What the Movie 'Split' Got Right (and Wrong)


Author’s Note: The following is a discussion of the movie “Split” and contains spoilers.

A “split” is a separation, a rift between two things. It can be a split within the mind, something that happens for survival. In the real world, such a “split” (more of a separation, a dissociation than a schism), isn’t horrific. A split can also refer to a fissure between the real and the fictitious, the truth and the untruth. Movies, books and the like dance around this fissure in an attempt to inform us and entertain us. I recently saw a movie I thought might take the split between reality and unreality and blast it into a giant chasm.

The movie “Split” premiered in theaters across the U.S. on a January weekend in 2017. As a mental health writer, someone who lives with mental illness, a certified counselor and author of a novel (“Twenty-Four Shadows” published by Apprentice House Press) about dissociative identity disorder (DID), I was highly curious about this new movie.

Curious, to be sure, but skeptical. “Split,” after all, is a thriller and the previews made it look creepy indeed. Was this going to be another uninformed, sensationalized, inaccurate portrayal of mental illness and people who live with it? Seeking an unbiased impression of what this movie was up to, I went in with an open mind, a notebook and a pen. I emerged with mixed feelings. Split between pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed.

A Pleasant Surprise: “Split” Got Some Things Right

“Split,” for the most part, wasn’t overly sensationalized. For much of the movie, “Split” portrayed a man with DID as an actual person. Or more accurately, as actual people. We find out fairly late in the movie the original identity is Kevin and that Kevin has 23 alternate parts. “Split” treats these alters as it should: separate identities in their own right, each with different traits and personalities.

The alters, collectively called a system (a term the movie correctly uses), see a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Fletcher who explains, “The brain has learned to adapt to the trauma.” This is exactly what happens in DID. A child experiences severe trauma — usually in the form of abuse — and to handle it, the psyche splits, shatters, into alternate parts.

In “Twenty-Four Shadows,” Dr. Charlie, Isaac’s psychiatrist, uses a starfish analogy to explain DID to Isaac and his wife.

“It [the separation into alternate parts] happened because the one, whole starfish couldn’t withstand the severity of the abuse. It was either fragment into different entities or be completely destroyed. To survive, the starfish fragmented. Little Isaac’s mind was shattered for self-preservation.”

“Split” does a refreshingly good job of showing dissociative identity disorder isn’t behavior fabricated for attention, nor is it a weakness. It’s the brain’s survival instinct rising up to meet a terrible challenge. “Split” was spot-on in other ways. Through Dr. Fletcher and Kevin’s alters, “Split” lets us know:

  • Different alters can and do have different traits (right or left handedness, IQ, strengths, need for glasses, medical issues and more.)
  • Someone with DID can function well in life (Kevin’s system has held a job for 10 years, sees a therapist, prepares food, etc.)
  • Alters have a disconcerting sense of lost time that happens when a different alter is “in the light” (a correct expression used in the movie).
  • People with DID frequently use the terms “we” or “us” rather than “I” or “me”
  • Brain scans show significant differences between the identities; the scans are unique for each alter.
  • Protection is an important concept (alters Dennis and Patricia believe they’re the only ones who can protect Kevin while in reality, all of the alters serve the function of protecting the primary identity, each in different ways).
  • DID systems have a structure, a place for the alters to be and live when they’re not out in the world (in “Split” it’s very simple, just a room with a chair for each alter, but in reality, the structure is often more complex. In “Twenty-Four Shadows,” the structure is an elaborate blanket fort.

Another surprise is the movie’s subtle acknowledgement of the stigma people living with DID face. Dr. Fletcher’s friend, for example, refers to clients as “those people” and she doesn’t see how Dr. Fletcher can stand to work with them. I was pleased with Dr. Fletcher’s positive response. She countered the “those people” remark and talked about the alters having strengths and other legitimate characteristics. It’s also refreshing Dr. Fletcher doesn’t automatically assume her system of clients is involved in the kidnapping and disappearance of three local teenage girls. She doesn’t equate such an incident with the behavior of someone with DID. Good for her. However, this segues into the less palatable aspect of the film…

Unpleasant Expectations: “Split” is a Thriller

As accurate as some of the movie’s conceptualizations of DID are, this movie is a thriller. Thrillers must scare. They must be real enough to invade our psyche and put us on edge. “Split” is real enough. The bad guy is a real person with a real disorder portrayed, for the most part, in a realistic way. For full fright effect, a thriller must go beyond the real into that which is unthinkable outside of the movie theater. “Split” achieves the real and the unthinkably unreal.

The movie splits from accurate reality when it veers from what DID is to what it isn’t: supernatural. The good news: the kidnapped teenage girls aren’t tormented by the person who is a system of alters. The bad news: the alters are actually elements of a horrible, nasty, scary beast who wants to get them all.

Here’s a counter to the eye-roll, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me elements. Contrary to what we see in “Split”:

  • The person with DID is not a monster, nor does he or she host a monster inside.
  • The Incredible Hulk stuff like super-human size, strength and speed really is just the stuff of movies and comic books.
  • DID isn’t in the realm of the supernatural.
  • People with DID can’t scale walls like salamanders.

Does “Split” Perpetuate Stigma?

I am very curious to learn how others are answering this question. Any movie, show, commercial, book or greeting card that doesn’t get something right is perpetuating misunderstanding, which in turn decreases empathy. That’s stigma.

Therefore, “Split” contributes to the perpetuation of stigma against DID. Kind of. The morphing into the beast is so incredibly and ridiculously unrealistic I wonder if it’s even possible to really increase the stigma against DID. So many aspects of the disorder are portrayed correctly and well and favorably. This movie is a thriller and is meant to thrill and frighten. Since DID isn’t frightening, the movie had to create a monster.

The movie’s end shows us what is dangerous in the real world. A TV news reporter stands at the scene giving a sensationalized, uninformed account of what had occurred, and she blatantly suggested “pure evil.” This is maddening. However, as I think about it, I realize the reporter kept the focus on the supernatural. She didn’t blame mental illness in general or DID in particular. People expect news to be trustworthy. Hopefully we don’t expect movies like thrillers to be fully trustworthy.

I went into “Split” unsure. I don’t love the fact mental illness is used as the basis of a thriller. However, seeing the movie rather than just the trailers left me pleasantly surprised. DID is a disorder that arises as a survival mechanism out of horrendous abuse in childhood. DID is about survival, not destruction. As Dr. Charlie continues to explain to Isaac and his wife Reese in “Twenty-Four Shadows,”

“Just like with an actual starfish, the pieces live. And they grow. And they regenerate—form new identities. But they are still physically part of the original starfish, the ore of the being, the part that’s also a fighter and a survivor.”

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Image via the “Split” Facebook page

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