Years ago, I wrote a post regarding the nature of Silent Hill's Otherworld and how it is most likely not a parallel dimension. In it, I may have made a significant mistake. Uh oh. Everybody makes mistakes, and I'm definitely not an exception. But no, I haven't changed my mind and conceded to parallel dimensions :P
Specifically, I failed to consider an important piece of evidence, and therefore may have mischaracterized the Lakeview Hotel Otherworld. In that post, I stated that the burnt-out version of the hotel was the Otherworldly-version that had been transformed as a kind of intermix between James' and Angela's Otherworlds. This is not necessarily true.
In fact, the burnt-out, waterlogged version of the hotel may not be the Otherworld at all. It could be the hotel in its natural state. The "normal"-looking version of the hotel may very well be the Otherworld one.
Is the Lakeview Hotel basement an Otherworld? Or is it the real hotel, as it currently exists?
In this post (as in others that I've written), I'm going to use the term "Otherworld" to refer colloquially to the areas of the game that have undergone supernatural transformations that modify the area substantially from its natural state. I still do not believe that the Otherworld is an actual "other world" that exists separately from reality. I still believe that the entirety of the Silent Hill universe (as created by the original developers) exists in our singular, real world, but is transformed via a supernatural force or entity that is native to the region.
Now, let's talk about the Otherworld in Silent Hill 2!
The subtler, more personal Otherworld of Silent Hill 2
The Otherworld of Silent Hill 2 is a confusing and complicated issue in the series. Unlike the other games, SH2's Otherworld is much more subtle and restrained. This is due to two reasons. First, having a bloody, industrial Otherworld does not fit the story, since SH2 is a melencholy personal tale about James' mental state in the wake of his wife's death. It's not a game about a cult summoning a corrupt god to reshape the world into a hellish paradise.
Secondly, Silent Hill 2 deals - in part - with the state of the town after the events of Silent Hill . Since Silent Hill shows signs of massive renovation and reconstruction efforts, it is reasonable to assume that Silent Hill 2 takes place shortly after the events of the first game (probably within a year or two; maybe even days or weeks), and that the town is still rebuilding from the devastation that it sustained from the first game. The cult has suffered losses in its leadership, a crisis of faith, and is also in a state of rebuilding and recruiting. As such, the cult does not play an active role in Silent Hill 2. With no God or psychic girl around this time to project her nightmares onto reality, the paranormal activity experienced by the characters of SH2 are likely a lingering effect of the spiritual and psychic interference of the first game. Because of this, the manifestations experienced are much more personal and subdued, as the influences must be pulled from the twisted minds of the few characters in the game.
Where does the Otherworld appear in SH2?
In fact, the general consensus among Silent Hill fans is that SH2 only has between two and four full Otherworld levels. One of the tell-tale characteristics of Team Silent's Otherworld is that it's a location that usually is explored once in the normal world, and then again (with altered configurations) in the Otherworld. And indeed, only two locations in Silent Hill 2 truly fit this rule of thumb.
Brookhaven hospital is the most obvious and complete Otherworld. The hospital's transformation is much less extreme than in other iterations of the game, but the decor completely changes, and the entire facility has to be explored again from scratch, with new rooms being accessible. The burnt-out version of Lakeview Hotel after watching the video tape is the second most commonly referenced Otherworld level. This location shows a more gradual, but dramatic, shift in appearance (and we'll get to that later). It also has to be re-explored, and its geometry becomes more abstract.
Brookhaven and Lakeview seem to have the most clearly-defined Otherworlds, and must be explored twice.
But having to re-explore an area is not a necessary requirement for an Otherworld. Other possible Otherworlds in SH2 include the night time streets of South Vale, and the historical society / underground prison / labyrinth levels. While these last two locations have Otherworldly elements, it is debatable whether they are full-blown Otherworld transfigurations, or just real places depicted mostly as they truly exist, but with limited, localized Otherworld transformations.
The metal grating on the ground in parts of South Vale may just be indicative of the repair efforts that I mentioned earlier. The areas could have been blocked off for safety and grating placed over the holes in order to begin repairs or allow access to businesses and homes. So it's not necessarily the same as the Otherworld streets of the first game. Certainly, the inverted hallways that lead from the Historical Society to the prison are Otherworldly geometry, but the prison itself may not be.
