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Split from the Stereotype

The Problematic Portrayal of Mental Illness in Movies


Mental Illness in MoviesThe true terror that fuels scary movies has no longer become about the suspenseful plot or the battle between good and evil, but rather the minds of the villainous characters that are made to seem so inhuman in order to partake in such terrible activity.

For decades, movie writers and producers have preyed on mental illness as a way to entice moviegoers to buy tickets for horror films. Numerous movies have leveraged mental disorders in hopes of making their main characters more complex and unique. While this may help in creating a more obscure plot, it subsequently creates a harmful notion that those who struggle with mental disorders, such as dissociative identity disorder, should be feared. This problem has come to the big screen yet again through M. Night Shyamalan’s Split.

This suspense movie centers on the persona of a mentally ill serial killer named Kevin, who also goes by Hedwig, Patricia, Jade, Barry and a handful of other personalities that come alive in the film. As seen in the trailer, Kevin kidnaps three teenage girls from inside the doors of their unlocked car. His illness is the centralized theme in the movie as he preys on these three young girls through his 243personalities. We are first introduced to the notion that the kidnapper has a mental illness when the young girls scream for help after noticing what they believe is a woman wearing high heals through the crack of a door. It’s soon revealed to the young girls that this is the same man who kidnapped him, and the first plot twist of the movie is set into action.

Filming a movie about a person with dissociative identity disorder (D.I.D) as the main villain becomes problematic to not only those who struggle with the disorder in real life, but the audience and society as well. Through the messages in this movie (that those with D.I.D. are dangerous to themselves and to others) we are subconsciously misinforming society on what we know of this mental illness.

Senior psychology student Victoria Wright explained her take this film, stating, “Being a psych student and taking abnormal psychology, I really believe that movies like Split often portray the more serious mental health disorders as being something violent or dangerous when in actuality that isn’t always the case."

Wright continued, "Mental health disorders already get a bad reputation and stigma to the point where its almost taboo to talk about and that really hinders our society because it prevents us from being able to make strides towards progress.”

Not only are we guided to fear Kevin and his condition due to his monstrous acts of kidnapping, but we are also educated on the nature of his condition by Karen Fletcher, his therapist in the film.

In the trailer, she explains that she has never seen a case like this before, and that twenty-three identities live inside his body. She went on to explain that an individual with multiple personalities can change their body chemistry with their thoughts.

As she is explaining this, the trailer shows a glimpse into what it looks like when Kevin shifts into another personality. However, it is portrayed as if he is resisting his own body that is physically morphing into someone else. This in turn dehumanizes those who struggle with dissociative personality disorder and creates a notion that those with this illness are a danger to themselves and to others.

While it is true to an extent that those with this illness can change their body chemistry like their eye color or allergic reactions dependent on the personality, Shaylaman takes it to another level and has Kevin transform into a beast, a literal monster that aims in harming, and even eating young girls.

Pairing the analysis and diagnosis from a certified psychiatrist, and Kevin’s extreme behavior leads the audience to believe this this type of behavior is actually plausible in real life, thus creating fear of the mentally ill.

While there are many who feel very strongly against this film, others would argue that is it just a factious movie about someone with an extreme case of dissociative identity disorder.

Drew Holjes, a junior nursing student who recently saw the film, shared her opinion on Kevin’s portrayal of this illness. She said, “overall I really liked the film. It was suspenseful and kept you guessing on what was going to happen next. James McAvoy did an amazing job acting as a person with 23 different personality types. Although it was fictional, it was really interesting to see how someone with different personalities can juggle them all.”

Regardless if you believe that movies like Split are problematic or just make for a harmless suspense film, it is important to become media literate and understand that mental illness is not how it is portrayed in horror movies, and those who struggle with these disorders are not to be feared. As Wright stated, “Dealing with a mental health disorder makes someone a warrior not a villain.”

PHOTO TAKEN from cinemabravo.com

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