Multiple personality and the discourse of the multiple in Hollywood cinema

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Hollywood has been instrumental in the de-pathologization of madness and mental illness through the appropriation of the symptomatic language of one particular mental illness, multiple personality, to create a new genre I call ‘the multiple film’: films dealing with multiple – stolen, assumed or mistaken – identities, realities or temporalities. Within the old illness model the multiple was the result of trauma; in these films, however, the multiple is both the result of trauma (or of another more mundane problem) and the solution to the trauma/problem. In this article I suggest some possible reasons for our current fascination with ‘the multiple’ and for the ‘depathologization of madness’, sketch out the characteristics of the new genre of the multiple film, provide some representative examples of the genre and, finally, inquire into possible reasons for the Hollywood ‘epidemic of the multiple’. I argue that in an increasingly mediated culture, narratives involving multiple realities provide an outlet for the anxiety we feel over our passivity and powerlessness. They redeem the negative connotations of multiplicity – instability, groundlessness and relativism – by treating multiplicity as a reassuring surplus of possibilities.

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