Hell House – The Erosion of Safety and Home in Silent Hill 4
Being trapped in our homes is something a lot of us are likely very familiar with right now. Quarantine has made most of us all too familiar with every wall and object in our apartments and rooms, drawing both comfort and despair from the places we live. They’re places where we’re safe, but also cages filled with mental anguish as we’re separated from everything we’ve loved or cared about.
It’s a strangely appropriate time to see a rerelease of Silent Hill 4: The Room, a game about being trapped inside your apartment as sinister spirits roam the world around you, steadily closing in until even your home isn’t safe any more.
SPOILERS AHEAD FOR SILENT HILL 4
It was a striking premise when it first released back in 2004. Henry Townshend, a quiet guy living in room 302 of South Ashfield Heights, finds his door chained shut one day. Soon after, a hole opens up in the bathroom. With this hole being the only way out of the place, Henry crawls through it (and it looks like a frighteningly-tight squeeze if you’re as big of a fan of enclosed spaces as I am), finding himself in a variety of strange, hostile realities filled with twisted beings, persistent ghosts, and unsettling visions. But the alternative is being trapped forever, so what choice is there?
Still, it’s that apartment setting that I feel makes this terrifying journey all the more compelling. It’s a place of safety within the hellish world of Silent Hill 4, allowing the player a haven to return to so that they can be free of the dangers outside. It’s dull here, but at least it’s quiet, restoring the player’s strength for the journey ahead. At least, for now, it does. That feeling of safety eventually gets turned on the player, taking something we drew comfort and calm from and making it into an instrument of anxiousness, fear, and sorrow. The game gives us calm and peace, but then takes it away, something far worse than if the player had never had peace to begin with.
Calm is an important thing in horror games. It doesn’t SEEM like it should be, but the moments of silence in horror are what allow players to bolster themselves for the terrors ahead. They give us time to recover, which is what opens us up to being frightened again. After all, many horror titles can be at their most frightening when all’s quiet, right? When there’s no monster present and nothing frightening is happening, you’re left to wonder just how things will go wrong. Will I meet my end around that next corner? Is that sound I’m hearing indicating a monster is close? It’s in these moments of calmness that we take in the information we’ve learned about the game world and begin to process it, figuring out the logic of it all in our minds. It’s where our imagination tries to shape the trials ahead, likely creating more terrifying visions than anything any developer could concoct with what we know. You just can’t let the player feel too safe in these places, though, or you run the risk of eroding the very fear you worked to create. A place of calm to contemplate is fine, but what if the player ALWAYS knows they’re safe there?
The apartment is that place of calm for much of Silent Hill 4, giving the player a place to run to when things get too rough. There’s no foes here, and simply being in your apartment makes your body heal. I mean, sure, the reams of locks on the front door make things feel a bit uncomfortable, and crawling through a hole in your bathroom probably isn’t nice, but at least there’s no two-headed baby creatures trying to slap you to death. It’s a place where you can go to get away from danger and allow your mind to go to work.
And there’s a lot to go over. Dead killers, cults, murders, monstrous rituals, and more fill the game with tons of eerie subject matter to unravel. Plenty of stuff that will have you worried about what you’ll run into next. Or maybe you just want to take a few minutes somewhere that a two-headed baby won’t be barreling down a hall at you. That creature is one I definitely wish I’d never seen in my entire life. Can’t scrub that image away no matter what I do.
Besides the locks, it’s an oddly comforting place. A little run down, but it’s such an ordinary apartment. Cramped, but it’s got our tv, our bed, a spot to take a shower (that unfortunately connects to horrifying realms at the moment), and a kitchen that’s only mostly barren. You’ve likely lived in a place like this before or are living in one now. It feels a bit off, but it’s home. And home is where we go to be safe from the weirdness of the outside world. Even moreso now. Maybe especially when a ghostly old shirtless guy version of Sonic the Hedgehog is rolling around trying to bowl you over. Silent Hill 4 has some super strange foes in it.
It was such a nice space to have in the game. Like the save rooms of Resident Evil, it was a space I could breathe in and plan. Organize my items and think about what my next step would be. It was a place of peace, but because of that, it was also a place where I didn’t think I had to be afraid. My mind might swirl with what lay on the other side of the tunnel, but I knew that I was safe HERE. So, while they allow the player a space to breathe and develop a sense of fear of what’s to come, the apartment also represents a place where someone might get a bit too complacent.
Silent Hill 4 isn’t interested in keeping things that way, though. After a certain point in the game, things in your home aren’t as safe as they once were. This is because your apartment can get haunted in a variety of strange, unexpected ways that will decimate that sense of safety and leave you praying for any kind of safe place to get away from the unrelenting despair and cruelty that this game contains.
The game is insidious with its hauntings as well. It begins slowly, as one day, you’ll return to your apartment and find that your health isn’t filling back up again like it used to. It’s something I abused a lot as I played the game, and its lack made me a bit nervous, if only from a gameplay standpoint. Now, I couldn’t easily gain my health back, and while there were healing items, they were finite. I would have to be much more careful in combat from here out.
