“If you’re frightened of dying and… and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. But if you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth. It’s just a matter of how you look at it, that’s all.” – Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
“Monsters? They looked like monsters to you?” – Vincent, Silent Hill 3
Note: This post contains major spoilers for Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3.
I mentioned in my last post that I’ve recently begun studying the Nag Hammadi texts, which fall under the umbrella term “gnosticism.” Gnosticism is an approach to Christian thought that places emphasis on personal revelation and spiritual transformation rather than on tradition or clergy. It actually has nothing to do with black magic, or demons, or anything of the kind — but some Gnostic literature does contain very colorful metaphors and illustrations that lend themselves to fictional interpretation. As I’m studying the theology of Nag Hammadi, I can’t help but notice some similarities to one of my favorite video game series: Silent Hill. I can only assume that the writers of the early games must have been familiar with basic Gnostic cosmology — if they weren’t, then it is truly amazing how similar their ideas were to those of the Gnostic writers. Knowing this new context has added a new layer of meaning to my favorite games, and has given me some handy examples to help me understand some of the more complex Gnostic doctrines. It’s given me a lot to think about, and I thought I’d share my thoughts here.
The first three Silent Hill games (which can be considered the “main canon” of the series, with the other sequels being almost more like spinoffs) all have very overt religious themes. The games take place across three different versions of the town of Silent Hill, located in three different dimensions, which occasionally overlap and interact with each other and which the player can travel between. These alternate Silent Hills are a clear reference to the Christian model of the afterlife, with the “normal” town representing Earth, the dreary and depressing “Fog World” representing Purgatory, and the nightmarish “Otherworld” representing Hell. (If you want to really drive home this metaphor, you can consider the world outside of Silent Hill, which most of the series’ protagonists are trying to escape to, Heaven.) Many characters are implied to have been lead to Silent Hill in order to be punished for their past actions, further driving home the Purgatory theme. Many of the creatures in the early games are named after angels (Samael, Valtiel, Metatron, etc.), and the games’ environments are littered with pseudo-religious imagery and occult symbols. But by far the most interesting of the religious elements in the series is the Order (the cult that serve as the main antagonists in Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3) and the cosmology and mythology that motivate their actions.
(The Order’s crest)
The Order’s mythology and their motivations stem from a single creation myth, which can be found and read with a little bit of digging in Silent Hill 3:
“In the beginning, people had nothing. Their bodies ached, and their hearts held nothing but hatred. They fought endlessly, but death never came. They despaired, stuck in the eternal quagmire.
A man offered a serpent to the sun and prayed for salvation. A woman offered a reed to the sun and asked for joy. Feeling pity for the sadness that had overrun the earth, God was born from those two people.
God made time and divided it into day and night. God outlined the road to salvation and gave people joy. And God took endless time away from the people.
God created beings to lead people in obedience to Her. The red god, Xuchilbara; the yellow god, Lobsel Vith; many gods and angels. Finally, God set out to create Paradise, where people would be happy just by being there.
But there God’s strength ran out, and She collapsed. All the world’s people grieved this unfortunate event, yet God breathed Her last. She returned to the dust, promising to come again.”
This myth is interesting for a variety of reasons. First, the line “God took endless time away from the people,” implies not only that the Order’s God created death, but that she did so as a gift — that, by allowing humans to die, she was saving them. The myth also explicitly states that God 1.) was born to relieve the suffering of humans, and 2.) was not immortal. God dies at the end of the myth, though promising to return in a future incarnation.
(In-game depiction of the Order’s God)
This promise is the basis of the Order’s primary motivation throughout the Silent Hill series. They seek to bring about the rebirth of their god, quite literally. They believe that Alessa Gillesspie, a young girl with powerful psychic abilities, will physically give birth to God’s reincarnation. (Again, an obvious reference to Christian belief surrounding the virgin birth of Christ.) The Order attempts to bring this about through a dark ritual revolving around Alessa, but the ritual backfires — Alessa’s psychic powers amplify her suffering and rage, altering reality around the town to create the three versions of Silent Hill, as well as all of the hideous creatures that reside in the Fog World and Otherworld. Alessa’s suffering literally creates a living Hell for the cult that victimized her, and God remains unborn. There is hope, however: Alessa is able to split from herself the pure, innocent part of her soul, allowing it to be reincarnated for a chance at a normal life. This reincarnation results in the birth of Cheryl/Heather Mason, who quite literally represents Alessa’s “good side.”
At the end of the first game, Alessa does finally give birth to the God that has been incubating within her — but the result is a twisted, demonic creature with wings and the head of a goat, not the beautiful and merciful God of the creation myth. This bastard offspring is referred to as both “the Incubus” and “Samael” and, like the town itself, he has been corrupted by Alessa’s rage. Rather than being a God who brings salvation and joy, he is a demon who brings only further destruction, thus perpetuating the town’s cycle of eternal suffering.
(Samael, the false god whose appearance is twisted by Alessa’s agony and rage.)
Okay, so this is a pretty good premise for a horror franchise, but how does it relate to a millennia-old school of Christian (or, at least, Christian-influenced) theology? Interestingly, the Order’s story bears striking similarity to an account of creation written by the Gnostic Christian poet Valentinus. Wisdom (Greek: “Sophia”) sought to conceive her own creation and separated from her divine siblings, successfully becoming the “great creative power from which all things originate.” However, Wisdom’s desire to create life for herself, while not evil in itself, violated the natural order of the universe, and her offspring was corrupt and defective — the birth of this creation brought suffering and fear into the world. Wisdom’s most powerful offspring was the demiurge (from the Greek dēmiourgos, “craftsman”), the misguided ruler of the physical universe. The demiurge is not evil, but as he is a product of corruption, he himself is inherently corrupted and is not capable of bringing salvation to the universe. Valentinian Christians believed that Christ was sent to liberate mankind from the influence of the demiurge, thus offering an end to their suffering.
