Shaun’s Solo: The House that Dread Built

A quick thought experiment to kick things off this time. Think of your favorite, most iconic scene in all of horror entertainment. If you detest the genre to its (deliciously) wicked core, think of a moment that earned your grudging respect. Something that proved able to haunt you past the actual act of watching through your fingers.

My bet? Most of you pictured something that encapsulates one or more of the three key elements comprising the most critical aspect of a scare: DREAD. Your choice, I’ll wager, involved…

  • A feeling of helplessness. Laurie Strode trembling behind flimsy closet doors as Michael Myers’ shadow eclipses the moonlight falling through the slats in Halloween, and, more recently, Chris’s wide-eyed plunge into the Sunken Place in Get Out both expertly employ a sense of utter powerlessness in the face of terrible, overwhelming danger.

And or…

  • Blinding confusion. The shrieking, frantic final minutes (minutes! It lasts for minutes!) of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the expertly designed engine section of Dead Space 2, when thundering pistons and hissing steam jets obscure the telltale sounds of prowling necromorphs out to spill Isaac’s guts all over the deck, are perfect examples of the terror created by the unmooring of our senses.

And or…

  • Being hopelessly trapped. The unforgettable “Heeeere’s Johnny” bathroom scene in The Shining and the beautifully stark Youtube short “Lights Out” both strike at the visceral fear of having no possible escape from a threat.

The reason each example above is clearly destined to rattle audiences for years to come is their ability to invoke DREAD. And without DREAD, we’re not scared. Not really. Oh, sure, you can *panic* someone without it, but it’s telling that the same “jump scare” value that comes from your average haunted house attraction also features prominently in the start of every surprise birthday party. No, real fear comes from dread, folks. The sense that the floor is falling out from underneath us. The realization that we’ve run out of options. That we’re blind, cornered, and outmatched. Dread hits us on a primal level: we have no control and death is coming this way at a full sprint, our lizard brain hisses. And our minds go into tilt mode. Endorphins rush, senses heighten, and fear flows like wine.

Dread. It’s why Silent Hill 4: The Room is one of the most important horror games—and one of the best single player experiences—to be had.

This underappreciated gem capitalizes on all three of the critical ingredients of dread, and does so over and over again, without apology, never letting us grow comfortable with what we’re up against and how we are forced to react.

If fear is your cup of tea, step right up and into a world of vengeful ghosts, delusional enemies and friends, and the most maternal nightmare imagery this side of an Alien flick.

Even the box art is haunted, you guys

The Game:

There is some conjecture about how Silent Hill 4 actually began. A popular talking point on the internet—that the game was initially conceived as a stand-alone IP related to but not actually a full-blown SH game shoehorned into the main series—is disputed by the game’s producer and its chief designer. Either way, the game marked a stylistic shift in the series, employing a first-person perspective for a significant percentage of gameplay, a “hub” system involving our protagonist’s apartment as a kind of “safe room” (and boy howdy, am I going to come back to that in a big way later), a single save point for the entire game, and the impact of ghosts on the game’s difficulty and its multiple endings.

Still, Silent Hill 4 has its fair share of survival horror anchors grounding the newer features like inventory management, a devious habit of camera angles shifting to obscure possible threats (that, yes, as always, overplays its hand and strays into being a nuisance from time to time), demonic baddies, and evidence of one or more bullet-and-healing-item fairies especially fond of leaving goodies in easily-overlooked nooks and grimy crannies.

But the genius of the game is in its brave new elements. The first-person play takes place in an increasingly unsafe apartment from which the only escape is into the monster-infested nightmare worlds beyond. Ghosts, the new addition to the Silent Hill’s direct threats, take center stage in the fourth entry. Specters of murder victims are unkillable foes inside and outside of the apartment, able to inflict damage by merely moving close to the player. Worse (or better, depending on your penchant for our old pal DREAD), they cause audio and visual interference—screen jumps, feedback, and even altered character responses to the controls—as they drive our protagonist to the edge of sanity with blinding pain and panic.

And these things get pretty numerous by game’s end.

With its mix of familiar and untested elements, Silent Hill 4 was accessible and imposing at once, a respectable achievement in horror gaming.

Cynthia, killing Henry AND our AV settings

The Basics: 

We step into the unassuming shoes of Henry Townsend, a twenty-something work-a-day type going about his humdrum business with little meaningful connection to the world beyond the walls of his smallish, one-bedroom apartment. He’s not the most socially adept guy. Two of the photos in his living space are of himself graduating from school, and others seem to have been left behind by a previous tenant. An influencer, Mr. Townsend is not. Two years into his lease, Henry begins having terrible recurring nightmares. One morning soon after they begin, he awakes to find his door chained shut from the inside, the unyielding links held in place by several imposing deadbolts. His windows are sealed tight and impervious to efforts to break the glass or force them open. Most of his appliances are non-functional, and his food swiftly begins to run out. Most unsettling of all, no one outside the impenetrable walls of his home seems able to hear or see Henry despite days of frantic efforts to get help. Screams to neighbors spotted through Townsend’s peephole elicit no reaction; pounding on his impassable door phases not a soul, and nothing seems to draw the eye of outsiders to his street-facing windows.

