She sits demurely, legs crossed at the ankles, knees pressed lightly together, hands folded in her lap. Her gaze lifts as you enter the room, but her face remains passive. She says nothing when you burst in and listens to your exclamations calmly. Patiently.
You try to explain that the last time you saw her, she was brutally slaughtered, fingers falling limp as she was dragged away from you just as the elevator doors slammed shut. The woman in front of you smiles slightly, the way parents do when indulging the fantastical stories of their toddlers.
She’s unmoved when you tell her that she was stabbed, that there was blood everywhere, and asks if you’re okay. Bemused, she wonders if something happened when you got separated in that long hallway. Are you confusing her with someone else? And then she laughs. A gentle, tinkling sound, it’s perhaps more out of place in this monstrous world than anything else.
And then her voice changes, sending gooseflesh rippling across my skin.
I have no idea if this is the same Maria I’d seen die a few moments before. It looks like her – the blond bob, split ends tinged pink; the cheap knee-high boots; the butterfly tattoo on her abdomen – but her voice keeps oscillating between the one I know and the one I think I know from somewhere else, and James – our protagonist – is right; she did get stabbed.
She might be looking at James as though he can’t quite be trusted with his own recollections, perhaps – but… look, I saw her die. And now she’s sitting in front of me, separated only by the bars of her prison cell, watching me as I watch her.
You realise then that you want it to be her. You need it to be her. Like many of the more unsettling parts of Silent Hill 2, we didn’t see the act itself, but we heard everything. Her scream of pain.
The horrid wet slap of her insides splattering against the ground. I don’t think anyone could’ve survived that, but of the two scenarios in my head, pretending she survived is better than the alternative, isn’t it? Because otherwise, it means there’s someone else sitting across from you pretending to be Maria – baiting you as Maria – or, even worse, she was never stabbed and James simply imagined it. And what kind of madman would imagine something like this?
Reading between the bars
I’ve never really recovered from the prison scene in Silent Hill 2. I know there are others – Angela’s ascent of the fiery staircase, for instance, or the first time you stumble upon the nightmare fuel that is Pyramid Head – but (almost!) twenty years on, it’s the prison scene I still think about most.
My mind snagged on it like a tongue catches a jagged tooth, and two decades and countless playthroughs later, it’s still the scene that scares me most. There is little blood. Little gore. No jumpscares or spookiness. Just her, just me, watching each other through the bars.
Silent Hill 2 never tricked players with jumpscares or body horror, you see. Yes, the creature design is some of the best you’ll ever see. Yes, there are some genuinely horrific moments, times when the panic will get away from you as you fight to survive. But mostly, Silent Hill 2’s overwhelming hopelessness is crafted slowly and carefully, brick by brick, woven seamlessly between the rusty pipes and steel grating.
Unlike Resident Evil’s combat-heavy blueprint, here was a game that scared not with cheap shocks and overwhelming odds, but instead picked at your insecurities, your confidence, your emotions – your sanity – with a drip-drip-drip delivery of subtle uneasiness and muted distress that you barely notice until you’re facing an unopened door and realise you’re too terrified to open it.
That’s what Silent Hill 2 does so well. It makes you as afraid of the mundane as much as anything you witness in the bloody confines of James’ nightmare. It’s one thing to see the creatures that shudder and squirm in a world where the alien air is thick with rust and guilt; it’s quite another to see their snapped and broken silhouettes against a backdrop of tree-lined streets and their anonymous, all-American houses.
Where did all the townsfolk go? Why are the streets swarming with monsters? How can you keep fighting them when desperation hangs over this empty town like… well, that endless fog?
There’s a reason Silent Hill 2 lives on as one of gaming’s most effective – and affecting – horror franchises of all time, and it’s in no small part thanks to the malevolent brilliance of that disturbing exchange between James and Maria through the bars of a prison cell.
In the run up to October 31, GamesRadar+ is exploring some of the most effective scares that video games have been able to deliver. Click through to GamesRadar’s Halloween 2020 guide for more.