In the comments of a recent post about Silent Hill 2's Otherworld, I had a discussion with a reader about the time period in which the Silent Hill games take place. This is actually an interesting and difficult topic, so I thought that I would dedicate a post specifically to it.
First and foremost, let's remind ourselves of when the games were released:
|Game title||Original release
|Silent Hill||January 1999|
|Silent Hill 2||September 2001|
|Silent Hill 3||May 2003|
|Silent Hill 4: the Room||September 2004|
It is very important to note that no specific dates ever appear in any of the Silent Hill games that were developed by Konami's internal Team Silent studio. If dates are provided, they are either only the month and day (and not the year), or they are time periods relative to the events of the game (such as referring to the "events of 17 years ago" in Silent Hill 3), or it is just the year of an historical event in the past (such as the document about the sinking of the Little Baroness). Even documents that you would expect to have dates (such as newspapers, journals, diaries, patient reports, and police records) are intentionally left dateless (or at least ambiguous).
In Silent Hill 2, there is a point in which James finds newspapers scattered around a hallway. Upon examining the floor or walls, James comments that the newspapers have today's date. This would have been a perfect opportunity for the developers to provide a specific date for the game, if they wanted to. They could have had James read the date on the paper to the player, or the paper itself (with its date) could have been made clearly visible. The developers didn't do this; they left it completely ambiguous.
James notes that these newspapers have today's date, but doesn't tell us what the date is.
The developers went out of their way to not provide any specific dates for the games. Why would they do this? Typically, works of fiction that are not set in particular time period are written to be contemporary. Unless otherwise specified, most works of fiction should be assumed to take place now with respect to the consumption of the work by its audience, regardless of when "now" happens to be. if it's not contemporary to consumption, then it's usually contemporary to creation. This is usually pretty obvious if the work contains detailed descriptions of locations, technologies, and events that can be easily dated.
If we look at the original Silent Hill game in a vacuum, then the game provides no internal indication that it takes place at any specific time period. Players in 1999 probably had no reason to believe that the game took place in any year other than 1999. The same is true for Silent Hill 2, 3, and 4: if looked at in a vacuum, they can all be considered to take place in the same year that they were released. And if you didn't even know the year that the game was released, there's very little within the games to indicate that they take place at any time other than now.
However, this assumption falls apart because there is an absolute time difference of seventeen years between the events of the first game and the events of the third game, even though the difference in time between releases of the games was only four years. So we can't assume that each game takes place in the year of its release. At least one game has to be shifted on the timeline. So which game (or games) should be assumed to have taken place at which times?
What if Silent Hill 1 takes place contemporary to its release?
Let's start by examining the case in which the first game takes place contemporary with its release. So assume that Silent Hill 1 takes place around 1999. There's nothing within the game itself that contradicts this. It does cause some problems for Silent Hill 3, however. It would push that game's setting all the way to they year 2016 or 2017. This puts that game over a decade after its release, and would actually make it the future even at the time of this writing!
It seems unrealistic to expect a teenage girl in 2015 or later to use a pay phone instead of having a cell phone.
Advances in technologies makes this unrealistic, since it's extremely unlikely that a 17 year old girl like Heather would, in 2016, use a pay phone instead of having, you know, a cell phone. Five year olds have cell phones nowadays (and are master Minecraft players - something that I recently learned at a cousin's baby shower). But Heather not having her own phone could very well be the case. After all, Harry and Heather were living "underground" and somewhat off the grid since they were on the run from a cult that wanted to kidnap and/or murder them. So it could be very possible that Harry wouldn't let Heather own a cell phone.
But it's not just the cell phone. There's also the computers, televisions, fax machines, and other obsolete technology present in areas of the game in SH3 that really makes it look dated. Heck, we still see rotary phones sitting on the desks of office workers in the Hilltop Center. If we assume that Silent Hill 4 takes place after SH3, then that game begins to look even more dated. Henry certainly isn't in hiding, so there's little reason for him to not own a modern TV or computer. He is a social shut-in, and doesn't seem to have any strong relationships with family or friends, so I'm willing to accept that he may not have a cell phone. But even without a healthy social life, someone who is a hobbyist photographer in 2016 (or later) would almost certainly have a computer - probably a Macbook or tablet or something like that. Maybe his scrapbooking hobby is supposed to inform us that he just likes doing things the old-fashioned way?
