In Japan, a country with a stellar Human Development Index and an astonishingly low rate of violent crime, a scenario where a religious cult is connected to the assassination of a former head of government could hardly be imaginable anywhere outside a work of fiction. Yet it came to life on 8 July 2022, at a small election rally of a traditional Japanese type. Shinzo Abe, an ex-Prime Minister who served the longest in this position, was shot and killed by a lone perpetrator over his involvement with Unification Church, a marginal quasi-Christian sect with roots in South Korea. The murder sent shockwaves over Japan, where “almost no one is ever shot to death”. [Ghitis]
Aside from the political uncertainty which ensued, many common people reported extreme anxiety and disturbance. “I could understand what was being said in the news, but I just couldn’t accept it”, said one of the attendees at a condolence gathering. “It’s just shocking and I’m so sad. I was feeling restless at home,” reported another. “I couldn’t believe something like this could actually happen in Japan”. [Agence France-Presse] In a split second, the unbelievable became a fact, shattering the sense of normalcy for many.
In a similar way, on 20 April 1999, another unthinkable thing came into being: a morbidly theatricized, performance-style mass murder of students by students at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado in the US. The wave of copycat attacks it inspired, at that point, could seem to only emphasize its grotesque monstrosity. Yet school shootings have since become a “historically growing phenomenon” [Böckler et al] and a persistent trend in violent crime statistics worldwide. [World Population Review] Something as abhorrently senseless and gratuitously evil in its wastefulness of human life is now counted in hundreds of incidents and has become the subject of memes on the internet.
However, it is not always about a new low becoming, to this or that extent, the new normal. Sometimes the sense of normalcy sets in after the atrocities of old – perhaps prematurely – are forgotten. The last assassination of a former prime minister in Japan took place in 1936, that is 86 years before Abe’s assassination. For a nation that hosts the world’s oldest running business, a hotel in operation since 705 C.E., [Bouzon] it’s not that long ago. What does it take to get back to normal or get used to the “new normal”? At what point does the subject matter of old chronicles become offensive to a new generation – when do we ourselves earn the opprobrium of those to follow?
It would be easy to dismiss the normal as a purely relative category if there was not indeed a strong, permanent, and definite quality to our sense of normalcy. We may accommodate many things and tolerate still more, but some will never be normal. When we speak of disturbing things getting normalized, we mean the normal life going on despite them rather than such things becoming an actual part of normal life. As difficult as “normal life” might be to define, it is at least self-evident that our sense of normalcy is inseparable from our sense of safety. When outrageous crime statistics become “normal”, it’s not because we come to view a school shooting or an assassination as something routine. It is because we learn that such things can happen without getting personally affected – perhaps for our lifetime.
In art and storytelling, the extremes of abnormality can be explored from a safe distance. This is why, at least to a significant part, violent plots and dire circumstances are featured so often in art, literature, and cinema. Without being directly involved, neither the agent nor the sufferer of the abnormal but a mere observer, we can perhaps get some insight into otherwise unthinkable and incomprehensible things.
Yet it is precisely the normal that might be tricky to encounter from this observatory position. To begin with, even the most routine things become special, to this or that extent, by the very virtue of being viewed through the lens of a camera, framed on a canvas, or talked about by a narrator. We can observe a character doing things we can easily identify as routine and even be told the character is performing routine activities. Our experience of observing these activities, or rather experiencing them with the character, however, doesn’t become routine. First, normally we don’t go through a character’s routine but only get select glimpses of it. This is dictated by the structure and temporal scope of a film or a book. We can also see the role of seemingly casual particulars in the larger plot and view them only in the context of the more significant events it deals with. In other words, it’s not the “normal” as such that we usually see in art, but a build-up to something extraordinary.
Yet even in the ‘slice of life’ genre, focused exclusively on depicting everyday events and common things, we can experience the normal only in not quite the normal way. Arthur Schopenhauer, a 19th-century German philosopher, called it the “magic of distance”. We enjoy watching things on canvas or stage, he argues, precisely because we aren’t experiencing them first-person: “It’s quite nice to see it, but quite a different thing to live it.” [Schopenhauer] This is so because all human experience has a negative side to it, an inherent and inalienable degree of discomfort. In our practical daily life, the normal is not only safe or at least perceived as such. It also is somewhat boring, oftentimes pettily annoying, and not so seldom frustrating as we navigate through it. In a show or a book, we don’t get in touch with this side of normalcy; when we enjoy a still-life painting of a feast, for example, at least a part of our enjoyment comes from the certainty that we won’t have to wash the dishes.
