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Split is the latest horror film to misunderstand why mental illness is terrifying

Spoilers ahead for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.

“The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality.” That scripting advice from one screenwriter to another (both played by Nicolas Cage in 2002’s Adaptation), could practically be a diss aimed directly at Split. The latest effort from suspense maestro M. Night Shyamalan[1] casts James McAvoy as mentally ill serial killer Kevin, and more specifically, as Jade, Hedwig, Patricia, Barry, and upward of a dozen more personalities splintering from Kevin’s unstable psyche.

The personae wrestle for control of a single body as they carry out the dark work of kidnapping and preparing three teenage girls for sacrifice to something inhuman. This makes for one doozy of a trailer, but in mining terror from dissociative identity disorder (DID), Shyamalan travels one of horror cinema’s most well-trod paths, and faceplants into the same pitfalls that have tarnished scary movies for decades.
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In short, we need to talk about Kevin.

Or rather, Shyamalan does. The character’s original identity briefly surfaces late in the film, but most of the run time goes to the array of caricatures cooped up in the dysfunctional boarding house of his brain. The original personality is mostly an afterthought, a brief interlude in a hammy performance from McAvoy, clearly having the time of his life.

The end of the film makes Kevin out to be a literal supervillain and dubs him “the Horde” — an appropriate fate, considering how intent Shyamalan seems on divorcing the character from the vulnerability that makes him compelling. He loses sight of Kevin’s fundamental humanity, and in doing so, misunderstands what can really make mental illness a terrifying ordeal. Loads of horror flicks have used mental abnormalities to create fearsome antagonists, but the best of them relate how these conditions also torment the afflicted, who can be as frightened by their own nagging thoughts as the audience is.

Where else could the phenomenon begin but with Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rosetta Stone for translating a huge chunk of modern horror cinema?

The mind’s capabilities to misfire have frightened the public imagination since Jack the Ripper’s sociopathy cleared the streets of Whitechapel after dark, but Hitchcock was the first to put it into pop-psych layman’s terms. He vilified the brain itself, and its ability to turn on its owner and whisper troubling orders into the subconscious. Norman Bates’ mommy complex is torn straight from Freud 101, but Hitchcock lent the character more nuance than the analyst’s profile in the concluding scene suggests.

Norman is the truest casualty of his tyrannical mother, and Hitchcock has a clear compassion for the character’s tragic dimension. Sympathizing with him and making him human makes him a richer character overall, and lends the murder scenes a stronger emotional and psychological undercurrent. Viewers are torn, sympathizing both with Norman’s victims and with Norman himself, and that ambiguity is what sticks long after the credits roll.

The ideal horror film makes its audience care about a mentally ill character, not just acknowledge their sickness and move right along.

Sympathy doesn’t just make for more finely shaded characters — it combats the toxic real-world stigma that’s come from reprehensible depictions of mental illness. Plenty of works of fiction have used disorders to make their rogues’ gallery more distinctive and striking. But obscuring the underlying personhood of mentally struggling characters reinforces the harmful notion that people with mental disorders are somehow beyond human.

The Friday the 13th franchise began with another psychological case study, as grieving mother Pamela Voorhees descended into post-traumatic madness and took revenge on the camp counselors her fractured mind believed were responsible for the death of her son, Jason.

The original film extended a minimum of sympathy to her, and offered the audience a disturbing look at how mental stressors can distort a mother’s love for her son into homicidal urges. The films that followed sacrificed whatever slight nuance they had by shifting the focus to Jason, an indestructible killing machine whose famed hockey mask deliberately rendered him a blank slate. It’s a lucrative but wrongheaded approach — a lack of basic relatability makes Jason larger (and more fearsome) than life, but it also rapidly reduced him to a caricature.

Split tops the Friday the 13th franchise in a walk, however.

To its credit, Shyamalan’s script uses the more up-to-date term of dissociative identity disorder rather than “multiple-personality” to refer to Kevin’s condition. Not to its credit is the rest of the film, which repeatedly fixates on the brain’s potential to psychosomatically change a body’s physiology. Kevin’s analyst, Dr.

