NEW YORK -- "Silent Hill 3" is delicious to play and highly instructive as well, because the video game reveals one of those quizzical things that distinguish humans from every other living being on Earth: We delight in scaring the bejeezus out of ourselves.
The only funny thing about this game was the suspicion I had that its designers were getting a good chuckle at terrifying me to the point of genuine irrationality.
The times I yipped in fright like a jittery lab rat made me wonder most about our nettlesome human condition. Why was I subjecting myself to such a creepy, creepy thing? And why was it so enjoyable?
"Silent Hill 3" retails for $49.99 and is available for the Playstation 2, with a PC version coming later this year.
This game, the third in Konami's venerable "Silent Hill" franchise, puts you in the role of Heather Morris, a disaffected 15-year-old.
After meeting with a sleazy private detective, she bounces between the real world and a freakish nightmare where walls are lined with pulsating flesh, streets are littered with the remains of men in pink bunny outfits and blood-and-rust coated metal is the style of the year.
The "Silent Hill" series has always been most effective at atmosphere, and the latest installment continues to rely on the old horror trope of finding terror in mundane and wholesome places like a lakeside town, an amusement park and a shopping mall.
The series' characteristic dense fog is back, masking hideous monsters - but not the clacking and scraping sounds they make - until they're up close. There are plenty of long, dark corridors with something lurking at the end, and as with most good horror, you are usually without company.
Its most brilliant touch is a play on the jokey spookiness of a Disney-style benign haunted mansion, with faux frightening tour guide on the loud speakers. The tour turns into an unnerving exploration of a place that, despite its jocular tone, really is out to kill you after all.
All the while, Heather runs down dark corridors hacking headless midgets to pieces and blasting carousel animals suddenly aroused to life. In a welcome addition, the game lets you adjust the difficulty for both the action sequences and its several puzzles.
The plot is mostly incomprehensible but intriguing enough to propel you through from one action sequence to another. Your memory of a frightening past comes back only in pieces, and a devout but deeply disturbed woman named Claudia shows up now and then to tell you that you hold the key to heavenly paradise.
Sure, the writing gets bad sometimes: "Remember me and your true self as well, also that which you must become, the one who will lead us with bloodstained hands to paradise."
Or: "I don't know what kind of hell is waiting for me there. I've got no other choice."
Who writes this stuff? Computer programmers?
Still, the game delights for reasons computer gamers can't take for granted: palpable sense of mood, strong characters and even suggestions that it's actually trying to say something. Its dominant theme is tried and true: Suffering may be painful, yet it is crucial to life.
It also chews on issues like blind faith, materialism and the mercy of lying to protect someone you love.
Its greatest success is Heather, probably the most believable computer game character I've ever seen. She's a realistic blend of teenage cynicism and naivete, humor, hostility and loneliness. The voice acting, while generally bad, occasionally rings true - watch for the scene when Heather loses someone close to her.
But the focus here is the great terror the game manages to impart. It's not surprising that the rating is for mature gamers only, as the most effective way of killing a monster is to drop it with gunshots and finish it off with a few good kicks while it's screaming in pain.
This is, after all, a game that loads up with an unfocused image of a teenage girl beating a blob of flesh appearing under the text: "Some parts of this game may be considered violent or cruel."
Violent, certainly. Cruel? Indeed - to the spooked-out player afraid of the dark for the first time in many years, most of all.