There is, however, an art form that seems to be very well adjusted precisely to exploring the normal and the routine: video games. Although most of them deal with extreme situations or highly unusual subjects, even alternate worlds, they shouldn’t mislead us. Just like “slice of life” films sell us a non-routine experience under a routine guise, so does every video game create for us a sort of routine, albeit played out in colorful visuals. Any video game puts the player through a series of relatively simple tasks which he needs first to learn how to perform, then iterate a few times. The player is not merely watching a character act on the screen but takes an immediate part in that action.
There’s a remarkable contrast between the high-intensity, high-stake situation of a character on a mission – mostly combat of various sorts – and the casual, sometimes even a bit bored attitude of the player who guides the character. This becomes especially visible in massive multiplayer role-playing games, where ‘”farming” kills often becomes a tedious job, thus turning the element of role-playing adventures into a fantasy world almost upside down. A video game, we may say, can use the extraordinary as a trope in metaphorically reproducing the experience of the normal.
Silent Hill, a series of survival horror video games, brings this technique to an artistic level beyond mere game mechanics. In this essay, I consider only the first two installments of the series, Silent Hill released in 1999, and Silent Hill 2, in 2001, as the most relevant to our discourse on normalcy in art, as well as mutually complementing in their treatment of this subject.
Both games feature a similar plot: a male protagonist is looking for a female close member of his family in the town of Silent Hill, which appears abandoned and isolated from the world outside. Early on in the game, the protagonist encounters aggressive monsters, only to be haunted by them for the rest of it; and the farther he goes, the more grotesque and outworldly the town becomes. At certain points, the town is absorbed into what appears to be a hellish parallel plane from which the player must find a way to escape. Aside from the protagonist, there are a handful of other human characters in either game. All of them appear to be a random selection at first – people stranded in the town by coincidence – but eventually turn out to be connected to the protagonist’s quest.
The protagonist of Silent Hill, Harry Mason, has been separated from his pre-teen daughter Cheryl after a traffic accident. He goes looking for her in the town, which he has never visited before, and soon finds what looks like hints Cheryl left for him. Following them, he has to tour the whole of Silent Hill, with its various neighborhoods and recent history shaped by the activities of a strange religious cult. The story the game tells us is rather vague, and the hints we must follow aren’t always coherent. The authors admitted that their focus was on creating a frightening place first and only then figuring out what kind of story could happen there. [Sato] What keeps it all together, though, is the clarity and human self-evidence of the protagonist’s ultimate task – and the sense of danger maintained by the uncanny and violent creatures that chase after him whenever he goes. At any moment, we know that Harry needs to find his daughter and is in grave danger.
This situation in Silent Hill is the opposite of normal, yet it unravels mostly in very casual, generic environments: the streets of a small town, a middle school, a hospital, and a shopping mall. On his way, the protagonist visits private houses, cafés, a church, and a few other places straight from normal life, crafted with much attention to detail. The angles of the camera let us see close-up some papers left on a desk or a mug on a bar stand; passing by, we spot children’s drawings on the wall of a classroom; and the very sound of Harry’s footsteps in the hallway of an empty house brings to our attention the closeness, privacy, and emptiness of the space.
Now, however, all these locations are hostile. The protagonist is hunted by beast-like monsters on the street, mobbed by packs of child-like humanoids in school hallways, and pursued by apparently zombified nurses in a hospital. With visibility limited by fog or darkness and further hindered by capricious camera angles, the player has to rely on the audial alarm of the protagonist’s pocket radio which remits static when monsters come close. The game highlights that Harry is an ordinary person not trained for combat. His way of taking aim is clumsy, he breathes heavily after a sprint, and Silent Hill begins with another character introducing him to firearms at a ground-zero level. What we see here is the ordinary world of an ordinary man turned, in an inexplicable way and for no apparent reason, into a nightmarish, threatening place.
