So I guess I’m a little late to the party again this week, but as always, let me justify my laziness with something pseudo-profound. I first saw the preview for Split back in October when I had gone to see Ouija: Origin of Whatever the Fuck. Spoiler: it started off really promising but completely derailed by ripping off that other train wreck, The Unborn (2009). Needless to say, when I saw that Split’s main premise revolves around the abduction of three young women by a dude with multiple personalities instead of another spoopification of Nazi war crimes, I was a little bit excited. In the fashion of that Dane Cook bit where everyone turns into a film critic after carrying their diapers of nacho cheese and chocolate coins to their seats and taking in the first preview, I immediately turned to my sister and let out a “dat lewks rlly g00d bro.”
But, it didn’t take long for outside critique stemming far beyond the film’s #truehorror association with Shyamalan to call into question my knee-jerk must-see reaction. It was Halloween time and I was becoming a recurring witness to Facebook text walls about how haunted attractions that feature asylum exhibits perpetuate negative stereotypes about the mentally ill. Additionally, cashing in on the sick is just as in poor taste as cashing in on Nazis putting razor blades into people’s eyeballs. Just to be clear to my international audience – here in America we do enough cashing in on the sick in real life, so we sure as hell don’t need to be doing it in our films, too. The more Split was promoted, the more it was mixed up in the same debate. It didn’t take long for the anti-argument to click for me. Both many loved ones and I have suffered mental hardships, so I’m very much in on the fact that the face of mental illness is a far cry from the wild-haired Linda Blair-type writhing around in a trench coat. I knew better.
Butttttttttttt I have the self control of a kiwi, so my bitch ass was there opening night. My sister and I are on the same pay period, so that Friday we wanted to celebrate our crisp, clean $28k a year salaries with a night of Middle Class Fancy TM . The joke was on us, though — after getting tilt on some $4.50 Coronaritas at On the Border, we shambled into the theater across the street to find that it was sold out. I don’t normally subscribe to the Lululemon, bird pack silhouette tattoo notion that everything happens for a reason, but in this case, I took it as a sign that that was my karma for wanting to give my money to the Shyamalan machine in exchange for a fun night of being scared by a baldy who’s a few fries short of Happy Meal. But, eventually, my Cuervo-syrup malaise lifted, and I recognized that I had to get a hold of my autonomy. I could take the neckbeard route and dismiss criticism of the film with a simple “everyone is so offended these days,” or I could take the MetalCucks route and dismiss the film entirely by hopping on the tune-out boycott train. Because neither option provided me with a shot at truly understanding the issue, I quietly took myself to the Sunday matinee armed with my snuggly blanket and a skeptical eye.
And you know what? That’s Split’s appropriate context for viewing. Despite being marketed as the late-night popcorn shoveling flick with friends, it demands a good deal of personal investment, and in return, offers a good deal of nuance. That’s right — this film was not the disrespectful, want-to-be-shocking-for-the-coin shit show that I had been partially bracing myself for. Real talk: it resonated with me as a real-life mentally ill person. Granted I have suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and disordered eating instead of Dissociative Identity Disorder like the antagonist (a term that I’m using loosely for reasons that I’ll soon explain), Kevin, the mental illness umbrella carries a lot of common threads throughout its many manifestations; the stigmatizing of the ill, the igniting of nature-nurture disputes when discussing causation, and so on.
That’s not to say that this is a perfect film. The fact that an individual with DID being linked to criminal and sadistic acts serves as a central plot point is an inherent concern, and in terms of shear movie-making, there are some components that made me raise an eyebrow. I am about to detail some examples, so if you don’t want some shit to get spoiled, click away and watch highlights from the Kitten Bowl. For starters, at the beginning of the film during the kidnapping scene, Kevin sprays the one chick’s dad with some knockout juice, but not before daddy sees him approaching and asks if he can help him. Yet, there’s no suspect description provided in the news clip covering the abduction in a later scene. It seems a little too convenient; a way of filling in the gaping hole that Kev’s shrink totes would have caught on and tipped off the pigs. And it’s not like the sleepy sauce obscures the memory, as exemplified by the fact that the girls remember that it was a sketchy man who took them from the mall parking lot as soon as they wake up in their holding room. Additional nonsensical action seemed to be brushed over with an easy “he’s crazy and the girls are disoriented given the situation” stroke.
Still, there’s much to admire about the insights made into the everyday struggles of those suffering with mental illness that are often overlooked. First and foremost, your distress is not always believed, even by the well-trained and well-intentioned. It’s interesting; when you sneeze and cough people will believe you are sick, but when you’re pacing back and forth and hardly able to speak while passing a panic attack, people aren’t necessary inclined to think the same. Or at least that’s been my experience. When I was 16 and my GAD first struck in that monstrous March, I begged my parents to help me, to take me to the hospital, and all they really did was tell me to knock it off and accused me of being on drugs. I don’t think their response was out malice, but rather ignorance which, for better or for worse, pop culture has the power to shatter.
