Beyond the Screens: Unmasking Media Portrayal of Dissociative Identity Disorder

by Veronika Poliakova | Thursday, Feb 15, 2024

Dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a complex and often misunderstood psychiatric disorder that has been the subject of fascination for decades in popular media. Unfortunately, the portrayal of DID in movies, TV shows, and literature is frequently inaccurate. Thus, the disorder gets misrepresented and sensationalized, which contributes to stigmatization and hinders public understanding.

Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), formerly known as Multiple Identity Disorder, is listed under the Dissociative Disorders in DSM-5 and is considered to be the most severe disorder in its category. This disorder includes persistent depersonalization and derealization, dissociative amnesia, and the presence of two or more identity states that control the individual’s consciousness, behavior, and memory. These alternate personalities will have vastly different mannerisms, thoughts, and even backgrounds.

Dissociation is often a natural response to trauma; Neuroimaging studies have found many similarities in the structural and functional brain alterations in individuals with dissociative disorders and PTSD. DID has been found to have strong correlations with early childhood trauma and sexual abuse– one study found that DID is not an anomaly but rather a manifestation of typical human response to childhood sexual trauma, especially at high levels of exposure.

Childhood trauma is thought to be the main cause in at least 90% of dissociation disorder cases and is seen in about 95% of DID cases. These disorders are rooted in the mind’s ability to cope with overwhelming trauma. The severe and repeated traumatic experiences, particularly those in childhood, cause the individual to feel increasingly helpless. Without the option of escaping, the brain will employ the defense mechanism of dissociation, causing children to create alternate personalities to escape from their “real” lives.

Popular films representing DID are often stories of real people. For example, the story of Sybil Mason was first released as a book, then made into the film Sybil , released in 1973, and was one of the main pieces of media responsible for bringing DID to media attention. The book was marketed as a true story of a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. Unfortunately, it was later revealed that Sybil was more fiction than fact, and the film completely misrepresents Shirley Mason’s life, diagnosis, and treatment. It was later revealed that the case of Shirley Mason was a total sham, created by her and the author of the bestselling book, Cornelia Wilbur. This was the first in many problematic DID portrayals.

One of the most recent films to come out portraying DID is Split , a movie about a fictional character named Kevin who has 23 different personalities. The different personalities take turns being “brought to the light,” during which that personality dominates Kevin’s actions. Kevin’s different personalities work together to kidnap three girls, which the 24th personality, named The Beast, aims to consume. The film portrays Kevin’s different personalities to be violent, destructive, and even cannibalistic, and in short, not an accurate representation of DID.

Individuals with DID are not violent in most cases, rather they use their different personalities as a coping mechanism. “The Beast” in Split is unrealistic for reasons other than violence– when switching to “The Beast” personality, Kevin’s physical characteristics change drastically. The Beast can climb walls, become impenetrable to bullets, and increase the size of Kevin’s muscles. In reality, the most drastic physical changes seen in individuals with DID are optical differences and voice changes.

Another film that portrays a character with DID as a violent individual is the film American Psycho . In this film, the main character Norman Bates, is shown to dissociate from his mother by dressing in her clothes, talking in her voice, and murdering people she doesn’t like. At the end of the movie, the doctor says, “He began to think and speak for her, give her half his life, so to speak. At times he could be both personalities, carrying on conversations. At other times, the mother half took over completely.” This is a problematic explanation for Norman Bates’ murderous behaviors and further perpetuates the misconception that people with DID are prone to violence.

In the film Fight Club , the main character is never explicitly diagnosed with DID but is shown to have more than one personality state and several episodes of amnesia, both of which are symptoms of the disorder. The main issue with the portrayal of DID in this film was the fact that there was no evidence of past traumatic events happening to the main character. The alternate personality is instead built off the fact that he is overwhelmed and anxious by society’s structure of consumerism. This is not consistent with DID, as the purpose of creating the different personalities is stated to be a mechanism of defense against abuse. The film continued by once again portraying DID as a violent disorder.

It seems the main issue is that the issues portraying DID and other dissociative disorders are making up symptoms of aggression. Main characters with DID in multiple films are depicted as murderers, violent people, and generally disruptive to society. The truth is that people with DID are no more violent or dangerous than the general population. It has also been shown that only 5 to 6 percent of people with DID have dramatic shifts in personality, another major inaccuracy in these films. DID is, for the most part, covert and difficult to notice, and once diagnosed, individuals will go to great lengths to hide their disorder.

While society has made many advances in research on DID and other mental illnesses, this has not translated to film. The films mentioned above, and many others, will dramatize mental disorders and play up criminality and violence to create a more interesting plot and story. A lot of our society’s perceptions and opinions of dissociative identity disorder and other mental illnesses come directly from these films, causing misinformation, prejudices, and negative attitudes toward individuals with these disorders. It is for this reason important for films to include more aspects of what DID is truly like, allowing viewers to be better educated on mental illnesses with less negative attitudes.