Cinematic Haunts #2 – Centralia PA, aka Silent Hill
Cinematic Haunts #2: Centralia PA
Article By: Annie Riordan
“Fire doesn’t cleanse. It blackens.”
“It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume.” When actor Sean Bean spoke those lines in the 2001 film The Fellowship Of The Ring, he was referring to the dread land of Mordor, where the Dark Lord Sauron held sway. But he may as well have been referring to his upcoming role in the 2006 horror blockbuster Silent Hill, based on the video game series of the same name. Silent Hill, a long abandoned coal mining town in West Virginia, is a demon infested Hell where an underground fire burns unchecked, polluting the skies above with thick, gray ash and poisonous fumes. Surely, such a place could not really exist, could it?
It does, but it’s not in West Virginia, nor is it populated by religious zealots and pyramid-headed demons caught in a dimension between life and death.
The small town of Centralia, Pennsylvania started life in 1841 when Jonathan Faust (ominous surname is merely coincidental) opened the Bull’s Head Tavern in what was then known as Roaring Creek Township. By 1854, the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company had moved in on the property, laying streets and building lots. It was known as Centreville at first, but officially changed its name to Centralia in 1865. Coal mining was the chief source of employment in Centralia, the ground rich with anthracite, the purest (and shiniest!) variety of coal.
Yeah. Um… Boooooring! There really isn’t much else to tell about Centralia. It was a normal little town, filled with normal little churches and schools, which at its peak boasted some 2,000 residents in the town proper and 500 or more in the outlying areas. Despite the presence of a Russian Orthodox Church, complete with Kremlin-like architecture, there was nothing that made Centralia stand out in any way shape or form from the hundreds of other small towns that surrounded it…that is, until May of 1962.
That was when five members of the volunteer fire company set out for the town landfill, conveniently located near both the town cemetery and an abandoned strip mine pit. The plan was to burn the landfill, as had been done in years past when said landfill was located in a different section of town. On May 27th, the dump was ignited and left to burn. But, unlike the fires of years past, this one was never extinguished.
Hot ashes touched on an exposed vein of coal and spread quickly to the abandoned mines beneath the town. Attempts to extinguish the fire came too late. The burning continued throughout the remainder of the decade and on into the 1970s, the deadly carbon monoxide fumes pouring out from underground causing severe health problems among the residents and forcing many to pull up stakes and leave for greener, healthier pastures.
In 1981, Centralia became the center of nationwide attention when 12 year old Todd Dromboski fell into a sinkhole and nearly plunged 150 feet to his death in the coal fires below. He was saved by a cousin, but the seriousness of the situation could no longer be ignored. Centralia was a doomed town.
By 1984, Congress had offered buyouts to Centralia’s remaining residents, most of whom gladly accepted and quickly relocated. A handful remained behind, despite the sinkholes, the poisonous fumes and the sinister reputation the town has earned. In 1992, all of Centralia’s properties were condemned, and most were razed to the ground. In 2002, The US Postal Service revoked Centralia’s zip code. By 2007, only 9 residents remained in Centralia, stubbornly clinging to their homes. All others steer clear as the fire beneath the town continues to burn, the coal mines it feeds upon quite capable of supplying the flames with enough fuel to burn for another 250 years at least.
On January 31, 1999, Konami released the first Silent Hill video game for Sony PlayStation. The game quickly garnered a reputation as being one of the darkest, scariest and most disturbing video games ever created. I can vouch for this. I’ve never been a gamer geek, but late one night, half drunk and bored senseless, I watched an ex-boyfriend play Silent Hill in the darkness of his bedroom, and it freaked us both out so much (both of us lifelong, hardened horror film fans, I might add) that he quickly shut it off and switched on a repeat of The Simpsons to dispel the atmosphere of uneasiness that the game had generated.
In 2006, French filmmaker Christophe Gans directed the cinematic adaptation of Silent Hill, which wasn’t completely faithful to the storyline of the games. Nevertheless, with its solemn, ash covered sets, deeply disturbing demons and the repeated, bone chilling blasts of an air raid siren, Silent Hill the movie became a smashing success, sucking cynical horror fans into a nightmare world of smoke, despair and pure evil.
So – yes, West Virginia, there is a Silent Hill. It just happens to be a few hundred miles to the northeast. And I don’t recommend you go there. The steaming, cracked roads that lead into town are warning enough: Centralia has literally gone to Hell. And though I seriously doubt that any acid-spitting creatures, perverted janitor corpses or cockroach shitting, sword-wielding bodybuilders lurk there, who knows what you might find if you should be unlucky enough to step into one of the many sinkholes there and fall into the sulfurous pit below? If you’re lucky, you’ll die before you hit bottom, consumed by the heat and poisonous gasses.
But…what if you should survive the fall?