The Insidious Ugliness of M. Night Shyamalan's Split and the Questionable History of Mental Illness in Horror

Those crazies, they’re just incorrigible!
Those crazies, they’re just incorrigible!

It’s no secret that media loves to misrepresent mental illness. It’s a frustrating ever-present truth. It’s also an issue that, in recent months and years, has received rightfully increased scrutiny. Still mental illness is a slippery and often shallowly-addressed subject, even as we begin the project of making a space for sufferers in society and culture that treats them as more than curiosities: objects of comedy or fear. That we still have a ways to go should be self-evident.

Part of this is a result of our tendency for acceptance by degrees: as a society we often express empathy for the new or the “strange” incrementally, engaging first with the aspects of an issue that seem the least alien to us, and slowly working out from there. Now, when written out, this seems only rational. That it would be easier to accept the things that we can most easily understand is almost a common-sense assertion. It is only in practice that we see how problematic this approach is.

Looking at the conversation around mental illness, we can see that the growing compassion, while positive and noteworthy, is also targeted and limited. When we see mainstream discussions of mental illness, they are predominantly restricted to two diagnoses: Major Depressive Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (our increased focus on rape culture has, to a degree, begun to shine a light on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; but if Donald Trump’s comments about veterans suffering from PTSD--implying it’s a sign of weakness--is any indication, our capacity for empathy here is still largely piecemeal).

This is not to say (and I cannot emphasize this enough) that these disorders and those who suffer from them are getting undue or undeserved attention. For years, those who live with depression and anxiety have been stigmatized, painted as weak-minded or whiny, simply incapable of handling the stresses that everyone else managed to deal with head on. This attitude is immensely damaging and totally factless. That it’s being put to rest by those coming forward to talk about their experiences is miraculous and overdue. We must do everything in our power to ensure the floor remains open to them, and that they feel safe telling their stories long after we decide the issues at play have been “normalized.”

However, depression and anxiety have never been the only mental illnesses, even if they seem to be the most common. They have also never been the most heavily stigmatized. And, while it is fantastic that we have created a space for the debunking of dangerous myths about depression and anxiety, we cannot act as though we are done. Because, still, left and right, culture makes it clear that we have now entered a moment in which there are acceptable mental illnesses and unacceptable mental illnesses.

Those illnesses we deem unacceptable? There’s Bipolar Disorder (previously known as Manic Depression), Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective Disorder (which could be vastly oversimplified as a marriage between Bipolar and Schizophrenia), the three clusters of what are deemed “Personality Disorders” (Borderline, Narcissistic, Avoidant, Dependent, Antisocial, Schizoid, Schizotypal, Paranoid, Histrionic, and Obsessive-Compulsive), and a host of others (which I do not wish to erase here, and I encourage anyone who feels their diagnosis has gone undiscussed to speak out in the comments). These are the illnesses we continue to deem strange, dangerous, or erratic. Schizophrenia and other disorders defined by psychosis are still reduced to “voices and delusions,” and pictured along with the archetypal padded cell. Personality Disorders are often seen as fundamental social flaws--Borderline is often discussed in relation to characters like Alex Forrest of Fatal Attraction or Hedy Carlson of Single White Female (in case that doesn’t make it clear, it’s also associated predominantly with women); Narcissistic and Antisocial are predominantly seen as shorthand for psychopathy or sociopathy, and referenced as proof that an individual is diagnostically evil (those breaking the Goldwater Rule to ascribe the former to Donald Trump are probably less concerned with his mental health than with the ability to bolster criticism of his numerous legitimate flaws with some armchair-psychologist shorthand). Ultimately, to be connected to any of these diagnoses is to be, at best, strange, and, at worst, dangerous.