Dark South Vale and the Prison have an Otherworld feel, but are only explored once and never transform.
There are other, more confined Otherworld locations in the game. The most definite (and interesting) ones are the freezer where James battles Eddie (Eddie's Otherworld), the labyrinth room in which James encounters Angela and the Abstract Daddy (Angela's Otherworld), and the final appearance of Angela on the Lakeview Hotel staircase (also Angela's Otherworld). But can single rooms really be considered "Otherworlds"? These locations definitely show that all the characters are sharing a single, transfigurable reality, rather than existing in their own parallel worlds.
The meat freezer and Abstract Daddy rooms are clearly Eddie and Angela's Otherworlds (respectively).
The Blue Creek Apartments are sometimes considered an Otherworld location due to the air raid siren and boss battle with Pyramid Head, but I generally don't accept this as an Otherworld because it can't really be differentiated from the rest of the apartment level. It isn't a transfiguration of the previous apartment location, nor does it look particularly "Otherworldly". Changes in decor are mostly the result of the fact that it is a different building altogether from the Wood Side Apartments.
So the hospital and hotel are the only two sure-fire Otherworld locations in Silent Hill 2. Or are they? I'm going to suggest that perhaps the Lakeview Hotel's Otherworld is not what most fans think it is.
Which version of Lakeview is the Otherworld?
The general consensus on the internet seems to be that James enters the Otherworld version of the Lakeview Hotel after watching the videotape in room 312. At this time, James warps between rooms, the hotel becomes progressively darker, grimier, dilapidated, and the basement appears to be completely burnt out by a fire. Metal emergency stairs lead to a grated catwalk that houses the game's final boss. All of this seems consistent with the Otherworld as it is depicted in the rest of the series. And I'll admit, I operated under this assumption for years.
But a while ago, I remembered something that actually challenges this assumption.
The Lakeview Hotel fire
In Toluca Prison, James discovers a prison cell with some crude paintings apparently drawn by an inmate who resided in the cell. One of the paintings is labeled "Burning Man" and depicts a building on fire. Although it is not labeled on the painting, this building is the Lakeview Hotel. The distinctive boat dock in front of the building gives it away. This is the first piece of evidence telling us that the Lakeview Hotel had burned down sometime after James' and Mary's vacation there.
This painting in the Toluca Prison reveals that the Lakeview Hotel was destroyed by a fire.
As far as I know, this is the only document in the game that describes the hotel fire. The rest of this story has to be inferred from the game itself. The general consensus is that the immediate cause of the fire was a space heater that was placed under a flammable curtain in the employee lounge near the Venus Tears bar. Examining the heater causes James to remark:
The generally-agreed-upon cause of the Lakeview Hotel fire is a poorly-placed space heater.
"There's a heater here. On the back, in small letters, it says 'I'm Johnny, one hot guy'."
Most players miss this clue because the employee lounge is initially too dark for the player to be able to examine the heater and read the inscription. You have to retrieve your personal belongings from the service elevator room and then return to the employee lounge with your flashlight in order to find this Easter Egg. But this clue is what really got me starting to question the conventional wisdom regarding the Lakeview Hotel Otherworld.
If this heater is intended to be a clue as to the cause of the fire, then that would imply that the employee lounge in which James finds it is intended to be representative of the Lakeview Hotel prior to the fire. And if the fire started in the basement, then it would make sense that the basement would be the place that is most damaged.
This implies to me that the version of the hotel that James is exploring prior to watching the videotape is actually a transfigured version of the hotel that is pulled from its own past and James' idealized memory of his vacation with Mary. The version of the hotel that is generally considered to be the Otherworld is the version that is severely waterlogged in the upper levels, and completely burnt out in the basement. But this damaged version would actually be more representative of the hotel as it actually exists in the real world, after the fire!
The idealized hotel in James' mind comes crashing down to reality
If the burnt-out version is the real hotel, then the "normal", in-tact version that James initially finds would then have to be the "Otherworld" version: the version of the hotel that is created by the town based on the character's own psyche. This would seem to be counter-intuitive based on how the Otherworld is usually presented in these games. But it does make sense thematically.
