Silent Hill: How Pyramid Head Became a Horror Icon
Pyramid Head started life as a secondary antagonist in Silent Hill 2. Yet, that faceless monster became a horror icon on par with Jigsaw and Freddy Krueger. Here's how it happened.
Dare to speak the name of the scariest horror game character you know about. Odds are that you just whispered the name of Silent Hill‘s most famous monster, “Pyramid Head.”
It’s always been a little odd that Pyramid Head became not just a legendary figure in horror gaming but the face of the Silent Hill franchise. After all, Pyramid Head (sometimes also called the “Red Pyramid Thing”) premiered in the second Silent Hill game and was supposed to be a one-off monster. Instead, he ended up arguably becoming more famous than the franchise he initially appeared in.
Of course, with that fame comes the inevitable question of “Why and how?” Why and how did Pyramid Head become more popular than the rest of Silent Hill’s cast combined? What makes him so special? The only Silent Hill monster who has achieved anywhere as much popularity was P.T.’s Lisa, and honestly, that might be more due to the demo’s legacy than anything the character did.
So what makes Pyramid Head so special? Like most icons, Pyramid Head’s rise can be attributed to a combination of design, circumstances, and what we the public ultimately made of him.
Silent Hill: Who Is Pyramid Head?
Unlike other horror games that rely on slightly more established creatures such as zombies and vampires, Silent Hill‘s menagerie of monsters is anything but traditional. More importantly, the true nature of many of those monsters is open to interpretation. The titular town of Silent Hill isn’t less of a real place you’d find on a map and is more of a state of mind. The same is true of the town’s resident terrors. Every Silent Hill game sports a different roster of enemies (with some exceptions), That’s because those monsters didn’t spawn from an evil laboratory but are often instead manifestations of the main character’s mind. The same is true of Pyramid Head. Well, at least it used to be.
As mentioned above, players first encountered Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2. The first time gamers see the creature, he’s just standing there at the end of a hallway…menacingly. Of course, Pyramid Head really makes his mark during an early cutscene in which players bump into the still-mysterious figure just as he is …ahem… violating two other monsters. Since players aren’t in control of the game’s main character, James Sunderland, at that time, Sunderland bolts into a closet and tries to shoot Pyramid Head. To his horror, and ours, the bullets have no effect. Actually, players don’t get the chance to kill Pyramid Head (and his twin) until the end of Silent Hill 2. Even then, the monster only dies because he decides to ram a rusty spear into his polyhedral head.
Pyramid Head is “tough” in the way that many video game bosses are, but his unwillingness to simply die at the hands of the player is about so much more than the size of his health pool. Actually, it has a lot more to do with the fact that Pyramid Head’s entire existence is tied to Sunderland’s desire for the creature to exist.
For a bit of context (ok, a lot of context) Pyramid Head is the “baby” of Silent Hill 2’s art director, Masahiro Ito. When he was an art student, Ito produced a series of oil acrylic paints of monsters with strange heads, fittingly dubbed the “Strange Head” series. Ito built off those initial designs to create Pyramid Head’s physical design, but the secret ingredient to the monster’s presence was Silent Hill 2’s main character.
Monsters in Silent Hill games are “real” in the sense that they’re physical and can hurt (or kill) you. However, they also represent different parts of a character’s psyche. Ito explained on Twitter that each Silent Hill 2 enemy represents a part of James’ guilt. So, our friend Pyramid Head represents James’ desire to punish himself. Ito designed Pyramid Head to be a reflection of James, which is why it personifies the “relentless pursuer” trope so well. Since Pyramid Head reflects James’ own guilt, he can’t escape the creature. Moreover, players and the character are always afraid Pyramid Head is lurking behind the corner (figuratively and literally). That symbolism, combined with Pyramid Head’s appearance and narrative role, quickly catapulted the monster into stardom. Try not to be surprised, but Konami capitalized on that popularity in the only way they know how: merchandising and sequels.
Ever since Silent Hill 2, Pyramid Head has popped up in different media (such as the Silent Hill movies and comics). In those stories, though, he was little more than an unthinking brute (and, in one scene, a carousel operator). Pyramid Head also appeared in Silent Hill: Homecoming, though he was relegated to cutscenes in that game and sported his brutish film design. Oh, and he’s also called “Bogeyman” in that game, which…yeah. Pyramid Head’s last “official” appearance was in Silent Hill: Downpour’s joke ending. At least he returned to his original character model in that game.
Pyramid Head has also appeared in bizarre Silent Hill spin-off material such as the Silent Hill rail shooter arcade game, the dungeon crawler Silent Hill: Book of Memories, and, as insulting as the concept is, the Silent Hill Pachinko game. Eventually, not even the Silent Hill universe could contain the creature. After all, Pyramid Head has appeared in games such as New International Track & Field, Krazy Kart Racing, Astro’s Playroom, and Super Bomberman R Online. He even popped up as a Dead By Daylight killer, albeit under a new name, The Executioner.