We could write this off by saying that (a.) Silent Hill is a small, somewhat rural town, so it would be behind a bit in technology; and (b.) Silent Hill was partially abandoned and run down. But SH3 and 4 don't take place entirely in Silent Hill. The bulk of SH4 takes place in the larger town of South Ashfield, which probably isn't as rustic as Silent Hill. SH3 starts in an un-named town that is not Silent Hill (it may be Ashfield; we don't know). Neither of these towns are presented as rustic, small-town America, and they would be much more likely to have flat screen TVs, cell phones, computers, and other modern technology. This makes it hard to buy into these games taking place today, but it isn't exactly an explicit refutation of that possibility.
Henry is a hobbyist photographer, so it seems unlikely that he doesn't have a computer / Macbook / tablet.
The complete lack of any forward-looking technology in the entirety of SH3 and SH4 makes it very hard to see those games as being intended to take place in the future (relative to 2004). But then again, prior to the release of the Macbook and iPhone in 2006 and 2007 (respectively), who would've known that mobile tech was going to explode the way it did? Sure, laptops and mobile phones like the Blackberry existed in the early 2000's, but they mostly were owned by business executives, lawyers, doctors, and other individuals on high pay scales. Perhaps Team Silent did intend for SH3 to take place in the future, but just failed to anticipate the revolutions in consumer technology that would happen over the next decade.
What if Silent Hill 3 takes place contemporary to its release?
For the sake of argument, let's see what happens if we attempt to keep Silent Hill 3 and 4's settings believable by making them contemporary and pushing Silent Hill 1 back in time.
A store sign on Sagan St. saying "since 1987" sets SH1 no earlier than 1987.
Setting SH3 in 2003 (the game's release year) would push SH1 as far back as 1986. Is this reasonable? Well, some timelines have listed the date for Silent Hill 1 as being as early as 1983. However, we have explicit in-game evidence that outright rejects this. There is a store sign in Central Silent Hill that reads "since 1987". Even if this store put up the sign the year it opened, that would still push SH3 into 2004, which is a year after its actual release, but still roughly contemporary.
A date any earlier than 1986 or '87 also conflicts with Harry's car being a Jeep Wrangler, which did not go into production until 1986. This model (also called the "YJ") replaced the previous "CJ" model that had been around since the 1940's. The two are easily differentiated by the Wrangler's wider base and windshield, its chrome front grille, and its distinctive rectangular headlamps. There is no mistaking this vehicle. It is a Jeep Wrangler, and it did not exist prior to 1986!
The Jeep YJ Wrangler [LEFT] replaced the Jeep CJ [RIGHT] in 1986, and is easily distinguished from the older model.
Harry's Jeep [MIDDLE] is definitely the Wrangler model.
The game is also loaded with easter eggs based on many of the horror novels and movies from which the developers drew inspiration. While most of the references to movies like The Shining, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and even Psycho do not date the game, most of these referenced sources were from the late 80's or early 90's. There is at least one easter egg that does indirectly provide a possible date. Newspaper dispensers containing the National Inquisitor issue with the headline "Bill Skins Fifth" can be found around town. This is a direct reference to the movie The Silence of the Lambs. This film was released in 1991, so this would be the year in which that newspaper would have been on newstands in the fictional world of The Silence of the Lambs.
One could argue that this newspaper means the game can't take place any earlier than 1991, but that would be a stretch. No date is shown on the newspaper, so it's only through our meta knowledge of the movie that it's referencing that we can establish a date. And besides, the novel on which that film was based was published (and presumably takes place) in 1988. And since it's referencing a fictional event, we can assign it any date that we want.
Silent Hill contains the same newspaper that is shown in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs.
