Sunday, May 03, 2009

Silent Hill and Centralia, PA

I'm not the first to write about this, and there's no particular reason for me to do it now. But this is one of those real-life stories that's seeped into popular culture without most people even knowing there's truth behind it. And it's got all the elements to make for bona fide folklore.

This is also my excuse to show the trailer of one of my favorite video games of all time, Silent Hill 2. If you never played this game, it's a story about a guy who gets a letter from his dead wife telling him she's waiting for him in the town of Silent Hill. He loves her, so of course he goes, fighting his way through his own version of hell to find her. The game is one big emotional mindfuck, which is something this series has always had over every other horror video game series out there. Even if you don't like video games, if you're into art or film of any kind, you should be able to appreciate this.

You might remember the movie from 2006. Like most film adaptations of video games, it was somewhat dumbed down and a lot more straightforward in plot than any of the games. But it wasn't too bad. There's a full trailer on YouTube, but I actually think the first teaser they released was a lot more creative (and spooky):

One thing the movie did do, though, is attempt to explain a little bit of the town's backstory - which from what I remember is one of the first few games' central mysteries. (It was later explained in more detail in the PSP game Silent Hill Origins.) And that backstory was lifted by screenwriter Roger Avary right out of Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Centralia was a town in Pennsylvania coal country, with a series of mines running beneath the town. In 1962, one of these mines caught fire, and the coal began to burn. It hasn't stopped burning since.

The fire and smoke were never as thick from a visual standpoint as they are in Silent Hill, though there were and are pockets of thick smoke on the outskirts of town.

Centralia, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists (though about 15 die-hards still live within the old town limits). It can't even really be classified a ghost town, which it was through much of the 1980's. The fire and smoke drove most of the residents out, and the government no longer puts the town on official maps. It even lost its zip code a while back. One of the most amazing images of the town today is simply the Google map satellite view:

50 years ago, that would have been a bustling town filled with structures. Today, most have been torn down and the ground turned to dust. Nothing grows there but the hardiest of plants because of the heat. It's somewhere between a desert and a lava flow.

The old Route 61 - the main road running through the town - has buckled under the heat of the underground fire, and was closed years ago.

This is one of those places that really does have a series of "ROAD CLOSED" signs across it, like you see in the movies. The entire town is bypassed by Route 61 today.

I've never read that the original Team Silent used Centralia, PA as inspiration for the first Silent Hill, but I like to think they did. It was a Japanese-developed game about an American small town, so they clearly did some research. Regardless, though, the story of Centralia is one of those sad but unbelievable stories that seem somehow unique to this country.


  1. Anonymous4:53 PM

    actually 61 doesn't go around the town. The original part of 61 that went through the burning part was rerouted about 15 years ago and infact does still go through the town. A big loop aroudn the mountain was created and the road was rejoined to its section east of the cemetary.


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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