Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for the game Silent Hill 2.
I’ve never had a real taste for horror; never been that adrenaline junkie in pursuit of nightmarish monsters and gore. Most of that stuff makes me cringe. Why, then, do I love the Silent Hill series and Pyramid Head? Like the scary movies I do enjoy, there’s a well-developed, surprising story there. The series has its own deep mythology, and Pyramid Head represents some of its more imaginative symbolism.
He is silent, has no storyline of his own and although he engages in horrifying acts, we eventually discover he lacks his own motivation. The player never has to directly attack him. We never see his face or really hear his voice, though he possesses an intimidating form and flashes of tortured personality throughout. Because of this, he is one of gaming’s most memorable recent antagonists. Relentless and strong, unable to be defeated, assailant and judge in one, Pyramid Head is a very atypical bad guy.
In the Making of Silent Hill 2, Art Director Masahi Tsuboyama describes the game’s interiors as intending to both repulse and simultaneously draw the player in with a certain mysterious aura – which is Pyramid Head in a nutshell. He’s repellent and alluring, a frightening contradiction that begs the question of why we’re so fascinated by such a creature. The first glimpse of him is haunting: standing completely still, facing the character James through the gate separating them, helmet lowered, with a faint red glow about him.
After a while, James enters an apartment and immediately sees Pyramid Head pinning down two Mannequins; enemies comprised solely of a female torso and legs atop another. James is scared and repulsed. After he hides in a closet, James watches as the creature pries apart his victims’ thrashing legs, in a form of sexualized violence. The Mannequins shriek in pain as he kills then drags them along the floor behind him. Later, before James battles Pyramid Head in a hallway, he similarly attacks and kills another female creature.
In Silent Hill 2, Pyramid Head is the only truly overtly masculine enemy, as well as a violent, sexualized one. He doesn’t make any sounds, aside from what seem to be moans of pain. At times, he grabs at his helmet, as if he were suffering. His Great Knife, which is extremely powerful, is also particularly burdensome. He must drag it behind him, moving slowly with its weight, and yet you always feel an urgency to run away.
Naturally, his helmet is his most prominent feature. The idea of a humanlike monster with a deep red pyramid-shaped helmet sounds ridiculous on paper. However, the slick crimson stains upon it, a similarly spattered butcher’s apron, heavy boots and a huge knife just work. That he seems to suffer in his getup only enhances his mysterious nature. Creature Designer Masahiro Ito said he wanted to design an enemy that was recognizably humanoid but inhuman. He focused on Pyramid Head’s face, hiding it beneath a helmet, which made him more cryptic and disturbing. The “sharpness [of the triangle] suggests the possibility of pain. And the triangle shape also helps explain the monster’s role in the game,” he says. Just what that role is also makes Pyramid Head unique.
Pyramid Head turns out to be James’ masochistic delusion after he discovers he smothered his wife, Mary, when she was dying of cancer. Pyramid Head reminds James of his guilt, his sexual frustration during Mary’s illness and his desire to be punished for what he did. Ultimately, James accepts all of this, wanting to be rid of the delusion. “I needed you to punish me for my sins,” he admits near the end. The enemy isn’t even real, but his impact is.
It’s this psychological horror that works so well. Pyramid Head’s appearances are short, which keeps them jarring. During the briefest, the sound of his knife dragging precedes him, and we catch a brief glimpse of his arrival before James is suddenly tossed through a safety gate and off the roof of a building. The monster then comes to the edge and slowly peers over it, seeming to stare from within that impenetrable helmet.
It’s difficult to understand Pyramid Head’s actions until the revelation near the end, but even after his origin is known, his impact isn’t dulled. In fact, you can appreciate it more. He’s judgment personified, a sexually dark butcher. And at the same time, he’s tormented. It’s no coincidence that Silent Hill 2 begins with James looking into a mirror: It’s the demons inside us that are the most terrifying.
Christina González practically cut her teeth on a joystick. She blogs over at http://cafechristina.vox.com when not running away from monsters in metal helmets.