I think it's certainly a stretch to think that the inclusion of such references was an attempt to date the game. After all, the game includes references to many horror classics from many different decades, going from Psycho in the sixties all the way to Silence of the Lambs in the nineties.
The first Silent Hill, thus, cannot be set prior to 1987. Setting SH1 in 1987 (at minimum) pushes SH3 to 2004, which keeps it fairly contemporary with its development and release. It's hard to place SH1 much later than the late '80's, otherwise we end up with the same problems with SH3 that I outlined in the previous sections.
Mary's vacation and illness ambiguously date Silent Hill 2
So we have likely dates of 1987/1988 and 2004/2005 for Silent Hill and Silent Hill 3 respectively. What about the other two Team Silent games?
The date of Silent Hill 2 is something that is very fuzzy. I've read some claims saying that Silent Hill 2 is actually a prequel to Silent Hill that takes place years before Harry's car crash. I don't think that this is likely. First and foremost, Kaufman's assertions that the monsters in the first game are a new phenomenon suggests that Silent Hill 2 is only able to happen because the events of the first game have "let the genie out of the bottle", so to speak. Also, as I've stated in my analysis of the Otherworld, I believe that the state of the town is a combination of a representation of the actual, physical aftermath of the first game and a representation of James' crumbling psyche. There also seems to be a general consensus amongst fans that Silent Hill 2 takes place in between the first and third games. But given that there's seventeen years between those games, is there anyplace within that time span that Silent Hill 2 particularly fits into?
The town in SH2 looks like it is neck-deep in repairs and renovations. This is probably the aftermath of damage done in SH1, but there's nothing concrete within the game to establish such a link. When Heather and Douglas arrive in Silent Hill in SH3, they check into a motel, implying that they drove into town with no problem and interacted with the hotel manager normally. As I recall, we don't see any holes, and the only blockages in the road are police tape and cones that appear after Heather leaves the hotel, and which prevent the player from travelling too far opposite of the Amusement Park. So by that time, the town is rebuilt to the point that it is re-populated and businesses seem to be operating as normal. Then Heather (and the God fetus) show up, and it all goes back to hell (literally).
The town seems abandoned, under repair, and inaccessible by car when James arrives in Silent Hill 2,
However, Heather and Douglas are implied to have driven into town and checked in to a motel in Silent Hill 3.
I had always assumed that SH2 must have taken place within a couple years from the first game. Mary first became ill during their trip to Silent Hill, and I generally assumed that her illness lasted for around three years. At the beginning of the game, James states that Mary "died of that damned disease three years ago". But since her death was actually much more recent (within a week, according to Laura), I believe that James is remembering the time when Mary first became sick, or at least the time at which she was diagnosed as terminal. This would have been the point at which Mary died "to James", so to speak. Mary's letter (at the end of the game) does specify that she had lived with the terminal diagnosis for a few years, which could mean three.
There definitely seems to be an effort to give the game an 80's aesthetic. James' car looks like a late 70's Chevy Nova based on the rear and interior. The other cars in the game all have a late 70's or early 80's style. Even the clothing in the game has a retro feel, and typewriters and fax machines were still in use. Heck, I don't think I recall seeing a single PC in the entire game! This could have been because the developers wanted to make the town look rustic and outdated. It could have also been because planning and design for Silent Hill 3 was already underway, and so the developers wanted to the game to look like it took place in the 90's so as not to conflict with the 17-year time gap from SH1 to SH3. However, Mary could have been sick for months (or even years) prior to receiving the terminal diagnosis, which means that there could be more than three years between SH1 and SH2. So SH2 could still take place virtually anywhere within the gap. Also, Douglas' car in Silent Hill 3 also looks like a 70's model, so maybe Team Silent just had a thing for 70's cars?
Maria's Born from a Wish scenario may provide a concrete date
I tend to disregard Silent Hill 2's "Born from a Wish" scenario when talking about game lore. This is partly due to my unfamiliarity with it (I had only played through it once in the original PS2 game, and then once again in the PS3 HD Collection). The fact that the scenario was added to Silent Hill 2 after release also puts a stigma of being an "afterthough" (and therefore not necessarily to be taken literally) in my mind. To me, it's only about as real as the Rebirth ending. This is probably an unfair bias on my part, and I should probably take "Born from a Wish" more seriously.
