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Column: M. Night Shyamalan and the Ableist Myth

Director M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a joke among film fans. Following the smash success of The Sixth Sense in 1999, he briefly became Hollywood’s golden boy, gracing the cover of Newsweek magazine in 2002 along with the moniker “The Next Spielberg”. Yet, he fell just as quickly, releasing a series of commercial and critical flops that destroyed the goodwill he had accumulated with his first three major features.


Content Warning: Ableism, mental illness, violence and sexual/physical assault discussed


Spoilers for The Village and Split


Director M. Night Shyamalan has become something of a joke among film fans. Following the smash success of The Sixth Sense in 1999, he briefly became Hollywood’s golden boy, gracing the cover of Newsweek magazine in 2002 along with the moniker “The Next Spielberg”. Yet, he fell just as quickly, releasing a series of commercial and critical flops that destroyed the goodwill he had accumulated with his first three major features. Not only were his films derided as implausible, stilted and silly, but several releases saw him labelled as “ableist”—that is, discriminatory against those with mental illnesses or disabilities.

Here, I seek to argue the contrary: Shyamalan is one of the most empathic filmmakers working today. His explorations of trauma and mental illness are among the most sensitive and insightful in the contemporary canon, certainly more than horror films like Psycho that use mental illness and disability as devices but do not interrogate and challenge this common trope as Shyamalan does. Despite his general status as a laughingstock, his cult of loyal fans includes many who have suffered from trauma themselves; this alone is an indication of the misguided readings his films receive.

The first sign of trouble for Shyamalan was the release of The Village in 2004, a period drama with supernatural elements that was panned by many critics. Most pertinent to the current discussion is the character Noah Percy, played by Adrien Brody. Noah has a developmental/learning disability that is never explicitly named. He is a childish character, referred to by other characters, including Joaquin Phoenix’s Lucius Hunt, as “an innocent”. Yet upon learning that the object of his affections, Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard), has become engaged to Lucius, Noah stabs his rival in the stomach.

Some viewers claim that Noah’s turn towards antagonism perpetuates a myth that disabled or mentally ill people are dangerous when the inverse is more often true. In my view, making this claim ignores the wider context of the film. The film’s double-barrelled twist reveals that it is set not in the late 18th century but in modern-day America, and the monsters that terrorise the village are fabrications created by the Elders to prevent people from visiting the outside world. The Elders founded the village after each of them suffered a violent and traumatic event so they could avoid the intervention and ‘evils’ of modern technologies. The fabricated creatures, likewise, were bogeymen created to prevent the discovery of the second secret and explain any evil as being that of an outside force.

            In the issue of Noah Percy, it is worth considering these revelations. Appeals are made several times to the Elders to obtain medicine for Noah that may help with his condition but these are refused due to the “danger” of the creatures in the woods. Indeed, this is part of a pattern whereby Noah’s disability is hardly acknowledged, let alone dealt with in any constructive way. His difficulties with emotional regulation are not addressed, since doing so would shatter the perfect utopia created by the Elders to insulate themselves from external reminders of their trauma. Therefore, Noah’s attempted murder of Lucius is less an indication of his evil than an illustration of the perils of suppressing and ignoring trauma and pain. In my opinion, Noah is not evil, he is unforgivably let down by the community in which he grew up; the guilty parties are the villagers who use fear and repression to maintain their well-meaning but destructive regime.

            Split (2016) is a knottier case. At the premise level, it is easy to see how this was misconstrued. It is, after all, about a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID) who kidnaps three teenage girls and keeps them locked in a basement as prey for a monstrous alter known as “The Beast”. However, on deeper examination, I believe this film is a highly empathic portrayal of emotional trauma. For one, it is not about DID sufferers in general—and is not meant to be a completely realistic portrayal of the illness. Instead, it is rather about one man, Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), and his ongoing battle with trauma and the darkness that threatens to consume him. The film treats the illness in a somewhat metaphorical or symbolic fashion. As the critic Mike Thorn writes in his review of the film, “Split … undoes assumptions about ‘normal’ versus ‘abnormal’ psychology, devoting much of its runtime to an assessment of what makes one different and how society’s practices of marginalisation cause immense damage … as the narrative proceeds, it reveals trauma itself as the antagonist.”

In this light, Shyamalan is careful to show (and criticise) the scepticism with which Kevin’s illness is treated by the general population and even the medical community; several characters express the opinion that DID does not exist, and The Horde (Kevin’s dominant personalities) crusade to make the world accept their existence. Shyamalan also shows that Kevin’s psychologist, Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), is less interested in treating the trauma at the root of her patients’ conditions, but instead in “showing them off” as the next stage of human evolution, almost as if curating a gallery of “freaks”, which ends up advancing her own standing within the psychological community. This viewpoint is ultimately more harmful than anything Shyamalan himself has to say in regard to mental illness, and through this, the film engages with a current debate in the neurodivergent community regarding whether these neurotypes should be considered disabilities or “superpowers.” Shyamalan illustrates how telling a struggling trauma patient that they are “special” can be dismissive and unhelpful, only exacerbating their difficulties. In the film, this reaches an imaginative apotheosis when Kevin turns into the superhuman Beast while failing Kevin himself.

Shyamalan also provides contrast in the character of Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), one of the kidnapped girls, who is gradually revealed to have been sexually abused by her uncle throughout her life. This fact ultimately saves her from The Beast, who is a personality obsessed with cleansing the world of those who have not experienced hardship in the belief that “the broken are the more evolved.” This is a dangerous viewpoint as well, but crucially, I do not think it is one that Shyamalan himself believes. In a pivotal scene, Kevin takes the light (becomes the dominant personality) within his system, existing just long enough to apprehend the crimes he has committed and beg for Casey to kill him before being subsumed by his other personalities who are desperate to protect him no matter the cost.

Yet Kevin has recognised that he has become as bad, or worse, than the person who hurt him—he has let the darkness, anger and pain consume him. This is not an indication of his inherent evil, but rather that recovery from severe trauma is far from a foregone conclusion, and that living in a world where no one believes you are truly ill often ends up only perpetuating and increasing the trauma of those who struggle with it.

Shyamalan also deftly contrasts common coping strategies, both maladaptive, but crucially different, in that although Casey is also a victim of trauma, she inflicts the pain on herself rather than on others. She symbolically transcends the trauma by shooting The Beast at the climax—something she is shown (via flashback) to have attempted and failed with her uncle. Therefore, this is a catharsis for Casey, and in the end, although she is expected to go back to her abuser by a system that is ignorant of her suffering, she has gained strength through her ordeal and is ready to take action to escape from her situation.

Ultimately, these are complex films open to many contradictory readings, and some will not see the empathy in them that I do. But that’s the great thing about art; it is open to interpretation and promotes discussion and thought about important issues. This short essay has been nothing more than an attempt to briefly illustrate some of the oft-overlooked complexities and features of M. Night Shyamalan’s films and explain why they resonate so deeply with many who may have experienced trauma or mental illness. I believe they challenge a lot of assumptions about these people and the way they are treated by the general public, which is more than can be said for other thematically similar films. At the very least, it’s a step in the right direction for giving people a wider understanding of these under-represented struggles.

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