We’re helpless and trapped, and the game has barely started.

Worst. Staycation. Ever.

But…moments after we assume control of Henry, a crashing noise in his bathroom signals a new wrinkle: a mysterious hole has appeared in the wall between Townsend’s toilet and sink. Henry peers into the space formerly filled with masonry and rebar and is unable to see the other end of the tunnel through the blackness. Out of options, Henry climbs inside, and is soon birthed into a hellish world of murder, possession, and gigantic, pulsating umbilical cords. You read that correctly.

Henry, as it turns out, has a part to play in the grand, full-tilt-psychotic scheme of one Walter Sullivan: cult zealot, serial killer, and true believer in a blood-soaked prophecy that can be achieved only through the murder of twenty-one victims.

And guess whose bad luck landed him at spot number twenty-one.

Why is Henry marked? How are a psychotic’s demented fantasies infesting Townsend’s reality? Why do dogs in Sullivan’s mad worlds slurp at corpses with foul proboscises now? It all remains largely a mystery, and so BAM, there’s our missing DREAD ingredient: blinding confusion. Prepare to be kept just off-kilter for much of Silent Hill 4. And just when you feel you have both feet planted where you need them, a new wrinkle comes along to destabilize things and keep you on your continually curling toes.

The gameplay itself is mostly reminiscent of any of the first several Silent Hill games. We control Henry in a third-person, over-the-shoulder method. Our time outside of apartment 302 (and it’s critical to separate Henry’s time out as opposed to his time at home—it’ll finally be time to unpack that soon) is spent fighting or fleeing from grotesque monsters representing an array of psychological torments while solving macabre puzzles and exploring new, ever-darker corners of a murderer’s deranged mind. Henry is no warrior, of course, and so his combat skills are awkward whether he’s swinging a rusty pipe or taking aim with a pistol. The controls are, ahem, quite suited to the lack of finesse a greenhorn fighter would have in a battle with, say, a ghost-hydra-baby-monster.

As we play, we fall prey with increasing frequency to Silent Hill 4’s apex predators: the many ghosts inhabiting Henry’s travels. Each of the mad Walter Sullivan’s victims returns to the fragmented worlds connected to Henry’s apartment in the form of a floating, genuinely disturbing specter. (Except the infant twins Sullivan killed, who return as a horde of stupendously freaky-deaky Siamese ghost-baby-monster-twins.) These tormented souls are protagonist-seeking missiles when anywhere near Henry, zeroing in on him with chilling efficiency, wailing and groaning as they pass through walls in terrible pursuit. Even being near these ghosts causes Henry to experience searing headaches. It is possible to temporarily stun one of these risen victims before Henry’s health bar drops to nothing, but to keep them down requires the use of an extremely rare one-use item, and when more than one ghost appears at a time, a frantic flight through twisting Freudian hellscapes is actually one’s safest option.

The goal is survival, pure and simple. We must keep Henry and, eventually, his sole companion in this misery, bewildered and wounded neighbor Eileen, alive long enough to escape Walter’s fevered efforts to complete his kill list and bring his dark imagined worlds into reality. How we land that particular ship depends on how well we kept invading ghosts at bay and to what degree we are able to keep Eileen safe as she hobbles along behind us through the latter leg of the harrowing journey.

NO.

Why it’s great:

In short, Silent Hill 4: The Room manages to bring all three of the main ingredients of dread to bear on the player in a single experience. We begin trapped, hemmed in by Townsend’s barricaded door and impassable windows, and only experience escape in the form of altered-reality worlds populated by monstrosities bent on blind destruction. Once we finally get our sea legs (Is “hellscape legs” a thing? Can I go ahead and trademark that now?), we’re rendered helpless by the appearance of life-draining, sense-blasting ghosts unphased by all but the most dedicated of attacks capped off by the use of an incredibly rare artifact that can only pin the ghost in place. SH4 forces us to run. To do our best to control our mounting anxiety as we barrel through derelict subway cars, misty, darkened woods, a cylindrical cement prison that would make Orwell shudder, and more.

And we’re forced to revisit these same areas with a wounded friend in tow who can’t keep up the frantic pace. Of course, Sullivan continues killing as the game goes on, so more ghosts find their way to these areas exactly as we take up the mantle of protector.

