TV & Movies

11 Shows & Movies About Dissociative Identity Disorder

Netflix’s new docuseries Monsters Inside is one of many shows and movies that have explored the disorder — to varying success.

BILLY MILLIGAN in MONSTERS INSIDE: THE 24 FACES OF BILLY MILLIGAN.
Netflix

Netflix’s four-part docuseries Monsters Inside: The 24 Faces of Billy Milligan attempts to untangle the complicated story of Billy Milligan, who became the first person to be acquitted for a violent crime on the defense of criminal insanity. Though he was arrested in 1977 for a series of three rapes on Ohio State University’s campus, he claimed to have no memory of committing the crimes.

While in custody, Milligan underwent psychological evaluation and was eventually diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder (DID, formerly known as multiple personality disorder). He was ultimately determined to have 24 distinct identities, each of whom took turns controlling his mind and body while the other personas slept; one of them, Milligan claimed, had committed the rapes. After pleading insanity, he was sent to receive treatment in several mental hospitals and eventually released, raising national debate about whether Milligan was lying and if multiple personality disorder was even real. (It’s classified in the DSM-5 and is believed to affect 1.5% of the population).

Throughout the show, experts and interviewees make frequent reference to the 1976 miniseries Sybil, which came out one year before Milligan’s arrest and pushed DID to the forefront of cultural discussion. It’s far from the only show or movie to have tackled the disorder, though it’s rare that DID is portrayed accurately onscreen: it’s one of the most sensationalist and misunderstood mental disorders, and is usually depicted either comedically or as a violent and dangerous affliction in horror movies. Often, pop culture spreads harmful stereotypes about DID more than it brings nuance and understanding. But if you’re interested in seeing how portrayals of the disorder have evolved, here are 11 other shows and movies about DID to watch after Monsters Inside.

Sybil

Starring Sally Field and Joanne Woodward, Sybil is based on the bestselling 1973 book of the same name, which sold more than six million copies in the United States within four years of its publication. It chronicles the real story of teacher Sybil Dorsett (a pseudonym for Shirley Ardell Mason), who manifested 16 different personalities after enduring alleged physical and sexual abuse from her mother. Mason reportedly later admitted that the personalities were fake, but the two-part film nonetheless remains a fascinating look at the Sybil case and the mythology surrounding it. Reported cases of dissociative identity disorder skyrocketed after the book’s release, and The New York Times called it “instrumental” in making dissociative identity disorder a common and accepted diagnosis.

The Three Faces of Eve

Though it’s now considered a rather shallow and simplistic depiction of DID, this 1957 film marks one of the first onscreen portrayals of the disorder, chronicling the real story of Christine Costner Sizemore. After experiencing severe headaches and chronic blackouts, she visits a psychiatrist, who uncovers several alters: Eve White, Eve Black, and Jane. Woodward, who went on to appear in Sybil, won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sizemore.

David & Lisa

After developing a fear that he’ll die if anyone touches him, teenager David (Keir Dullea) is brought to a psychiatric treatment center where he befriends a girl with DID named Lisa (Janet Margolin). This 1962 film, which was nominated for two Oscars for its direction and screenplay, does well to depict the way society reflexively turns its back on people deemed to be different, as well as the manner in which troubled and neurodivergent teens are often overlooked and disregarded by medical professionals.

Busy Inside

This documentary follows therapist Karen Marshall as she treats people with dissociative identity disorder while juggling 17 alters of her own. It focuses on Karen and one of her patients, Marshay, who struggles to both believe and remember that Karen has DID at all. It’s a candid and at times haunting depiction of DID and repression that excels thanks to the relationship between Karen and Marshay.

Mr. Robot

Sam Esmail’s four-season hacker-thriller is worth watching just for the intense detail and gripping story, but it’s also an enthralling exploration of mental health and trauma. The show takes its time diving into the depths of main character Elliot’s (Rami Malek) mind, but ultimately portrays DID with sensitivity and care. (Esmail consulted with a psychologist to ensure accuracy while writing the show).

Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase

Voices Within is a 1990 miniseries that follows the real story of Truddi Chase, a woman who had 92 separate personalities. It’s based on Chase’s own book, When Rabbit Howls, and she was also closely involved in the script for the show. What results is an interrogation of the stereotypes and stigma surrounding DID, as well as a closer look at Chase’s life as she comes to terms with her disorder.

United States of Tara

United States of Tara is certainly the most comedic entry on this list. Starring Toni Collette and written by Diablo Cody (Juno, Jennifer’s Body, Tully), the three-season Showtime series follows artist and mother Tara Gregson as she shifts between multiple identities while trying to maintain a sense of normality. Ranging from a flirty teenager to a Vietnam vet, Tara and her family must contend with whoever she may be at any given moment. Collette won an Emmy for her performance and was praised for portraying DID in a realistic and humanizing way.

Primal Fear

Though a fictional thriller, Primal Fear chronicles a case that closely resembles Billy Milligan’s. It revolves around a young altar boy, Aaron (Edward Norton), who’s being tried for the brutal murder of an archbishop. Once it becomes apparent that Aaron may — or may not — have DID brought about by childhood abuse, his lawyer argues that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity. Unfortunately, the movie falls into using DID as a villainous plot twist.

Fight Club

DID is ultimately a cliff note in the plot of David Fincher’s 1999 classic Fight Club, but the film does deal heavily with dissociation. Starring Edward Norton, it follows a man who meets strange soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and finds himself living in his dilapidated house. Together, they start an underground fight club for men to blow off steam from their mundane lives. There are inconsistencies with DID — namely, that the character in the film who experiences it did not endure any childhood trauma, as is most common for the disorder — but it manages to show DID as a coping mechanism.

Split

Director M Night. Shyamalan took inspiration from Milligan’s case while crafting this 2016 psychological thriller. It centers around Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), a man with 23 personalities who is primarily controlled by the most agreeable alter, “Barry.” However, one of his more violent alters overtakes him and kidnaps a young girl (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her two friends, imprisoning them in his basement. It prioritizes style and suspense over substance, and has been criticized by viewers and mental health professionals alike for falling back on offensive tropes, so take it with a grain of salt.

Psycho

Like Split, Psycho contains a largely problematic depiction of DID, but it remains a seminal entry in the pantheon of slasher movies. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s set at the infamous Bates hotel, where proprietor Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has begun murdering young women after developing a second personality as his late mother Norma. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, and is often ranked among the greatest films of all time.