PEERS’ Best Now intern, Steve Hayes, discusses M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie “Split.”
As I settled in to view M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, ‘Split’, I was already preparing myself to see yet another person with a mental health diagnosis portrayed as “crazy” and wild as possible. I have seen many negative depictions of people with mental wellness challenges and struggles in popular media, so I was not expecting any different…in fact, because this is advertised as a scary film, I had even lower expectations and less hope for an accurate rendering of emotional wellbeing. I am glad I started out this way; it’s the only way that I got through the film.
The plot of ‘Split’ is actually pretty simple: a birthday girl, her friend, and a third guest (who is the outcast of the group but invited by the parents of the birthday girl) are carjacked by Kevin Crumb (played by James McAvoy), a man who, according to the advertisements, supposedly has 16 different personalities (we only meet four). The majority of the remainder of the film focuses on finding out how (and if) the girls can get away and whether or not their captor will be caught…before the final and most dangerous of Kevin’s personalities can manifest.
As someone who desires to work in the mental health field and help those with various mental wellness challenges – including Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), I struggled throughout the film because it just played up the same old negative stereotypes that I have previously encountered. Throughout the film, we see the various personalities manifest at different times; they each play a significant part in the film but it seems that all of the other personalities defer to one main personality by the name of “Dennis” and it is “Dennis” that most often appears on screen. The problem that I have with Dennis is that, in his desire to protect the other personalities as well as Kevin, he lashes out and attacks anyone that he feels may try to either hurt any of them or somehow allow Kevin to take back control of his mind. This gives and enforces the stereotype that people with DID or their “alters” are inherently violent or dangerous to me which I did not agree with.
Add to this the fact that, as we find out later, there is another personality who makes their first appearance in the latter third of the film. Without giving too much away, I can say that this personality has a significant impact on the story but it is by far the most violent and angry personality of all and they take the “people with mental wellness issues – especially DID – are dangerous and scary” idea to uncomfortable extremes. As I watched the two main personalities do horrible and scary things, I cringed at the thought that people were going to come away thinking that DID and people who have this diagnosis are just going to be seen as violent all over again. The main personality is so scary that even the other personalities are scared of him and what he may do and even the main personality is scared of the personality to come! It never gets any better.
By film’s end, as a viewer, I was left wondering if Kevin would get help…and whether the help would do any significant good. The film shows that he needs help but leaves us wondering whether anyone actually can help him or if it would be best to just lock him away. It is the same dilemma that our society faces when dealing with people with mental wellness challenges. The film shows Kevin in therapy and a well-meaning therapist who goes out of her way to help but, sadly, they never show it doing any meaningful good. It is this aspect that, for me, was most troubling of all. To tell others that therapy does not work with people who are diagnosed with DID sends a false, negative, and harmful message to me. I wish the film hadn’t shown mental health in this way.
I know this was meant to be a scary film and so, the more violent and outrageous the actions of Kevin’s various personalities are, the more exciting and scarier things are for the viewer. This, I understand. However, what troubles me is that, despite the incredible acting of James McAvoy and all of his theatrics, the scariest part of this film is actually the message about the ineffectiveness of therapy and treatment. Altogether, ‘Split’ perpetuates the idea that people with mental wellness challenges – specifically Dissociative Identity Disorder – are inherently scary, dangerous, and prone to violence. The film reinforces society’s negative view of those with mental health challenges and contributes to the stigma surrounding getting help to people in need.