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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

‘Secret Window’ and the Thin Line of Dissociative Identity Disorder Representation [Unveiling The Mind]

Welcome to Unveiling The Mind. This bi-monthly column takes an analytical look at art that explores mental illness. 

Is one bad day enough to make someone go mad? How far would one need to be pushed to dissociate from reality and go on a homicidal rampage? These are questions I’ve asked myself over the course of many years watching movies and playing video games. In some ways, I’ve had difficulty fully wrapping my head around such concepts. Without enough context to fully understand a character, how does Billy so-and-so go from being a pleasant dude one day to a psychotic killer the next?

In many cases with films of this subject matter, filmmakers are either hinting at or directly pointing to dissociative identity disorder. DID involves an individual balancing at least two distinct personality states and can include memory gaps. DID can also include OCD, eating and sleep disorders, depression and more. Also, those with DID are more likely to be violent towards themselves rather than act out towards others.

DID is one of the more popular tropes used throughout horror cinema. Everything from Psycho to High Tension has tried to piggyback off it. However, the disorder is rarely ever portrayed in a realistic (or honest) light. For those who have little to no understanding of what DID is, these depictions may be their only source (which is far from okay). There are layers to what DID involves and the struggles it can bring on. There are even some experts that debate whether it is a real disorder or an offshoot of other psychiatric problems.

For this month’s installment of Unveiling The Mind, I’m going to share my thoughts on a film that goes head on into such tropey waters. A film with an interesting enough premise, but that is bogged down by its half-baked protagonist and lack of psychological depth.

Secret Window stars Johnny Depp as Mort Rainey, a writer living in upstate New York. As soon as the film starts, the viewer is thrown into a moment of turmoil; we see Mort sitting in his car stressed and staring into space. After a couple sequences of abrasive driving and stealing some hotel keys, he makes his way into a hotel room, finding a woman sleeping with a man. We come to find out shortly that this is his wife. Secret Window then jumps six months later to a disheveled Mort who is struggling to write. He is visited by a man named John Shooter (John Turturro) who claims that Mort stole one of his stories. Throughout its runtime, tension escalates as Shooter messes with Mort, his taunting and acts becoming more violent.

Written and directed by David Koepp, Secret Window plays out just like a Stephen King novel – which is ideal, given that it is based off a King short story. Everything from the characters to the suspense and small-town atmosphere feel King-ian. There’s also a good bit of cheese along the way, but that cheese is not without its merits. It had been awhile since I re-watched Secret Window; upon my first view of this movie back in 2004, I loved it. However, now revisiting the film in 2020, I see it for a more problematic presentation.

It isn’t until the end of the movie that it is revealed that Shooter is actually Mort. Shooter is made up of abstract ideas from Mort’s mind, pieced together to help him cope with the infidelity and separation of his wife. However, in Mort’s case, coping appears to be torturing himself with accusations of plagiarism, burning down a house and killing people.

Several lines of dialogue provide intriguing bits that hint at the idea that Mort is not completely sane. In one scene where Mort is talking to his housekeeper, who finds a manuscript from Shooter in the trash, she makes a remark how she thought the name was a pseudonym that Mort was going under. In a later scene, Mort’s literary agent makes a comment about a crazy fan Mort had a run in with, and how the individual could not tell the difference between reality and the made-up stuff Mort writes about.

These types of narratives need more than twists though; twists can only go so far in making things engaging. When covering such heavy mental subjects in horror, or any genre, there needs to be in depth research regarding why and how a character acts. When it comes to the narrative striving to provide context to Mort’s psyche, that is where the film is the weakest.

To its credit, the film does brief glimpses into Mort’s past that point to a violent nature. The audience learns that Mort’s wife had a miscarriage, he had a drinking problem and he is someone with a temper. Though his frustrations with his wife are understandable, it’s a little concerning to see him take the phone while talking to her and shake it in a choking manner. However, the most problematic aspect of that relationship may be how he brought a gun when confronting his wife in bed with the other man.

But even if each of these points serve to acknowledge an unhinged Mort, they don’t provide a logical foundation for why he becomes so violent and disconnected from reality. Dissociation is a sincere symptom of DID, but murderous drive is not. In many works of horror, DID is used as an excuse for why a character acts violently – this is ludicrous. Proper research would confirm that those with DID are not a threat to anyone, and that it takes much more than the disorder itself to provoke violence towards others. And yes, the film does point out that Mort was a drinker in the past, but that is not enough to sell his horrific actions. The way Secret Window handles Mort’s descent into Shooter is – well, there is no progression there.

What may have helped the film is if the audience was given more insight into Mort’s life – specifically his younger years. Experts have found that DID tends to spring up in those who have suffered traumatic experiences in childhood; what possibly may have happened in Mort’s life to stir on such a disorder? Rather than attempt to explore this idea and how trauma has festered within him, the film only looks to provide bits of exposition, expecting the audience to buy in and accept. The audience experiences the turmoil Mort currently faces and is provided a small taste of matters from the past, but never a full comprehension of his psychological being.

When it comes to portraying mental illness in media, context is essential. Secret Window never tries to address Mort’s mind state beyond brief comments. It is all surface level psychological flare, lacking the potency of any deep-thinking substance. Not only does it make for poor writing, but it continues a pattern of lazy, somewhat harmful tropes.

Thankfully though, in the years since Secret Window’s release, we have seen small improvements. We are seeing horror effectively and respectively navigate subjects of mental health (while still providing loads of scares and tension). It is possible to utilize and cover mental illness in horror, one just has to put the time in to know what they are talking about and how to properly represent the disorders being presented on screen.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3629147/secret-window-thin-line-dissociative-identity-disorder-representation-unveiling-mind/

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