That might read like an exhaustive list of Pyramid Head media, but it’s not. The character has also popped up on T-shirts (mostly unofficially) and skate decks. Fans who love collecting figures and statues are spoiled for Pyramid Head options, and even the blacksmiths at Man at Arms created a real-life replica of Pyramid Head’s iconic Great Knife. Do not be surprised if Pyramid Head is eventually transformed into a marketable plushy. Oh, wait, that already exists.
If this is starting to make your head hurt, join the club. How did one of the most cerebral, violent, terrifying, and creative creatures in all of horror become just another piece of Hot Topic merchandise? The answer to that question really shouldn’t surprise horror fans. Actually, we’ve seen the same thing happen to Freddy Krueger and so many of the genre’s other once-feared figures.
Why Is Pyramid Head So Popular?
While some horror game figures have stood the test of time, others that seemed so significant in the moment have since fallen by the wayside. How many people remember Dead Space’s Hive Mind or Resident Evil’s Plant 42? Relatively few, yet, everyone remembers Pyramid Head. What makes him so different? Strangely enough, the answer has something to do with Pikachu.
Because gamers loved Pyramid Head so much, Konami turned him into the Silent Hill franchise’s mascot. Because of that new position, the company pushed to include Pyramid Head in as many properties as they could. When the Silent Hill movie was in production, those involved probably figured it would be best to include monsters from the franchise that most people would recognize, regardless of their familiarity with the franchise. Since Pyramid Head for the bill, he was a shoo-in (along with the Bubble-Head Nurses). When that film and rendition of Pyramid Head proved popular, Konami probably used that knowledge to push Silent Hill: Homecoming’s developers into including the creature in the game (as well as ask other developers to let Pyramid Head cameo in other titles). To put it bluntly, Konami kept cramming Pyramid Head down our throats, but since he had left such a positive impression in his first outing, audiences accepted it.
Pyramid Head fever encompassed the Silent Hill series so much that even when the monster didn’t make it into a game, he was still there in spirit. Silent Hill Origins’ Butcher comes to mind since, like Pyramid Head, he is an executioner-type creature who wears a metal contraption on his head (or half of it) and wields an oversized cutting implement. Plus, the Butcher is supposed to mirror the worst, violent tendencies of the game’s protagonist, Travis Grady. But the connection runs even deeper since Masahiro Ito created a Pyramid Head lookalike for a tie-in comic included with Silent Hill Origins’ Japanese version.
Another Pyramid Head doppelganger of note is Silent Hill: Downpour’s Bogeyman — not to be confused with Silent Hill: Homecoming’s Bogeyman, who is Pyramid Head in everything but name. Again, like Pyramid Head, the Bogeyman is a pursuer-type enemy who crops up throughout his game and is a dark reflection of the main character, Murphy Pendleton. Although, to Silent Hill: Downpour’s credit, their Bogeyman isn’t a cheap knockoff and actually represents the demonization of people Murphy believes guilty of a crime. Most players didn’t care, though; they only saw the Bogeyman Pyramid Head wannabes, which made them fall in love with the OG Pyramid Head even more. The irony of demonizing a character meant to represent demonization.
Knowing all of that, you probably wonder what Pikachu has to do with Pyramid Head. The answer is, “They have the same success story.” When Game Freak released Pokémon, audiences loved Pikachu. The company and Nintendo jumped on that knowledge and turned the electric rodent into the franchise’s mascot. Pikachu’s face was everywhere, from merchandise to sequels, and fans lapped it up. Game Freak wanted to capture lightning in a bottle twice, so they made Pikachu clones like Dedenne and Pachirisu. Those failed to capture fans quite like the original, who were then drawn to Pikachu even more because of these wannabes (just like Silent Hill’s Butcher and Bogeyman). Pikachu represents Pokémon‘s success as much as he has directly contributed to that success.
The same is true of Pyramid Head. Was his popularity pushed by Konami’s marketing machine? Undoubtedly. Yet, the efficiency of that machine can be attributed to the way Pyramid Head made us feel. Before we knew exactly what Pyramid Head was, the mere sight of the monster triggered something inside of us that overcome our cynicism and defenses. He intrigued us, he repulsed us, but he made us feel something that so many other monsters can’t make us feel. It’s easy to get caught up in the cynicism of how marketing and products often turn characters into caricatures. Yet, that process has to start with the creation of something truly incredible. In his original form, Pyramid Head was most certainly that.
Pyramid Head’s success was, in all likelihood, an inevitability. The character was a hit with audiences, and when Konami realized that, it did what any good game publisher would do and capitalize on that success. Through it all, though, Pyramid Head perfectly represents the best (and worst) aspects of an incredibly complex horror franchise as well as fear itself. That Pyramid Head plushy may seem like an insult, but in its own way, it’s a testament to how we crave and value the pure terror that Pyramid Head once forced us to confront and experience.