By Lorenzo Servitje
What really scares me about M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2016) is the opening: A father, his teenage daughter Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and her two “friends” (we’ll get to this) Marcia (Jessica Sula) and Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) return to their car after his daughter’s birthday party. The girls climb into Claire’s father’s luxury car first, while he finishes putting left-overs in the trunk. The slightly wide-angle shot shifts to point-of-view.
The next scene unhurriedly reveals a stranger (James McAvoy) as he puts on a painter’s mask and, with callous efficiency, chloroforms Marcia and Claire, right before seeing Casey and subsequently rendering her unconscious as well.
This is one of several instances in which family, not only that of Claire and her affable yet ineffectual father, fails to protect. These family failures take the form of people’s being off-guard at best, and pathological and damaging at worst. Considering this motif, we can better understand what motivates the film’s unsettling thematic. Like many other antagonistic figures in the horror and thriller genres, Split’s Kevin (the original personality) is horrific less because of his “monstrosity” than because of the conditions that produced him.
Kevin (Dennis, Patricia, Hedwig, Barry, et al.), consistent with research on dissociative identity disorder (DID), develops his condition out of a severe childhood trauma. As Dennis informs Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley), “Kevin’s mom had a rather malevolent way of punishing a three-year-old.” We later get a flashback: “Kevin Wendell Crumb! You made a mess!” a woman screams, as she searches furiously under the bed.
Like Kevin, Casey also suffered a traumatic childhood and is marked as a social outsider from the onset. During her captivity, we learn why she “acts like [she] is not one of them,” as Marcia suggests. Recurring flashbacks reveal that she was sexually abused by her uncle John (Brad William Henke). When she was a young girl, John facilitated her father’s drinking heavily during a hunting trip so that he passed out and John could take her deeper into the forest undisturbed. This is not the first, nor the last instances of abuse. Subsequent flashbacks show her uncle becoming her ward after her father dies of a heart attack. “You don’t need to worry,” Uncle John reassures her, “I’m going to take care of you.”
Kevin’s psychologist, Dr. Fletcher, exhibits a close relationship with her patients that is characterized as familial, yet even she is unable to mitigate Kevin’s trauma. Dennis (masquerading as Barry) worries, like a child thinking about their parents, “Who is gonna look after us after you retire or pass on?” Dr. Fletcher senses from the beginning that something is very wrong, pleading to Dennis, “I don’t want to lose another to the system.” “Patients have become my family,” she confesses. Despite her familial affinity, she is unable to prevent the violent group of alters from dominating Kevin’s consciousness, leading him to murder and cannibalism.
While the whole group of alters are framed as a collective (“We”) with the unified purpose of protecting Kevin, “The Horde” as the majority of the group call them, take on a typical heteronormative familial structure and commandeer Kevin’s mind and body. Dennis—the obsessive-compulsive, aggressive, and voyeuristic adult male—does the dirty work of kidnapping and keeping Dr. Fletcher at bay. Patricia—the poised, killing-with-kindness, turtle-neck adorned, controlling matriarch—fosters belief in the twenty-fourth alter (the Beast) while directing Dennis and manipulating the juvenile Hedwig. Playful, insecure, and faithfully recreating the linguistic conventions of a 9-year-old, Hedwig has the power to take control of Kevin’s consciousness away from the previously dominant Barry.
Patricia, Dennis, and Hedwig form the pathological trinity that allow the twenty-fourth alter to emerge: the Hydean Beast who requires the flesh (not a figure of speech) of “impure” teenage girls to sustain him. The Beast evolves out of pain, trauma, and suffering and “represents the highest form of human evolution”—a neat reversal of the Gothic convention of degeneration, but a bit on-the-nose when uttered explicitly, given the other subtler references to this effect.
The Beast ultimately spares Casey after seeing evidence of trauma (scars all over her body; it is unclear whether self-inflicted or due to her uncle). The Beast explains, “You are different than the rest. Your heart is pure,” following his earlier proclamation that “only through pain can you achieve your greatness. The impure are the untouched. Those who have not been torn have no value in themselves. They have no place in this world. They are asleep.” This position reverses more traditional understandings of purity and impurity, where the traumatized and broken are damaged goods.
Claire and Marcia, who have suffered no trauma and are thus “impure,” have no place in the world, no value, and hence are merely meat. This notion of security/purity seems paradoxical, as early in their captivity they appear to be the strong ones. “I took six months of kempo karate class,” Claire boasts. Ever-patient, watchful, and most importantly experienced, Casey replies, “Everything is so easy for you guys. You do one thing, you think can predict the next . . . We don’t know what this is yet . . . Your six months of kempo karate at King of Prussia Mall can blow me.”
And this, I would suggest, is what the horror the film proposes—the only way to survive the cruel, dangerous world, the only way to “evolve,” is through the fashioning of trauma. The cohesion and unit of the family, especially an upper-middle class, gated-community family like Claire’s, will ultimately fail, leaving one “without a chance.” The paradox lies in the suggestion that only through self-reliance in the midst of pain—Casey’s resilience, or in its more pathological form, Kevin’s DID—can one merit existence and survive. Relying on others, especially familial others, leaves you vulnerable prey to modern predators, red in tooth and claw.
 It is worth nothing here that in contrast to most filmic representations, those whose suffer from DID more often harm themselves rather than others (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
 There is a lot more to be said about the way gender and animalistic, primitive tropes operate (beyond the obvious Beast nominal, images and references to animals are pervasive) with respect to trauma, family, and the Gothic.
Lorenzo Servitje is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, receiving his PhD in June. He is currently investigating how we have come to think of medicine in terms of war, tracing this metaphor back to the nineteenth century in his book project: “Medicine is War: The Martial Metaphor in Victorian Literature and Culture.” He also researches contemporary representations of medicine in popular culture, working on a project on the history of medical students in Gothic fiction and the use of antibiotic resistance as apocalyptic narrative in video games. He teaches courses on the representations of medicine in contemporary film, zombie fiction, Victorian literature, and popular digital and social media. Lorenzo can be found on Twitter @kilojoule_ and on Facebook.