As a warning, this essay discusses abuse of both a physical and sexual nature. The content isn’t graphic, but does gesture towards potentially triggering and traumatic experiences.
In September, Silent Hill 2 turned 20. A marker of innovation in the survival horror genre, many writers and developers today still chase after the feeling so strongly communicated within the rusty walls of Silent Hill 2’s titular town. Though James Sunderland’s story has been dissected and run through countless times, some of the game’s minor characters still go relatively unexamined. This includes the girl on the game’s cover, Angela Orosco, the first person James meets when he arrives in the town.
James and Angela only meet a handful of times, but her journey contrasts against James’s so seamlessly that it serves to challenge the masculine and toxic notions of his narrative. And, in time, Angela comes to challenge James more directly, externalizing her own frustrations with the outside world—the one beyond Silent Hill, which itself is a microcosm of trauma, taboo, and sexual performance. We’ll loop back to that later, though; first, let’s cast our eyes to the circumstances in which James and Angela first meet.
After reaching a roadblock on his way to Silent Hill, James travels by foot down a wooded, off-the-beaten path which eventually releases to the Toluca Graveyard, a small cemetery with just a few gravestones arranged in a ring overlooked by a tiny chapel. When James notices a girl kneeling next to a headstone, he calls out to her, which gives her a jolt. It’s a logical enough reaction given how desolate and foggy the graveyard is, and given that James is a large and imposing man bothering a young woman while she’s lost in thought. The song that plays, “Forest,” is a pensive keyboard number that sticks out as particularly plaintive wedged between tracks of industrial curdles and reverbed electric guitars.
James tells the girl (whose name he does not ask, and which she doesn’t offer up) that he’s lost and looking for Silent Hill. She replies with a particular confusion, and stammers her way through something of a warning that the town isn’t worth the trouble. James shakes her off and tells her he doesn’t really care, which the girl poorly receives—she rebuts, in a petulant tone contrasting her more mature-if-timid voice before, that she’s telling the truth. She isn’t lying. It becomes obvious that, though the girl dresses and speaks as if she’s the same age as James, she’s actually quite young.
James is looking for someone special, and the girl is too. She’s looking for her “mama,” she says, swiftly correcting her juvenile speech to her “mother.” She suspected that her father and brother might be here, too, but there’s no sign of them. But where is “here?” James seems to interpret her search as seeking a person lost in Silent Hill, much like he is, but the girl is aimlessly hanging around a graveyard inspecting stones. It seems much more likely that the girl is in search of a dead person, curious if her family members’ names are emblazoned on one of the tombstones littering the field.
With his brusque doubt (or, being generous, his lack of care for her sincere warning), James invalidates the girl and sends her into a brief panic. It’s obvious to anyone with empathy that the girl is talking out of trauma, that when she digs her foot in the ground her frustration doesn’t stem from James. But James’s greatest flaw is his inability to afford true empathy to others. He may notice that something is up with them, but he has an ineffable habit of wanting to move on, of not processing what is going on around him in a slow or thoughtful way. This is the perspective many have pointed out as “uncanny” within Silent Hill 2—an unreality to the terror of the game’s premise in relation to the flat or eerie reactions from its controlled consciousness.
When they meet again, the girl is prone, cradling a knife in her hand and staring at herself in a window. Her behavior is more erratic than before. There’s no pretense of togetherness anymore. After attempting to talk her down from a ledge, she introduces herself as Angela. James had forgotten to ask her name before—this time, he fails to ask her why she’s feeling the way she is, if she’s okay. He just tells her there’s “always another way.” Angela slurs her way through saying that an untimely death is what everyone in Silent Hill deserves. James rejects this in the way an emotionally constipated white man might, exclaiming “I’m not like you!” as if nothing could be worse than being suicidal, nothing could be more offensive than the notion that James’s karma is tainted.
The shot of Angela lying on the ground is the image on Silent Hill 2’s cover, albeit distorted with scratch marks, harsh color filters, and extreme contrast. On the cover, Angela is made to look like she’s advertising a schlocky grindhouse movie, similar to the gritty torture porn revival made popular by directors like James Wan and Eli Roth. Her face is pleading and desperate like many cover girls of similarly designed movie and game posters. It implies a sexual openness, as if begging for the help of a brave player but promising brutalities committed against her. Taken at face value, the cover is pretty gross, a misrepresentation of the game and Angela herself.