And if we're going to take "Born from a Wish" completely seriously (and why not?), then that scenario might have just the piece of evidence that we need to start putting the whole date jigsaw puzzle together. A calendar hanging in the Baldwin mansion shows a November in which the first day of the month appears to fall on a Thursday and the last day on a Friday. This would reasonably put the year of that calendar as 1979, 1984, or 1990. Upon examination, Maria comments that the calendar is from ten years ago.
This calendar shows November of either 1984 or 1990.
This would provide a date of 1989, 1994, or 2000 for the "Born from a Wish" scenario, which takes place simultaneously with James' exploration of the apartment buildings in Silent Hill 2. This is the closest that we have to the original four games providing an absolute date. Unfortunately, all three possible dates seem reasonable for one reason or another.
2000 would set the game roughly a year before it was actually released, keeping SH2 somewhat contemporary with its release and still being after the events of the first game, if they were still assumed to have occurred in 1999 (the year of that game's release). Prior to the 17-year retcon of Silent Hill 3, this fits in fine with the interpretations above that Mary and James vacationed in Silent Hill prior to the first game, and that Mary died 3 years later, slightly after the events of the first game.
Trying to date SH2 in 1994 would pull SH1 out to after 1991 (assuming, again, that the two games took place within three years of one another). This pushes SH3 all the way out to 2008! And it possibly pushes SH4 out beyond that. This is borderline unrealistic, but still within my margin of believability. But then again, that 3-year time frame for SH1 to SH2 isn't set in stone.
Is Silent Hill 4 a prequel, and the true Silent Hill: Origins?
So I don't think that Silent Hill 2 is a prequel, but Silent Hill 4: the Room does have some of the trappings of a pseudo-prequel. Large chunks of its story clarify events that possibly preceeded the first game, and it's not entirely clear whether Henry's adventure is intended to occur prior to the events of Silent Hill 3.
Information gathered from the Trick or Treat host (SH2), and by broadcasts from Henry's radio (SH4),
Silent Hill 2 must have taken place less than a decade prior to Silent Hill 4.
A significant piece of evidence is revealed after Henry returns to his apartment from the orphanage after witnessing Jasper's immolation. A radio report about Jasper's death says that police are "investigating possible links to the Walter Sullivan case 10 years ago." A police broadcast later in the game (after returning from the building world and witnessing Richard's electrocution) corroborates this 10 year span. There is another document (the April 4th Red Diary) that claims that the Walter Sullivan case was seven years ago. This document was written by the former tenant of Room 302, Joseph Schreiber, sometime before Henry moved in two years ago. The murder newspaper that James finds in Silent Hill 2 says Sullivan's arrest was earlier that month, but this paper is probably old, since the Trick or Treat host in the hospital elevator says the murder was several years ago. This sets The Room sometime within a decade of Silent Hill 2.
A request for a progress report
on both Alessa and Walter.
We now have to determine whether to pull Silent Hill 2 further away from SH1, or place The Room temporally between SH2 and SH3. Which way to go depends on how you chose to interpret certain documents and backstory within The Room. Inside the orphanage, Henry can pick up a memo wedged under a bookshelf that asks for an update on the progress of Walter, and on the search for Alessa. This document seems to be written by someone in a position of authority within the cult. Who wrote it (or who it was addressed to) decides how we interpret the temporal locations of SH2 and SH4.
Claudia's search for Heather is an unlikely framing device
The default assumption should be that The Room's temporal placement in the series is the same as it's placement in the release schedule: roughly a year after the events of Silent Hill 3. I'm not aware of there being anything explicit in The Room that contradicts the possibility of it being set after Silent Hill 3. The document asking for a progress report on Walter and Alessa seems like it could probably have been written by Claudia. She was in charge of the cult, and she was actively searching for Alessa.
