Warning: SPOILERS for Split ahead
At the climax of M. Night Shyamalan’s recently released thriller Split, we discover that one of the antagonist’s (James McAvoy) dissociative identities (referred to as “the Beast”) has superhuman powers, including enhanced strength and the ability to climb smooth surfaces with his bare hands. He manages to corner the protagonist, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), but pauses his assault when he sees a collection of scars on her body, denoting she has suffered psychological trauma of her own. The Beast grins and spares her, rejoicing in her “purity” and declaring grandly: “The broken are the more evolved.”
Fictional portrayals of dissociative identity disorder (DID) tend to be highly sensationalized; films like Psycho have perpetuated a lot of misconceptions about DID, and Split goes to even more fantastical extremes, presenting DID as a straight-up superpower. Only the most naive audience members are likely to walk away from Split believing that people with DID can really crawl around on the ceiling like Spiderman, but conflating mental illness and other forms of neurodiversity with supernatural ability isn’t exactly a new thing, and it’s a trope that comes with its share of complex implications.
The Beast is one of several fictional killers whose supernatural powers are closely tied to their mental illness. Sylar from Heroes, for instance, has an inborn compulsive need to “understand” things and mimic the powers of evolved humans by studying their brains. River Tam from Firefly is a somewhat more positive example – she’s not a serial killer as such, but her psychic abilities and talent for murder are the result of intense psychological trauma.
Sometimes, as in the case with the new FX series Legion, a character’s apparent mental illness isn’t necessarily an illness at all, but instead a symptom of extraordinary skill. The lead character, David Haller (Dan Stevens), is diagnosed with schizophrenia and spends a significant amount of time in a psychiatric hospital, only to discover that his hallucinations are actually a manifestation of his considerable psychic powers. Something very similar happens in the first episode of The Magicians, where Quentin Coldwater (who also spent some time in a psychiatric hospital) is informed that his clinical depression is really just a sign of his innate magical aptitude, and he’s successfully encouraged to stop taking his meds.
There’s also the well-worn premise of the “quirky detective” whose mental disability somehow enhances their investigative skills. Monk did this with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Perception did it with paranoid schizophrenia, and Stitchers does it with the fictional “temporal dysplasia,” which hinders the heroine’s emotions and sense of time. The short-lived Black Box and Mind Games treated bipolar disorder in a similar way, making their bipolar protagonists preternaturally insightful.
On the one hand, characters like these (the ones who don’t go around murdering people, anyway) can serve as positive role models for people with disabilities. For instance, the Percy Jackson books (later adapted to film) were conceived in part as a tribute to the author’s son, who was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. Percy has those same disorders, only they’re reframed as signs of demigodhood: an enhanced hyper-awareness to assist with battle tactics and a highly specialized understanding of ancient Greek. Many have praised Percy Jackson as a character that demonstrates to children with ADHD or dyslexia that their neurodiversity doesn’t make them “broken” or “wrong,” just different.
On the other hand, this trope can set unrealistic expectations of what neurodiverse people are capable of, and perpetuate the notion that they’re only valuable if they have special skills that “make up” for their disabilities. In cases such as Split, where the mentally ill character is a dangerous killer, it can also demonize people with mental illnesses even further, promoting fear towards a community that’s highly at-risk of being victimized themselves.
There’s also something rather concerning about the idea that mentally ill people are, as the Beast puts it, more “pure.” Split in particular skirts the edges of romanticizing psychological trauma, suggesting that those who have suffered physical or sexual abuse are ultimately stronger, better, and more capable people for having lived through that experience (in reality, abuse victims can often suffer from debilitating health problems). People who are convinced that their trauma or mental illness is actually a strength don’t always seek out the help that they need—and the consequences of that can be dire.
Depictions of neurodiversity as a supernatural ability are treading delicate ground, but they can also be used to explore issues related to mental health in a really unique way, and it would be interesting to see a “superpower” film or TV show that more accurately reflects the experience of people with real-life mental health conditions. Legion is particularly well-suited to this challenge, since so many X-Men stories use their heroes’ marginalized status as an analog for real-life civil rights struggles – emphasizing the suffering of mutants at the hands of humans who are afraid of them and their abilities. Just as people with mental health issues face prejudice due to pop culture’s conflation of mental illness and villainy, so too are mutants accused of being dangerous simply because of powers that they did not choose to have.
Hopefully, Legion can offer a fresh take on this trope. David Haller’s story will continue tonight in Legion episode 2, “Chapter 2” @10pm on FX.
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