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Horror in the shithouse - lifting the lid on Silent Hill’s curious obsession with bathrooms

The smell of shit could’ve knocked out a horse. It was horrendous. Flies everywhere, a mess of excrement and soggy loo roll stacked just a couple of centimetres from the toilet’s brim. Worse still, my favourite screwdriver was now lost at the bottom of the pan.

Between 2003 and 2009, before moving into writing, I was a plumber and gasfitter in Glasgow. I didn’t work on building sites, but instead as a maintenance engineer who spent his days jobbing around the city, fitting heating systems, installing shower units and, as outlined above, unclogging people’s WCs.

On this particular job, I’d isolated a customer’s faulty toilet and advised I’d return to repair once I’d ordered the required fitting from the warehouse. The apartment had a second bathroom, and I was assured said defective shitter would be made out of bounds in the interim.

When the part arrived, the customer dragged their heels reorganising the job. A whole two weeks later, I returned to the house, and was ushered to the scene. I started prepping the fitting, and, after ten or so minutes, realised the toilet seat was closed shut and had been since my arrival. There was a vague whiff of poo in the air, but smell association isn’t uncommon in the plumbing game. I brushed off my mild concern. Until I lifted the lid and uncovered the massacre.

It was devastating. The home owner’s kids hadn’t received the memo, it transpired, and had continued using the toilet for 14 days-straight without being able to flush. Aghast, I jerked backwards, batting the small swarm of greenflies that’d taken flight around me, and my favourite screwdriver spilled from my overalls pocket into the soup. It sunk to the bottom. Shit happens, for real.

From there, I had two options: clear the blockage and lose the screwdriver, or roll up my sleeves and go shoulder-deep to recover my precious gizmo. Let me be clear, option two was NEVER an option, despite what we might have learned from Silent Hill 2.

But James Sutherland recklessly fishing for a wallet in the clogged bowl of a Blue Creek Apartments crapper isn’t the only unorthodox tie the Silent Hill series has to the lavatory (this scene itself was later mocked by Heather Mason in Silent Hill 3, assuming you had SH2 save data on your PS2 memory card). There are loads of nods to toilets, bathrooms and public restrooms throughout the survival horror anthology – from first run-ins with Bubble Head Nurses, to unsettling screams behind stall doors, mirrors and holes that lead to the Otherworld, and, in the case of P.T., abandoned foetuses dumped in wash-hand basins.

As an ex-plumber, this has always intrigued and amused me. I’ve been sitting on this throne feature for some time, and over the last few years have caught up with some of the key figures behind Silent Hill’s shit houses. Hey, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it. First up, Team Silent’s esteemed composer Akira Yamaoka.

“I don’t get asked this question,” Akira san tells me, laughing, via a translator. “I think the restroom is normally a place associated with calm and quiet, but at the same time is somewhere where we can feel vulnerable. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is probably the most noteworthy example of using the setting to explore [darker] themes in the horror genre, and in Silent Hill, it’s often somewhere associated with the Otherworld.

“In Silent Hill 2, speaking of that scene with James, he’s desperate. It’s quite early in the game, so he’s still working out what’s going on and what is his place in everything. He’ll do just about anything to keep going. This is a man who has travelled to Silent Hill after receiving a letter from his dead wife, after all, so anything is possible. He wants to understand what’s going on, why the world around him is falling apart, and if that means doing things he wouldn’t normally do, then that’s what he needs to do.

“When Heather turns that on the player in Silent Hill 3, she’s breaking the fourth wall. In Silent Hill 4: The Room, Henry’s bathroom takes the player to Walter’s Otherworlds, so there’s a connection there as well. The restrooms in Alchemilla Hospital throughout the series are often dangerous places, which reflects how we view hospitals as scary and places we’d rather not be.

“That’s what I think, at least, but perhaps the other members [of Team Silent] are the best people to ask.”

With the explicit grotesqueness of that toilet-dipping scene explicitly in mind, I reached out to Silent Hill 2 artist and designer Masahiro Ito – who incidentally announced his involvement in an as yet unknown project at the turn of the year – via email. I asked about the Blue Creek Apartments; why protagonist James would venture into a choked toilet with his bare hands in the first place, even suggesting the world around him is falling apart; and why toilets generally play such a big part in the series’ makeup.

Another technical observation I made during the sickly scene is the fact that after pulling the wallet from the pisser of Room 203, the toilet remains choked. Something else must be blocking that U-bend, but what? I asked Masahiro san all of this, and my query evidently got lost in translation.

“Strictly speaking, these are Hiroyuki Owaku's part,” Ito replies in an email. “However, I think it's not necessary to go into the toilet again.”

It appears Ito thought I was querying why James didn’t take on the role of plumber himself after grabbing the wallet, which I found amusing. To be honest, given James has already shoved his hand in there, I actually don’t think that’s unreasonable. If he’s gone to those lengths at all, why wouldn’t he check what the further blockage was? I mean, who knows, maybe it was a key item? Perhaps a copy of the Lake View Hotel video tape? That’d have saved a lot of faffing about between times, for sure.

Sadly, Masahiro Ito did not have contact details for Hiroyuli Owaku, and my attempts to contact the programmer and designer on the first four Silent Hill games came up short. After Team Silent disbanded following the release of SH 4: The Room in 2004, IMDB has him writing lyrics for the Karaoke Revolution series, before again teaming up with Ito on a couple of Japan-exclusive Silent Hill-inspired manga. The Silent Hill Wiki identifies Owaku as “retired”, and I was able to confirm with Konami’s PR department that, despite being named as an executive producer on the Busou Shinki franchise in 2017, he no longer works at the company.

