Shyamalan's 'Split' Only Succeeds at Exploiting Mental Illness, Trauma


#1

M. Night Shyamalan has made horror movies about a lot of things, including ghosts, aliens, and, uh, mental illness! Yikes? Yikes. Split, a 2016 movie about the kidnapping of three young women by a man with dissociative identity disorder, is the focus of our discussion (and ire) on this installment of Be Good and Rewatch It. Austin, Patrick, Rob, and Natalie convened, as we work through Shyamalan’s Eastrail 177 Trilogy ( Unbreakable, Split, Glass).


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/xwbz8z/shyamalans-split-only-succeeds-at-exploiting-mental-illness-trauma

#2

EDIT: Sorted it out by downloading the pod, just in case anyone has the same issue.

Hey! I dont know if this is just me or if this is where I should be bringing this, but when I click through to the site, the podcast I get is the Holiday Pod about Into The Breach!

Its nice to listen to again, honestly.


#3

Also have this issue, fwiw


#4

Should be fixed now!


#5

Having listened to the epi, I wonder if Patrick would enjoy The Visit on a second viewing quite as much as he remembers having enjoyed it the first time around (if at all). He rightly points out that Split distracts the viewer from its extremely fraught premise and message with the ‘shiny thing’ in McAvoy’s acting, and I believe that this is a good way to describe every post-Sixth Sense Shyamalan movie. As everyone acknowledges, he’s an incredibly adroit director who can pull in viewers with his technique, but the longer you think about his films after the fact (sometimes during, depending on how you watch movies), the worse they seem. The Visit is one of those movies, and it suffers from nearly identical problems as Split.


#6

yeah this one just looked mad ableist when it came out. glad i was never into the whole unbreakable/whatever story.


#7

I am looking forward to the next part of this podcast like Roland Emmerich looks forward to a hurricane.


#8

I gave my hot take / meta-analysis of Shyamalan’s work in the Unbreakable comments so I won’t rehash that here, but having just rewatched Unbreakable and Split back to back tonight I’m more certain than ever that I need to avoid watching Glass, because I don’t think I can approach it in good faith given my reaction to Split in particular.


#9

This never appealed because of the premise, but I watched it as prep for Glass. I expected the depiction of mental health issues to be as appalling as it was, but I was really taken aback by how much other offensive shit he managed to cram in there, starting with “trauma builds character” and proceeding ever downward.

My generous, wishful thinking is that Shyamalan reverse-engineers his themes to support whatever he wants to do cinematically or with plot. The alternative… doesn’t speak well of his worldview.

I do think he remains an effective filmmaker; Split doesn’t drag and displays his usual knack for building suspense. This tweet from premier comics critic Joe McCullough sums up my feelings.


#10

One perspective I want to add to this is just that, these depictions of Mental illness are harmful in places where people at least have some basic understanding of mental health issues, but a film like this is being played globally. Here in Indonesia, this film can be many peoples first exposure to DID, and people here absolutely love horror movies so from my memory this film was quite popular.

I did a quick search to see what people were saying about it, and as part of that I found news stories about the first person in Indonesia to ever be diagnosed with DID, her diagnosis was in 2014, the news stories ran in 2017. I’m going to put the next bit in spoiler text because content warning for gross human rights violations This is a country where in 2016, the year this movie came out, 19,000 were living chained up because of the lack of understanding of mental health issues, and fear of people with mental illness (despite the fact that shackling was banned in 1977).
In her story, the woman that was diagnosed with DID was initially told it was because of ghosts or spirits (belief in ghosts is a huge thing here) she was very lucky that she was able to find a psychologist that correctly diagnosed her.
if this movie is peoples first exposure to even the basic concept of DID then to me that’s absolutely terrifying given the challenges that people with mental health issues here are already facing.


#11

As somebody with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum I’ve always been annoyed my movies that treat autism as some kind of superpower. There are actually people with extraordinary abilities in this world, like that guy who can sketch any scene from memory with perfect detail, or whatever. But then you have movies like the latest Predator basically calling it “the next stage in human evolution” or some bullshit. I don’t want to speak for everybody with this diagnosis since my life has been easier than most and I can live an independent relatively normal life, but it always feels gross when some schlock B-movie sees your social anxiety as an easy plot device. It isn’t empowering, it’s exploitative.

Who wants to be the 21st century’s answer to the Magical Negro?

So when Split is doing that same thing with DID, it’s just as bad. Especially when M. Night frames this all in his particularly insane, almost anti-science way. It feels more than just exploitation here, it feels like a dangerous conspiracy theory. (Is M. Night really a crazy person or does he just play one the movies he directs?)


#12

I totally feel you on that’s one. As another person with relatively a relatively mild autism diagnosis, I would love to exchange my superpower of “being able to pick up reading and math kinda fast-ish?” for the not so super people things like “not being uncomfortable in crowds”


#13

I watched this knowing how offensive it was going to be - I wasn’t expecting to come away with the take that this is a full blown exploitation film. Split is the modern equivalent of I Spit On Your Grave. Soderbergh made his last year - Unsane - and people took that more seriously despite it being, um, equally demonizing.

It’s absolutely indefensible beyond “Shyamalan’s a strong filmmaker and McAvoy is a blast.” I like Taylor Joy and Richardson too. It sounds like Glass makes a point of deconstructing this film - I don’t think that matters in terms of the individual film.

EDIT: Robert Louis Stevenson’s intent with Jekyll and Hyde was to grapple with opiate addiction and the growing modernist question of man’s relationship to good and evil as a contemporary of Nietzsche. Hyde is an addict persona, not the intended beginning of grappling with mental illness in literature. When someone wrote to him after publication about their DID diagnosis, Stevenson politely rejected that he was familiar with DID or intended to write about it.


#14

While we’re criticizing the exploitative use of DID in Split, I’m curious if anyone believes there is a film that does a good (or even decent) job of representing DID. Not just in the horror genre, but anywhere. It’s a condition that I think I’ve only ever seen misrepresented in pop culture.


#15

I’m curious, does the type of condition shown in Split actually exist? Are there people with DID who literally become “different” people? Or is the reality much more mild?


#17

The poor representation in this movie reminds me that there have been a few of books that I’ve read recently that examine trauma as power or as a gateway to power

The first that comes to mind is Brandon Sanderson and his Mistborn and Stormlight books, which require some amount of spiritual damage in order to access magic. Sanderson himself is a devout Mormon, and has written a world where bodies literally have a physical, cognitive, and spiritual aspect. Sanderson has explained this as magic seeping through the “spiritual wounds/scars” and seeking to fill the damage left by the trauma. He’s generally handled this much better than Shyamalan, but I still have some issues with parts of his work.

Next, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Often (improperly imo) called “adult harry potter” The Magicians is a book about a young well off functionally depressed teen becoming a Magician, and painfully learning over the course of 3 books that if you learn magic you become a depressed magician. I’m skipping over a huge part of the plot, but at one point it is mentioned that everyone at the school is depressed/mentally unwell in some way, and only flawed people can do magic. While the series doesn’t handle that aspect particularly well, it does heavily revolve around trauma and does an okay job talking about it.

Finally the best is Worm by Wildbow. Worm is a superhero web-serial based around the idea that during extreme trauma, you have the chance to develop powers that directly reflect the types of trauma you endured. Unlike most of these other depictions, it doesn’t suggest that this is good for the people who have been traumatized. Most who experience this end up living with representations of their worst periods of their lives, and turns out that’s bad. Smart characterization and tight(ish) pacing make it one of the best representations of this trope that I’ve read.