The scary real-life town that inspired the Silent Hill movie
The spookiest time of year is officially upon us folks, and with just over a week to go until Halloween day, we figured it’d be fun to look into some appropriately creepy video game history. If you’re at all a fan of the horror game genre, chances are you’re familiar with Konami’s Silent Hill franchise, and you might have even seen the surprisingly good 2006 Silent Hill movie adaptation.
The 2006 Silent Hill movie, directed by Christopher Gans and starring Radha Mitchell and Sean Bean, was largely successful because Gans and screenwriter Roger Avary wisely chose to hew closely to the plot of the first Silent Hill game, making only minor alterations to the game’s story. One of those alterations was turning the fictitious town of Silent Hill into a mining town that was abandoned due to underground coal fires. What fans might not know, however, is that the idea of a town that’s perpetually burning from below isn’t fiction.
Join us as we explore the unique history behind the town of Centralia, PA and how the town’s perpetually burning coal fires (fires that still burn to this day) directly inspired the Silent Hill movie.
Meant To Be
There really wasn’t anyone more qualified to direct the 2006 Silent Hill movie adaptation than Christopher Gans. Gans, a longtime fan of the horror genre and of the Silent Hill series in particular, had personally pitched his idea for a Silent Hill movie to a group of Konami executives in 2003. The Konami executives were so impressed by Gans’ passion and ideas that they awarded him the Silent Hill movie rights on the spot.
Gans’ decision to bring on Roger Avary was also a very fortunate one since it was Avary who recalled a particular memory from his childhood while he and Gans were crafting the movie’s script. Avary remembered how his father had told him about a coal mining town in Pennsylvania called Centralia that went under and was eventually condemned because of some very unique circumstances.
Centralia, PA was founded in 1841 and it actually thrived for many years thanks to its booming coal mining industry. The town’s prosperity and high reputation both met their doom in the year 1962, however, when one of its numerous landfills caught fire. The fire soon spread to the underground mining tunnels beneath the town, and virtually nothing was done to contain the fire or put it out since most residents assumed it would just burn out on its own.
What the residents of Centralia failed to take into account was the unique nature of the anthracite coal they mined. The anthracite coals’ incredibly slow and incredibly high burn rate meant that the underground fires could potentially keep on raging for many years to come (which is exactly what they’d end up doing), and that any efforts to quench the flames were met with failure.
Government agencies such as the United States Bureau of Mines and the Office of Surface Mining were soon brought in to help deal with the unquenchable underground fires, but they just wound up doing more harm than good. The bureaucracy of how these agencies functioned meant that they’d always follow the same pattern of getting residents’ hopes up with grand promises of putting out the fires, wasting time and money drafting up potential solutions, picking whichever solution was the least expensive, and then throwing their hands up and leaving when the solution inevitably failed due to lack of proper resources and funding.
Unsurprisingly, these numerous failings on the part of local government drove the residents of Centralia into a perpetual state of resentment and anger, a disposition not unlike the never-ending fires that slowly consumed their livelihoods from below. The entire fiasco of government meddling, broken promises, and growing town-wide resentment went on for 30 years until Centralia was finally condemned and declared uninhabitable in 1992.
Whether out of stubbornness or perhaps to stick it to the government bodies that had so utterly failed them, several Centralia residents ignored the town’s official condemnation and continued living on their properties well into the early aughts. It likely wasn’t a comforting thought knowing that their only permanent neighbors (other than each other) were the coal fires that kept burning beneath their feet.
A Unique Legacy
Today, visitors can still visit Centralia, PA, though they naturally have to venture well off the beaten path. Visitors also shouldn’t expect a warm welcome as anyone who still calls the area home is reported to be just as resentful towards gawking tourists and intrigued horror fans as they are of the government agencies who failed the town so many years ago. Aside from these uninviting residents, the only physical legacy Centralia has left (not counting the perpetually raging underground fires of course) are some graffiti-covered buildings and vegetation-covered stretches of road.
Thankfully, Christopher Gans and Roger Avary found a much more suitable way to immortalize the town of Centralia, and they did so with the help of one of the most iconic names in horror game history. There may not be any mention of Centralia, PA in the 2006 Silent Hill movie, but the correlations between the now abandoned Pennsylvania town and the movie’s interpretation of Konami’s spooky fog-covered locale couldn’t be any more direct.
Being associated with a video game franchise may not be the legacy Centralia’s residents hoped for, but it’s one that video game fans and horror fans alike can appreciate. Silent Hill is one of the few video game movies that pays proper respect to the franchise that gave it life, and it’s likely the only one that will ever pay respect to a piece of real-life American history as well.