Horror movie causes 'Split' between expectations & reality

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The association between mental illness and the horror genre represented in the newly-released Split is distortive of reality — and not in the way it’s intended.

The central plot point of the movie Split is the antagonist’s diagnosis of dissociative personality disorder. The film follows three girls after they’re kidnapped by a man with 23 distinct personalities. The 24th personality transforms him into an actual beast, threatening the girls’ lives.

In an article in The Ryersonian, writer Emily Theodore explains why she won’t be seeing the film, because of its reliance on “an unfair and untrue Hollywood cliché that says that violence and mental illness reinforce each other.” We agree.  

Films can push people to step into someone else’s shoes, learning about a different viewpoint or perspective. But movies like this, which conveniently use stereotypes of certain mental illnesses in a violent and fear-invoking context, unintentionally reproduce dangerous expectations about what real people with these diagnoses are like.

When we consider the contexts that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and multiple personality disorder are often placed in, it’s not hard to think of characters with these diagnoses who’re represented as violent. Psychological thrillers and crime dramas with characters who have any of these illnesses, most often depict them as criminals who’ve committed crimes as a result of their symptoms.

The problem arises when the portrayal of a man with violent tendencies caused by his multiple personality disorder in Split — alongside other common representations of people with mental illnesses as violent — associate a reaction of fear with these diagnoses.

Horror movies are often built on the understanding that what they depict isn’t real. But when mental illnesses — real diagnoses that impact real people — are used as major plot points for these movies, the line blurs between reality and fiction. If audiences are supposed to be afraid of a character’s violent tendencies caused by his mental illness, it’s a blurry line between this and audiences being fearful of real people who have this illness.

This fear can increase stigma around these mental illnesses and isolate those diagnosed with them — even though, as Theodore mentions in her article, “people with mental illnesses are two and a half to four times more likely to be victims of violence,” not perpetrators.

Although the film’s director, M. Night Shyamalan, probably didn’t intend to create a harmful representation, it’s still a negative and toxic depiction that the film and its makers have responsibility for.

Films that use generalized and stereotyped depictions of mental illnesses for shock value and to make money show, if anything, that lack of knowledge and accessible information about mental illnesses is an issue worth attention. It’s disappointing that not many people will see the trailer for Split and realize the link between violence and mental illness is wrong.

Split isn’t pushing the conversation about mental health stigma in the right direction. In fact, it’s adding stigma and isolation to the lives of those with real diagnoses, not fictional ones.

 Journal Editorial Board

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