Visions of beastliness: Horror movie Split (2016) explained
The beast may not appear until the end of the split, but this movie is shot with beastly behavior and ambiguous heroes. spoilers.
on what is it divided?
Three teenage girls are kidnapped on their way home from a birthday party and wake up in a remote basement.
Her kidnapper, Kevin Wendell Crumble (James McAvoy), has dissociative identity disorder. In fact, Kevin has 23 different personalities, including sociopathic Dennis, gentle Patricia, and 9-year-old Hedwig. Each of these personalities takes control of Kevin (“has the light”) at different times.
Known collectively as the horde, Kevin’s personalities hint at an identity number 24: a monstrous entity they call the beast. As the horde reveals what awaits them, the girls realize they must escape before this final identity is revealed.
as well as horror and suspense elements, split touches on aspects of mental health (similarly to shyamalan’s 2015 film, the visit and the 2008 event). and, like the other movies in the breakout trilogy, develops ideas about heroic or superhuman abilities.
who’s hunting who?
one of the most striking themes of split is that of the hunter and the hunted. it’s a motif that recurs throughout the film in various ways.
More obviously, the girls are the prey. the horde kidnaps them in preparation for the arrival of the beast, which – like the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood – is going to eat them.
although some of kevin’s personalities are nicer to girls, on the whole they play with them like a cat plays with its food. Dennis finds ways to get the girls to take off their clothes and forces Marcia to dance for him. Hedwig comes across as a lovable little boy, but leads Casey on an amazingly cruel futile chase over a bedroom window.
However, as another example of duplication, where themes and characters mirror each other, the beast is not the only divided hunter.
We learned through flashbacks that Casey (the outsider among the three girls) learned to hunt as a child.
While the other girls want to fight their kidnappers right away, Casey draws on her hunting experience: she says they should wait and watch (just like her dad taught her when he was tracking animals).
The final scenes complete this reflection, in which casey flees from the beast, while also hunting it (with a shotgun).
the beast: nature or nurture?
“this inhumane place makes human monsters”
Comic characters (both heroes and villains) usually get their powers as a reaction to something, rather than being born that way. this also applies to the beast.
The film suggests that Kevin’s multiple personalities emerged as a reaction to childhood abuse: they were protecting him from his mother. So instead of being a purely evil figure, it’s possible to see the beast, along with the rest of the horde, as a response to Kevin’s childhood trauma.
this is brought to the fore in the beast’s quest: destroy the pure (people who have never suffered) and save “the torn ones”.
This is another connection between the beast and casey: both are hunters and both are survivors of abuse. In fact, this is how Casey escapes, because the beast recognizes her shared experience through her scars.
There is also a sense that the beast represents the animal nature that all humans have within them (see also the chimpanzee paradox).
This first part of our brain is not concerned with moral concepts like right or wrong, but with self-preservation. so we see the beast protecting the horde from ridicule and harm; we also see him literally devouring two of the kidnapped girls.
more symbolically, we finally learn that kevin lives in the zoo: he is surrounded, in fact, by animal nature and the most basic of needs: to survive at all costs.
sidebar: the number of the beast
in the bible, revelation 13 speaks of a monstrous beast (well, two of them) coming out of the ocean. they are fearsome and diabolical creatures who, significantly, are referred to by number.
This number of the beast (“the number of a man,” says the bible) has probably caused more terror over the centuries than any horror story. This is what drives the Foreshadowing franchise, with its story of Damien the Kid Killer.
the number of the beast in the bible is, as is well known, 666. divided, it is 24: kevin’s 24th personality.
heroes and villains in shyamalan’s films
The idea that humans are both heroes and villains at the same time comes up often in Shyamalan’s films.
in unbreakable, mr. glass uses mass murder to find a hero. the visit has a more complex scenario in which two children find themselves terrified by their grandparents. In the signs, Mel Gibson plays a vicar…who has lost his faith.
split takes this theme more literally: kevin has several personalities: some are nice, others are killers. there is also the ambiguous nature of the beast (described above).
then there’s the way the movie ends. casey escapes from the beast because she was abused by her uncle. The beast doesn’t need to rip her apart again: Casey already has the visible scars of her self-harm.
but instead of being rescued at the end of the film, we learn that casey is being returned to her uncle: another ‘beast’ and another kind of prison.
a movie in which none of the female characters are rescued
if casey’s uncle casts a dark shadow over notions of masculinity, it also reflects something about the nature of movies (and society).
Horror movies have reclaimed the image of the scantily clad woman as their own: first they strip her naked, then they terrorize and/or murder her. the same goes for split, a film in which none of the female characters are rescued (either die or are delivered to some other kind of hell).
Whether it’s a tongue-in-cheek nod to the genre or not, this is still a movie that capitalizes on female horror, and also strips them bare first. if this reminds you of anything, it’s also how uncle john abuses casey… “come on, take your things off”, he tells her as they play at being animals. “Animals don’t wear clothes.”
The trilogy as a whole also focuses on superhuman powers that only men can attain.
This is a bit fishy. After all, Casey and the beast are similar characters: both are hunters, both have developed masking and protective behaviors to survive abuse.
However, the beast delights in its revenge (against innocent people, no less). her response to his abuse is “active”, while casey’s is passive and hidden.
Perhaps more worryingly, if human nature is a mixture of black and white, or good and bad…then our murderous impulses can be excused as survival, and abusive actions can be explained as part or personality of human nature. .
split (2016), directed by m. shyamalan night
movies like split
- unbreakable, glass (the first and third films of the trilogy)
- the visit, the event (same director, mental health, horror)
- the shining ( mental health, horror)
- identity, sibyl, primal fear (dissociative identity disorder)
- the silence of the lambs (female lead, hunt)
- franchise predatory (hunting)
image credit: liz weddon