Transformations of such kind have a long-standing tradition in Japanese Buddhism, where Hell is often described as a twisted and perilous version of the world we know. In this Hell, everyday things become instruments of torture, everyday activities inseparable from danger and pain. “One demon stirs a pot of stew and helps itself to a portion. Another chats cheerfully while enjoying a plateful, its pinkie extended delicately as it balances a plate. Blood and bones stain and litter the ground where groups of human beings cower and grieve, awaiting their turn to be transformed into dinner … The scene would be germane to kitchens worldwide, were the meat not human.” [Hirasawa]
In fact, according to some Japanese schools of Buddhism, one doesn’t need to go to any special place below the ground to reach Hell. It’s rather a state or a mode than a place and can be experienced here and now, anywhere. Later in the game, we learn that Silent Hill, as Harry comes to see it, is indeed a manifestation of how another person came to see the world: a girl who was bullied at school and abused by her cultist mother. Hence, in particular, the nightmarish school with childish monsters.
Yet this traditional Japanese story is happening to American characters in an American setting inspired by American pop culture. [Sato] Nobody on the developers’ team had ever been to the USA by the time they started working on Silent Hill. The ordinary American town they would portray would be pretty much exotic to any of them. This brings a meta-universe dimension to the paradox of normalcy in Silent Hill.
Yet this paradox is explored not only on the conceptual and the narrative level. Silent Hill uses game mechanics to engage both our sense of safety and the sense of agency which dispels the “magic of distance” to introduce in its twisted world a sort of second-level normalcy. Now, what we do in the game is travel from one spatially-defined section to another. We can’t choose the sequence of locations but are free to move within each. To pass from one location to another, we need to complete one or several puzzles, some of them employing rather odd logic. For most, we must collect several items placed all over the location, sometimes behind closed doors, which must be somehow opened. All this means that the player has to travel several times across each location, exploring it and looking for hints, items, and shortcut ways to places of interest.
In other words, we don’t merely pass down some route with monsters lurking in the dark. We must familiarize ourselves with localities, search them, learn to navigate them – and of course, deal with the threats they pose. The many marks Harry leaves on the maps of each place may appear pedantic, but in fact, they all serve a good practical purpose in the game. As he has a very limited supply of ammunition and medicines to recover his health points, it involves a good deal of inventory management too. Although kept in suspense, the player has to work out a routine in this environment and learn some basic operating procedures: that is, carve out for himself a little bit of normalcy in the hellscape.
This normalcy finds its focal points in safe rooms: there are never any monsters in such places, and they often have a checkpoint where the player can save his progress in the game. As these places are a part of the ordinary Silent Hill – someone’s house, an infirmary at a school, a hospital reception – in them, the normalcy of appearance meets the normalcy of function, amplifying our sense of it. Indeed, after a series of hostile hallways and streets, they might appear even lavishly normal, extravagantly safe, luxuriously human. We want to linger in a place like that and wish it had a game storyline of its own in this mode.
Some of them do. These are the places where we meet other human characters: a café, a church, and an antique shop. It is remarkable how simple, if not simplistic, most interactions and dialogues are. Yet each feels special in a normal way, not least because of their drastic contrast to the rest of the game, in a hellscape with only monsters for our company. We develop our unnatural routine in someone else’s Hell, and normalize it by drawing a map of it – but only to rediscover the truly normal in another safe space or human encounter.
This dynamic reaches its highest point when the town of Silent Hill transforms into a literal Hell, a grotesque parody of its “normal” version. Here, in a hellish version of a hospital, we find a room where a nurse hides from whatever is happening around her. Nothing unusual happens there. She only lets Harry know how happy she is to see another human and shares her fears and anxieties. We get a chance to come there again, on which visit the nurse takes care of Harry while unconscious. Oddly, this room, a literal scare chamber in Hell, feels like a safe space we’d wish to visit again. In an episodic appearance in the plot – one of the most emotional in the game – Lisa, the nurse, turns into a monster in this very room. This is emotional not because we identify very closely with a sophisticatedly developed character but because there’s a deeper sentiment at play: we grieve not as much for the loss of an individual as for the loss of humanity she represents. Were her character more complex, she wouldn’t be able to convey this basic humanity so well.
Another less important facet of normalcy explored in Silent Hill is the contextual working of a given situation. If we look only at the actors involved, everything in the game is as straightforward as possible: a morally unambiguous protagonist is killing inhuman monsters in self-defense. However, if we forget for a while about the story and look at the place alone, there’s a sinister aspect to what’s going on here. For a good reason or not, but we’re guiding an armed man down a school hallway or a hospital ward, shooting at whoever comes our way. A random screenshot without any monsters in sight, indeed, could be coming from another installment of Postal or Hatred, both mass shooting simulators.