But I only came to that conclusion after I’d come back a few times and found the healing wasn’t ever going to happen again. Initially, I just felt like something was wrong in the apartment, which is what I feel the developers of Silent Hill 4 were shooting for. That place of safety that we’d been counting on for so long – that feeling of being able to escape home – was now filled with unease. I could FEEL that something was off about the place from this change in mechanics, and it made me very uncomfortable. It’s not like I knew that it was about to become very, very haunted, but I just felt like something awful had taken root there. The bad things outside my home had finally found their way inside.
Things get bad slowly as you continue the game, getting attacked by ghosts and broken monstrosities. Returning to your apartment, bruised and banged up, you at least hope for a quiet moment where you can get yourself together, even if it doesn’t heal you any more. Then, your screen begins to flicker red, an alarming sound filling your ears as your windows shift up and down. Or your clock begins to spin rapidly. Or maybe your chair seems a bit off (because now it’s made out of skin…yuck).
Once the hauntings start in your apartment, you not only don’t heal, but you take damage when in close proximity to a possessed object. And these things are minute changes for a while, with a pair of shoes, your fridge, or the tv beginning to act subtly strange in ways that are hard to notice until you step too close and find your visions awash in crimson, your health dropping. Everything looks normal on its surface, but when you get close, you burn in agony as the hauntings reveal themselves.
Silent Hill 4 destroys your sense of safety in these moments, not only because coming back to your apartment is now just as risky (if not moreso) than being out in the world, but also because it can be hard to tell just what in your apartment is damaging you. A quick look will reveal the possessed object as they’re not terribly well-hidden, but it’s hard to know what innocuous thing in your house will turn on you next. All of those things that felt so familiar and comforting, dredging up a feeling of being in a normal apartment, have now been loaded with menace. It creates a space that’s more frightening to me than the other locations you explore throughout the game as it feels so close to a space I’m comfortable in, but one that’s been twisted into something sinister.
This is something that P.T. did well. While the ghost in that game made for some of the most jarring, almost physically painful frights I’ve ever endured, it was the ordinary setting that made it all feel so uncomfortably real. It’s a hallway like many others you’ve likely walked in your own life, with a dirty bathroom, a chattering radio, and a gray basement-like area to loop the whole thing around again. It was utterly ordinary, and that feel of the ordinary makes it feel like home.
Then home turns on you, and suddenly, your own house doesn’t feel so safe in the real world any more, does it? It takes the normal, real world and hints that something may be lurking just under its surface as well. And like I keep saying, I can often dismiss these thoughts logically, but a part of me begins to doubt as my brain connects the game world and my own.
Silent Hill 4 takes us to that place of comfort and then steadily chips away at our sense of safety within it. The hauntings soon leave us wondering which object will turn on us next, but soon, you begin to grow accustomed to it all. Sure, the clock is being weird and there’s a bloody, moving, meowing bag in the fridge, but you can handle it. Just walk carefully around your home (or get a handy candle or medallion to get them to buzz off) and you’re set. No biggie.
Except then, the hauntings start to get downright terrifying. Tiny monstrous dolls begin to appear en masse above your item box (if the antagonist of a game ever offers you a doll, please just say no, and if you don’t, certainly don’t take it home and put it in your item box). They kind of look like baby corpses, which is…yikes. A painting in your room shifts to the grinning face of a dead body. A voice begins to whisper “I’m always watching you” from the phone beside your bed. Oh yeah, and a ghost pulls itself from a bleeding hole in your wall, gnashing at the air. They’re GREAT.
This is some unsettling stuff, far moreso than anything the game had done before, and most of it will damage you the second you reappear in your apartment when you return to it, or they’ll follow you around the place in some way. Mechanically, they’re scary because you’re in big trouble if you try to go back to restock at your apartment, and visually, they’re just creepy and hard to look at. These are things I just don’t like to look at, finding they touch on some deep revulsion within me. Especially one haunting I haven’t mentioned yet, which involves looking out your peephole. Nothing good ever comes out of looking out a peephole in ANY horror media.
With this final twist, Silent Hill 4 has broken down your sense of safety in several steps. It gave you a place to feel safe, creating a split between danger and calmness for the player. Then, it begins to show things have gone wrong through taking healing away, then adding damaging hauntings, and finally using terrifying visions to make the apartment feel like the worst place you can be in the game. It made me feel comfortable and at home, and slowly, it took those feelings away, twisting that comfort until it was a greater fear than I felt going out in the game world. At least there, I knew how to fight and keep myself safe. Back at the apartment, I had no idea what I would be facing or how fast it would kill me.
And again, those ordinary things like the tv, peephole, clock, and others all suddenly feel a bit more menacing in my house after watching the supernatural bleed into the innocent-looking world within Silent Hill 4.
That space to breathe is handy in horror to let the player collect themselves and let their minds wander, but it can be a crutch by the end of the game. Maybe not intentionally, but do you really want a place the player feels safe all the time? Or would you rather slowly take it away, bit by bit, until nowhere in the game feels safe again?
Or, in the case of Silent Hill 4, turn it into a place more chaotic and frightening than anywhere else in the game? A place that calls back to the player’s own living spaces – spaces that now seem to be just a bit more tinged with dread after watching reality give way to the frightening and supernatural in the game. This title created an incredible place with the apartment, giving the player a sense of safety and comfort in a home of their own, and then breaking it down until it was the single most unsettling and uncomfortable place in the game.
Although with so many of us trapped in our homes, so far from our loved ones, perhaps a vision of a hellish apartment is a bit too on-the-nose for us right now.