“Split” portrays mental illness in a dangerous light


Director M. Night Shyamalan released his twelfth feature film “Split” on Jan. 20 starring James McAvoy, recieving mixed reviews on the controversial plot.

From “Psycho” to “Fight Club,” Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) has long been used as a source of conflict in psychological thrillers. In M. Night Shyamalan’s new film “Spilt,” James McAvoy dominates the big screen with his portrayal of Kevin, a man with 23 different personalities.  As we learn more about Kevin’s personalities, DID starts to seem more like a nightmare than a personality disorder. 

“Split” begins with McAvoy’s character kidnapping three girls, instantly labeling him as the villain. As the film progresses, we get to know some, but not all of Kevin’s “alters.”  While certain personalities express moral conflict, others are not as ethically sound.  As they fight for control of Kevin’s mind and body, they become more and more threatening to the girls, but also to the real world’s perception of DID.

Even before “Split” the DID community and medical professionals had expressed concern over their inaccurate representation in cinema. Because DID is such a rare condition, misconception and fear is easily spread through violent characters like Kevin. 

According to WebMD, the one percent of the population affected by DID have likely experienced trauma, such as prolonged abuse, in their childhood and developed the disorder as a coping mechanism or an escape from reality.  Psychiatrist Dr. Garrett Marie Deckel told CNN that DID patients are seldom violent or malicious. In fact, they are more likely to hurt themselves than others.

So why is DID Hollywood’s scapegoat for violent characters? Directors and writers are infamous for basing a plot twist on a surprise case of DID.  Yes, its mystery is intriguing, but media representation has always been dramatized. Shyamalan, known for his ability to craft the perfect surprise ending, has claimed that he has always had an interest in the disorder. But he is not the first to target the condition. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” explains a series of murders by revealing that the mysterious hotel manager shares a “host” with the twisted mind of his deceased mother.  In addition, “Fight Club” surprises the audience by pinning a spree of mass destruction on a man’s undiagnosed DID.  These films are among many that sensationalize DID.  A more positive yet embellished portrayal can be found in the now cancelled series “The United States of Tara” which depicts a housewife living with the condition.

Amelia Joubert, a diagnosed patient and consultant on “The United States of Tara” told CNN that “Split” is having a large impact on young people with the disorder because of how immensely the negatives of DID shape the film.

As DID remains controversial in the medical field, Hollywood continues to take advantage of the misinformed public.  Mainstreaming awareness of the condition could undermine future attacks from the media. Sensationalism is only believable when an audience is uninformed. For instance, imagine if Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) were portrayed as a gateway to murder.  How many people would complain and stand up for the diagnosis as misrepresented? That is ultimately how the members of the DID community feel, but sadly their voice is of much smaller density.

Controversy aside, “Split” demonstrates Shyamalan’s knack for thrillers or more appropriately, sci-fi, as well as the talent and dedication McAvoy brings to his on-screen persona.  It’s unfortunate that a film produced with so much expertise has sparked such negativity for those living with DID.  If you choose to see “Split,” consider doing some background research on the issues at hand before allowing the film to influence any judgments. Remember that Hollywood exaggerates whenever possible, and that someone with DID is hurting because of it.