"Split": A Harmful Portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Monday, February 22

By Asmita Jalote

If you're an avid movie-watcher you've probably seen, or at least heard of, the horror movie "Split", directed by M. Night Shyamalan. I personally came across "Split" while selecting a movie for a school project, in which I had to critique the portrayal of a neurological disorder in a film. After watching the movie and spending many days researching and thinking, I decided that the dramatized and prejudiced portrayal of mental illness in "Split" was an important topic to discuss. 

Warning: "Split" contains themes of trauma, abuse, and violence. Reader discretion is advised. 

(Spoiler Alert: In order to provide a thorough analysis, I will be explaining certain scenes in detail.)

I'll start with a brief overview of Dissociative Identity Disorder:

Previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder, DID is one in a group of dissociative disorders, which are characterized generally by disruptions of memory, consciousness, and identity and/or perception. DID is specifically characterized by the presence of two or more distinct personality states. Dissociating from core reality is a coping mechanism for trauma, which can involve any form of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. About 90% of DID cases stem from some history of childhood abuse. 

Patients often switch personalities when they are faced with a symbol of their trauma, and these alternate personalities have their own memories, behavioral patterns, social relationships, and personal preferences. They are better able to deal with the stress of the trauma than the core identity may be. 

Now, my analysis of "Split":

"Split" revolves around a DID patient named Kevin, who alternates between 23 different personalities. At the beginning of the film, Kevin abducts 3 teenage girls and holds them hostage. Kevin makes it very difficult for the girls to escape, as his various personalities interact with each other, as well as with the girls, through intimidation, fear, and manipulation techniques. Throughout the film, Kevin also hints at an emerging 24th personality that will soon overpower and dominate the rest. 

DID is a rare disorder, with the prevalence rate in the general population being somewhere between 0.1 to 1.0 %. The fact that the disorder is rare makes it so that the general population is largely uneducated on the characteristics, forms, and causes of DID. This makes the general public highly impressionable. The film may influence their overall outlook on DID and other mental health disorders. Thus, "Split" holds the weight of being a probable first exposure to DID for many people, and has a responsibility to correctly portray the disorder. 

I'll start off with the things the film did right:

Throughout the film, fortunately, there are a few accurate claims made about DID by a character named Dr. Fletcher - Kevin’s therapist. For example, early on in the film, Dr. Fletcher attends a virtual medical conference at which she hopes to spread awareness on DID. At the conference she makes some claims:

1. Different personalities can have different allergies.

2. Different personalities can have different medical conditions. 

etc...

-------clip of Dr. Fletcher at the conference 

These claims are true. It is possible for an alter to be allergic to peanuts, bee stings, or anything else, even if the core person is not. And this allergy is not simply a belief for the alter. The body reacts to the allergen when it is presented to the alter that is allergic to it, but not for any other alters. Different alters can even have their own mental health disorders - including OCD, Depression, and Anxiety. Later in the film, we see that one of Kevin’s personalities seems to have OCD, and another has Diabetes. These representations are realistic. Dr. Fletcher’s claim that DID patients’ bodies have the ability to slightly change their body chemistry with shifting alters is correct.

However, in this clip and throughout the movie, Dr. Fletcher implies that this ability to change body chemistry means that DID patients have supernatural powers, as they are able to tap into areas of the brain that others can’t. This is largely untrue. Adding in a false statement like this into a mix of true statements is highly misleading.

Although there are a few such accurate claims made about DID, the characteristics of the film’s main character “Kevin” are either portrayed inaccurately, do not exist in real DID patients, or are extremely exaggerated for the sake of the plot. 

I will now be discussing these large inaccuracies:

1. The first clip I have attached is from early on in the film. After the three girls have been kidnapped, they hear a woman's voice conversing with a man's - so they assume that there is a woman outside their room talking to their kidnapper Kevin, and that she can help them escape. 

