Mind in the Media: What Moon Knight Gets Right About Dissociative Identity Disorder

Oscar Isaac portrays Marc Spektor in Moon Knight

Verywell / Marvel Studios

Spoiler alert! This article contains major spoilers for the first season of the TV show, "Moon Knight," available on Disney+.

Pop culture is full of characters that have dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder. From "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" to "Psycho," from "Fight Club" to "Split," and from "The United States of Tara" to "Ratched," characters with more than one identity repeatedly appear in books, movies, and TV shows.

Given the drama inherent in a character who houses multiple personalities with distinct wants and needs, it's easy to understand why writers and directors are eager to depict people with DID and why actors are eager to play them.

Unfortunately, these depictions rarely portray the condition accurately, perpetuating misinformation and even damaging ideas about what it means to have DID.

Disney+'s "Moon Knight," based on the Marvel comic, is the latest example of a pop culture property to include a character with DID. The main character's mental health is a major component of the story told in the TV series, and the show's writers, directors, and star Oscar Isaac have said that they researched DID in order to accurately depict it on screen. This ensured that it gets quite a few things right about the condition.

What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?

A person with dissociative identity disorder has two or more distinct personalities. This is something "Moon Knight" illustrates through the character of Steven Grant, played by Isaac, who in the first episode learns he has another personality, also played by Isaac, who he soon discovers is named Marc Spector.

Susan Hatters Friedman, MD, Professor of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University, says that DID happens as the result of "extreme and repeated trauma" during childhood. To cope with that terrible trauma, a child may protect themselves by dissociating.

Dissociation, in which a person disconnects their mind from what their body is experiencing, exists on a spectrum. While we all experience dissociation to some extent (if you've ever been driving and suddenly found yourself at home, you've experienced this phenomenon), dissociation disorders often happen as a result of stress and trauma, with DID at the far end of the spectrum. In fact, as Dr. Robert T. Muller, author of Trauma and the Struggle to Open Up, observes, DID is a subclass of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or developmental trauma.

DID usually happens in response to trauma that takes place before the age of six because that's when personality development takes place, notes Kelly Caniglia, MA, LCMHC, CCTP, a member of the board of the non-profit DID advocacy organization An Infinite Mind. "Between one and six," Caniglia observes, "children… have [a] part that goes to preschool and they have the part that's at home with Mom and Dad, and then around six, all of those come together and integrate into a singular personality. But when there's… significant trauma, those parts don't come together. They stay fragmented."

Essentially, the brains of some children who suffer intense trauma split off their awareness into separate personalities. This is to shield the child during the trauma; however, in most cases, the personalities developed to keep an individual safe from trauma in childhood endure and may still arise in the future after the person is no longer suffering from the original trauma.

As a result, for teens and adults, major symptoms of DID often include an inability to recall large chunks of one's childhood and losing chunks of time with an inability to remember where one was, what they did, or who they spoke to.

DID is listed in the latest version of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual and newer studies indicate about 1% of the population has it, although among mental health professionals that number is in dispute, with some believing DID is much rarer.

Many mental health professionals also question the reliability of the diagnosis as a whole, even though, as Muller points out, a significant amount of empirical research exists that provides scientific evidence for the existence of DID.

Part of the reason DID remains controversial is that it is often mistaken for schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. As psychiatrist Karen B. Rosenbaum, MD explains, when the mental health field was initially attempting to understand these different diagnoses, "it was thought that people with schizophrenia had multiple personalities because they would hear voices." Interestingly, "Moon Knight" suffered the same mischaracterization in the comics, with early writers attributing his multiple identities to schizophrenia until he was finally properly described as having DID.

Sadly, people with DID endure a similar plight. Caniglia says that it takes approximately seven to 10 years for DID to be diagnosed. In the meantime, many people are given medications that don’t work such as the antipsychotics that are used to treat schizophrenia.

While these drugs may treat some issues that can co-occur with DID, they won't treat DID. For example, a person with DID who is also suffering from depression may see their depressive symptoms improve if they are given an antidepressant, but their DID symptoms won't change. Consequently, many people who have DID endure a long mental health journey before they even start to receive appropriate treatment.

What Does Moon Knight Get Right About Dissociative Identity Disorder?

Pop culture often depicts DID in a sensationalized way that contributes to media consumers' misunderstanding of what it really means to have the condition.

However, in general, if we don't focus too heavily on the superhero aspects of the show, "Moon Knight" has accurately portrayed several facets of the experience of living with DID.

Multiple Identities

While Caniglia observes that everyone's experience with DID is a bit different, often there is one personality that acts as a host who, by noticing clues around them or with the help of a mental health professional, discovers they have other personalities, which are often referred to as "alters" or "parts."  This is something we see Steven Grant go through in "The Goldfish Problem," the very first episode of "Moon Knight."

Steven is a mild-mannered Englishman who works at a museum gift shop and believes he's a sleepwalker because he occasionally leaves his home at night and wakes up in strange places with no memory of how he got there.

But when he wakes up in another city and finds himself fighting for his life for reasons he can't understand, Steven realizes he's not simply sleepwalking. Steven is terrified by the experience, but when he wakes up in his bed the next morning, he assumes it was just a bad dream.

That is until he goes to meet a woman for a date that he can't remember asking her on and she stands him up. When he calls to ask where she is, she furiously tells him it's Sunday and he failed to meet her for their date on Friday.

