In my restless dreams, I see that town… Silent Hill. You promised you’d take me there again someday… but you never did. Well, I’m alone there now… in our special place… waiting for you.
– Mary Sunderland, Silent Hill 2
In the late 90’s, the gaming industry underwent a major cultural shift as new consoles such as the Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64 entered the mainstream market, officially heralding the transition from archaic 2D gameplay to a more expansive and robust 3D format. All of a sudden, beloved Nintendo personalities like Mario, Yoshi, and Donkey Kong were no longer confined to worlds that existed in a primarily 2D plane and could now freely roam around in 3D environments that both looked prettier and presented new gameplay opportunities. Over on the PlayStation side, Sony was working hard to establish its own stable of iconic games and game characters. Along with more family-friendly options like Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot and Insomniac Games’ Spyro the Dragon, an unsettling new horror game was released for the PlayStation in early 1999, a game with a minimalist yet still eerily foreboding title: Silent Hill.
Published by Konami and created by an internal team of Konami developers that was aptly branded as “Team Silent,” Silent Hill immediately drew comparisons to fellow Japanese game developer Capcom’s zombie-slaying game Resident Evil which had also been released on the PlayStation platform three years earlier in 1996. The comparisons weren’t entirely unwarranted either. Both games featured detailed 3D environments, a heavy emphasis on exploration and solving puzzles to progress, unintuitive (on purpose) “tank controls” where character movement inputs often didn’t match the static camera angles on screen, and, of course, a spooky horror theme.
However, whereas Resident Evil routinely put the player into tense combat scenarios and drew heavy inspiration from classic zombie movies like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Silent Hill took a more cerebral and slow-paced approach, focusing instead on psychological horror and occult symbolism. Silent Hill did technically have a combat system where protagonist Harry Mason could attack the monsters he encountered with melee weapons and firearms, but the game’s combat was also intentionally designed to feel clunky and unwieldy, to the point where simply fleeing was often the better option. This allowed Team Silent to further play up Silent Hill’s oppressive and nightmarish atmosphere, ensuring that players couldn’t rely too heavily on fighting and weapons to get them out of sticky situations like they could in Resident Evil.
When Sony followed up the original PlayStation with the newer and sleeker PlayStation 2 in 2000, Konami and Team Silent put the enhanced capabilities of the new console to good use by producing several additional Silent Hill games, including what is often considered to be the unequivocal high point of the franchise: 2001’s Silent Hill 2. Directly inspired by literary works like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel Crime and Punishment and film directors like Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch, Silent Hill 2 easily distinguished itself from its predecessor not only thanks to its higher-quality graphics (thanks to the jump from PlayStation to PlayStation 2) but also because it moved away from the more external cult-focused plot of the original Silent Hill and instead focused directly on the psyche of protagonist James Sunderland and how his inner turmoil took on terrifying manifestations in the world around him.
By today’s standards, Silent Hill 2 hasn’t aged very well in regards to gameplay or technical performance, but its unnerving emphasis on narrative themes like grief and the frightening power of a guilty conscience resonated strongly with fans who were willing to deal with sub-par gameplay for the sake of a good story. Silent Hill 2 was also the game that introduced players to one of Team Silent’s most iconic creations: the bizarre recurring antagonist Pyramid Head who would go on to appear in several subsequent Silent Hill properties.
Given the massive surge in name recognition the Silent Hill series benefited from in the wake of Silent Hill 2’s release, an expansion into other media formats was pretty much a foregone conclusion. In September of 2003, about a month after the release of Silent Hill 3 (another well-received entry which starred the series’ first female protagonist, Heather Morris, and which tied back to story elements from the first Silent Hill), TriStar Pictures (a subsidiary of Sony’s film arm Sony Pictures) secured the rights for a Silent Hill film adaptation. The adaptation would be written and directed by esteemed French film director Christophe Gans.
Gans, an unabashed Silent Hill fan, already had some experience with the world of horror cinema since he had directed the 1993 French-American horror anthology film Necronomicon as well as the 2001 period horror/action vehicle Brotherhood of the Wolf. It’s also entirely possible that a Silent Hill film never would have happened if not for Gans since he actually started courting Konami for the Silent Hill series’ film rights as far back as 1999 after he played the first game for himself.
Once he finally secured a meeting with a group of Konami executives in early 2003, Gans walked those in attendance through a video pitch explaining his plans for a Silent Hill movie adaptation. As the story goes, the pitch impressed the Konami executives so much that he was immediately granted the rights, allowing TriStar to greenlight the project shortly thereafter.
With the film rights in hand, Gans brought on Canadian writer and director Roger Avary, a fellow Silent Hill fan who had also worked on screenplays for films like Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 cult masterpiece Pulp Fiction and directed films like 1993’s Killing Zoe, so that the two could start co-writing the film’s script in early 2004.
As they were brainstorming story ideas, Avary recalled a mining town his father had told him about when he was a boy, a town called Centralia that was located in rural Pennsylvania’s Columbia County. If you’ve never heard of Centralia, PA, that’s likely because the town itself is now condemned and all but abandoned. But it’s the story behind *why* Centralia was condemned and abandoned in the first place that made it such an ideal fit for the Silent Hill movie Avary had in mind.
First founded in 1841 as a small landmark called Bull’s Head before later being renamed in 1865, Centralia slowly expanded and operated for many years as a prosperous coal mining town operating at the behest of the anthracite coal industry. However, that all changed in 1962 when local residents decided that the best way to get rid of one of the town’s surface-level landfills was to burn it.
The fires from the immolated landfill soon grew out of control and spread underground, consuming the numerous mining operations which acted as Centralia’s lifeblood. Because of the unique properties of the anthracite coal that Centralian miners excavated, none of the more traditional efforts made to douse the fires succeeded, and before long the unstoppable flames had rendered the entire town’s mining operations unsustainable. The extremely slow burn rate of the coal also meant that the fires kept on burning for years and years, and they actually still burn to this day. As a result, the entire town of Centralia was eventually condemned and largely abandoned in 1992 due to the increasingly unsafe living conditions.