This contextual normalcy plays a key role and takes on an actual moral aspect in Silent Hill 2. Here, a man called James Sunderland receives a letter from his wife, Mary, who died of an illness three years before. In it, Mary invites him to come and find her in Silent Hill, the town where they once spent a particularly memorable vacation. Without hesitation, James drives to Silent Hill only to find the town desolate and abandoned, as if long uninhabited.
Unlike in the first Silent Hill, there’s little residual normalcy left in the town. The human characters we meet there, too, are distinctly weirder than those we met as Harry Mason. The latter was defined by clear, self-evident characteristics: first, their occupations (a policewoman, a doctor, a nurse, a church-going elderly lady), second by their survival situation in an outworldly emergency. The former has no clear occupations, appears in strange contexts and doing weird things, and seems completely oblivious to the monsters roaming the town. One of those human characters is a woman called Maria, who bears an uncannily close resemblance to the late Mary and clings to James in a way both dependent and assertive. At a few points, we can clearly see her killed by monsters, yet she appears alive a while later – and even chides James for considering her dead. This is a stark contrast to the characters of the first Silent Hill, whose storylines don’t have any logic-defying twists of this sort.
Even James’ search for Mary is much less consistent than Harry’s quest for Cheryl. While in the latter case, Cheryl is kidnapped and might be moved from place to place by her abductors, James seems to be ranging over the town rather in desperation than with any system. In other words, unlike the contrast between normal and abnormal we observe in Silent Hill, Silent Hill 2 seems divorced from any normalcy whatsoever.
It’s precisely by means of this confusing strangeness that Silent Hill 2 introduces normalcy at a new and different level: a psychological kind. The actual events and circumstances at hand, even the venues themselves, are crazy – and yet we still follow the main character, his actions and motivation don’t stop making sense to us altogether. This happens because we, like James himself, maintain a hope: perhaps not as much that he’d eventually find Mary, but that there would be an explanation for what is going on. The small hints Silent Hill 2 gives us now and again, subtle traces of consistency in a delirious sequence, are enough to maintain this hope.
No matter how little sense it makes to us now, it’s still normal and very natural to believe that it would make sense in the end. We expect this explanation from other characters: Mary, Maria, or the little girl Laura teasing James with vague hints about Mary throughout his storyline. For the sake of this explanation, we go through the obviously game-mechanistic, senseless routines and actions, like using molten wax to fix a handle to a heavy trapdoor or searching for a wallet in an overfilled toilet with James’ bare hand. We accept this absurdity and abnormalcy and go along with it because we assume an ultimate explanation – or in other words, some sense behind it all. It turns out the normal is not merely habitual and safe, it’s also meaningful. Our assumption of meaning behind things and observed events is an indispensable element of normalcy.
In the end, however, we learn that James has killed the terminally ill Mary mere days before the events of the game, and his nightmarish experience in the abandoned town is a self-imposed (quite literal) guilt trip. As much as James was condemning one of the other human characters for killing a person, he himself is a murderer, and every vaguely-feminine monster he kills on his way through Silent Hill is a metaphorical reiteration of what he did to Mary. The situation is reversed: monsters represent the victim, although the protagonist is the actual monster. The letter James believed he received from Mary exists only in his imagination. The things he sees in the town of Silent Hill, including Maria, who’s rather a specter than a person, are perceptible only to him, even if they are “real” to some extent (which the plot implies). In other words, it has been only James alone with himself throughout the whole search-for-wife storyline, and one of the several endings to it is his suicide.
This situation, again, strongly resembles the Hell in Japanese Buddhism, where “ultimately they portray the sinner as the agent of the punishment experienced” [Hirasawa], and is certainly inspired by the plot of Jacob’s Ladder, a 1990 film by Adrian Lyne about a dying soldier haunted by his personal Hell. [Sato] Hell is the very opposite of anything normal, the abnormal par excellence. Being the (unaware) author of his own Hell, James looks for an explanation for it from others – and, to explain something unknown means to come up with a reference to something else, something already known. This evokes one of the general principles of Buddhism, that of dependent arising: no object can be perceived or even imagined completely alone without perceiving some other object at the same time – all objects of our experience are interdependent. [Ziporyn] Even if we imagine something suspended in a vacuum absent light, this void is still a separate object different from what we’re trying to imagine.
It also follows from this codependent arising that nothing is ever determined by itself alone: what this or that thing or person would be always depends on something else, some pre-existing circumstance or influence. Being free from this dependence would mean being 100 percent self-determinable but thus 100 percent inexplicable. As our thoughts are objects of our experience, we can’t think of something truly self-determinable otherwise than as a bare concept. However, a self-imposed, “inflatable and collapsible” [Hirasawa] Hell of the Silent Hill type could be a very close metaphor for what it might be.
