Meet Amelinda Berube.
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The Guest Post.
What I learned about scary stories from Silent Hill
Silent Hill, the famously terrifying video game franchise, is right up there with Ursula Le Guin and Hans Christian Andersen on my list of literary influences. My standout fave is forever Silent Hill 2, with the first and fourth games being tied as runners up, the third trailing behind them, and the embarrassingly silly movie a distant last.
In The Dark Beneath the Ice, my spooky YA ghost story, the inspiration is probably clearest in the nightmare “otherworld” that haunts our heroine: like Silent Hill’s hell world, it’s a dark, sinister mirror of the real world, taking over it at unpredictable intervals. Though in my story, unlike in Silent Hill, there’s only one monster lurking in the dark.
But long before I wrote this book, these games had me thinking about what exactly they did that made them so hair-raisingly scary. I think they taught me a lot. So I thought I’d share with you some of the creepy writing insights I took away from them.
- Atmosphere reigns supreme. Before any monsters arrive on the scene, before we ever slide into the hell world, we know something’s wrong. It’s snowing in the summer. The streets are deserted. Everything’s shrouded in fog and silence. The tension is there in the landscape, and it deepens the more you explore.
- You can cast that atmosphere anywhere. These games completely changed the way I see ordinary urban landscapes. The hospital, the mall, the subway, the street…looked at the right way, through the right lens, anywhere can be suffused with the creeping tension of scary potential.
- It’s scarier when it’s personal. In the first Silent Hill, our hero’s young daughter has gone missing. In the second game, he’s come to the town because he received a letter from his dead wife, inviting him to meet her there. Even though we don’t know much about either of these guys, the hook is immediate, intimate, and horrifying: we’re invested in the game right away, and the quest feels urgent and real. In short, we care.
- It’s scarier when you don’t know everything. The games can do this visually, with the dense fog, the limited range of a flashlight, or even just with camera angles: you can’t see what’s out there, though sometimes you can hear it, thanks to the unearthly screech of radio static.
But there’s more to it than that, too. The first game explains so little and in such fragmentary snippets that it doesn’t make a lot of sense; it has the vague coherence of an extended nightmare. The second game reveals what’s going on gradually, cumulatively, through hints and thematic suggestions. It never comes right out and explains it, but we have enough to connect the dots.
The third game and the movie make the mistake of trying to explain what was going on in the first game, and no matter how much gore you fling around, it’s just not as powerful as the emotional punch that comes with putting it together yourself, in your head. It’s scariest when there are some gaps where you can invest your imagination.
- Little details and everyday objects can speak volumes. You know monsters are nearby by a real, specific sound: static on a radio. A mannequin wears clothes that belonged to our hero’s dead wife. A safe room features the quiet whir of a ceiling fan – when that fan breaks, it’s unspeakably sinister, even though there aren’t any monsters (yet). The 20-minute teaser you can find on YouTube for Silent Hills – tragically never to be released – features the sound of a baby crying in gradually escalating distress. That last one freaked me out so bad I couldn’t finish watching.
Concrete, real-world details, things we know and take for granted in an awful new context, bring the scariness home; they anchor it. Snow might not be scary, but in the middle of summer? A stuffed rabbit might not be scary, but when it turns and points right at you? Nothing weird about a phone ringing…but when it’s not connected?
Silent Hill isn’t scary because of the monsters, or the jump scares, or any kind of gory grossness. Its scariness is a carefully constructed thing that gets under your skin, taking the familiar and twisting it into something uncanny and frightening. The flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants terror of having your character running through the rainy dark with monsters in close pursuit is icing on the cake. It wouldn’t be nearly as frightening without an underlying story that’s soaked in atmosphere, under-explained, deeply personal and grounded in everyday details.
That’s the kind of story I love best – and I hope I’ve cooked up a good one for you.