The Beast may not appear until the end of Split, but this film is shot through with beastly behaviour and ambiguous heroes. Spoilers.
What is Split about?
Three teenage girls are kidnapped on their way home from a birthday party and wake up in a remote basement.
Their kidnapper, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), has Dissociative Identity Disorder. In fact, Kevin has 23 distinct personalities, including sociopathic Dennis, the genteel Patricia and 9-year-old Hedwig. Each of these personalities takes control of Kevin (‘has the light’) at different times.
Referred to collectively as The Horde, Kevin’s personalities hint at a 24th identity – a monstrous entity they call The Beast. As the Horde reveal what lies in store, the girls realise they must escape before this final identity manifests itself.
As well as elements of horror and thriller, Split touches on aspects of mental health (similarly to Shyamalan’s 2015 movie, The Visit and 2008’s The Happening). And, like the other movies in the Unbreakable trilogy, it develops ideas about heroic or superhuman abilities.
Who’s hunting whom?
One of Split’s most striking themes is that of the hunter and the hunted. It’s a motif that repeats throughout the film in various ways.
Most obviously, the girls are the prey. The Horde kidnaps them in preparation for the arrival of The Beast, who – like the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood – is going to eat them up.
While some of Kevin’s personalities are kinder to the girls, collectively they toy with them the way a cat plays with its food. Dennis finds ways to get the girls to remove their clothes, and forces Marcia to dance for him. Hedwig presents as an adorable little boy, yet leads Casey on a stunningly cruel goose chase regarding a bedroom window.
As another example of doubling, however – where themes and characters mirror each other – The Beast isn’t the only hunter in Split.
We learn through flashbacks that Casey (the outsider among the three girls) learned to hunt as a child.
While the other girls want to fight back against their kidnappers immediately, Casey draws on her hunting experience: she says they should wait and watch (exactly as her father taught her when tracking animals).
The final scenes complete this mirroring, in which Casey runs from The Beast, whilst also hunting him (with a shotgun).
The Beast: Nature or Nurture?
Comic book characters (both heroes and villains) typically gain their powers as a reaction to something, rather than being born that way. This is true of The Beast, too.
The film suggests Kevin’s multiple personalities came about as a reaction to child abuse: they were protecting him from his mother. So, rather than being a purely evil figure, it’s possible to view The Beast – along with the rest of the Horde – as a response to Kevin’s childhood trauma.
This is brought to the foreground in The Beast’s mission: he destroys the pure (people who have never suffered), and saves ‘the torn’.
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 recognises their shared experience through her scars.
There’s also a sense that The Beast represents the animal nature all humans have within them (see also The Chimp Paradox).
This early part of our brains isn’t concerned with moral concepts like good or evil, but with self preservation. Hence we see The Beast protecting the Horde from ridicule and hurt; we also see him literally devouring two of the kidnapped girls.
Most 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 talks of a monstrous beast (well, two of them) rising out of the ocean. They’re dread, devilish creatures that, significantly, are referred to by number.
This number of the beast (“the number of a man”, the Bible says) has probably caused more terror through the ages than any horror story could. This is what powers The Omen franchise, with its tale of Damien the killer child.
The number of the beast in the Bible is, famously, 666. In Split, it’s 24 – Kevin’s 24th personality.
Heroes and villains in Shyamalan’s movies
The idea that humans are both heroes and villains at the same time reoccurs often in Shyamalan’s movies.
In Unbreakable, Mr Glass uses mass murder to find a hero. The Visit has a more complex set-up in which two children find themselves terrorised by their grandparents. In Signs, Mel Gibson plays a vicar … who’s lost his faith.
Split picks up this theme more literally: Kevin has a number of personalities – some are kind, others are killers. There’s also the ambiguous nature of The Beast (described above).
Then there’s the way the film ends. Casey escapes from The Beast because she was abused by her uncle. There’s no need for The Beast to tear her all over again: Casey already has the visible scars of her self harm.
But rather than being rescued at the end of the movie, we learn that Casey is being delivered back to her uncle – another ‘beast’, and another kind of prison.
If Casey’s uncle casts a gloomy shadow over notions of masculinity, it reflects something about the nature of films (and society) too.
Horror movies have claimed the image of the scantily clad woman as their own – first they’re undressed, then terrorised and/or murdered. The same is true of Split, a film in which none of the female characters are rescued (they either die or are delivered into another kind of hell).
Whether it’s an ironic nod to the genre or not, this is still a film that capitalises on female terror – and which also has them undressed first. If this seems reminiscent of something, it’s also how Uncle John abuses Casey … “c’mon, take off your stuff,” he tells her as they play at being animals. “Animals don’t wear clothes”.
The trilogy as a whole also focuses on the superhuman powers that only men may achieve.
This is a little suspect. After all, Casey and The Beast are mirrored characters: both are hunters, both have developed masking and protective behaviours to survive abuse.
Yet The Beast revels in his revenge (against innocent people, no less). His response to his abuse is ‘active’, whereas Casey’s is passive and hidden.
Perhaps most troubling is that, if human nature is a mix of black and white, or good and bad … then our murderous impulses may be excused as survival, and abusive actions explained away as just one more part or personality of human nature.
Split (2016), directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Films like Split
- Unbreakable, Glass (the first and third movies in the trilogy)
- The Visit, The Happening (same director, mental health, horror)
- The Shining, Hereditary (mental health, horror)
- Identity, Sybil, Primal Fear (Dissociative Identity Disorder)
- The Silence of the Lambs (female protagonist, hunting)
- Predator franchise (hunting)
Picture credit: Liz Weddon