M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie, Split, premiered last week and was met with general praise, earning over $46 million to date. The horror movie’s premise is the kidnapping of three teenage girls by a man with multiple psychological diagnoses, among them dissociative identity disorder. Dissociative identity disorder, or DID, is a psychological illness in which individuals develop two or more distinct personalities – hence, the title of the film. It usually manifests as a reaction to trauma, including severe physical and psychological abuse. James McAvoy’s character in the film has 23 distinct personalities, or “alters”, as they are often called in relation to the disorder. While Chief Film Critic of Variety, Peter Debruge, called the film a “resounding success”, even praising Shyamalan for “basically making up rules for dissociative identity disorder as he goes along”, others have expressed outrage over the film’s compliance in the stigmatization of mental illness. Although I have not seen the film and can only interpret what has been written about it, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to be cognizant of how mental illness is portrayed in media.
As editorial website, The Verge, succinctly put it, “Split is the latest horror film to misunderstand why mental illness is terrifying.” In an article written by Michael Nedelman for CNN a letter written to a psychiatrist by a patient is published: “There’s a new movie out about a person with DID. It’s a thriller/horror movie. Do I ever scare you?” 46% of Americans meet the criteria for a psychiatric illness at some point in their lives, yet despite its prevalence, mental illness is still incredibly stigmatized. Movies like ‘Split’ are not uncommon, and collectively they feed this fear. Generally speaking, movies and TV shows featuring mental illness as a plot device when they are written/produced/directed by someone who does not have said mental illness do not portray it accurately. When mental illness is the major plot point in a horror movie, it fuels society’s irrational fear towards and misunderstanding of those living with psychiatric illnesses. Films like Psycho, Shutter Island, and The Shining, all construct an image of mental illness being an indicator of violence, even though it has been shown in studies that there is no connection between the two factors. On the other hand, around 25% of the homeless population suffers from some form of severe mental illness, so why are we mocking a population of whom many are disadvantaged?
Films and television appropriate psychiatric disorders because our minds are complex and enigmatic and make for interesting subject matter. The thought of losing control over your brain is scary, but not in the way horror movies tell it. Instead of having their audiences empathize with characters, movies make mental illnesses and those who have them out to be something non-sufferers should fear. Hollywood exploits this stigma to make money, only further perpetuating our culture’s misunderstanding of mental health. The fact that directors, including Shyamalan, take liberties with the details and experiences of mental illness is irresponsible and, frankly, cruel. Instead of mental illness being the entire premise of so many horror movies, we need to increase representation in a meaningful way – that means featuring characters that live with mental illness without it being the focal point of the film. When mental illnesses are portrayed, they need to be thoughtfully and accurately represented. Psychiatric illnesses are common and exist on a large and varied spectrum and as a society we need to empathize with, understand, and support each other.