Which brings us to Split--M. Night Shyamalan’s latest thriller, coming to theaters in late January. The film, which stars James McAvoy, tells the story of a man with dissociative identity disorder (commonly referred to as “split personalities”or “multiple personalities”) who kidnaps three girls. The trailer, which has been pretty widely circulated, is obviously meant to be a creepy showcase for McAvoy, who is able to show off his range by leaping from personality to personality, bending age and gender in service of unnerving the audience. The ultimate takeaway a viewer is encouraged to reach is that, whoever this guy is, he is aggressively abnormal; he is deranged; he is a monstrous aberration. At points, the trailer even seems to suggest that DID is some sort of superpower, allowing McAvoy to “change [his] body chemistry with [his] thoughts,” according to his psychiatrist (note that, as she explains this, the trailer is kind enough to cut to shots of a shirtless McAvoy twitching and contorting as though transforming into a werewolf). Clips are cut together to ensure that this collection of personalities (apparently 23 in total) comes off as dangerous, sadistic, and bizarre as possible. It’s more or less Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (and Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Hyde, and Mr. Hyde…) sans any sense of metaphor.

Critics who have seen Split seem frustratingly okay with its handling of mental illness. BirthMoviesDeath—which has a history of great appreciation for genre cinema and comparatively deep social sensitivity—published a review, following the film’s premiere at Fantastic Fest, that seemed almost entirely unconcerned with the issues inherent to the portrayal, mentioning them seemingly only as a concession to those who might be offended. “I like that Shyamalan has decided to get a little edgy with the mental health stuff - it wouldn’t be proper schlock without being sorta offensive - but I think he drops the ball,” the review explains. This is as critical as we get, regarding what is an inarguably retrograde bundle of stereotypes If that seems like apologism, it’s because it absolutely is. Earlier in the review, critic Devin Faraci makes the comparison between McAvoy’s onscreen psychiatrist and Samuel Loomis, Michael Myers’ psychiatrist in the Halloween franchise. Whether or not intentionally, this also seems to draw a parallel between Myers and McAvoy’s character, essentially arguing that you can’t knock Split if you didn’t have an issue with John Carpenter highlighting his own villain’s psychological abnormality. This is absurd. At many points in Halloween, Donald Pleasance’s Loomis makes a point of explaining that Myers is not suffering from mental illness, he is simply evil. His repeated warnings to anyone who will listen center around the fact that he, as a psychiatrist, was useless because he quickly discovered that treatment wouldn’t work, that it wasn’t an issue of psychology. Split isn’t so strategic or tactful. The issue with Shyamalan’s film is that it ties McAvoy’s violence to a specific psychological diagnosis that actual people have, which is most likely an attempt to give the film a sense of realism, grounding it in the world of actual psychiatry. Of course this is a ridiculous justification, considering that even Faraci is willing to admit that McAvoy’s form of DID is almost “paranormal.”

While Faraci’s assertion that schlock is inherently offensive strikes me as wrongheaded, it does--I think--gesture towards what makes the sensitive handling of mental illness in media so imperative. Our predominant culture exposure to psychosis and related disorders is primarily rooted in films that Faraci might place under that “schlock” umbrella: namely, horror and thrillers.

Aside from the occasional “prestige picture” (such as A Beautiful Mind, which is also tone-deaf in its handling of Schizophrenia) or comedy (United States of Tara is no less insensitive than Split just because it goes for laughs instead of scares), when we think of characters suffering from mental illness (outside of depression and anxiety) we will most often settle on villains—serial killers, in particular. Hannibal Lecter, Norman Bates, Patrick Bateman: this is what psychosis looks like; if you’re hearing voices they’re telling you to kill. Stepping outside of the literal representations of mental illness in horror, we can look back at that off-hand werewolf comparison from earlier. Lycanthropy in film, whether intended or not, is a pretty cutting representation of psychosis and the fear it stokes in both sufferers and society: that a person has something inside them that is normally invisible, but that has the potential to emerge suddenly and violently, destroying everything in its path.

