UNEASY ART: AN OPEN LETTER TO M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN
SPOILER ALERT: This discussion contains major plot points.
TRIGGER WARNING: This discussion features an extensive look at rape, pedophilia, and a frank discussion of OCD.
M. Night, we need to talk, sweetie. I’ve been there with you for awhile, and I always defended you. Sure, I didn’t see The Last Airbender or anything like that, but I did scold everyone who gave you grief. I quoted bastardized lines from Spider Man: something like “the only thing they love more than a hero is the fall of one.” Oh, and I really, really liked The Village--if you put Adrien Brody AND Bryce Dallas Howard on a phonebook, I’m buying fifty copies.
But then there’s Split.
What the hell, M. Night? Sure, now I that I’m thinking back on things, there is a definite (and definitely disturbing pattern) in many of your films. Mr. Glass is physically disabled and ultimately a source of terror, a mentally challenged man introduces violence into a paradisical, if stunted, community in The Village, the elderly killers in The Visit have the world’s most psychotic case of “sun-downers,” a real syndrome that banishes its sufferers to a twilight world of nightmares, not a condition that incites the murdering and eating of children. I volunteered in a nursing home, so you can trust me on the lack of pedo-cannibalism there.
And now Split.
Let’s get started, M. Night, we got a lotta ground to cover before nightfall and all the mentally ill come crawling out of their dank holes to dismember us. First off, let’s start with the Sex Thing in the movie. Your film, whether you realize it or not, actively glorifies disempowerment. First, soon after our nubile little victims are locked up in twitchy Dennis’ sex basement, the alpha girl Claire tries to rally the troops. She proposes that they team up on Dennis, try to knock him down, wrest away the keys, anything… not a bad idea. They have sheets to fashion a ugly noose, two of the three are wearing nylons (perfect stranglin’ material), and a mirror they could smash. I don’t care how strong you are, a shard of glass to a tender body part is an amazing leveler of any playing field. But no, our Final Girl consistently cautions them against using force. Why? Because they don’t know what’s going on.
Sure, the Final Girl didn’t get to read your super-awesome script complete with stunning twist (more on that later) but what they know is they are locked in a basement, their kidnapper has already tried to molest one member of the group, so it doesn’t matter what’s “happening.” Sure, there’s a certain gritty reality to the idea that because of years of brutal abuse, our Final Girl has a bad streak of learned helplessness, but instead of her passivity being a thing out Girl must overcome to defeat the baddie and save the day, the film reinforces the idea that she was right. The girls should have just done nothing (but strip down apparently) and things would have been pretty okay.
And let’s talk about the stripping. Sure, Dennis has OCD and he’s apparently a barely contained pervert. I buy it, M. But doesn’t the guy own a washer/dryer down in his subterranean lair? I hope so for his sake, otherwise those OCD bouts are about to get a lot more hellish. At the beginning of the film we’re presented with what are supposed to be very young girls, probably between 16 and 18. Slowly, through one form of coercion or another, our young leading ladies are stripped down for us. Of course all of the actresses are “legal,” but they’re presented to us as children, and the camera spends way too much time lapping it all up. If you want to argue that the camera here is supposed to be Dennis’s point of view, I’m not buying it. The camera as Dennis never focuses in on the other things that catch his attention--dirty bathrooms, stray candy dishes, and all the other things those nutty obsessive people just can’t seem to get over. And of course you could always argue that it was light, totally PG13 nudity, so just chill, until…
Our hapless heroine’s nudity becomes a plot point. Yes, M. Night, what saves our newly strong young Final Girl is not her hard-earned shooting ability, her late found fearlessness, or even something as sappy as the power of believing in herself. Once the Beast has succeeded in snacking on her more proactive, inarguably stronger friends, what saves our dear heroine is literally her scars. She conveniently gets the last of her many shirts ripped from her body (this is supposed to be some kind of metaphor for her inner self coming out and fighting, but in reality, it’s a long lingering pause over some young sweaty cleavage) and what is revealed are a line of nasty marks presumably from her bastard molester uncle. The Beast, defying logic, physics, and basic storytelling survives the point-blank shotgun blast and after a nice long stare at her chest, concludes she must have suffered like he has. He spares her and in the process totally defines her not by her strength, her cunning, or her abilities but by her victimhood. It doesn’t matter that the other girls have inner strength, some moxie, and a tendency to make reasonable, daring plans. They’re Beast-food. It’s doubly offensive because in a painful flashback, you take pains to show that the Final Girl’s passivity started young when she couldn’t bear to kill her evil uncle. She overcomes her trigger-shyness and lands a fortuitous hit. This is the symbolic redemption our girl needs. But nope, forget that, it’s just way easier to essentialize her by her trauma.