A world in its own right arises out of non-existence for a single person, similar to that person’s actual world only in so far as an inverted version of something can be to the original. It arises with a promise at first, as the place where James can reunite with Mary and return to his state of normalcy, which doesn’t exist anymore in the normal world. Yet, being self-invoked, alien to the human world, and not referable to anything outside itself, it’s inexplicable. Thus for all practical purposes, it makes no sense and is highly unsafe for a human mind meant to look for meaning in all things. Ultimate independence and self-sufficiency, as imagined here, add up to a self-imposed punishment. The very bounds of normalcy, it turns out, ensure its meaning and its safety.
This imagined world brings us back to the traditional Buddhist point that our world and our life in it, at the bottom line, are just as inexplicable themselves. Schopenhauer, a self-identified Buddhist, had it as the core idea of his philosophy that, while all objects and phenomena in our experience are codependent and mutually referable to one another in endless succession, what brings this whole endless sequence to life and an individual’s experience is irrational, standing beyond any reference and any logic force. He went as far as to call life and the world, even in its most common and normal manifestations, an abnormality. [Schopenhauer 1977] This, perhaps, is what makes the Buddhist Hell – inflatable and collapsible at any moment, where the sinner and the punisher coincide – possible. The normal is our illusion, a doomed attempt to explain (or explain away) the ultimately abnormal. Hell is much closer and has a stronger claim on our existence than we prefer to think.
Yet we’re not left completely alone with it. The sense of safety is grounded in trust, and meaning is created in interaction and exchange between sapient beings. The normal has to be shared; the normal is the shared. Shared not at the level of mere co-presence or being co-affected – after all, madness and violent urges can be shared as well, like with the cultists of Silent Hill – but rather as empathetic co-engagement.
We often imagine normalcy as a given state and one given to us as an individual. We try to hide in it from what lies beyond and “can’t believe” or “can’t accept” what doesn’t fit our fixed idea of the normal. This is why many people tend to skip disturbing news or be in denial of menacing trends. Perhaps the correct way to preserve the normal is to reassert it: go out, get together, make sure there’s some trust still left, and try to make sense of what happened or could’ve happened. This occurs when people, after some shocking event, crowd streets and squares in a display of mourning, or sometimes in celebration of life, but always in a reassertion of unity.
This is why reflecting on tragedies makes the most sense when one shares their conclusions, be it with the public or some personal acquaintances. Normalcy is not the absence or the glossing over of the hellish aspect of life but engaging with others to deal with it. Normalcy is an activity, not a state of one’s surroundings. This is why we must talk about disturbing things, not scroll down disturbing videos, and never forget what happened in the past whether we like it or not. This is why indifference, no matter what laid-back or feigned-fragile guise it takes on, is not an option.
It’s not difficult to see what the French writer Jean-Paul Sartre meant by stating that “Hell is others”. However, it’s with others that the way out of Hell begins. Perhaps that’s why the lone protagonists of Silent Hill, in their happiest endings, are not making their way out of the town of terrors alone.
Agence France-Presse. “’In pain, distraught’: Japan devastated by Abe assassination” France 24. 9 July 2022.
Böckler, Nils; Seeger, Thorsten; Sitzer, Peter; Heytmeyer, Wilhelm. “School Shootings: Conceptual Framework and International Empirical Trends”. School Shootings. International Research, Case Studies, and Concepts for Prevention. November 2013.
Bouzon, Charline. “This is the oldest hotel in the world”. En-Vols. 9 June 2022.
Ghitis, Frida. “Opinion: Abe’s assassination came like a thunderbolt” CNN. 8 July 2022.
Hirasawa, Caroline. “The Inflatable, Collapsible Kingdom of Retribution: A Primer on Japanese Hell Imagery and Imagination”. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 63, No. 1. Spring 2008
World Population Review. School Shootings by Country. 2022.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. 1944. Script at vtheatre.net.
Sato, Takayoshi. “Interview with Silent Hill 2’s Artist Takayoshi Sato”. IGN. 18 August 2001.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Zürich 1977.
Ziporyn, Brook. Emptiness and Omnipresence: An Essential Introduction to Tiantai Buddhism (World Philosophies). Indiana University Press. 2016