WOMEN IN HORROR MONTH- Beauties and The Beast: Animalistic Sexuality in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split


*Despite not being directed by a woman, Split is being featured for WiHM to explore its women characters*


M. Night Shylaman’s recent comeback Split presents an intriguing spin on The Little Red Riding Hood folktale with its themes of the loss of innocence, animalistic sexuality, and the consumption of flesh as food. In Split, the little girl lost is named Casey. In our first image of her, she sits staring out the window wearing dark and baggy clothing and a dull and sullen expression. She is waiting to be picked up from a party that she was only invited to out of pity. Casey is later described as a girl who gets herself in trouble on purpose to get detention. You can immediately see the difference between Casey and the birthday girl and her best friend in their cute, trendy clothes with stylish jewellery. They offer to bring Casey home. After entering the car, the three teenage girls are abducted and brought into a small room with three even smaller cots. Casey remains calm as Claire and Marcia sob uncontrollably and come up with elaborate fantastical schemes to escape, fearful of any kind of disturbing sexual experiments they may be subjected to. Like the girls, the audience of Split waits on baited breath to see if the innocent teenagers will be subjected to the kinds of terrifying sexual assaults we’ve seen in other abduction horror films.

Their captor enters the room, his body in tight clothing that emphasises the threatening contours of his buff and masculine physique. Before he is able to drag Marcia out of the room, Casey whispers that she should pee on herself so he won’t want to touch her. Marcia does so and is quickly tossed back in. She tells the girls that Kevin only wanted her to dance for him. He does not appear to be a sexual threat to their virtue. As is the film’s premise, the girls discover Kevin has multiple personality disorder. They meet another personality named Patricia who eases their minds when she announces that her male counterparts are forbidden from touching them. Claire and Marcia later enact their schemes to escape, but Kevin catches them and puts them in their own private prisons. All the while, Casey retains an eerie calm and introversion. There seems to be something markedly different about her. She uses her introspection to her advantage and connects with Kevin on a higher, mental level.

Shyamalan sprinkles in flashback scenes of a 5-year-old Casey with her father and uncle. They eat meals together and go on camping trips to hunt deer. This establishes the film’s themes of the hunter vs. the hunted and the animal as a metaphor for predatory masculine sexuality, for both are compulsive and dangerous. Through these flashbacks, we find Casey’s detachment and savvy survival tactics evident of years of sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle. Her uncle is a husky, hulking, bear-like intimidating presence. In a particularly disturbing scene, he strips naked in the woods and asks Casey to take off her clothes to “be an animal” with him. After this, Casey wields a gun in her uncle’s face–the hunted turning on the hunter–but her uncle slyly convinces the young girl to put it down. After her father’s death, her uncle became her legal guardian, enabling the abuse to continue for much longer and in a frightening proximity.

Therefore, Casey has experience with a predator. Unlike Claire or Marcia, she does attempt to flee, resist, or fully submit to her captor. Instead, she knows that she should work to probe the mechanisms of his disturbed mind. Escape is only possible if she pins the personalities of Kevin’s head against themselves, managing to convince one to betray the others and help her escape. The personality Casey connects to the most is Kevin’s child persona named Hedwig. Hedwig is a sweet well-meaning boy with a lisp who does his duty to the other personalities by keeping the girls safe and ready for the mysterious “Beast.” Casey asks about his interests and even indulges in his crush on her by giving him a kiss. But their manipulated friendship is ripped apart when The Beast emerges, the actual predator that lurks inside Kevin.

It is because of The Beast that the teenage girls are reduced to their underwear for most of the film. Kevin explains that they need to ready themselves as his food. This covers two well-known horror tropes–sexual flesh to be consumed as food and scantily clad girls. Does Shyamalan subvert these tropes or embrace them? A close-up of a knife grazing against Marcia’s lean stomach certainly descends into near torture porn, but I never felt the camera’s gaze on the teenage girls as inherently sexual. Shyamalan acknowledges that near-naked teenage girls make for the perfect hunted victim but he does not overtly exploit them. Rather, this device really serves as a way to get to his ending.

Casey finally escapes through the underground tunnels of what is later revealed to be Kevin’s place of work, the Philadelphia Zoo. The mournful and doe-eyed girl finds herself trapped in a cage; a perfect metaphorical space for this perpetual victim. The hunting animal outside is not the uncle who has kept her captor for so long, but now Kevin as The Beast. He pries open the metal bars with his hulk-like strength as blood pours through the lines of his teeth. We have already seen the carnage of Marcia and Clarie’s bodies at the hand of this predator, their perfect thin stomachs cruelly ripped open by his teeth. In a gasp-inducing moment, we see scars of cuts all over Casey’s stomach, legs, and arms. Casey self-harms because of her abuse. Kevin snaps out of his full Beast mode and declares, “You are different from the rest. Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved! Rejoice!” This rhetoric can be dangerous–we should not romanticise suffering. Yet, I think it has to do more with Kevin’s joy at realising that he is not alone, that he has found someone just as broken as he is.

Split uses this declaration to dismiss the un-abused and cheerful teenagers, Claire and Marcia, as blissfully ignorant of the nightmares the real world holds, the animals that lurk in the shadows outside of their cosy suburban enclaves. With Casey, Kevin has met his psychological match. Like him, she lost her romantic illusions of life at a young age. We learn that Kevin shares with her an abusive upbringing. In a flashback we see his mother growling and yelling at him frantically as he hides under a bed. Kevin’s dominant three personalities are an amalgamation of Casey’s experiences. The Beast is the animalistic sexuality of her uncle, the hunter who corrupted his innocent prey. The earnest and shy Hedwig represents the childish joys she was so cruelly robbed of. Kevin, the ordinary man trapped inside, fights the haunted apparitions that take hold of his mind. Similarly, Casey mourns the twin poles of her innocent memories and malevolent reality. M. Night Shyamalan’s Split toys with the ancient horror trope of a beauty hunted by a malevolent beast.

by Caroline Madden

carolineCaroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.

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