Silent Hill: the real ghost town

The Silent Hill from the homonymous and renowned videogame franchise of psychological survival horrors, is described as an holiday resort on the Toluca Lake, divided into various areas, amongst which stand the residential district and the old part of the town. Built on an ancient Indian cemetery, the town had a troubled past that led it to be populated and abandoned many times, and then to become the place where a sect practised human sacrifices and necromancy. In the game, Silent Hill is constantly shrouded in thick fog, with rain, snow, and ashes coming down all year long. At the sound of air raid siren, the town turns into the “Otherworld”, a distorted parallel dimension where everything takes the aspect it would have after a terrible fire: everything burned, blood everywhere, and bodies hanging from the wall. A purgatory to cross and where one must face their inner demons or die. 

In 2006, a film based on the videogame was made, directed by Christopher Gans, in which the plot follows loosely the first and third episode of the series. In the film, Silent Hill is a West Virginia Ghost Town abandoned in 1974 due to a devastating fire. But in this case, the script does take inspiration from a real story… 

The nightmarish has, in fact, really existed. Its name isn’t Silent Hill, but Centralia, and it stands in Pennsylvania. The city rose in the first years of the XIX century over a deposit of anthracite, a 95% pure coal, that was extracted in huge quantities until the end of the century. During its golden age, Centralia was home to over 2.000 inhabitants, but in May 1962 a fatal accident scarred forever their fate…the coal-vein suddenly caught fire, blazing everywhere underground, and any attempt to put it out proved useless.
“This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.” – David DeKok (1986) 

The real causes of the fire are yet unknown. Apparently, it started from the introduction of burning wastes into a disused deposit. What’s certain is that the consequences were disastrous. Clouds of ashes and smoke covered the city, the trees died, the asphalt melt and everywhere formed cracks and chasms. In the following twenty years the population was progressively evacuated. In 1979 a thermometer inserted into the ground to check the petrol level of a malfunctioning station, and much to everyone’s surprise it showed 77.8°C. In 1981 a twelve-years-old fell in a 46 metres chasm that suddenly opened under his feet; luckily, thanks to his brother’s help, he survived. 

Today, Centralia is a ghost town were only about ten people live. Many buildings were pulled down and dangerous carbon monoxide flows out from some of the cracks in the road. The fire underneath Centralia is still active and it is estimated it will be for hundreds of year. Its tragic fate turned it into a gloomy and sadly instructive touristic attraction.

Translation by Marco Salvadori
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