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SPLIT – A Psychological Horror or A Mockery of Mental Illness(es)?

M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016) is another one in a long list of movies that use the guise of calling themselves a ‘psychological thriller‘ to disparage mental illnesses. And unfortunately, what is an easier way to demonise a mental illness than to show it changing a person into an actual demon.

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The movie is said to be based on Billy Milligan, who gained attention for being the first person to use the defense of multiple personalities in a court case within the United States. Milligan had twenty-four personalities and helped write a biography about his life called The Minds of Billy Milligan which provides fascinating insight into how it felt being inside his head. Split, on the other hand managed to make a mockery out of it. While it started in a surprisingly sophisticated way, showing details about Kevin‘s dissociative identity disorder that seemed realistic and definitely more up to date than the usual regressive portrayals of multiple personalities, the movie soon took a turn from common sense and logic, as it tried to guide us towards the idea that Kevin’s 24th personality would be an actual beast.

However, James McAvoy gives an astounding performance, including miniscule changes to his face when Kevin’s personality changed. He managed to act like a lady, a child, and a man with OCD all within minutes. His portrayal gave you exactly the kind of creepy, unsettling feeling you would expect from such a movie. He, somehow, also convinced us that he was one personality trying to act like another personality. The scene where he tries to convince his therapist that he’s not who she thinks he is, is perhaps one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie, though it felt as if having a powerful actor like McAvoy at their disposal was a waste since they managed to make almost no use of his potential. McAvoy’s performance may have saved the whole movie if not for the last twenty minutes when everything took a turn for the worse. The movie had till now been hinting at the fact that mental afflictions can sometimes cause physiological changes, and had shown Kevin talking about a personality called ‘the beast‘ who was supposed to be their saviour.

It was difficult to sympathise or even understand why ‘the beast’ even existed because of the lack of insight into Kevin’s past. He was shown to develop superhuman abilities solely because of his dissociative identity disorder who kills two of the three hostages that he had. Even McAvoy’s acting cannot not save you from the cringe you would feel watching the beast prowl around looking for Casey.

We definitely got a deeper look into Casey’s history than we did into Kevin’s. Anya Taylor Joy, playing Casey, showed delightfully great acting skills, although the wide-eyed scared look at times did get a little too monotonous. But being confronted by a man who is also a child and a lady can definitely do that to a person. Casey was given a full backstory which explained all the survival skills she had but the amount of time spent on her backstory made it seem like she would have some connection with Kevin that would later be revealed, which wasn’t the case. She was shown to be the lone survivor at the end of the movie because of her ‘sexual purity‘, a concept that was very vague and provided an unsatisfying end to the movie, since we didn’t even know why that was so important to Kevin who is shown to be a victim of abuse in his childhood only fleetingly.

Kevin’s original personality came out only for a few minutes but could’ve been explored in a more detailed way to make the audience understand how he wasn’t actually a bad guy. His therapist, who definitely didn’t act how a real therapist treating someone with DID should, managed to get herself killed and her death becomes just another cause of frustration since she could have contained the situation very easily. All in all, the movie managed to take a potentially great idea and cheapen it for a few seconds of forced horror that was unnecessary called for. McAvoy and his acting emerged as the only silver linings in the otherwise disappointing take on dissociative identity disorder. The movie through its plot may also have played a part in demonising mental illness and strengthening already existing biases against them.

Sulmaaz Siddiqui is a student pursuing Psychlogy Hons. from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Samra Ejaz

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members. 

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Written by Sulmaaz Siddiqui

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