Much moreso than the other games in the series, Silent Hill 2 is very much a character study of James Sunderland, and an examination of his deteriorating mental state following his wife's death. The different locations in the game are representative of aspects of James' own subconscious. The hospital is derived from the experience of watching his wife become ill. The prison is representative of James' own desire to be punished for his own sins. The town itself being in a state of repair is representative of how James' amnesia is attempting to repair the damage done to his mind by his wife's death. And the hotel represents the idealized version of his past and his wife that James seeks to recreate.
When James gets to Room 312, the false reality that he has constructed comes crashing down.
When James first arrives at the hotel, he is still in the delusional mindset that his wife might still be alive, and he has yet to confront his own guilt. He has constructed a fictional, internalized world in which Mary is not dead, and the hotel represents this. It appears in a pristine, yet abandoned condition, contrary to other areas of the town that he visits (which are always run down or falling apart). The hotel is his "special place", and he expects to have his reunion with Mary and his happy ending here. This delusional mindset is projected onto reality in the form of the hotel appearing as it was when he and Mary vacationed there.
But when he watches the video cassette (so kindly presented by the town), that fictional reality is no longer sustainable. His amnesia and cognitive dissonance regarding his wife's death are lifted, and he comes crashing back down to the depressing real world in which is wife is dead, and he is responsible. The illusion of the idealized hotel being a safe haven for Mary is shattered, and with his mind no longer projecting a false reality, the hotel begins to revert back to its normal state: a state in which it had been destroyed by a fire.
The sequence in which James leaves room 312 and warps between the hallways of the hotel as they become increasingly decrepit isn't James entering the Otherworld; he is leaving it! He is finally forced to confront the world as it really is and deal with his own guilt once and for all. No more illusions. No more false hope.
As James descends back through the hotel after leaving room 312, he sees the hotel as it truly is.
Instead of the pristine Lakeview Hotel that he recalls from his romanticized memories with Mary, he now sees the hotel as it really is. The upstairs is scorched and moldy and waterlogged from the fire sprinklers. As he descends, the hotel becomes increasingly damaged as he approaches the source of the very real fire that actually destroyed the hotel.
Angela, the Abstract Daddy, and their relation to Lakeview
This interpretation does leave a burning question: how does Angela fit into all this? Why Angela appears in Lakeview is one of the biggest unresolved mysteries of Silent Hill 2. Unfortunately, the interpretation of Lakeview that I propose above doesn't do anything to concretely answer this, but there are already clues that could shed some light onto her circumstances.
As far as I know, the game never provides any relation between Angela and the hotel. The only clues are that Angela seems to be looking for her mother in the hotel, the presence of Abstract Daddy monsters, and that two male bodies appear framed on the flaming stairwell walls (likely representing her father and brother). But the hotel isn't the site of her father's murder, since the bloody newspaper in the labyrinth implies that he was murdered in his room at home. One possibility is that Angela's mother was staying at the hotel after leaving Angela's father, or she was an employee at the hotel. Another possibility is that the hotel is the site of one of (possibly the first) incident of molestation that Angela suffered at the hands of her father, or by her brother. This would certainly explain the presence of the Abstract Daddy monster. But why more than one?
The presence of Abstract Daddy monsters and the male corpses on the walls of Angela's flaming staircase
may provide clues to a relation between Angela and the Lakeview Hotel.
It's possible that the Abstract Daddy monsters in the hotel have no significance. Perhaps the developers were simply running out of time and weren't able to design a new monster, so they reused the model for the Abstract Daddy. I find this unlikely though, considering how tight the game's overall design is and how well-developed the rest of the hotel level is (including the space heater Easter Egg, multiple ending triggers, and so on). Common fan explanations for the presence of the monsters in the hotel are simply that they are foreshadowing Angela's appearance there, or that they represent Jame's repressed sexual urges or his smothering of Mary. This seems lazy to me. Citing James' sexual repression is always a go-to, panacea answer for any unknown or confusing symbolism in Silent Hill 2 (and in the series in general). There are two problems with this explanation of the Abstract Daddy:
- The monster is representative of Angela's psyche, not James',
- The monster is a symbol of sexual oppression, and not sexual repression.
