The poster of the new thriller film “Split” features a stern-looking James McAvoy and the tagline “Kevin has 23 distinct personalities. The 24th is about to be unleashed.” McAvoy’s character, Kevin Wendell Crumb, has dissociative identity disorder (DID), which according the National Alliance on Mental Illness, about two percent of people live with worldwide. It most often occurs in people who have lived through extreme, repeated trauma such as child abuse or military combat. DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder, is closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder (BPD), but differs in the ways that it manifests, namely that it causes people to dissociate their identities into multiple personalities.
It is just as unlikely for someone living withDID to have violent tendencies as someone not afflicted with the disorder, and when violence does occur, it is most often self-inflicted, according to Psychiatrist Dr. Garrett Marie Deckel, speaking to CNN. Though living with DID requires finding a treatment plan that best works for the person, there are plenty of people with DID who live more or less normal lives, just like individuals who struggle with anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) or any number of other chronic mental health issues.
“Split” has gained a lot of attention from both mental health professionals and people living with mental illness for its portrayal of a man living with DID. In “Split,” DID is the enemy, the thing to be feared. Kevin kidnaps three girls, and later his therapist, and takes them to a windowless bunker. There they are kept captive and tormented with his 23 alternating personalities on the premise that he will soon sacrifice them to his 24th personality, “The Beast.”
In a Salon article, Matthew Rozsa says that “[M. Night] Shyamalan presents people who are ‘broken’ from severe psychological trauma as being able to physically enter the next stage of human evolution.” In the film’s climax, Kevin transforms—literally—into a beast. As Rozsa points out, this is not the first time Shyamalan, who both wrote and directed “Split,” has used mental illness as a vehicle for violence and horror in his films. His portrayal of DID in “Split” adds to an ever-growing list of films in which people’s mental illnesses are vehicles of horror, wreaking havoc in people’s lives in terrifying, even supernatural ways. Shyamalan’s characters reinforce stereotypes and tropes common in both film and television wherein someone living with mental illness is reduced to ‘crazy’ and ‘scary.’ Shyamalan lacks nuance and human aspect in how he writes and directs characters with a range of mental illnesses.
As several mental health advocates have pointed out, the consistent reinforcement of these stereotypes has contributed to the harmful and baseless labelling of those living with mental illnesses as an unstable, dangerous and insane “Other.” Dr. Michelle Stevens, who has DID, recently published an open letter to Shyamalan in “The Hollywood Reporter,” in which she wrote the following: “I’m not a monster, Mr. Shyamalan. On the contrary, I’d say I’m a pretty ordinary person with a stable, loving family life who has dedicated her career to helping other people. Like millions of others, I suffer from mental illness. In the future, I’d appreciate it if you stopped using our pain and suffering as fodder for your entertainment.”
Other mental health advocates and people living with DID have chosen not to see the movie for its upsetting content. In spite of that, Split has made $141.9 million at the box office thus far, proving that despite its troubling depiction of mental illness, the stereotypes it puts on display still sell well.