Much has been made recently of the declining amount of speech female characters get in Disney films. Here, after advocating learned-helplessness as the best survival technique for a young woman, at the film’s most pivotal moment, when the heroine is allowed one moment to reach out and stop her abuse, she is denied speech. Yeah, sure, it could be more than surmised that she’ll tell the tale of her abuse to the tough lady cop, but we don’t see it, we don’t hear it, and, most importantly, we are never presented a picture of the girl as anything but a scarred up, half-naked, trembling, crying set of heaving cleavage. Empowerment, y’all.
And that’s fine. Not every movie has to be about female empowerment. But don’t hit the audience over the head with the idea that you’re showing a victim taking control and becoming stronger when your narrative choices are actively working against that.
But let’s stop here for a minute and look at the prime victim within your film: Kevin/Dennis/whoever he is at any given moment. The film takes pains to give us talking head sequences straight from a Psych 101 class about the reality of DID (dissociative identity disorder). While there has been pushback over your portrayal of DID sufferers, one aspect of your faulty psychology hasn’t yet been as fully explored. Dennis, the alpha plural in Kevin’s head, is an OCD sufferer. But instead of giving this any time in a movie already ready to spend a lot of dialogue on talky psycho-lectures, Dennis’ affliction is reduced to an obsessive desire for neatness. As anyone who’s ever heard an anal office mate cry, “Oh, I’m so OCD about my pens being in order…” it’s understandable you think OCD is all about just really, really liking things to be neat. Almost anyone who doesn’t suffer with this disorder thinks it’s all there is.
That’s because filmmakers like you have only ever cared about the C while ignoring the O. For most people the Obessions of obsessive compulsive disorder are those imminently filmable ones like washing your hands until they bleed, putting every single paper clip in a tidy row. But those are the compulsions, outward signs that something is wrong inside. Often, the compulsions center around cleanliness and order, but that’s because of the nature of the obsessions. People with OCD are assailed, sometimes continuously, with a barrage of unwanted, disturbing, depraved images. The outward quest for purity and order is an act of desperation: the thoughts are so terrible, disgusting, and awful, you would do anything to feel cleansed of them. This just only feeds the cycle, and your brain, like a Google search from Hell just keeps feeding you your worst nightmares.
You, of course, give a nod to this by giving Dennis a predilection for seeing young girls dance in the buff, but Dennis acts on these desires--repeatedly. People with sexual obsessions work hard to avoid being exposed to uncomfortable sexual situations, people with violent thoughts shy away from confrontation. This is how it would work for someone with OCD: Dennis would be lurking around his lair, thinking about feeding the tigers at that creepy zoo or transforming into the Beast, or anything really (people with OCD try to keep their minds occupied at all times for their own psychic safety) when suddenly, out of nowhere, an image of writhing naked girls would appear, just dropped like a stone into the stream of his otherwise “normal” thoughts. The thought would be so horrifying, first, he’d spend hours fretting if that really came from his mind or his other mind, the one that lurks just under his own thoughts, ever ready to embarrass and trample an OCD sufferer. During this time, he’d repeatedly blame himself, think he was a pervert, maybe consider suicide, and ultimately turn to his cleansing ritual, whether that’s cleaning the bathroom, washing his hands. Once completed, this would make him feel better... for a moment. Then, out of nowhere, his brain would feed him another debilitating thought and the cycle would go on.
