*Spoiler Alert: This article discusses key plot points.
There’s something thrilling about being scared. For many years, horror movies have been a key component at my girls’ nights. A temporary fright is exciting but still safe. Fear demands to be felt, which provides an oddly comforting break from reality. Horror movies are absorbing, making their plots more impactful than you may think.
When the trailer for Split came out last summer, I was intrigued. It showed three girls being abducted and taken to a bunker, an unoriginal but frightening premise. My fascination faded into sad astonishment when the trailer was over; I realized the antagonist’s mental health issues with dissociative identity disorder was central to his character and his evilness.
“An individual with multiple personalities can change their brain chemistry with their thoughts,” says his therapist Dr. Karen Fletcher, played by Betty Buckley. It’s later revealed that his dissociative identity disorder transforms him into an actual beast — his villainy rests on his mental illness.
M. Night Shyamalan, you got it all wrong. This character is an unfair and untrue Hollywood cliché that says that violence and mental illness reinforce each other. In reality, people with mental illnesses are two and a half to four times more likely to be victims of violence than any other group in society. And as media reflects society, this movie encourages the mental health stigma.
Mental illness should not be constructed as menacing and evil for shock value. I like to be scared, but not at the expense of demonizing a minority. These portrayals “other” them even more.
Jessica Rong, a member of Ryerson SMASH (Students for Mental Awareness, Support, and Health), says she’s deeply upset by the movie, especially as someone who has a mental illness. “Coming to terms with my mental illness is a process that has taken me years. It is because of these harmful stereotypes and images that are constantly produced — and reproduced — that this process becomes even more difficult.”
Kristen Jess, a Ryerson English student and research assistant at the Modern Literature and Culture Centre, saw the film. She found the overall effect of his character to be harmful.
“While they have his therapist portraying a more positive attitude towards those suffering from mental illness, and in essence validating their experience, (she) is ultimately murdered by the patient, proving those who distrusted stigmatized patients right.” This tells audiences that people with mental illnesses are barbaric and can’t be helped.
As campaigns like Bell’s Lets Talk are gaining traction, Jess said she was surprised to see a movie like this become so popular.
“I think it’s a very backward film to be featured now,” she said. “People are interested in empowerment and giving a voice to minorities and disenfranchised groups — belittling and silencing them is almost outdated.”
Still, Split has a 75 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and The Guardian even gave the film a four-star rating. Rong noticed her friends sharing the trailer over social media. “It was literally inescapable,” she said. “(It) made me question why they didn’t share things in support and solidarity with the destigmatization effort. Why is it easier to share a trailer that stigmatizes and ostracizes individuals, than to share something that is supportive?”
Look beyond Split’s entertainment value and see the bigger picture. “Through media’s representation of mental health, it becomes difficult to see people separately from their mental health diagnosis,” Rong said. “But the truth is, I am not my mental illness.”