In 1999, electronic game company Konami released the video game Silent Hill. While Silent Hill was not the first survival horror video game to find its way onto home consoles, it was one that elevated the genre as no other game had before.

The game was centered around a main character named Harry Mason who had to venture into a a creepy, abandoned town called Silent Hill to find his daughter. There, among abandoned buildings and a perpetual eerie fog, Harry had to battle a wide range of hellish, otherworldly creatures to find his daughter and make it out alive.

Said GameSpot in its original review of Silent Hill for Playstation: “Silent Hill establishes a very unsettling atmosphere that at once puts you off and creeps you out.”

Silent Hill was such a video game hit that it ended up spawning over 20 different game variations over the past 18 years. A horror movie—also titled Silent Hill—based on the game was released in 2006, followed by a sequel—Silent Hill: Revelation 3D—in 2012.

Recently, there were plans for a new Silent Hill game series that would be developed in part by master fantastical director Guillermo del Toro until Komami abruptly pulled the plug, causing some controversy.

So what was it about the original Silent Hill game that captivated gamers and movie fans alike with creepy entertainment for the better part of the last two decades? It seems the game’s wholly unique setting of an abandoned east coast American town besieged by the lingering cover of smoke provided the perfect atmosphere for fans’ worst nightmares to come alive.

While story of the game and the film Silent Hill are the work of creative development, there is a town in the hills of Pennsylvania that earns the dubious honor of being known as the “real Silent Hill.”

And while there’s no proof that this town has a portal to another dimension of terrifying monsters, the true story of what happened there is still pretty shocking.

Welcome to Centralia, Pennsylvania

The town of Centralia sits in the eastern part of Pennsylvania and, like many towns in that area, owes its genesis to the coal mining industry. The town peaked in population and mining jobs in the late 1890s and would hit some hard times as the Great Depression and the fighting of two world wars took their toll on the coal mining industry.

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Still, by the 1960s, Centralia still enjoyed a population of just around 2,000 people. Though the mining jobs were fewer and fewer, many nonetheless continued to call Centralia home.

In 1962 something happened that changed the town forever: a group of sanitation workers were burning some trash on the outskirts of town and caused one of the abandoned coal mines to catch fire. Through a vast underground network of natural and man-made tunnels, the fire slowly and deliberately spread.

Firefighters tried to extinguish the flames but their money and resources were ill-equipped to battle an underground fire that could rage at temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees. Throughout the 1960s and 70s the fire eventually crept its way from the outskirts to the homes and businesses of the town. It was then that hell came to Centralia.

By the early 1980s, the underground fire began causing nightmarish trouble for residents. In 1981, Allentown’s paper The Morning Call reported that the mine fire “is larger, hotter, more active, much closer to the town’s residential area and a greater threat to the health and safety of its residents than had been anticipated.” That article tells the tale of a 65-year-old woman who had to be evacuated when temperatures of 660 degrees were found within 15 feet of her century-old wood-framed house.

Also in 1981, a 12-year-old boy nearly fell to his death when a smoldering hole opened up in his grandmother’s backyard. He was rescued by his cousin who only identified him in the smoke from his bright red hat. Said one resident: “It’s a horror story…and the government has sat on its hands.”

AP (via Business Insider)

Residents complained of headaches and there were a number of fainting spells that occurred, all effects of too much carbon monoxide in the air. By 1983, the town voted 2-1 in favor of a referendum to relocate the entire town.

From Curious Ghost Town to "Silent Hill" Muse

By 1991, “vacant lots, a few cemeteries, and a house here and there” were all that was left of the town of Centralia. Since the abandonment of the town it became a regional curiosity and place for tourists to stop and gawk at what nature and man had wrought.

An especially popular location to see the eerie remnants of the forgotten town became highway Route 61, a strip of road that ruptured and became riddled with holes from the fire. Smoke and steam still rises from the cracks, a ghastly sight that certainly suggests the more ominous world that was created in Silent Hill.

While there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of extra interest in Centralia after Konami released the game Silent Hill in 1999 (in fact, there’s no evidence the game designers knew about Centralia), it does appear that the release of the movie Silent Hill did increase interest in the town.

The Silent Hill film's screenwriter/producer Roger Avary said that stories from his miner father led him to research Centralia and incorporate the mine fire backstory into the film. The film was even code-named Centralia while filming to ward nosy Silent Hill fans off the scent.

The increased interest after 2006’s Silent Hill brought more curious tourists to the area. Extra visitors helped (for better or worse) turn abandoned Route 61 into what has been dubbed “The Graffiti Highway” for the multitude of spray paint scribblings on the cracked stretch of road. The rogue markings include images and phrases of vulgarity, philosophy, art, and at least a few explicit references to Silent Hill.

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While the popularity of visiting Centralia increased since the release of Silent Hill, neighbors and ex-residents of the town don’t seem especially thrilled with the celebrity status of being the “real Silent Hill.”

In one extended profile, residents voice their displeasure in interviews and social media groups for the kind of fame that Silent Hill has brought to their beloved former town.

There have been a number of nonfiction books and documentaries on Centralia. The most recent documentary film—Centralia: Pennsylvania’s Lost Town—focuses more on the feeling of loss and nostalgia from residents than anything frightening from another dimension. In the trailer, the only scary thing about the current state of Centralia is the government’s ineffectiveness to stop the fire decades ago when there was potentially still a chance to save the town (so suggest the residents).

Now even the visitor hotspot Graffiti Highway is being increasingly fenced off from the world. Further steps have recently been taken to stop people from strolling along the desolate, paint-covered stretch of Route 61. While tourist and online interest in the town remains high, there’s no real future for repopulating the borough as there’s supposedly enough coal to keep the underground fire burning for another 250 years.

That doesn’t stop former residents from remembering their lost hometown, though. Reunions for ex-Centralians continue as the forced exodus seems to have steeled the resolve of locals to remember the town more than if their former home had simply faded into obscurity like just any other place.

One thing is for sure, that between the former residents, Silent Hill fans, and the voracious curiosity-seeking forces of the internet, Centralia, Pennsylvania, is not going to disappear from the public consciousness anytime soon.

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