At the very end of M. Night Shyamalan’s newest horror hit, Split, we learn that Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a mentally ill individual whose multiple personality disorder harbors a vicious killer, isn’t just a horror movie villain. The movie’s final moments — which, spoilers! — solidify Crumb as more than a murderer, but a bonafide supervillain who will clash with invulnerable security guard Kevin Dunne (Bruce Willis), the hero of Shyamalan’s noir comic book-inspired thriller Unbreakable. Thing is, Crumb — dubbed “The Horde” by the media at the end of the film — isn’t the first multi-ego supervillain.
Stereotypes of dissociative identity disorder (DID) has turned the real illness, suffered by real people, into an exaggerated superpower. (When asked about a possible controversy, Shyamalan said: “You’re coming to see a drama masquerading as a genre piece. People have hopefully figured that out by now.”) As a consequence, some of the best-known fictional characters from literature to video games are diagnosed with “multiple personalities,” but they are often just unique abilities tied to a different character with the gimmick of a singular host at the center. However harmful it is to how the real disease is understood, it’s been a trope for over a century.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson — published in 1866 — remains one of the most influential works in English literature. The prototypical Victorian villain, mild-mannered Dr. Henry Jekyll creates a serum to repress his darker personality only for it to come out stronger in the form of Mr. Edward Hyde.
The book has been adapted into virtually everything from musicals, TV shows, and movies and has been the inspiration for even more. Heavy metal bands like Five Finger Death Punch and even Korean pop groups like VIXX have referenced Jekyll and Hyde, while comic book writers like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby famously took the archetype for their own creation, the Incredible Hulk. And while Hulk may think of himself as a monster, being a member of the Avengers is a pass.
Another comic villain with exaggerated DID is none other than Two-Face, one of Batman’s most enduring foes since his first appearance in Detective Comics #66 in 1942. Disgraced Gotham D.A. Harvey Dent is transformed into a criminal kingpin when he’s grotesquely disfigured on one side of his face.
The injury emotionally devastates Dent, who begins embracing an obsession with duality and fate. Aaron Eckhart has the best live-action version of the character in The Dark Knight, but the bar has always been kinda low. The recent Batman: The Telltale Series video game also spotlights Dent and his heartbreaking origin.
Although he was introduced back in 1937 in J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit, Peter Jackson gave the demented Gollum — born a halfling named Smeagol — a dual personality in 2002’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. And while Smeagol isn’t really a bad guy, he’s not exactly helpful to Frodo and Sam’s mission to Mordor either.
But it’s Gollum’s battle with Smeagol that stays iconic as some of the most unnerving scenes in the entire Rings series.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, although a masterpiece from a renowned cinematic force (who also happens to have been a huge influence on Shyamalan) preyed on a lot of social fears from its time.
Socially awkward Norman Bates is the antagonist, who in the end is revealed to have not just kept his dead mother’s corpse, but wears her clothes and a wig to “become” her. Brutally transphobic and stigmatizing of DID, the technical merits of Psycho is in many ways a forerunner to Split, which will in time also become equally divisive.
The mutant son of Professor Charles Xavier, leader of the X-Men in Marvel’s comic book universe, is another anti-hero/villain whose DID is also exaggerated to umpteen degrees.
A powerful mutant who can “absorb” other personalities, create new ones, and still have room to do shit like telekinesis, Legion has been portrayed like a tragic child whose own efforts to redeem himself often cause more trouble than he’s worth. Dan Stevens (The Guest) is set to portray Legion in live-action on FX’s Legion premiering next month.
Harman Smith (Killer7)
Punk game auteur Suda51 released his cult hit video game Killer7 in the mid-2000s, which allowed players seven different play styles to match the central character’s seven different personalities.
A stylish rail shooter set in a dark, comics-inspired world, Killer7 follows Harman Smith, an elderly man in a wheelchair who uses his alternate egos to perform contract kills for the U.S. government. Heavily influenced by Mexican wrestling, comic books, punk music, and noir films like 1973’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity: Deadly Fight in Hiroshima, Killer7, in so few words, is quite the experience.
Arriving just a few short years before the superhero explosion, NBC’s Heroes had struggling single mother Niki Sanders (Ali Larter) harbor a dark personality: Jessica, who wielded enhanced strength in addition to a killer instinct.
Corporate Kane/Demon Kane (WWE)
Nobody can deny that pro wrestling is like a living Saturday cartoon, and to the WWE’s credit, it doesn’t shy away from that. One of its most popular characters, Kane (real name Glenn Jacobs), started as a monster under a mask but underwent several personality tweaks — including taking off his mask — over a long career spanning more than 15 years.
In 2015, Kane became a corporate stooge, but the reintroduction of his old masked ego became Kane’s own “Mr. Hyde.” Without the mask, Kane was a boring middleman, but with the mask on, a monster would be unleashed in the ring.
The Horde in Shyamalan’s new universe is poised to become a much bigger villain in the next installment of Unbreakable, most likely Unbreakable 2 (or perhaps Split 2). Oftentimes, multiple personality villains are vanquished when the “good” side emerges one final time, like with Jekyll and Hyde. Fittingly, though, there are a multitude of other options for DID villains. They’ve been imprisoned (Norman Bates) or even killed in a final struggle (Two-Face in The Dark Knight). Rarely, they’re “cured.” However Shyamalan wants to conclude his revitalized superhero universe, the director has and screenwriter has no shortage of established avenues to explore.