Reflecting on portrayal of mental health in movies

For years, horror movies have been successful because they prey on the audience’s most primal fears.

While this is what makes the genre successful, it seems that success has come at the cost of marginalizing an already misunderstood demographic. The new film “Split” depicts a character with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) with 23 separate identities and a rumored 24th. The movie grossed a reasonable $80 million in its first weekend in theaters and opened to overall positive critical reviews, but the popular response was much different.

As someone who lives with mental illness every day, it is easy for me to see why this film is offensive. Mental illness is constantly stigmatized as dangerous and perverted, and “Split” reinforces these stigmas. The entire premise of the film is that somehow all of the main character’s identities can break to make way for a 24th identity called “The Beast,” a superhuman monster that will take the lives of the girls he has kidnapped.

Here’s the thing: people with mental illness, especially one so misunderstood as DID, are already struggling against a society that systematically disadvantages them by portraying them as dangerous, deviant and unable to lead normal, healthy lives. This film serves to elevate this portrayal by planting the idea that not only are people with DID dangerous, they’re somehow monstrous.

I have lived with mental illness for seven years and I have felt the stigma on me every time I applied for school or a job and had to tick a box that disclosed my condition. I’ve felt this stigma every time I had to take out my medicine at a sleepover or overnight conference and discreetly take it before anyone sees. My illness is common, but for people with DID, that comfort isn’t necessarily there.

The popularity of this movie perpetuates the stigma of a dangerous and deviant mental illness by portraying one of the most complicated disorders as the catalyst of a triple abduction. If anything is damaging to the reputation of a group of people already struggling for recognition, it is to have that recognition thrown back in their face in a way that demonizes the disorder even further.

Ultimately, “Split” takes a complicated mental illness and portrays it in a way that emphasizes the stigma of deviance, monstrosity and otherness. In a society that is becoming even more progressive, “Split” reverts back to stale and painful theatrics in order to scare audiences at the expense of a demographic that is already misunderstood. It’s the cheap appeal to misguided stereotypes that perpetuates the stigmatization of mental illness that pushes “Split” from innocent thriller to harmful portrayal of mental illness.

The views expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The Torch.

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