Mind Over Matter: A Review of Split

The theme of several personalities fighting for control of the body they share has a long history in imaginative fiction as well as in psychological theory. In October 1919, The Journal of  Abnormal Psychology carried reports by Morton Prince and Charles Corey of cases of multiple personality. It is worth noting that Robert Louis Stevenson had published The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde some twenty-five years earlier, a work of fiction that has taken the form of novels, plays and movies in the ensuing years. M. Night Shyamalan, writer/director of the current movie Split, centers his film on this intriguing theme.

Both cases in the scientific journal are those of women and  are presented in the context of Freud’s early writings; Stevenson’s story is that of a man whose contesting selves emerge as a result of drug use. The quasi-clinical account of The Three Faces of Eve in 1957 was followed by a spate of similar accounts of women with multiple personalities, with steadily increasing numbers of contesting selves. The literary multiplication was matched by increasing attention in the therapeutic community, eventuating in official recognition by the American Psychiatric Association of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Clinical accounts continue to be almost exclusively of women, and are most often seen as the result of earlier child abuse.

Shyamalan’s movie reflects some of these trends and bucks others. Kevin Crumb is a young man with twenty-three personalities, the result of abuse by his mother. He is in treatment with Dr. Karen Fletcher, and the therapist believes that Kevin’s individual minds produce dramatic physical changes in the body that they share. She takes this to be a new frontier in the understanding of body/mind relationships justifying ground breaking, controversial presentations to the scientific community.

In the course of her treatment Kevin appears to become more stable, but Dr. Fletcher learns that Barry, the personality that determines which of the twenty-three controls the body at any
one time, is losing control. He is under attack by another self, Dennis, who is violent and likes to watch naked girls dance.

Dennis seizes control—it is called being in the light—and kidnaps three teen-aged girls. Held hostage, the terrified girls meet other personalities and learn about a twenty-fourth personality, The Beast, who will kill them. The movie portrays the girl’s struggles with the various selves and their panicked attempts to escape.

The doctor uncovers Dennis’s displacement of Barry and the kidnapping, but becomes herself his victim. The Beast emerges, superhuman in strength and totally vicious. His mission is to rid the world of those who are impure because they lack the experience of being abused. The Beast kills the doctor and two of the girls, devouring parts of them, but he spares the third girl, Casey, when he learns that she was the victim of sexual abuse by her guardian uncle.

The police arrive on the scene, but The Beast and his hoard escape and Casey is rescued. The tale seems to wind down as Casey is told she is free to return to her uncle, news she receives with a long cryptic stare.
There is an addendum. It takes the form of a diner scene. Customers are listening to the news about the kidnapping and killings. One of them remarks that it reminds them of a case years ago of a madman murderer in a wheelchair. As the group leaves another person at the counter reminds them that the maniac’s name was Glass. That person is Bruce Willis, reprising his role as David Dunn in The Unbreakable, in which he bested the mad killer.

Can we look forward to The Horde vs. The Unbreakable?

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