Karen Fletcher, repeatedly spells out her controversial theory that DID grants sufferers extraordinary control of their bodies, citing such examples as a blind woman with a personality capable of vision, or a strongman personality spontaneously developing extraordinary strength. Shyamalan extends the concept to a cartoonish extreme when he introduces Kevin’s personality “the Beast,” which has superhuman abilities and a monstrous appearance. By the end of the film, Kevin is exhibiting abilities that amount to superpowers, somehow derived from what professional consensus indicates is his brain’s extreme coping mechanism to a fleetingly shown childhood of abuse. (Medical orthodoxy[2] favors the notion that personalities fracture as an attempt to quarantine and compartmentalize harmful mental stressors.) The act of other-ing Kevin as a patient of DID isn’t even incidental; it’s the whole point.

It’s hard to imagine a more squarely on-the-nose example of demonizing mental illness than portraying a mentally ill man as a literal demon.

 John Baer / Universal Studios

Even when not deliberately toxic, many on-screen depictions of mental illness have been factually and flatly wrong. Plenty[3] of myths have already been debunked; cases of alternate personalities turning violent are incredibly scarce, and cases of archly evil behavior are nonexistent. Sybil, starring Sally Field, is widely considered the definitive portrait of a dissociating psyche, but it’s a work of pure fiction. Shirley Mason[4], the real-life model for the theatrically disturbed character, has confessed that she was faking, and did not actually house multiple identities. The act of “flipping” from one mind to another has more dramatic heft than the reality[5] of the situation, where patients slip between mental spaces.

Maybe a demand for baseline factual accuracy seems like nitpicking when it comes to scary movies. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the lone service of a horror picture is to scare the bejesus out of its audience.

That’s fine — the problem isn’t just that Shyamalan’s approach compounds public distrust for the mentally unwell, it’s the way it ignores the rich potential for more complex storytelling and raw, visceral frights. Split works in quick jabs of terror, spooking the trembling teen captives with the occasional burst of violence or terror. Films that provide a window into an unwell mentality, however, can color every scene with free-floating fear. Black Swan had the good sense to take its visual and stylistic cues from the mental interior of Natalie Portman’s paranoid ballerina as she cracks under the pressure of the gig of a lifetime. Likewise, for Tim Robbins’ PTSD-stricken veteran in Jacob’s Ladder, chilling hallucinations can pop out of anywhere, keeping the viewer permanently on guard.

Mental illness does have its place in the horror genre, and it is scary.

The feeling that your brain no longer follows the commands you give it, that your senses can’t be trusted, that you’re at the mercy of internal forces you can’t comprehend or control — it can be a nightmare sprung to life. It’s a filmmaker’s responsibility to keep it all in perspective, and extend a grain of sympathy to affected characters, even as they slide further into their delusion. The world remembers Hannibal Lecter and his refinement coexisting with savagery, not Buffalo Bill, whose body dysmorphia transforms him into a snarling, feral animal.

One is a character, the other’s a ghoul.

It’s possible that Shyamalan realizes this, too. When Kevin briefly appears, he’s a friendly figure, compared to his alternate personalities. But Shyamalan’s creaky dialogue and McAvoy’s detached stoicism in the moment make that moment ring false, more lip service than a character beat.

The real Kevin seems to be a relatively normal guy, only faintly affected by his own psychosis. In that moment, all the tension and internal conflict evaporates, and any connection the audience may have had with him is instantly severed. That moment encapsulates the trouble with Split, and with the countless films that have made the same error: before we can feel her pain, we’ve got to feel his.

References

  1. ^ latest effort from suspense maestro M.

    Night Shyamalan (www.theverge.com)

  2. ^ Medical orthodoxy (www.medicaldaily.com)
  3. ^ Plenty (www.medicaldaily.com)
  4. ^ Shirley Mason (www.npr.org)
  5. ^ reality (www.nytimes.com)

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