Silent Hill 4 disorients us, renders us all but helpless against supernatural enemies, traps us again and again in revolting worlds full of rot and rust.

It’s playable dread.

And if you’ve come this far, I have to assume you can get down with that.

Kudos, friend of fear!

Come on in; the water’s probably poison.

The Epic Scene:

After each phase of Henry’s terrifying, reluctant journey from trapped schlub to reality-saving survivor, he returns to his apartment. Without spoiling too much, our villain’s dark fantasies are tethered to—and encroaching upon—the real world via otherworldly “umbilical” tunnels. It’s through one of these that Henry is able to travel across realities and back. His apartment is a kind of evil nexus, and every altered world leads to and is reachable from Townsend’s room. It begins in a simple enough fashion: Henry crawls through a hole in apartment 302, he wakes up someplace terrible; Henry crawls through a hole in Silent Hill-world, he wakes up in 302’s bedroom, woozy but whole. Trapped, but safe. Heck, being home even refills our hero’s health bar! It’s like they say, right? There’s no place like—

Hold on.

I said room 302 was a hub, though, right? The central point through which all of the demonic worlds could be reached, and to which all the demonic worlds lead, didn’t I? But wouldn’t that mean…

Yep: halfway through the game, the ghosts are no longer content to harass us in Sullivan’s alternate realities like extras on a movie set. Hours into the game, Henry wakes after a particularly chilling voyage to hear the overhead fan smash to pieces in the living room. This is the turning point in Silent Hill 4. After this, apartment 302 is gradually infested by graphic and at-times chilling hauntings. Windows rattle and slam in their frames. The disconnected phone rings, a menacing voice on the line insisting that “I am always watching you.” Pulsing lesions form and web together on the walls. The peephole on the front door weeps blood.

But the worst for me—the most dreadful, if you will—was that first time after, as Henry, I moved to investigate the sound of the living room fan. I noticed my health bar wasn’t refilling—it never regenerates at home again once the hauntings begin, even if the player is diligent in busting every ghost that rears its undead head—so I already knew something was wrong. “The air seems heavy” Henry’s inner monologue told me in a pop-up window. And for good reason.

There, by the bookshelf, right above the lamp, was a new and terrible feature in the apartment.

The upper body of a man was in the midst of forcing itself through the wall, mouth gaping, dark ribbons of nastiness dripping from the infected-looking splotch of wallpaper he struggled to escape. The figure writhed, wordlessly moaning, black tendrils like muddy marionette strings tethering him in place.

Now, he and the other hauntings aren’t difficult to get rid of; specific items found in-game rid the paranormal from 302 in relatively short order. That wasn’t a stretch to comprehend. However. The concept of the “safe room” was shattered. Beautifully and totally. DREAD had followed Henry—had followed me!—home. Helplessness, the sense of being trapped, and the dizzying sense of confusion all hit at once, brought about by the terrific rug-pulling act of depriving me the usual game staple of the sanctum.

The fact that this occurred in the portion of the game played in first person was especially effective since it means the most invasive, game-changing moment occurs at precisely the time when we are the most connected to Henry, the closest we get to sharing his experience.

It’s truly a brilliant, unnerving move.

Wanna split the rent? No? Out you go!

A Last Thought:

When it debuted in 2004, Silent Hill 4 was received with a moderate amount of accolades and critical success, but in the years since, it’s been unfairly treated and largely forgotten. When Konami allowed developer Hijinx Studios to build HD remasters of Silent Hill and Silent Hill 2 (a project marked by its own missteps and tribulations, not the least of which was Konami’s loss of the source codes for both games, forcing Hijinx to work from incomplete builds), The Room was conspicuously absent. And so, as generations of consoles and gamers age out and move on, this gem of a game and worthy addition to the horror pantheon gathers dust.

Like many horror fans, the sudden rise of the playable trailer PT and the total loss of the Silent Hills game that never was leaves the Silent Hill franchise in an unclear place. And while many rightly hail the second game in the series as the standard-bearer for psychological horror, The Room is unfairly lumped in with less successful titles and—while I love them all—admittedly less ambitious titles like Homecoming and Origins.

Given the opportunity, and heaven knows with all the renewed interest in reviving, remaking, and retro-systems the opportunity *might* crop up without a need to even hook up an old Playstation 2, a horror fan in search of thrills cannot go wrong with Silent Hill 4: The Room. It may not be the prettiest, it’s certainly not the easiest, but I promise you this: the game is worth its weight in DREAD.

Now, tell the reader who should give this game a chance, Robbie the Rabbit!

Listen to the cute, blood-spattered rabbit, folks!

Shaun Hayes

Shaun is a writer, English professor, host of the Whiparound podcast, and unrepentant grammar pedant.

Avatar

One thought on “Shaun’s Solo: The House that Dread Built

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *