If you don’t want spoilers, skip this post. It’s got lots of them. Also content warning for kidnaping, sexual assault, and talk of ableism.
First I want to define ableism because it might be helpful for context. Ableism is defined as:
… effective discrimination against people with disabilities in favor of people who are not disabled. An ableist society is said to be one that treats non-disabled individuals as the standard of ‘normal living’, which results in public and private places and services, education, and social work that are built to serve ‘standard’ people, thereby inherently excluding those with various disabilities. Source
If you are active in the horror community, you probably know a movie was released recently called Split, a film by M. Night Shyamalan Michael and I won tickets to an advance screening and I was hoping the twist would make this movie not the ableist shit show I was expecting. That did not happen. Split is about a man, Kevin, suffering from Dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder (MPD) who kidnaps, sexually assaults, and imprisons three girls and ultimately kills two of the three. Honestly, there’s not a whole lot more that happen in this movie; there are certainly some tense moments in which the girls try to escape and we see interactions with a completely incompetent therapist who doesn’t believe in Duty to Warn but when you get right down to it the entire story can be summed up with “mentally ill man is dangerous.” There is very little backstory to Kevin (other than a glimpse of his abusive upbringing) but 99% of his characterization is based on his mental illness. There is one scene in which Kevin is not having a psychotic episode and it lasts for about 45 seconds. The only thing we know about this man is that he is suffering from mental illness and that mental illness makes him a menace. He is the antagonists of the story like so, so, so many people with mental illness are in pop culture. This is a problem because there is already stigma in our society against people with physical, mental, and cognitive disabilities and any media depictions of these individuals as dangerous or less than human (as Kevin is in Split) compounds that stigma.
Sadly, most of the horror community I’ve been exposed to consists of white men so there’s not a lot of deep analytical commentary on issues like ableism in horror. When it is brought up, people do not thoughtfully take in the information they’re given. The usual response is “it’s just a movie! No one really thinks people with multiple personalities are like that!” or the old “you’re being too sensitive!” Basically anything to take credibility away from the critic and absolve themselves of guilt. But guys, I am telling you now that problematic elements in film should not be ignored, even if we enjoy those movies.
So not long after we saw Split, Michael and I then stumbled across a film on Shudder called They Look Like People. The premise is somewhat similar to Split; a man, Wyatt, suffering from schizophrenia tries to navigate life. Now, this was a horror movie so hearing that premise you might think this film is also ableist. I am happy to tell you it’s not! In TLLP, the villain of the film is schizophrenia, NOT Wyatt. The man himself is a fully actualized human being; he has friends whom he cares deeply about, he has a sense of humor, he is just a person. The way his mental illness is depicted is frightening, but the audience is not frightened of Wyatt, like we are afraid of Kevin in Split, we’re frightened of the images and sounds and loss of reality that can come from schizophrenia. We are frightened with Wyatt.
They Look Like People humanizes it’s character suffering from mental illness while Split turns them into literal monsters. If we’re trying to dismantle the idea that people suffering from mental illnesses are broken, dangerous, sub-humans we can’t have only one dominant narrative in pop culture that tells us they in fact are broken, dangerous, sub-humans. That’s just not how representation works.
*Note: I have not, nor have I ever experienced any kind of disability. I benefit from able-bodied privilege and I fully acknowledge this. If you want to seek out information about how ableism effects people, it’s best to go to the people with that lived experience.