Lumping the Abstract Daddy monster in with James' sexual profile makes the same fallacy as interpreting Pyramid Head's "rape" as symbolic of James' sexual repression: it implies that James is a closet rapist. An assertion for which we have no evidence other than Angela's paranoia regarding all men.
So what could it all mean? A third possibility is that Angela may have been an employee at the hotel, and that she may have been the one who started the fire. Angela could have been an employee in one of the restaurants, working as a waitress or server. There, she may have been the victim of further sexual harassment from male co-workers, patrons and / or hotel guests, which may have been real harassment or simply perceived harassment (similar to her accusatory attitude towards James). This repeated harassment may have further tarnished her view of men and created a festering hatred of the hotel that may have led to her placing the space heater in a place where it would start a fire.
This would explain why her appearance in the hotel staircase is accompanied by Otherworldly fire. The multiple Abstract Daddies present in the hotel would then be representative of the male guests that Angela believed were harassing her. It would also contribute to the hotel appearing as it did before the fire, since both James and Angela could be projecting the hotel as parts of their own nightmares. James projects a pre-fire version of the hotel as part of his delusional guilt over Mary's death; and Angela projects a pre-fire version of the hotel to recreate the environment in which her harassment lead to arson.
This is all speculation, since the game provides no specific information about Angela's past other than the abuse of her father and resentment of her brother and mother. But it does all seem to fit.
Pockets of Otherworld: The final boss battles
But this doesn't mean that the burnt-out hotel is completely devoid of the influence of the Otherworld.
The final battle with Pyramid Head takes place in an Otherworldly transformation of the hotel lobby. It's possible that only this one room and the hallway leading up to it are the Otherworld. The rest of the hotel explored after leaving room 312 is real.
The Lobby area where the final fight with Pyramid Head takes place is the only section of the hotel that is Otherworld.
After the battle with Pyramid Head, James re-enters the regular hotel where he also travels along an extended hallway that was probably transfigured by the town in order to force him to relive his memory of his wife's illenss. He then ascends a metal staircase up to a large, open room that may or may not be part of the Otherworld. I tend to believe that it is still part of the Otherworld, but it could also just be that the upper section of the hotel has collapsed due to the fire, and all that is left is the framework that we see in the final battle.
This all leads to the question: is it possible that all the "Otherworld" locations in the game are actually inverse? Could it be that the "normal" Brookhaven is actually an Otherworld projection from James' mind, and the dark version of Brookhaven is actually just the real world hospital unmodified by the town's power? If true, this would show that the town's power isn't always malicious. In the case of James, Silent Hill is projecting a world that he wants: a paradise world in which his wife is alive and Silent Hill is still a livable (albeit abandoned) resort town. It even manifests a new, sexually-idealized, girlfriend for him! After all, reshaping the Earth as a paradise for mankind is what the cult believes God wants to do. It's something to think about.
What Silent Hill 2's Otherworld says about the series as a whole
Whether you agree with the proposed interpretation of the Lakeview Hotel or not, the complexities of Silent Hill 2's Otherworld reinforces the idea that the Otherworld isn't really a "thing". It's a convenient construct that fans (and to some extent, the characters) have created in order to understand and label the games' level progressions. But while it's a useful construct for the purposes of writing a walkthrough, it isn't always useful when talking about the games' narratives and meanings. For most fans, it has actually proven detrimental.
Silent Hill 2, more than the other games in the series, really emphasizes that the real world and the Otherworld are not two different places. They are both the same place, subtly inter-weaved together and transformed in real time as the characters navigate it. Clearly defining the boundaries of the Otherworld is often difficult and impractical. Any given location, at any scale (be it the whole town, a building, a hallway, or just a small room), could be "Otherworldly" depending on the characters' mindsets and what the power of the town is trying to - and capable of - showing them.
In the case of James Sunderland, the more grotesque and decrepit locations might actually be the world as it really is, since James' self-imposed delusion is actually happier than reality. In James' case, the "nightmarish delusion come to life" (Harry SH1) is his own refusal to see just how sad and unfortunate real life actually is.
Maybe that Brookhaven Otherworld isn't as cut and dry as you think it is either...