The Real Silent Hill

I’ve never been an avid video gamer, but when my friend Jessica told me about “Silent Hill” – a game in which characters navigate a desolate, ashen world/alternate reality – I was intrigued. I was even more fascinated to learn that the game’s fictional ghost town is in fact based on a real location in the United States: Centralia, Pennsylvania.

Back in 1962, a fire was accidentally ignited in the coal mines beneath this eastern Pennsylvania borough, where it has been burning ever since. Attempts to extinguish the blaze have been unsuccessful, and most residents have moved away, fleeing the area’s toxic gases and sinkholes. Today, only a handful of people remain, and the underground mine fire persists.

Between Jessica’s mild obsession with the video game and my desire to visit isolated American towns, the two of us couldn’t wait to go on a road trip to Centralia. After a few false starts (due to busy schedules and bad weather), we finally made it there late this winter. Though I was expecting a pretty frightening place, I found a Centralia to be similar to some of the other Appalachian coal towns I’ve visited, both in its dereliction and austere beauty.

Twilight along one of the main roads through town:

Power lines in the hills surrounding Centralia:

Birds on the wires outside of our motel in Frackville, about a 20-minute drive from Centralia:

A diner on the outskirts of Centralia:

Al and Bob, who offered to show us around the area:

Curiously enough, one of the only buildings left standing in town is the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church. A Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Orthodox establishment, it eerily overlooks what remains of today’s Centralia: a matrix of overgrown sidewalks and steaming fissures. Jessica and I wandered up to the church grounds to explore.

The church, perched in the hills:

The front of the church:

View from the side:

The church cemetery, visible through the trees:

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church actually continues to hold services, and Jessica and I were invited to attend one. Upon entering the building, I was shocked: While the outside of the building fit in well with the solemn nature of Centralia, the sanctuary was lavish and permeated by suffocatingly heavy incense.

The ceiling especially caught my eye. Gold stars glittered amongst the cracks. Almost a metaphor for Centralia itself, I suppose.

We discovered that many of the people attending the service that day used to live in Centralia, and that the church seemed to be a gathering spot for those displaced by the mine fire catastrophe. The central role of the church in an utterly abandoned town fascinates me, and I hope I can return someday to learn more about it.

Before Jessica and I left, we decided we needed to visit Highway 61, which used to be the main road through town. After the fire started, the heat caused the asphalt to crack, creating dangerous fissures that led authorities to block the road from public use. That hasn’t stopped tourists (like us) from coming and gaping at the damage. It has also attracted a crowd of daredevils on ATVs, who use the road and its steaming cracks as a kind of playground.

Shortly after my return from Centralia, one of roommates ordered the horror movie “Silent Hill” through Netflix and suggested I watch it. I’m glad I visited in person. The real “Silent Hill” isn’t an ashen zombie land, but one of many Appalachian communities struggling to retain their identity in face of tragedy.

Posted in: Photojournalism.

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