Despite sharing a universe with Unbreakable (2000), M. Night Shyamalan’s Split (2017) fits into a deeper cinematic legacy of psychosexual horror, one that speaks to our sense of the uncanny as embodied by certain archetypes of the genre — namely, the idea of a malicious entity that moves between various human forms and identities, unmoored from age, gender and neurochemistry.
Split draws attention to its major influences, loaded as it is with formalist homages to the films of Brian De Palma, Jonathan Demme and Alfred Hitchcock. Shyamalan employs the split diopter shots found throughout De Palma’s work, the straight-on character close ups favored by Demme and the spiraling crane shots that Hitchcock often used to disorient the viewer. More than these technical connections, though, Split shares essential thematic DNA with these filmmakers’ most iconic works.
As the tortured monster at the heart of the story, James Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) feels like an amalgamation of several killers found throughout the aforementioned directors’ oeuvres, most notably Psycho’s Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), Dressed to Kill’s Dr. Elliot (Michael Cain), Raising Cain’s Dr. Nix (John Lithgow) and The Silence of the Lambs’ similarly named Jame Gumb, aka Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).
Like Bates and Gumb, Crumb’s broken psyche is the result of long-term childhood trauma. What The Silence of the Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) says of Gumb applies equally to Crumb: “Billy was not born a criminal, but made one by years of systematic abuse.” As with Bates and Gumb (both loosely based on real-life serial killer Ed Gein), Crumb’s abuse came at the hands of his mother.
Like Bates, Dr. Elliot and Dr. Nix, Crumb has multiple personalities, dissociative identity disorder to be exact (unsurprisingly, Split was highly criticized for its depiction of DID). In each case, the schism that pushes these characters into their homicidal frenzy occurs after a sexually stimulating inciting incident: Bates finds himself attracted to his new hotel guest, so his mother identity drives him to kill her. Dr. Elliot is attracted to his patient, which poses a threat to his alter ego Billy, who wants a sex change operation. Dr. Nix, whose had his various personalities under wrap, snaps upon discovering his wife is having an affair. Crumb breaks down and allows a handful of dangerous personalities to take control after being molested by two teenage girls during a work shift.
Crumb’s fear of sexuality is tied to his state of arrested development (the only of his personalities that can “take the light” on command is Hedwig, a mischievous nine-year-old boy). Conversely, like the aforementioned characters, he is also gender fluid and/or bisexual.
Much has been written about the problematic depiction of sexuality and gender in these films (too much to adequately cover here), as well as their role in shaping societal attitudes (The Celluloid Closet is a good place to to start if you’re interested in this subject), and while Split does not focus on the shift in its antagonist’s sexuality and gender like the other examples, both are present throughout and are a constant source of menace (although it should be noted that Crumb’s homosexuality is never depicted as a threat, and indeed his most stable personality is that of an openly gay man).
But just as one must acknowledge the inherent problematic nature of such depictions, one must also acknowledge their effectiveness in instilling a sense of the uncanny in the viewer. Troubling political and cultural implications aside, there is something innately uncanny about seeing a dangerous man dressing and acting like a prim and proper school marm. The mix of comedy and terror — not so far apart from one another to begin with — is a combustible mixture, which is why, 59 years after Psycho, and despite our increased sensitivity towards, and understanding of, trans identity and culture, it still manages to unnerve us.
The same mechanism is at play when it comes to age. Immature personality disorder in these films plays upon the same sense of the uncanny as their gender-bending. There is undoubtedly a direct link, with both being rooted in systemic notions of masculinity. It’s no coincidence that in each of these films, the killer’s foil is a strong-willed woman.
But ultimately, the thing viewers might fear the most in these examples is not a grown man acting like a woman or a child, but something darker and mysterious, an entity that cannot be bound by a single human form and that can, in the words of another Thomas Harris adaptation, NBC’s Hannibal, put on a “person suit” to disguise itself (see also: Michael Meyers, Patrick Bateman and dozens of other horror icons). Audiences are typically afraid of what lurks underneath it (a la Split’s The Beast, a werewolf-like creature minus any furry prosthetics), but even more immediately, viewers are thrown completely off-balance by the strange familiarity, but ultimate mysteriousness, of the person suit itself.
After all, that’s the definition of the uncanny.