Having context, seeing Angela hold the knife’s point mere inches away from her face, you realize she is not desperate but resigned. She’s at the end of her rope and overwhelmed by her stress. She isn’t waiting idly to be saved by a man but rejects men as a whole, knowing their superficial concern comes from a place of protecting themselves, an attempt to quell the shame that comes with being a man and necessarily harming the women around them. Angela’s confrontation with James drives home that he only truly cares about himself and preserving his self-concept. When her blade turns from herself to him, she’s declaring him complicit—even an abettor—in her suffering.
Later, in the labyrinth beneath the historical society, James finds a newspaper clipping detailing the murder of Angela’s violent alcoholic father, who had been stabbed multiple times. Her previous guilt becomes recontextualized; as opposed to her shame as an abuse survivor, we’re meant to believe she deserves absolution because she is a killer. The knife again twitches with unreliability. Is it for Angela, the victim, or Angela, the murderer? Is it for all the men who would make her suffer?
We’re then led to a room where Angela struggles against a beast she calls “daddy,” a creature merged with a bedframe. The room has strange holes in the wall that twitch and push with precise movements, yet is arranged somewhat like a living room. She deals the killing blow by dropping a TV on its head, kicking its corpse in a frenzy. James urges her to calm down, failing to understand her passion—the reasonable nature by which she killed her assailant, who seemed disinterested in her murder but eager to terrorize her. James has a preternatural calmness with which he approaches the horrors of Silent Hill. He coldly slays each beast he meets, mowing them down with shotguns and iron pipes. His perspective is once again inherently unreliable. The intensity in which James and Angela are being tortured is enough to elicit even stronger displays of duress, but Angela merely losing herself in violence for just a moment is cause for James to patronize her. In her only moment of onscreen liberation, she is treated as hysterical.
Angela’s abuse is undeniably of a sexual nature. It’s clear she was treated violently by her father, and that her mother deemed her as deserving of his abuse. What is harder for her to admit openly is the treacheries committed against her body. The finer details of this are not important. Silent Hill 2 is sensitive enough to veil anything but allusions to the realities faced by its characters. There’s no indication that James picks up on these allusions, however, no matter how plainly suggested they are. It’s strong evidence that Angela’s appraisal of James is correct—that he’s a pig, just like the other men, that his sympathy is feigned.
James encounters Angela once more in the game’s ultimate destination, the Lakeview Hotel. James comes to a burning staircase where Angela observes reliefs of male figures on the wall framed like art. After mistaking James for her mother, she apologizes one last time to him. Her gleeful tone when she talks about her mother—who she now accepts as right in saying she deserves what happened to her—is a last ditch effort at independence for Angela. She categorically denies James’s pity. In Angela, we see how abuse survivors are abandoned. People come and go; they feel bad for the abused, but aren’t in it for the long haul. They tire of the abused because of the unending cycle of trauma.
That’s why the flaming staircase is a gift. Angela tells James she would never kill herself. Instead, she fades into the comfort of nothingness away from those who would harm her, the people that are too scared to pass through the flames to reach her. She chooses fire because water failed to wipe away the filth of her past. The dank hallways of the labyrinth and the cold shower room in the hospital only served to torment her more. The staircase is a glimpse at what the abused truly see, what survivors perceive on a daily basis. It’s too horrible for James to tolerate for longer than a few scarce minutes.
For several years after Silent Hill 2’s release, fans of the game debated if sexual abuse is what the story was trying to get at with Angela. The denial from fans became so bad that several developers that worked on Silent Hill 2 have since come out stating the truth of Angela’s abuse. It’s very plain to see today, through a modern lens, but the rejection of what is all but stated goes to show the lengths people—especially men that don’t face systemic oppression—go to deny the existence of what is one of humanity’s most horrible truths. Angela’s reality is much more dire than James’s, who can plow his way through the specters of his fractured self. She has to live in this Hell without complaining, lest she be seen as a raving madwoman. Silent Hill 2 was kind enough to give her an escape.
Austin Jones is a writer with eclectic media interests. You can chat with him about horror games, electronic music, Joanna Newsom and ‘80s-‘90s anime on Twitter @belfryfire