Some Valentinians did believe that the demiurge was an actual being, and even went so far as to accuse other Christians of worshiping the demiurge and believing him to be God. But there’s good evidence that a lot of Gnostics did not interpret this concept so literally. For many of them, the demiurge probably represented a God who has been “corrupted” by the actions of his followers — a God who has become a mere mask behind which lurks the worship of the state, worship of the church, or worship of human ignorance. Followers of the demiurge were people who claimed to worship God, but whose words and actions were inconsistent with the God that Jesus Christ revealed with his life, teachings, and resurrection. Thus, the demiurge represented a twisted image of God that, rather than being a reflection of God’s reality, is a reflection of the corruption of his followers.
(One artist’s depiction of Wisdom.)
Doesn’t that all sound a bit familiar? Doesn’t Wisdom, the divine being who naively tried to create a perfect world on her own, sound a little like the God of the Order’s creation myth? And doesn’t Samael, the wrathful and deformed product of a failed attempt to revive that God, sound a little like the demiurge?
In fact, the connection is even more overt; Hypostasis of The Archons, found at Nag Hammadi, describes the demiurge in the following passage: “Because of his power and his ignorance he said… ‘It is I who am God; there is none other apart from me.’ When he said this, he sinned… And a voice came forth from above the realm of absolute power, saying ‘You are mistaken Samael,’ which means ‘god of the blind’.” Here the demiurge is named, and we can see that he shares this name (Samael, which comes from Hebrew and can also be translated as “venom of God” or “venomous god”) with the corrupt God born at the end of Silent Hill. The key themes are all there: a pure, divine being attempts to relieve human suffering, but her misguided actions bring suffering into the world, which leads her followers to worship her corrupt and wrathful successor, and this worship only furthers the cycle of suffering and pain.
In Silent Hill, the implication is that this cycle will repeat again and again, with the Order unable to learn from their mistakes. This, too, is similar to Gnostic thought. In The Apocalypse of Paul, the author describes Paul’s ascent in a vision through the levels of Heaven. In the fourth heaven, Paul sees a soul being judged for its sins. Like the creatures of Silent Hill, the angels who oversee the judgement of souls are not evil, but are merely acting as an obstacle between the soul and its final goal (in Gnosticism, reunion with God; in Silent Hill, reunion with Harry’s daughter, Cheryl). The soul, found unworthy of heaven, is cast back down into a new physical body, implying that it will be given a new life, another chance to strive for salvation. Those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them in an endless cycle of life, suffering, and death.
(“Pyramid Head,” the main “angel” of Silent Hill 2)
How can we break the cycle? How can we escape physical suffering and achieve salvation?
In the Gospel of Mary, Jesus instructs his disciples as follows: “Acquire my peace within yourselves! Be on your guard, so that no one deceives you saying, ‘Look over here!’ or ‘Look over there!’ For the child of true Humanity exists within you. Follow it! Those who search for it will find it.” It’s worth noting here that “child of true Humanity” can also be translated as “Son of Man,” a title commonly used to refer to Jesus himself. Jesus is urging his followers not to look to outside sources for their salvation, but to find and nurture the divine aspect within themselves. This means turning away from the demiurge and his false prophets and recognizing our own authority over our salvation.
We see a similar scenario play out in Silent Hill 3. As expected, the Order has failed to learn from their past failures and, under new leadership but still clinging to their broken tradition, once again attempt to bring about the birth of God. This time, their chosen mother is our protagonist, Heather Mason. Fate vs. Free Will is a huge underlying theme of the game — the Order believes that Heather, as the reincarnation of Alessa, is destined to bring God into the world, while Heather understandably wants absolutely none of that. She spends the entire game trying to escape her fate and take back control of her life. In the final scenes of the game, God is once again reborn, and the ritual once again fails. Born from Heather, who has suffered significantly less than Alessa, this God is slightly less demonic in appearance than Samael in Silent Hill, but is still deformed, ignorant, and quite literally blind.
(The “God” born from Heather Mason at the end of Silent Hill 3.)
But here is where the cycle is broken. Here is where Heather takes control of her story. She fights, and kills God. She directly takes on the demiurge worshiped by the Order and overcomes it. And then, just as significantly, she walks away. As Heather is leaving the room where the final boss fight took place, she pauses and glances over her shoulder with an expression of surprise. Although the player never sees what Heather sees here, the game’s writers have confirmed that they originally planned to include a baby’s cry in this scene, implying that Alessa has been reborn yet again, and that the cycle is going to repeat all over again. Yet Heather only hesitates for a moment before turning her back on whatever remains in the room and walking out into the night. She chooses to remove herself from the cycle.
After leaving the Order behind, Heather tells her companion, Douglas, that she is going to start going by Cheryl (“The name my father gave me,”) again. They even share a joke about whether or not Heather will stop dying her hair blonde, as she is no longer trying to hide her true identity. This shows us that Heather/Cheryl has finally embraced her true self, and no longer feels the need to cling to a disguise. In the words of the Gospel of Mary, she has found the child of true Humanity within herself. Many Gnostic writers believed that this acceptance of the true self (i.e., the spiritual self that comes from God) was the first step towards enlightenment.
Silent Hill is a series about overcoming the dark side of human nature, sometimes manifested as literal monsters, sometimes more subtle. Gnosticism is a school of theology that deals with overcoming human nature as the path to salvation. In both cases, we see the same core message: the only one who can save you is you. Salvation is a choice, albeit one that many people may not even realize is an option. We all live in our personal Silent Hills, but we are not prisoners there. The reality we long for is within our reach, if only we allow ourselves to step forward and take it.
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