In Kevin’s head coexist the amiable Barry, the inflexible Patricia, this electric battery of Edwig and… 20 other personalities, one of whom, buried, threatens to arise in order to massacre, in the name of an ideal of purity, several innocent people. Here is the pitch of the second part of the fantastic trilogy signed M. Night Shyamalan, Split (2016).
A nugget of suspense inspired by a psychiatric diagnosis: dissociative identity disorder (DID). But also, and above all, based on a chilling – and authentic – journey. That of William Stanley Milligan known as “Billy”, also nicknamed in the United States “The Campus Rapist” (the campus rapist). Before being at the source of Splitits story with historical repercussions inspired the Italian play 24 volte Billy (Cinzia Tani), as well as the book The Thousand and One Lives of Billy Milligan (Daniel Keyes). Here is the story.
A childhood torn by forceps
As in the majority of DID cases, Billy’s illness stems from childhood trauma. Born in 1955 in Miami Beach, the child was only 4 years old when his father died, who suffered from alcoholism and depression, following a suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Widowed, Billy’s mother remarried in 1963 to Chalmer Milligan, who then began beating and sexually abusing the boy. Billy is eight years old.
As a teenager, he multiplies the packages. Armed robbery, assault, forcible confinement and rape. Crimes for which he is incarcerated for two years in an Ohio prison. Shortly after his release, Billy returns to the benches of the court. He is accused of raping three female students at Ohio State University.
Examined by psychiatrists during the preparation of his defense, he was first diagnosed with schizophrenia, then with DID. Which disorder involves “the presence of two or more distinct identities or ‘personality states’ which alternately take control of the subject’s behavior, accompanied by an inability to evoke personal memories”according to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (“DSM”, a world reference in the matter).
24 personalities for one face
In light of this information, his lawyers plead not guilty on the grounds that certain “alter egos” would have committed crimes, without Billy being aware of it. And therefore responsible. For the first time in history, a person is deemed not responsible following the mention of a TDI.
Sent to various psychiatric institutions, the specialists detect not three, four, or even five individuals “sharing” Billy’s body, but 24. With as many talents, characters and distinct ambitions.
Coexist, for example, a Yugoslav communist aspiring to social justice and… a 3-year-old child suffering from dyslexia. Several experts also distinguish an Arabophile who learned medicine as an autodidact, a bandit specializing in crime planning or a 4-year-old boy suffering from deafness. Billy was released in 1988 after eight years in psychiatric hospitals. He died of cancer in 2014, at the age of 59.
bloody offering to “The beast”
Fascinated by the idea of a mosaic of personalities in a single body, M. Night Shyamalan decided to make Billy’s diagnosis the raw material of Split. The result was a veritable show of force in terms of suspense, where, like Billy, a certain Kevin, a victim of child abuse, became despite himself the “host” of 23 personalities.
According to a complex system of exclusions and alliances, everyone tries to “take the light” – understand, controlling Kevin’s body. Some personalities are harmless, others less so. Much less. Thus the very, very, meticulous Dennis, who kidnaps at the beginning of the film two young girls considered “impure” as well as, by an unfortunate combination of circumstances, Casey – the excellent Anna Taylor-Joy, revealed in The Witch. This in order to feed “The Beast”. Consider Kevin’s 24th sleepy personality, embodied by James McAvoy, who deploys with Split the full extent of his talent.
Psychological thriller flirting with the supernatural (what if people with DID could push the limits of “humanity”?), Split grossed some 278 million and was widely hailed by critics as M. Night Shyamalan’s horror comeback, following in the footsteps of The Visit (2015), after the polar receptions reserved for the Last Airbender (2010) and after-earth (2013).
A stigmatizing film?
Commercial success and hit with critics, the film has none the less aroused a strong outcry. The reason ? An illustration considered too violent – and therefore stigmatizing – of people with mental illnesses. The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, for example, has published in 2017 a press release denouncing a film made “to the detriment of a vulnerable population that is fighting to be recognized and receive the effective treatment it deserves”.
Some people with DID have also written open letters railing against Kevin’s chilling (if not clearly monstrous) portrayal. One of them accuses : “Split represents a gross parody of our condition based on fear, ignorance and sensationalism […] the bigotry of your horror movie will inspire a new wave of revulsion and hatred against diversity […]. Your work is part of a long tradition of portraying us as dangerous and unpredictable evildoers.” (2)
Fact, Split is far from the first work to be accused of harboring negative prejudices about mental disorder. Psychosis, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or black swan are some of the titles often cited by psychiatrists. With, in the viewfinder, the vision deemed biased that sometimes conveys the 7th art on a field which, to this day, remains largely obscure even that it affected in 2019, according to the WHO, one eighth of the world’s population : mental disorder.