Joseph Shcreiber's Red Diary scraps
Another memo found as part of Schreiber's Red Diary seems to corroborate this. The April 8th entry reads:
Although the cult itself is gone, I'm sure the spirit of it is still alive.
There are too many strange things happening in that town.
I'm investigating two people. Or maybe I should say just one. I've just about
discovered what's going on.
Schreiber's claim that "the cult itself is gone" seems (at first glance) to refer to the deaths of Claudia and Vincent in Silent Hill 3. This would mean that Schreiber's journal, must have been written after Silent Hill 3. Joseph disappeared six months before Henry moved into room 302, and Henry had been living there for two years before the events of the game. This would mean that The Room would seem to take place at least two and a half years after the events of Silent Hill 3. However, there are some holes in this interpretation.
Dahlia's search for Alessa's soul is the more plausible framing device
First and foremost, the operators of the orphanage (Jimmy Stone and George Rosten) were among Walter's first round of murder victims, and it is presumed that the orphanage went defunct after their deaths. So the orphanage wouldn't have been around when Claudia took leadership of the cult. In addition, Claudia probably wouldn't have been interested in Walter (or the orphanage in general), since she was a firm believer that Alessa was the true path towards rebirthing the god and recreating paradise.
It seems much more likely that the Alessa memo refers to Claudia's mother, Dahlia prior to the events of the first game! It was either written by Dahlia to one of her underlings, or it was written by a higher-up in the church (maybe Leonard?) and was addressed to Dahlia. In fact, this note could be a callback to a flashback scene in the Alchemilla hospital basement in which Dahlia is asked by Kaufman if the Alessa ritual won't work, and Dahlia replies that "these are just stalling tactics." So there were people within the organization requesting that Dahlia find [the other half of] Alessa. And, since Dahlia was somewhat of a mentor to Walter, she would be associated with the progress of his training. She was either asking the orphanage operators how his progress was coming, or someone else was asking Dahlia for a progress report on Walter's tutelage.
Dahlia took a direct interest in Walter's development, and is possibly the recipient of the progress report memo.
Then there's the Red Diary. It says that the cult is gone, but it also says that "the spirit of it is still alive." This could either be a reference to the supernatural elements of the town that are related to the cult, or it could mean that even though the organization seems to have disbanded, there are still people who adhere to the cult's beliefs and dogma. We don't know what happens to the cult and its followers after Claudia and Vincent's deaths in Silent Hill 3. Perhaps the cult kept operating with new leadership. But we do know that after Silent Hill 1, the cult was in disarray, and leaders like Claudia and Vincent needed to galvanize the adherents and raise funds to build a new church. So when Joseph says "The cult may be gone", he might be talking about the state of the cult following Silent Hill 1.
Joseph specifically refers to two people that he is investigating, but doesn't name them. This could potentially have been an attempt at a sequel hook (establishing that a new leader took over after Silent Hill 3), or it could have been in reference to Heather and Douglas. But how would Joseph have known anything about Heather and Douglas? Was he there at the amusement park? Nobody involved in the cult survived that event to tell, and (unlike her father) Heather didn't leave notes scattered around detailing her adventure. Did Douglas say something to Joseph - one investigator to another? In addition, the fact that Heather finds Joseph's "Hope House" memo in the hospital of Silent Hill 3 implies that Joseph's investigation of the cult and Walter took place before Silent Hill 3. So it seems unlikely that he's talking about Heather and Douglas.
Was Schreiber investigating Heather and Douglas? Or Claudia and Vincent?
Or was he investigating Harry and Cheryl / Heather (or maybe Cybil) as the only survivors of the first game?
