Frank Farley (firstname.lastname@example.org), Madeleine Frazier, Jesse Gropper, Joseph Heidt, Anna Hirsch, Devin Houser, Sarah Hurd, Brandon Kane, Bradley MacDonald, Joshua Obidike, Fiona Riso, Codee Ross, Jasmine Speaks, Osi Sprowal, Keaton Tauer*
A Review of Split (2017)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Hollywood seldom delivers an important and credible film focused explicitly on psychological theory or practice. A Dangerous Method (see Farley et al., 2012) is a relatively recent such film that was mixed in its psychological verisimilitude and validity, though it was well produced and well acted. It considered the origin and emergence of talk therapy, and of course focused on Freud, along with Jung.
The latest Hollywood entry in the “this is psychology” genre is M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 film Split, based on the concept of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Let’s make it clear at the outset, where psychology is concerned, this is a very bad movie! The central character, Kevin, ably played by James McAvoy, is DID, under therapy, and alters are emerging and getting scarier. A significant part of it was apparently filmed at the historic Philadelphia Zoo, America’s oldest zoo, in Shyamalan’s hometown. Given the very dark and horrific qualities of this film (see below), we wonder why a zoo that caters to families and children ever allowed this filming!
Our view is that Shyamalan didn’t want to get close to making a valid movie about aspects of psychology and mental illness, unlike A Dangerous Method, but instead wanted another horror movie with a human monster (male) preying on teenage girls in a grisly fashion including cannibalizing them! Once he had this idea in mind, we speculate that he back-engineered the human monster (“The Beast,” Kevin’s 24th and final personality to emerge) to a more innocent historical point, and concluded that DID would be a handy concept to grab onto, allowing his central character to proceed through many “personalities” to get to “The Beast.” The Beast at the finale survives multiple point-blank gunshots and escapes justice, possibly to return later in Split2!
All is absurd! And a major disservice to psychology, psychiatry, the field of mental health and mental illness, and all those suffering from mental illness. It might be seen as sort of an update of the 19th century tale of Jeykll and Hyde, but stretches the already debatable concept of DID to the breaking point. It fuels the stereotype of the mentally ill crazed killer, and once again places the mantel of monstrosity on men, preying on young girls/women.
Shyamalan also created a clueless therapist, who gets nowhere in therapy with the devolving Kevin, whose alters are emerging and heralding horror to come. She sees the deterioration, yet unbelievably goes to his home beneath the zoo alone at night, violating the ethics code, and of course, never emerges alive.
Of the girls Kevin has imprisoned in the bleak underside of the zoo, the only one he doesn’t kill and devour is the one, who, like him, has suffered from child abuse, a nod in the direction of alleged DID causality, with an ingredient of empathy, the only moment of goodness shown by the emerging Beast.
The demonization of mental illness in Split is its central contribution, stigmatizing and fueling fear of the mentally ill. Shyamalan tries to overlay the horror with a patina of bizarre theory, implying that the DID condition represents an amazing feature of the mind, an advanced and extraordinary set of capabilities, potentially a glimpse into the future of consciousness and the species! He might have explored this “theory” in an intellectually stimulating and interesting way without demonizing the mentally ill. Now THAT would have taken some true creativity, which Shyamalan is certainly capable of, and would have demonstrated exceptional filmmaking, rather than just another Shyamalan horror flick!
* (This short review was a product of the first author’s undergraduate honors course “Meaning of Madness” at Temple University, with class photo noted above (not all depicted are coauthors).
Farley, F., Bloomfield, A., Forchelli, G., Jeans, B., MacMullen, L., Oyer, M., Ryan, M., & Sieple, D. (2012, Spring/Summer). Jung and Freud in a Hollywood movie? Repress it. The Amplifier, Newsletter of the APA Society for Media Psychology and Technology, pp. 15-16.