I long for the days when M. Night Shyamalan was still mostly associated with his flops. Only making movies because of a vain hope that he would rediscover his Sixth Sense heydey. I look back yearningly at that moment I was sitting in a movie theatre and the collective groan of disappointment that the audience emitted at the end of the trailer for Devil (2010) because all hope that it might be good had been spoiled when it was revealed that the story was created by M. Night Shyamalan (though he did not actually direct or write the screenplay)
Shyamalan has recently recaptured some of his earlier success with his most recent film Split (2016). The film centres on a villain, Kevin (played by James McAvoy) who has Dissociative Identity Disorder and 23 distinct personalities (with a supernatural 24th). He kidnaps and terrorizes three girls. The film epitomizes the trope of to be mad is to be bad. I am not going to go into a long breakdown of how awful this is. Many others have already done so and likely better than I could have.
Image description: Still from the film Split. The character Kevin (played by James McAvoy) walks dow an empty street at night. He is bald with glasses and is wearing black pants and a jacket. His hands are in his pockets (image source)
I am instead going to talk about how Split’s Kevin fits into a pattern of stereotyped disabled characters in M. Night Shyamalan movies. Characters who are usually bad but who occasionally also fill the supercrip role.
Split is actually (as it is revealed in the end) a sort of sequel to Shyamalan’s 2000 film Unbreakable. Unbreakable is another film that relies on a disabled villain. Elijah Price AKA Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a condition that causes brittle bones. Price is inspired to villainy by comic books (Isn’t Shyamalan Meta he creates a superhero universe where the villains are inspired by comic books *sigh*). He makes it very clear that his disability is a catalyst for his villainy. He reasons that if he is so fragile then there must be someone is as impervious to injury as Price is prone to it (because logic I guess). He goes around causing disasters with mass casualties until he finds his opposite. He discovers David Dunn (Bruce Willis) after Dunn is the sole survivor of a train wreck.
Image description: Elijah Price (played by Samuel L. Jackson) sits in a wheelchair in the aisle of a comic book store. He is holding up a comic in his right hand. He is wearing a grey sweater over a black turtleneck (image source).
Disability is so linked to villainy in Unbreakable that the hero is literally impervious to injury. He can never become disabled.
By linking Split and Unbreakable, Shyamalan has essentially created a superhero universe in which disability is synonymous with evil.
Shyamalan’s use of disability is not limited to these two films. It is also a theme in his biggest success The Sixth Sense (1999). The initial meeting between Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) and Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is set up as Crowe being Cole’s psychiatrist. But fear, not Haley Joel Osment is not another Shyamalan supervillain. He is not mad. He can actually really see ghosts. The film does not, however, avoid the insinuation that mad is bad. In the scene where Cole finds the evidence that a child–who had presumably died of some unknown prolonged illness–had been murdered by her mother through long-term poisoning. The film subtly suggests that the mother has Munchausen’s by Proxy and was carrying out the prolonged poisoning not for the direct goal of killing the girl but rather for the attention having a sick child provided her.
Funeral guests can be heard musing about how long the girl had been sick, how many specialists were consulted to find the cause of the mystery illness and sadly explaining that now that the older child was dead that the younger sister was also begun to exhibit similar symptoms.
So while Cole Sear is not mad. Madness in the Sixth Sense is still dangerous.
In the film The Village (2004), Shyamalan manages to include both someone who is dangerously disabled and a supercrip.
Image description: Still from the film The Village. Alice Walker (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) stands in a doorway in a white nightdress. She stares blankly in front of her while reaching her right hand imploringly through the door (image source).
Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) is blind. Her blindness isn’t particularly extraordinary until she is forced to take on the supercrip role after the intellectually disabled and sexually frustrated Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) stabs her beloved in a fit of jealousy.
Ivy’s blindness is a bizarre plot device because I never could fully understand why she was the only person who could leave the village in search of medical attention. It appears to mainly be a plot device to add tension to jump scares and an odd scene where she finds a miraculously well-tended gravel path in the middle of a forest. Allowing for a moment of “Oh look at how the blind girl recognizes the change in terrain without sight”.
Noah Percy is a standard movie caricature of intellectual disability. He his presented as a perpetual child. His violence is a direct result of sexual frustration which reinforces the idea that the sexuality of disabled men is dangerous.
There may be other examples of disability stereotypes in Shyamalan’s work but I admit that I have not seen all of his films. I can only hope that Split was an anomaly and that Shyamalan returns to his standard of flops because unfortunately as history has taught us failure does not stop him and he is unlikely to learn and stop using dangerous disability narratives. They are far too ingrained in his work.
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