He also couldn't be talking about Claudia or Vincent if the document was written after Silent Hill 3, because they would both be dead. But if the diary was written before the events of the third game, then Claudia and Vincent were both keeping the cult alive "in spirit". Claudia was continuing to preach the cult's teachings, and Vincent was working on fundraising to build a new church. Leonard is another possible subject. When Schreiber says "Or maybe I should say just one", he may be saying that either Claudia or Vincent is more important to his investigation than the other. Perhaps he dismisses Claudia as crazy and is more interesting in investigating Vincent's fundraising efforts. Or perhaps he dismisses Vincent as not being a true believer and is interested in investigating Claudia's increasing zealotry and growing flock. Or perhaps he was referring to Claudia and Leonard, but dismissed Leonard after he was locked away in an asylum. Either way, Claudia, Vincent, and Leonard are never actually named, implying that Schreiber didn't know much (if anything) about them. This would place Schreiber's journal as definitely being written before Silent Hill 3 - quite a long time before Silent Hill 3, since it was prior to the rebuilding of the church.
Harry left a record of his experiences.
It's more likely, however, that the two people Schreiber refers to are Harry and Cheryl, or Harry and Cybil. In fact, if he's talking about Harry and Cybil, then his comment "or maybe I should say just one" could be a reference to the ambiguity of Cybil's fate. Harry did leave his notes (the save points) scattered around town, so it's very likely that somebody knows about Harry's involvement. But those people might have no clue who Harry actually was or what his involvement was (since he probably didn't leave his phone number or address). This would explain why Schreiber doesn't list their names; he might not know what these two people's names are.
All of this implies that the memos that we find are all written long before the events of Silent Hill 3, which opens up the possibility (and likelihood) that The Room takes place prior to that game. Combine this with the fact that The Room deals heavily with the church's history, the brainwashing of children at the orphanage, and the ritual to impregnate the Mother Stone, and The Room now has all of the trappings of a prequel or indirect origin story. Further, if The Room takes place prior to Silent Hill 3, then the failure of the 21 Sacrements ritual would have probably reaffirmed Claudia's belief that Alessa is the true key to rebirthing the god, and would have lead to her worshiping Alessa and hiring Douglas to track Heather down.
The Room provides a great deal of backstory behind the cult's beliefs and practices.
There's certainly plenty of wiggle room for players to temporarly place these games whenever they want - with the obvious exception of the 17 years between SH1 and SH3, and the roughly 10 year gap between SH2 and SH4. Even the absolute restrictions that I described above (such as SH1 taking place no earlier than 1987) can be written off as gaffs or flaws in the games' production.
So I can't tell you with any degree of authority what the correct answer is, or even if there is a correct answer; nor can I tell you that the official timelines in the wiki or Konami documents are false (even though they certainly aren't absolutely true either). All I can tell you is what I believe based on my own personal interpretation of the games themselves.
What I believe is that Silent Hill 1 was originally intended to take place contemporary to its release (1999). Silent Hill 2 would have also taken place contemporary to its release (2001), placing it within three years of SH1, and allowing James and Mary to have vacationed in Silent Hill prior to the events of the first game, when the town was as "normal" as it's ever been. Silent Hill 3, then, retconned this.
But, with the information provided by Born From a Wish and Silent Hill 4, we can piece the puzzle together into a cohesive and believable timeline. Let's place Silent Hill 2 in one of its given years: 1994. We can now assume that both Silent Hill 1, as well as Walter's murders, arrest, and suicide, happened roughly three years prior. This would place Silent Hill 1 in 1991 (after 1987 and the release of the Jeep Wrangler). Both Jame's vacation with Mary and Walter's murders would have happened in the town prior to the events of the first game (but likely within the same year). Silent Hill 4 would then be ten years after Walter's murders (and, incidentally, roughly ten years after Silent Hill 1), and would take place in 2000 or 2001. Silent Hill 3 would then take place seventeen years after Silent Hill 1, and would be set in 2008. This would place Heather's adventure at the cusp of the smart phone revolution, and we can justify her lack of a cell phone as being a result of Henry's desire to keep them "off the grid". Everything fits!
If I had to assign dates, these would be the dates that I would chose:
|Game||Original release||Proposed Date
|Silent Hill||January 1999||Summer 1991|
|Silent Hill 2||September 2001||1994|
|Silent Hill 4: the Room||September 2004||2000 or 2001|
|Silent Hill 3||May 2003||2008|
... At least, everything fits until you get to Origins and Homecoming, which screw everything up by providing their own dates.