SPOILER WARNING: Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)
While dissociative identity disorder as presented in this film does not exist outside of the film world, M. Night Shyamalan takes the opportunity to use it to explore several unique ideas in Split (2016). The aforementioned condition, abbreviated as “DID,” is what the principle antagonist of the film suffers from and is initially indicated to be the catalyst for his behavior. But therein lies one of the more interesting questions posed by the film. Namely, is Kevin truly suffering from his condition that brings about other personalities, essentially whole other beings, such as Dennis, Hedwig, and Patricia; or are these alternative personalities and the changes that they respectively bring gateways for something that is greater than human? Some of the identities certainly think so, and thus begins a power struggle that threatens more than just Kevin himself. But outside of the question as to what this fictional condition can do, Shyamalan explores another, much more interesting and real, query. Kevin’s condition is brought about because of vicious emotional and physical abuse at the hands of his mother. And as the film continues, Kevin, or rather Kevin’s other personalities, become much more powerful because of their condition and all of the opportunities it affords. But Kevin is not the only one who has suffered intense abuse and is able channel its effects to aid them in other ways. Casey, one of the trio of young victims kidnapped by Dennis in the film’s opening, has suffered intense abuse as well. Her experiences equip her better than her companions for what she is facing, and as a result she is able to undermine and even outdo the complex menace that she must confront.
Abuse and the trauma it causes takes a different form for Casey than it does for Kevin. Sexually abused since a young age by her uncle, who later disturbingly becomes her guardian, Casey has known little else in her life. But what she does know, as Split is sure to show, is how to be a predator as well. Taught how to hunt by her father, Casey is intuitive and calculating enough to eventually pull a gun on her abusive uncle, but unable to pull the trigger before he regains control of the situation. Still, this does not preclude her from giving up the fight. Once she finds herself locked in a room with two other girls, neither of whom exhibits the raw survivability that Casey harbors, she knows exactly what she must do. First shown by her suggestion to Marcia that she pee on herself as Dennis is ripping the latter girl out of the room, it soon becomes apparent that Casey knows exactly when she can win; but more importantly she also knows when she can lose and how to turn those losses into draws. Shyamalan’s assertion that not every battle can be won may be hard one for some to accept, but he does an acceptable job of proving that his protagonist is best equipped to survive because of her tactics when picking her battles.
Fundamentally, Casey and Kevin handle their abuse in the same way. Both are dedicated to raw survival. And while Casey approaches this by choosing her battles, Kevin does the same in his own, unique way. By developing alternative personalities, Kevin is able to cope with situations where his otherwise stunted social skills would fail him. But while the personality of Dennis allows Kevin to survive his mother’s torment and Hedwig allows him to have the childhood he never had, these alternative persons can also pose a threat to Kevin’s well being. Each believes that their actions are the best thing for Kevin, but they hold little to no regard for the state of others. Casey, Marcia, and Claire are kidnapped to serve the wants and needs of one of Kevin’s more powerful, and more sinister personalities. And while those such as Patricia and Hedwig may harbor no personal ill will towards their hostages, they still are ultimately loyal to the core personality that they serve. This 24th personality, known only as The Beast, is something that is at the same time more and less than human, and in the end only serves to advance and evolve Kevin.
But in the end the personalities that inhabit Kevin’s body are not really concerned about Kevin at all. While Dennis initially came into existence in order to protect his host, so to speak, he soon becomes a complete person all on his own, with his own wants and needs, as do all of the other personalities. Banished from “the light” because of his less than savory wants, Dennis still believes that he serves the best interest of Kevin but now he believes that he can do so by granting power to The Beast. The Beast is the end result of all of Kevin’s abuse and subsequent coping and survival techniques. A being of pure instinct, The Beast is much more of an animal than a human, and he ultimately only serves his own primal natures. One of these, cannibalism, is at the same time the basest of desires but also much more complex. This paradox is illustrated by The Beast’s refusal to consume Casey because of her physical imperfections brought about by way of her abuse. But The Beast is not repulsed by Casey and her scars; rather, because of them he views her as something of an equal, or at least above the other humans.
Herein lies one of the harder points of Shyamalan’s argument. The scars Casey bears are self inflicted, never directly stated as such but obvious from their appearance; and likely the result of some act intended to repulse her attacker, such as the self-urination strategy. The film never goes so far as to say why her scars are there, but the fact that Casey herself inflicted them is what is important. Placing them there by way of any other means, especially at the hands of her abuser, would lead the film into highly problematic territory. The distinction between strategy and consequence is an important on to make. The former implies what Casey does for most of the film as she picks her fights and looks for weaknesses, while the latter would be the case were Casey’s physical scars inflicted by an external hand. But Split wisely stays on the side of strategy, as Casey takes the initiative to become someone that is adept at survival no matter the obstacle. Ultimately, the predatory techniques bestowed upon her by her father fail Casey, and she must rely on her own personal evolutions to save her.
Shyamalan does not justify abuse with Split, nor does he state that those that endure it, regardless of the form, are better for it. Instead, he presents characters that have become a variety of things due to their respective abuse and abusers. Not all of these are positive by any means, but the uniting thread is that all of the survivors have become something else in order to continue on. Casey has become a grim realist, recognizing her limited power while still determined not to give up. Kevin, on the flip side, has become many things, twenty-four total in fact, and while some of them are good, others are only concerned for their own advancement and improvement. It is to that end that Dennis kidnaps the three victims and The Beast comes forward to consume them. Overall, all of the victims in the film are what they choose to become. Their respective abuse has affected them, but they are the ones that have decided what those affects will be. It is fair that not all of the results are good or bad, as Shyamalan does not want to use broad strokes to define abuse or its victims. Casey is not better or worse because of what she has suffered, and she is certainly not a predator. She simply has a different outlook on things. And this outlook is what she uses to survive when she comes up against every obstacle, even those who have become something more or less than human.