating pizza. Pete’s Bowl-O-Rama exists as a place of peace in an otherwise grisly town, where both characters and players can recover from the hellish maze of foggy streets just beyond the walls. It’s also a dream space where spooky, subtly unreal incidents happen and expectations of horror are upturned.
Silent Hill 2 maintains this tranquil dream state when James rejoins Maria outside and through a back alley. Your way blocked, the only option forward is to cut through a building via an unmarked backdoor. The map identifies this building as “Heaven’s Night,” a cryptically named location with unclear prospects. Especially in a world like Silent Hill, entering a strange building in a dark back alley isn’t advisable, but Maria picks the lock anyway. After the welcome safety of the bowling alley, horrific enemies should be expected again.
Yet it’s not horror you encounter inside but the serene feeling of a pleasant dream once more. The back room of Heaven’s Night has all the markings of danger—poor lighting, dishevelment, grimy walls, and a camera angle that points opposite of what’s in front of you—but Silent Hill 2 presents a moment of anticlimax. Ethereal music plays, and like the bowling alley, Heaven’s Night proves to be another safe passageway devoid of monsters to fight.
Situated in between the initial shock of the apartment complex setpiece and arguably the most difficult portion of the game, Brookhaven Hospital, the Heaven’s Night area lives up to its name. The main room is an intact bar and strip club awash in warm red and pink neon lights, providing rare bright colors in Silent Hill’s foggy atmosphere and muted earth tones. This could be a location out of a David Lynch movie, and in fact, the bar reminds me of the one in Blue Velvet. Once again, Silent Hill 2 swaps gruesome horrors for the tranquil beauty found in untouched spaces, and Heaven’s Night carries a Lynchian, dreamlike quality because of this distinctness from other locations in Silent Hill. In the supplemental prequel short game “Born from a Wish” where you play as Maria, she wakes up in Heaven’s Night, thus further tying the place to dreams.
It makes sense for James that this safe, nighttime haven amidst horrors is a distinctly sexual place. After confronting the violence of his externalized inner demons in the form of monsters like Pyramid Head, he retreats back to the psychic safe zone of the strip club, suggesting an ongoing, unconscious need to satiate libidinal tensions. Silent Hill yields to James’s sexual desires only to frustrate it with characters like Maria, the sexualized doppelganger of his wife, and also with sexualized monsters like the nurses of Brookhaven Hospital. In juxtaposing the monsters outside with the safety inside Heaven’s Night, the game implies that horror and beauty often coexist. The epigraph by Rilke tells us that every angel is terrible; who else is Maria if not the angel of Heaven’s Night?
What I find significant in these spaces of Silent Hill 2 is how the game toys with our expectations of terror and thus differentiates the experience of survival horror as something that can also be quite beautiful. Silent Hill 2 suggests that the genre need not always be terrifying to be memorable, and the surreal logic of dreams can inspire wonder as much as it creates disquiet. Survival horror’s constant sense of danger and frequent scares actually accentuate the subtle beauty in the bowling alley and Heaven’s Night locales because the unexpected solitude is a stark contrast that should stand out against the rest of the game. I often return to Silent Hill 2 more than any other survival horror because it offers more than just horror, and because it appreciates how dreams can just as easily slip from nightmare to reverie in the same breath. It’s the “restless dreams” encapsulated in one short stretch of the game, desperate to overcome the nightmare and also lulled back into the arms of sleep.
Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to video games. He is an editor at Haywire Magazine, and his written offerings can be found on Kill Screen, PopMatters, Unwinnable, and elsewhere, all of which are archived on his blog, Invalid Memory.