Not only does the archetype of the werewolf push us to fear that potential in others, it gestures at another common trope in horror: insanity itself as worthy of fear. In the most well-known staples of werewolf literature--from George Waggner’s The Wolfman (1941) to John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981)--the story is told, not by the victims of the central monster (as is the case with Dracula and even the exceptionally sensitive Frankenstein), but from the perspective of the monster himself. Looking at Landis’ film: though we open with the protagonist (David Naughton) as the victim of a monster (and it’s worth noting that the locals cover up the existence of werewolf attacks by blaming the mauling of our main character and his friend on an escaped lunatic), this lead very quickly pivots from victim to perpetrator. Initially, Naughton’s fears are written off as delusions. Soon, though, they are proven true, as he rampages through London, killing six people in one night. Repeatedly, he is visited by the ghost of his slain friend and his new victims, who emphasize the agony his condition has caused them. He is told that he must kill himself, or continue to live as a monster. Not all that subtle when you get down to it.

Or if you’re a little more conceptual, you might look to H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps best known for his Cthullu Mythos, which tells of a God-like beast, whose presence is so terrifying and so incomprehensible that the result (and penalty) of beholding it is, you guessed it, insanity. Hell, even the protagonist of The Tell-Tale Heart--perhaps Edgar Allen Poe’s best known short story--is punished for murder by a variant of guilt that increasingly resembles “madness.”

Now, there are works of art that are sensitive to this, and that use horror’s fixation with insanity and mental illness to comment on what it means to live with both the diagnosis and the stigma it brings. The British television program Being Human (as well as its surprisingly good American remake) tells the story of three flatmates: a vampire, a ghost, and a werewolf. Here, while these archetypes are still used as metaphors for the psychological struggles of people, they are employed to humanize rather than vilify--an acknowledgment of how society paints the mentally ill, and the isolating and damaging potential of that portrait. Looking at Bryan Fuller’s adaptation of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal saga, we find a show that uses the outsize psychopathy of its villain as a way to examine the pains and struggles of empathy: humanity as a type of insanity, and vice versa. Horror and “schlock” can be empathetic after all.

So far, there is no evidence that Split’s choice to blend the language of real-world psychiatry with the more problematic attitudes of its genre is a way for the film to shine a humanizing light on the mentally ill. Rather, it seems like Shyamalan’s film is simply looking to take advantage of social ignorance and media-reinforced fear, providing cheap scares at the expense of those who suffer in society’s periphery. And if you are tempted to argue that DID is rare enough that no one’s getting hurt by inaccurate portrayals, or that horror is taken with enough of a grain of salt that no one might get hurt, I advise you to reconsider. We live in a world where the mentally ill (specifically men and women of color) are visited with outrageous violence, largely based on the false assumption that they themselves are inherent threats, that their symptoms make them bloodthirsty, that they all walk around trying to feed cats to ATMs. Not only is this fundamentally untrue, but it has led to police (who are neither effectively trained in de-escalation, nor properly educated about mental illness) to kill the mentally ill with relative impunity. Shyamalan’s slick little genre picture will only reinforce these assumptions.

While this might seem like a niche concern, as someone who suffers from schizoaffective and its accompanying psychosis, I can assure you that it is very much a reality. While I have been blessed with medical care that is denied many suffering from similar disorders, I know that I have found myself in a position where calling for help seems too risky a proposition, lest I be considered a threat. I have learned that we have created a culture that, while slowly transforming for the better, still encourages me to keep quiet about my experiences, because, as culture sees it, there are some people who suffer from mental illness, and there are some who are crazy.

I am all for genre films addressing mental illness, literally or as metaphor. It’s very possible to do so well. As a fan of horror films in particular, I would gladly welcome it. But not only is Split not such a film, it clearly has no interest in being such a film. Split is looking to do little more than turn the suffering of the mentally ill into a 90 minute funhouse, to portray someone else’s reality as a spooky fantasy, and to suggest that its real-world manifestation is a threat worthy of a horror picture. Society has long provided plenty of unsubstantiated reasons to fear and harm the mentally ill. We don’t need James McAvoy and M. Night Shyamalan to make up 23 more.

CONVERSATIONS