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Dissociative Identity Disorder in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split: Fact vs Fiction (Contains Spoilers)

Posted By Kevin Malley (Robert Morris University), Monday, June 12, 2017
Updated: Monday, June 12, 2017

Dissociative Identity Disorder
in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split:
Fact vs Fiction (Contains Spoilers)

On January 20, 2017, the new psychological thriller Split hit theaters. The movie centers on Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with 23 different personalities. His psychiatrist, Dr. Karen Fletcher, states that he was diagnosed with what is called dissociative identity disorder (DID). In the movie, Kevin switches through these personalities by bringing them to what he refers to as “the light.” When a certain personality is “brought to the light,” that personality dominates Kevin’s actions. The plot of the movie is simple: Kevin’s personalities work together to keep hold of three girls so that Kevin’s 24th personality, The Beast, can consume them.

Where Split Got It Right

So how much of Kevin’s DID comes straight out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5)? And how much is just movie magic? To begin, the DSM-5 states that “the defining feature of DID is the presence of two or more distinct personality states or an experience of possession” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Kevin Crumb easily fits this description with his 23 defined personalities. The audience is introduced to at least three of these within the first 30 minutes of the film.

The second DSM criteria involves recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information, and/or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting. When Kevin switches from The Beast back to himself, he immediately says “What did I do?” Kevin did not recall any of the events that conspired while he was dominated by The Beast.

Third, DID is typically caused by childhood trauma. Individuals are subjected to a sort of physical or emotional torture that they cannot cope with at their current developmental period. Their minds are just not strong enough to work through the pain. The individuals become psychologically weak and start looking for ways to protect themselves. One way they find is to create these splits in personalities. Instead of a weak host dealing with the trauma, a new identity is created to protect the original. This new identity is typically very different from the host identity, therefore being stronger and better apt to protect itself. As more trauma ensues, more identities are created to protect the host. The movie gives the audience a glimpse of this during a flashback of Kevin’s mother screaming and threatening Kevin. This is followed by several identities stating that those who are “impure” deserve to be consumed by The Beast. “Impure” is used to describe those who have not suffered in their lives. This is more proof that Kevin underwent extreme suffering as a child.

Where Myth Started to Take Over

Discussing The Beast is where the fiction begins to arise in Split. It is true that some physical characteristics can change as a result of identities switching, but The Beast takes it to a new level. It is possible that an individual’s eye color, handedness, or voice can change with each personality, but The Beast literally increases the size of Kevin’s muscles, becomes impenetrable to bullets and other weapons, and gains the ability to scale walls.

The Beast is also portrayed as an angry and violent creature who seeks out “impure” humans and consumes them. On the contrary, DID develops in individuals in real life as a coping mechanism, not a weapon. It is possible for individuals with DID to be violent, but in most cases these individuals use their personalities to better cope with the traumas they experienced in early life. They are actually more likely to hurt themselves than others. The one personality that does seem to help Kevin cope with his trauma is the nine-year-old boy, Hedwig. This personality is the comic relief of the movie and appears to be the personality that shows up when Kevin needs to relieve stress and act like a kid again.

Another one of Kevin’s personalities, Jade, claims to have diabetes and takes insulin shots. This aspect is highly controversial in the field. Is it really possible for the body’s chemistry to shift with the personalities so much that it develops a biological medical condition? Or does the brain just believe the individual has diabetes and needs the insulin shot? These are the types of questions that make DID so debated in the psychiatric field. It comes down to how much impact the brain actually has on biology, which is beyond the scope of this movie.

Generally speaking, Split got a lot of Dissociative Identity Disorder correct: the distinct personality states, the recurrent gaps in recall, and the childhood trauma. Unfortunately, the movie stretched itself a little too far when it changed the entire biological makeup of Kevin to turn him into The Beast. This being said, The Beast is an integral part of the movie and adds a necessary horror component to it. It may not be clinically correct, but it was a fantastic aspect of the movie and made the ending more exhilarating. Dissociative Identity Disorder is a fascinating yet controversial mental health condition that can be displayed in a many ways in pop culture, but it is always interesting to see just how far movies like Split will stretch the truth.

Conduct a Lab Experiment

The portrayal of DID in the film is controversial indeed! Psi Chi members, let us know what you thought about the film in the comments section below (member login required).

Tags:  All Things Psych 

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