Dennis has a legitimate sexual fixation on too-young-girls (in fancy terms, ephebophilia), and while you try to link this to his OCD, it doesn’t add up. The identity known as Ms. Patricia even tells the girls that she has forbidden Dennis from ever touching them again. Dennis can be an ephebophile with OCD, but the two are connected in your script. If Dennis truly had a form of OCD driven by offensive sexual obsessions, he wouldn’t need a parody of Julia Child to tell him to keep his hands off, he’d be too busy scrubbing off the top layer of his skin to even want to be in the same room with the girls. That’s because obsessions for a OCD sufferer are extremely embarrassing, painful, and disgusting. It’s one thing to live in your own garbage, but imagine every night, as you’re trying to unwind, a neighbor busts in through your front door and splits open a bag of the nastiest, most rotten trash conceivable. Lock the door, you’d say. For someone with OCD, the door won’t lock. And the neighbor comes back whenever he wants.
Within the film, Dennis is the harbinger of the Beast. He’s been with Kevin the longest, and in a flashback, it’s revealed that Dennis was “born” because Kevin’s mother physically (and perhaps sexually) abused him for making natural childhood messes. Dennis’s neatness is supposed to be a reaction to that. While there are cases of OCD occurring after a traumatic event, narratives like this make OCD seem simple and easily traced back to some tragedy. OCD is first and foremost a flaw in the brain, traumatic or stressful events can bring it out, but so can anything. The abuse did not magically create the OCD, it was already there, but damn if it isn’t a good story.
All of these psychological facts could have been overlooked if not for the end of your film. Despite everyone’s haphazard efforts, Dennis summons the Beast... and literally becomes a mutant. He can break old women in half, devour pretty, popular girls with an amazing speed, and survive a point-blank shotgun blast. Awesome. The only problem is that in this film, mental illness has already been fetishized and found to be terrifying. Movies like this make it hard to see people with mental illnesses as people. They’re monsters. They’ll literally climb up walls and rip off your daughter’s blouse. They’re always the products of abuse, neglect, and crazy mommies. Bullets can’t even stop them. They’re out there. They’re broken. They walk among us. They’re scary.
You’ve probably guessed at this point that I’m someone with OCD. I’ve had it ten years, and it’s still hard to say. Very few of the many people I interact with on a daily basis know this. The ones I’ve told usually laugh, point to my messy desk, my chaotic housekeeping, and my chipped nail polish and say, “You don’t have OCD” because that’s the disease only neatniks have. It always hurts, but I understand because cleanliness rituals are the most common among people like me. I’m a “Pure Obsessive,” and almost always have been—though I exhibited some limited range of outward ritualizing at the initial onset of my disorder. This means that my rituals for controlling my horrific thoughts are all internal.
During my career, I’ve met young people with symptoms of this disorder, and I worry about them. For the first seven years, my disorder tried every day to pull me under. I went to bed exhausted from fighting myself and woke up racked with guilt and fear. It was a long, slow, walk to inward “normalcy,” but I’m getting there… slowly. The only treatment I’ve received has been in college where the therapist on campus (the only one I could afford) told me he didn’t know how to treat OCD. I had no choice but to submit to his unqualified treatment and it did me more harm than good. Which is the biggest reason your film bothered me. So little attention is given to people with mental illnesses and so little resources. I’ve learned to live with my disorder, but this is the most common mental disorder in America today. Most probably live lives as exhausting, terrifying, and overwhelming as mine was a few years ago. And the “subtle” sequel hook at the end of the film only serves to demonize mental illness more than anything that came before. Bruce Willis’s character from Unbreakable is literally a superhero. So, in the sequel, we can already guess that Kevin Wendell Crumb won’t be receiving some much needed compassionate care for what is most assuredly the world’s most horrible case of OCD and DID, he’ll be getting a beat down.
It’s just a movie. I know. But more people will see this movie than will actually Google OCD or DID. More people will remember the sight of a pervert meticulously wiping a chair before selecting a girl to molest than will know anything about the people who live with these disorders. Elie Wiesel once said, “People become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.” For too long, the narrative in horror films has been that the mentally ill and the abused are dangerous explosions waiting to happen.
As you gear up to make the sequel, M. Night, these are just some things you should take note of. Sexual abuse survivors can’t be essentialized to a moment in their lives when their bodies were violated. The mentally ill are not supernatural, wall-crawling humanoids. We’re here. We’re not broken. We walk among you.
We’re not scary.