Can D.I.D work as a narrative Device?
Having recently forced myself to watch SPLIT, the new horror/thriller movie directed by the renowned M. Night Shyamalan, I found myself inspired to analyse media representations of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Commonly referred to as D.I.D, the disorder has been reclassified – you may better recognise the outdated term ‘Multiple Personality Disorder’, or M.P.D.
D.I.D has been a much-loved trope of thriller films – a twist in the tale, a kick in the teeth. These narratives are surprisingly common. D.I.D is frequently represented – which may sound pretty good, but these representations are often heavily caricatured.
D.I.D seems to be a pretty neat trick for writers. Can’t think of any characters? Split your protagonist, or antagonist as it may be, into parts! D.I.D does provide an interesting basis for fiction. The disorder is represented by the media as implying a lack of self-control, time gaps, and violence. See (SPOILER, but you should’ve watched it by now, so I’m not sorry) Fight Club for one of the most popularised D.I.D narratives.
But does a good plot-twist warrant the exploitation of a mental illness? The tradition in literature goes back as far as Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, written in 1886. It is with a guilty pleasure that I call this one of my favourite books. The mystery and unknowable endows narratives such as Psycho and Filth – notably, not the most appealing film titles.
One of my favourite D.I.D (at the time, M.P.D) narratives is John Carpenter’s The Ward. It is a horror film. Surprise surprise. But the premise of D.I.D is genuinely quite clever, playing on the tropes of horror fiction to pull the rug out from under an audience – a slasher in which (SPOILER) each victim is an alter ego, being ‘killed off’ by a psychotherapist during treatment.
‘SPLIT’ didn’t do too bad a job. Of course, M. Night Shyamalan has argued that the character was simply created to see what would happen if D.I.D was taken a step further – a probe, if you will, to ask: what if one personality has OCD? What if one needs to take insulin shots, but the others don’t? What if one can climb walls and likes to eat little girls?
We are given a moment of sorrowful respite in ‘SPLIT’, when Shyamalan, thank God, gives us the chance to sympathise with Kevin, the host of all 24 personalities. He asks, ‘What happened? I was on a bus. Is it still 2014?’ looking down on the utter carnage that his illness, named ‘The Horde’ in need of a supervillain-esque name for the next Unbreakable film, has created.
It is important to note that D.I.D is heavily stigmatised. Having been attacked by a D.I.D sufferer during my youth, I’ve always found the disorder intriguing. Did they know what they were doing? Did they even manage to remember? Can I even place blame? These questions alone show why the illness is so heavily relied upon in thriller films. But it is important to remember it is an illness. It exists in the real world, it is stigmatised, and as Kevin states ‘no one believes we exist’.
If you have studied M.P.D cases of psychology’s past, you may be aware of Eve Black/Eve White. A film was made of this historical case, called ‘The Three Faces of Eve’. It is a very melodramatic film. The real “Eve” has a domestic housewife personality, party girl personality, and ‘Jane’ – the balance struck between them. Her personalities enrage her husband to the point of physical abuse regularly, whilst also reflecting Freud’s thesis of the ‘Ego’, ‘Superego’ and the ‘Id’ quite handily for an A Level Psychology class.
This maltreatment of D.I.D suffers isn’t uncommon. Understanding of the illness is pretty limited, besides the knowledge that it is usually caused by a traumatic event – which fractures the mind into different personalities, adapted to deal with different levels of stress. There is usually a ‘gatekeeper’ figure, too. This figure chooses which personality gets to be in the light, that is, present itself in the moment.
It is worth noting that there are more positive representations. For instance, the comedy show ‘The United States of Tara’ sets the disorder in a new light, following Tara through her struggle with the disorder. The disorder is often played off as comedic. Even in ‘SPLIT’ a horror/thriller/supernatural flick, Kevin’s personalities are played off for laughs.
‘Hedwig’, a nine-year-old personality, provides quips mostly based on his love of Kanye West – providing a strange scene in which the imprisoned teen Casey screams, in desperation for more time to find an escape, the words ‘PLEASE LET ME LISTEN TO YOUR KANYE WEST ALBUMS’ with more devotion than fans who stuck with him following his allegiance with Trump.
The disorder is often turned into an interesting narrative device. But I find it problematic that whilst ‘SPLIT’ treads so carefully not to offend, providing correct facts and information, it also argues that alters can transform into flesh-eating beings – flesh-eating beings which only eat the souls of those who have never suffered in their lives. Which is odd, because being made to suffer by being slowly chewed alive for having not suffered is in itself a contradiction.
It is about time that D.I.D gained some representation that wasn’t a horror film. Documentaries need to be made, and real voices need to be heard. Whilst I’m sure McAvoy has got a great acting reel now, having played 23 people in one film, is it worth it?
‘SPLIT’ was an enjoyable film. It was tense and engaging. But it could’ve done with the comedic undertones of ‘The Voices’, a Ryan Reynolds take on schizophrenia in which his dogs and cats speak to him. Or perhaps, the tragic bitterness of ‘Filth’s slow reveal of disintegrated self. By adding in exposition from a clearly well-qualified therapist, and then painting a D.I.D sufferer as a mass murderer, ‘SPLIT’ only serves to normalise the vision of D.I.D sufferers as villainous.