Tazyeen Ghazal 

In the cinematic representation of mental health, movies don’t leave any stone unturned to create a sensational portrayal of any kind of mental disorder, often stigmatizing the condition in the already prejudiced society because their ultimate goal is to achieve box office success and popularity. Movies are known to create an irreversible impression on their watchers. They create awareness about a particular concept in the audience who often fail to understand and differentiate reel from the real. Dissociative Identity Disorder is one such mental disorder that is often misinterpreted by society and its people’s fascination with it has led to the creation of its image based on myths and incorrect understanding rather than facts.


Dissociative Identity Disorder, previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder is described as a mental illness in which a person develops one or more alternate personalities that occur and function with or without an individual’s conscious awareness. DID is said to be caused by childhood trauma in a form of redcurrant physical, emotional or mental abuse. Dissociation is described to be developed as a coping mechanism to avoid the traumatic experience and anxiety. The symptoms of DID include breakdown of memory, lack of awareness, lost track of time, identity and perception.

In the majority of the cases, there is a history of childhood abuse and trauma, while other reason also includes the experience of war. Genetic and biological factors also implied to be key underlying causes. 


Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis defined personality as a creation of resulting conflict of two underlying forces id and superego which is maintained by the third aspect called ego. He said dissociation of personality is a method and a natural response, by which the ego defends itself against overwhelming unconscious thoughts – a conflict. For many years psychologist has tried to uncover the trauma behind DID through treatment and therapy.

Below are some movies and their brief psychoanalysis of the character portrayed as patients of DID


Norman Bates

Perhaps one of the most popular movies from its era to feature DID. Described as a psychological thriller the movie is based on a character named Norman Bates who is diagnosed with DID and has an obsession with taxidermy. Bates has committed several murders including his mother’s and thus after that created an alternate personality of his mother in his mind. The movie has a significant impact on cinema history, bagging acclaims and several awards. Nevertheless, the violence seen in the movie was never before experienced and as a result the movie eventually painted a violent and aggressive picture of mental illness in the general audience.


Norman’s unconscious personality id, ego and superego got arranged in different layers within his alternate personality. His mother’s personality reflected on his superego, Bates normal personality reflected through ego and his murderous instinct was the result of the conflict between his id and superego when his mother’s personality takes over.


Movie poster

This movie was based on a psychiatrist’s case study of one of his patient Chris Costner Sizemore, used in a book as a pseudonym Eve. The character of Eve White has two different personalities Eve White and Eve black both incomplete personality and a third relatively stable personality to later emerge in the movie, named Jane. The multiple personalities were the result of a traumatic childhood experience. The movie had a significant impact in creating awareness about DID, then known as multiple personality disorder.


From a Psychoanalytic point of view, Eve White’s traumatic incident during childhood that was forced on her to witness and has been suppressed all these years created a revolting personality of Eve Black as compensation, which must have been submerged after all these years as Eve black was aware of E.White’s existence but E.White wasn’t aware of E.Black. Eve Black here is the representative of Id and Eve White is the superego, Jane remained dormant reflecting as ego and appeared only after to resolve the conflict between the black and white and became a dominant personality when she recalls her childhood trauma.


Based on a book by the same name, Sybil is a two-part television film based on a real-life case of a girl who was suffering from DID. In the movie, it was presented that the girl named Sybil has 16 different including a child and an infant’s personality formed as a result of childhood trauma from her mother including physical, emotional and sexual abuse. However, Sybil felt overwhelmed and pressurized by her four personalities, each having a distinct personality trait.


Sybil distinct personalities represent some famous Freudian defence mechanisms. When Sybil recalls her submerged psychological trauma her personality dissociates into 16 underlying alternate personalities due to the overwhelming and excessive anxiety caused by the recall. All her personalities can offer the example formed as a result of conflict between the id, ego and the superego. 


Based on the novel of the same name, Primal Fear focuses on the character named Martin Vail, a lawyer who defends the case of a young boy named Aron, an accused in the gruesome murder case of the Archbishop. It is implied that  Aaron is suffering from DID as he claims he suffered from the blackout and had no idea of how he ended up covered in blood at the crime scene, which was proved during the time of his interrogation when a violent split personality named Roy appears, confessing the murder. Martin somehow was able to prove Aron’s insanity at the court granting him custody in a mental hospital. The movie, however, ends up with a twist when Martin finds out that Aron was faking his disorder to avoid the trial. The movie received critical acclaim especially for Edward Norton for his portrayal of Aron/Roy.


Although Norton’s character wasn’t suffering from DID, the presentation of the disorder was accurately developed as a result of frequent childhood sexual abuse. The idea behind Aron faking his condition reflects a concern that people would take it as an indication that DID is just a person’s mental state of confusion or those who suffer from a mental disorder are likely to be liars.


Split, a movie by the director M.Night Shaymalam who is well known for the movies with supernatural plots and twist endings. The character named Kevin Wendle Crumb portrayed by actor James McAvoy is suffering from dissociating identity disorder, with 24 personalities developed as childhood abuse and abandonment from his mother. He ends up kidnapping 3 girls holding them hostage while appearing in front of them with his different personalities, except the 24th personality which he calls the beast. All 23 personalities eventually submit to the beast as the dominant force.

The movie is served as a stealth sequel to the 2000 superhero thriller film Unbreakable, so you might expect the superhero aspect in the movie exaggerated from reality but what concerned the mental health experts is the presentation of Kevin’s dissociative personalities and their violent behaviour exhibited throughout the movie resulting into the backlash received from the medical communities.


Barry is Kevin’s dominant personality who represented the ego factor of his personality to keep all his identities in control. Kevin’s personalities indicate several forms of defence mechanism such as suppression, repression and denial formed to the anxiety he suffered at the hands of his mother. The denial was due to his therapist keeping the beast personality hidden from him as fear of its aggressive outburst.

There are many more famous and commercially successful movies dealing with the topic of DID such as Fight Club, Frankie & Alice, Lizzie etc.

All the above-mentioned movie with an exception of a few represented the patients of DID as violent and murderous. Freud’s psychodynamic approach has put its emphasis on the role unconscious mind in building our personality and behaviour. Most of the psychologist disagree and find Freud attempts to focus only on the negative aspect of human emotions and neglecting the role of social and developmental growth. The audience after watching such movies generalize that most people with a mental disorder of DID turn out to serial killers patients, however experts say

Such patients are more likely to hurt themselves than others and are a rare case, occurring in only 1 to 3 per cent of people in the world. By showcasing the aggressive side of DID the movie makers have unknowingly or unintentionally has contributed to Freud’s theory they humans are the victims of our past experiences. Although disorder like hysteria is likely to be caused due to traumatic childhood experiences written in Freud’s general. Movies like Sybil and Three faces of Eve displayed the accurate depiction of DID because of the involvement of psychiatrists in their production however the majority of the pop culture has established the definition of DID as stereotypical it can get. It has an impact on the patients with DID to hide their conditions preventing them from getting a diagnosis or due to fear of being judged and getting ill-treated as a result of lacking awareness.


  • Haddock, D. (2001). The dissociative identity disorder sourcebook.  USA: McGraw-Hill.

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