Where Split diverges from an independent film is that it is not limited to an intense focus on the situation of the young women, but rather contextualizes the situation in the larger realm of the psychological community by showing the relationship between Kevin and his shrink. The community is skeptical of the physiological power of having multiple personalities. The shrink is a little more progressive, believing in the existence of 23 of Kevin’s personalities, but draws the line at his proposed 24th – the Beast, a creature with the power to shatter the fate of the world by feeding on the blood of the “impure,” or those who have never endured any proper suffering. It conjured up memories of trying to get through to my therapist, who, after a panicked visit to my high school nurse, I was finally begrudgingly sent to. She was trying to offer me breathing exercises to help me elude my chronic unease instead of providing the psychiatry referral that I needed. In other words, she got it, but only to a point.
Additionally, as Kevin’s struggle to manage all of his identities spirals out of hand, he tries to act his way into convincing the shrink that the role of Barry, a more stable-minded identity, has been primarily occupying the “spotlight,” as opposed to pervert, Dennis, or uptight Patricia. Personally, lying has proved itself to be an indispensable component of my disordered eating. Hell, with ana and mia all you do is lie (“I already ate,” “I’m allergic to that,” and so on), as it’s the only way to sustain the destructive lifestyle that you use to cope with whatever deep-seated problems that are triggering it all. Drawing awareness to the importance of belief in some circumstances and skepticism in others is the key to unlocking hidden struggle in acquaintances and loved ones alike.
But what molds this lock in the first place? For Split, the answer does not adhere to the strict nature-nurture dichotomy. The shrink proposes that Kevin has altered his body chemistry after adapting to having multiple personalities, as if there may be an emotionally-dictated evolutionary form in which the sheltered don’t fare so well, but beyond that, is not yet completely understood. For instance, Kevin only needs insulin shots when one of his 23 personalities has the spotlight. It is also revealed that he had undergone intense childhood trauma, which also humanizes him to the point where he can tread into protagonist’s waters. Together, it is proposed that genetic predisposition can be triggered by real-life events, and these real-life events can produce tangible bodily results. Therefore, the relationship between nature and nature is portrayed as exactly that – a reciprocal relationship, which is a refreshing change from traditional either/or framing.
And when their baby becomes too much to bear? That’s when the beast is unleashed. When the paranormal component was revealed as Kevin’s description of the Beast manifests into reality, I was quick to roll my eyes. But, I recalled attempting to describe my experiences of disassociation with my therapist through comparisons of demonic possession (what can I say, I saw The Exorcist at an impressionable age). Because I was feeling super-duper meta-minded from my obsessively combed and re-combed thoughts, it was as if my soul was being evicted so that my body could become a vessel for something else. So, perhaps it’s not too outlandish to bring in a little spoop where spoop is due.
Again, the Beast also acts as an important symbol of how even though mental illness can be understood on a surface-level by professionals, some of its most horrific throws must be experienced to be understood or even fathomed. But, perhaps the most poignant scene is the final. After the sole surviving woman, Casey, who is spared by the beast after demonstrating to Kevin that she, too had suffered enormously as a sexual abuse survivor, is found, he manages to evade police custody and subsequently sits unnoticed sipping coffee at a diner as details of Casey’s escape and rescue play on a TV nearby. As cliché as the sentiment is, it’s true – it’s the person sitting down the counter from you, the coworker, the friend. Mental illness doesn’t just spare certain kinds of people, and many around us suffer in silence.
So, optimistically speaking: Split was sold in a problematic fashion to capture the attention of those who hold similarly problematic views towards mental illness in order to offer a more enlightened perspective. Pessimistically speaking: the dollar makes M. Night holler and he was hoping to sell the biggest horror blockbuster of the new year, even if it meant having to call in the men in the white coats to do so. But, I suppose if the result that’s produced is the same, intentions are irrelevant. Fuck, I’ll say it; mental Illness, and illness period, is scary to experience. When translated into a horror movie, the scare just needs to be evoked by the challenges that the illness itself brings rather than pegged on who is carrying it. The line of respect is drawn when illness is used with a purpose and not a cheap edgelord tactic, which other well-regarded works of modern macabre like American Horror Story are very much guilty off. Is it a feature that contributes to the movement of the plot? Does it enhance an aesthetic that illustrates symbolism vital to the work’s meaning? Perhaps these are the questions we need to be asking when assessing the appropriateness of mental illness in horror before jumping to online picket lines.