-------clip:

It turns out that the feminine voice that the girls heard turned out to be the kidnapper, Kevin, himself. He was simply manifesting one of his alters - a female named "Patricia". The conversation that the girls heard was between Patricia and ANOTHER alter, a male named "Dennis". 

Now, it is possible and generally common for patients to have personalities of a different gender, age, and with different manners. So this depiction of Kevin manifesting a female alter with an accent is not far-fetched. However, the inaccuracy comes in the conversation between the two alters. While it is possible for alters to converse with each other, they do not do so verbally. Alters often argue with each other on the way life should be lived, relationships conducted, or on decisions to be made; however, these conversations are facilitated inside the person's head. 

Another minor inaccuracy in this clip is the appearance of Patricia. In the clip, Kevin has dressed in a more feminine manner, as he is manifesting his female alter. Although different personalities have different clothing preferences, patients do not change their clothing prior to changing personalities. This is an exaggeration that reoccurs throughout the movie: Kevin changes clothes prior to switching between his various alters. This is just not realistic. 

2. The second clip I have attached is a scene from a therapy session between Kevin and his therapist, Dr. Fletcher. During the session, the therapist is trying to figure out which one of Kevin's alters she is talking to. 

-------clip:

In the scene, the therapist states that she has the ability to call forth his core identity (aka, Kevin) by saying his full name. In reality, a person's presentation of alters can only be controlled through hypnosis - and even so, it would not be as simple as saying the patient's full name. So this is an unrealistic and inaccurate statement made by Dr. Fletcher. 

3. Finally, one of the film’s more obvious exaggerations: Towards the end of the movie, Kevin’s 24th “personality” gives him the ability to transform his body into a monstrous beast.

-------clip:

While it is true that the DID patients are able to slightly alter their chemical balances (as I explained previously), it is not to the extent of changing their body physique or gaining supernatural powers - like scaling walls. Although it may be obvious to many people that this aspect of the movie is a dramatic exaggeration, it is still a harmful portrayal as it inherently villainizes patients with DID as unstable and potentially violent. While it is likely that DID patients have certain alters that are more aggressive, they tend to be violent towards themselves or one of their other alters. DID patients are no more likely to be violent towards strangers, friends, or family than anyone else is.

The dramatic exaggerations made to Kevin's character were made with the intent of creating a scarier, more complex psychopathic killer. However, instead of villainizing people with mental health disorders, the director should have taken an alternative route in creating a dynamic character.

Many people might say, "Well, it's just a movie". However, as one of the only pieces of representation of DID in the media, “Split” only further stigmatizes mental illness among the general public. As a result, DID patients will only find it harder to be taken seriously. In reality, many people don't understand that it's "just a movie", and violent portrayals like this may cause them to develop irrational fears towards very normal, gentle people.

The clips I provided are only a few of many such inaccurate claims/portrayals made about DID in the film. It is important to remember that “Split” is a horror movie and is not fit to be used as an educational tool, nor to spread awareness on Dissociative Identity Disorder. 

These are my sources:

Check them out to learn more! 

Works Cited 

Bhandari, Smitha (2020, January 22). How Common is Dissociative Identity Disorder? https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/qa/how-common-is-dissociative-identity-disorder

 Cleveland Clinic (2016). Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9792-dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder#:~:text=An%20alter%20may%20be%20of,when%20an%20alter%20is%20dominant.

Miller, S D. Optical differences in cases of multiple personality disorder. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2760599/

 Nurse Learning. Understanding Multiple Personality Disorders. https://www.nurseslearning.com/courses/nrp/NRP-1618/Section%205/index.htm

Powell, Russell (1999). The Effects of Hypnosis on Dissociative Identity Disorder: A Reexamination of the Evidence. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/070674379904400908

Webermann, Alia and Bran, Bethany (2017). Mental illness and violent behavior: the role of dissociation. https://bpded.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40479-017-0053-9

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