With that line of enquiry down the drain, I moved onto 2008’s Silent Hill: Homecoming. Filling the boots of ex-Special Forces soldier Alex Shephard, the player’s first encounter with a zombie nurse in this entry, as well as their first transition to the Otherworld, takes place in a restroom. And you thought the standard of crap factories in this dimension was questionable.

Jason Allen was lead designer at developer Double Helix Games back then, and while stressing his views are personal observations and not those of Konami or Double Helix, he unwittingly echoed some of Yamaoka’s sentiments.

“Hitchcock’s Psycho has the famous shower scene and just about every horror film has a section where 'something' is hiding behind the shower curtain or in the closet,” Allen says. “Bathrooms can be prime locations for horror set-pieces because they tend to be small, full of hard surfaces, with slippery floors.

“Personally speaking, I feel the effectiveness of a horror scare is predicated on how safe the protagonist feels in any given situation. All species as a matter of course when threatened protect aspects of their physical body with greater preference to other parts of their anatomy. Creatures protect their genitalia over other body parts otherwise they can't produce offspring. Just like we protect our eyes as they're needed to survive in the world.”

Allen suggested the ‘loss of familiar’ is what strikes at the heart of bathroom scares, which is underscored by a breach of social rules and conventions as we otherwise know and understand them.

He added: “With that in mind, being in a bathroom has a traditional association of being vulnerable - genitals exposed – so being attacked there is particularly effective; it should be a safe place. Secondly, we spend years toilet training and not without some humour, it leaves some scars on our psyche.

“We have a strong dislike of our own effluence, and we like our bathrooms to be clean. Silent Hill clearly plays on that motif by forcing characters into a space that should be 'safe and clean' that is anything but.”

We like our bathrooms to be clean. Amen.

In Silent Hill: Downpour – the most recent main series entry, launched in 2012 and developed by the now defunct Vatra Games – rain is a central theme used to stir fear. As such, the game’s ties to bathroom horror assume a more organic role.

Like Akira Yamaoka, Downpour’s lead designer Marek Berka said he’s not often asked about the series’ toilet terror, but suggested everything from personal experience to necessity and parallels with abattoirs and medical settings inspired Downpour’s outhouse outings.

“This is not a question I’ve been asked very often,” Berka laughs over Skype. “For me, it’s tapping into that fear of things like slaughterhouses and hospitals. Many of the rooms are sterilised, there is massacre, surgeries, operations taking place in these places. They have similar décor, tiles, metal surfaces, china fittings – designed to wash away waste and blood and all that stuff with ease.

“That gets elevated if you have a dirty environment, it can get scarier, because it looks like the setting has been used for those reasons already, maybe just before you got there.

“Speaking exclusively to my own experience, I was in hospital when I was five and six, and I had quite significant surgery. At the time, these types of environments stimulated that fear of sterile settings in me, and while I’ve overcome that in adulthood, I think that deep-seated fear is relatable among many of us.

“In Downpour the main theme is water and the rain itself, a lot of the worst things happen in the rainfall, and that projects into the whole game. That’s why major parts of the Otherworld are affected by the water. Naturally, in turn, we wanted to pick environments where water has a natural presence.”

What is surely less natural is P.T.’s decision to place a living foetus, seemingly suffering, in its very-not-sterile and bug-ridden wash closet. P.T. was, of course, the precursor ‘playable teaser’ to Kojima Productions’ ill-fated Silent Hills, whose ghost-like, sort-of antagonist Lisa haunts the first-person-viewing player from start to finish – not least within the twisted house’s toilet.

Hobbyist game hacker Lance McDonald has done a wonderful job of exploring and exposing the previously unseen nooks and crannies of the demo in recent months (seriously, Lance’s work is top-class and mega time-consuming, please do check out his Patreon if you like what he does), so I was desperate for him to share his slant on the horror series’ curious obsession with restrooms.

“So, this is a summary of my understanding of bathroom horror from Japanese perspective, how silent Hill leverages this, and how it specifically applies to a few situations in the series,” McDonald tells me. “The bathroom is a connecting place. A link between the nice cleanliness of our world and a dark disgusting unseen place below. The uneasy feeling that something could maybe be from another place and emerge from the holes in the room. If we get a little too close maybe we’ll be pulled down there.

“In an abandoned building, the bathroom would be the first place through which horror would start to emerge and take over. Keep the door shut, and don’t listen too closely or you might overhear something dreadful. Is someone in there? P.T.’s bathroom does so much to reinforce these feelings of dread around that room. Someone is banging on the door from inside, then later a sudden loud slam. The door is open a little, and if we look inside, there’s something moving in the sink, but someone closes the door quickly. The door slams shut and we’re locked in there.

“The monster in the sink is crying out and someone is trying to get in. In the hallway someone has drilled a hole in the bathroom wall, the door is locked but we can peek inside. Someone’s being murdered in there, and we can still just barely see something moving in the sink.

“Speaking generally, when we first meet Eddie Dombrowski in Silent Hill 2, he’s throwing up in the toilet. He’s absolutely evil, and it makes us think: is he connected to that place somehow? Strange things happen in the bathroom, and when we enter one in Midwich Elementary School in the first game, we later emerge on a totally different storey of the building.

“Silent Hill is a series about holes, and the ones in the bathroom are absolutely terrible things. Terrible things happened in the bathroom of P.T., maybe someone got a little too close to the other side in there.”

Which I’m now convinced happened to me in real life. As an ex-plumber, I got a little too close to the other side. I lost a little bit of my soul in that Glasgow toilet all those years ago. That and my favourite screwdriver.

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