Beginning with classic Hollywood melodramas of the 1940s, cinema has maintained a prolific output of films with their own take on mental illnesses–none more so than the rare syndrome of dissociative identity disorder (DID). DID films are a popular and enduring genre, whose influence can be seen throughout mainstream cinema. Exploration of DID in cinema is a useful exercise in that it touches on issues in film studies, psychiatry and the mythology around mental illness. Despite “detective story” narratives and conformity to the codes of the psychological thriller, DID representations correspond closely to contemporary thinking about its phenomenology and aetiology. That said, some films confuse DID with schizophrenia, and many reinforce two other misconceptions within film psychiatry: mental illness as violence and the belief that every mentally ill person harbours one “great dark secret”. Those sceptical about DID have suggested that popular written accounts increase its profile: so too, powerful cinematic images may suggest the possibility of DID to susceptible people, including clinicians. Recent DID films reflect the real debate within psychiatry about the diagnostic validity and scientific basis of DID.
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↵* denotes biopics–“true stories” of real persons.
Peter Byrne, MA, MB, MRCPsych, is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry at the Kent Institute of Medical and Health Sciences, Canterbury, Kent.