Steven then finds a mobile phone and a key that aren't his in a secret compartment in his apartment, realizes his one-finned goldfish has been switched out for a two-finned goldfish, and finds a storage locker belonging to someone named Marc.

Meanwhile, multiple people claim they have met him even though he doesn't recognize them, including a woman named Layla (May Calamawy) who claims to be his wife.

Steven finally comes to the unsettling conclusion that Marc is another personality that has been sharing his body, something he especially abhors because Marc is a mercenary who's comfortable with killing people.

This speaks to another reality of DID: the various personalities often have different skills and abilities, including the ability to speak different languages and the possession of different skills and knowledge. This becomes especially important as the show goes on. Although Marc is able to fight, operate confidently in foreign environments, and question people for information, Steven possesses a comprehensive knowledge of Egyptian mythology and history that helps Marc in his mission to stop the show's villain, Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke).

Yet, while "Moon Knight" makes it seem as though Steven is the host personality, by the show's fifth episode, "Asylum," the show confirms that Marc is typically the host. Caniglia says that host personalities can switch over time and it's also possible that two or more personalities may come out regularly while others only appear if they're needed.

The key is that each personality in what's called a DID "system" usually has a role. There are protectors, there's often a system manager, and there can even be child personalities, with the number of personalities depending on how fragmented the system is.

"Moon Knight" hints that Marc Spector has had a very complete life for a long period of time before the start of the show, including a complicated job as a mercenary and a marriage to Layla. He even indicates in a conversation with Layla that he had been the personality who was in control until recently. Then, in the fifth episode we learn that the death of Marc's mother, the parent who abused him horribly in childhood, led Marc to take a backseat while Steven started to appear more frequently, a situation that is representative of how people with DID can change host personalities. "You can have a host that's been around for a very long time," Caniglia observes, "and suddenly there's a shift for whatever reason and somebody else starts hosting more regularly."

Varying Levels of Awareness of Other Personalities

Another thing "Moon Knight" illustrates is the varying levels of awareness different personalities in a DID system may have of one another.

Muller says that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to different personalities' knowledge of each other. "Some [personalities] are aware and work in concert with other personalities…," Muller observes, "and there are personalities that are really quite unaware of the existence of other personalities." In "Moon Knight," Marc is clearly aware of Steven, and we see the process Steven goes through to become aware of Marc; however there's a third personality neither of them know about.

This can be seen in Episode 3, "The Friendly Type," when Marc is fighting a band of men in the hopes of getting some important information from them. As he's fighting, Marc loses time and when he becomes conscious again, the men he wanted to question are slaughtered all around him. Shocked at what's happened, Marc blames Steven, but Steven quickly denies responsibility.

Viewers, especially those familiar with the "Moon Knight" comics, likely realized what Steven and Marc don't: they have an especially violent third personality (see Part 2 of this piece for more on violence and DID), and, while he only seems to appear to handle the dirtiest of dirty work, he may be there to deal with dicey issues he feels Marc and Steven can't. An end credits scene confirmed the existence of this personality and that his name is Jake Lockley, and as comic-book readers will know, he's particularly merciless. While we only saw hints of what he's capable of in the first season of "Moon Knight," we'll likely learn more about him if the show is picked up for a second season.

Communication Between Identities

One of the devices frequently seen in "Moon Knight" is Marc and Steven communicating with each other through reflective surfaces. Whenever one is in control of their body, they can speak to the other through mirrors, metal, water, or any other surface that reflects their face.

While this isn't the way people with DID communicate amongst their various personalities, Muller says it could be seen as a useful metaphor because there often is internal communication between personalities. While some with DID may not experience this, the ability to communicate internally with all parts of the system and work together leads to better functioning in daily life for people diagnosed with the condition.

Caniglia notes that a DID system often operates like a big family. While different altars may love, resent, or even hate each other, they all show up for one another. This is something that is dramatized in "Moon Knight" as Steven and Marc work together to solve their problems. While Steven often seems to despise Marc, at least initially, he still helps him when there's a situation that requires his skillset.

Moreover, as they work together more, the two personalities become increasingly reliant on and appreciative of one another. After the big twist at the end of Episode 4, "The Tomb," that sees Marc suddenly relegated to a psychiatric hospital, the heavily sedated mercenary seems to be without Steven. When he finally finds him trapped in a sarcophagus, Marc frees him and the pair hug, relieved to be reunited. And by the last episode of the season, Marc and Steven are functioning as a team that fully trusts each other.

While there is plenty of dramatic license in the depiction of how Marc and Steven learn to work together, the fact that the two personalities ultimately come to the conclusion that they don't want to lose one another is a metaphor for how many people with DID feel about their alters.

Inspiration from Culture

Caniglia notes that there seem to be more and more people with DID who report having a personality based on a fictional TV or movie character. This is another thing "Moon Knight" touches on at the end of the fourth episode when the story unexpectedly shifts to the psychiatric hospital.

When viewers are introduced to the new location, Marc can be seen watching an obscure movie called "Tomb Buster," a child-oriented "Indiana Jones"-style knock-off featuring an adventurer by the name of Steven Grant. While the "Moon Knight" Steven isn't a globe-trotting adventurer, this detail nods to the way Marc used a movie that comforted him in childhood as inspiration for one of his alters. It's a plot point that the show confirms in the fifth episode, where young Marc's attachment to "Tomb Buster" and Steven Grant is illustrated in his imitation of the character when playing with his little brother and the giant poster he has of the movie on his bedroom wall.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the depiction of dissociative identity disorder in "Moon Knight." Stay tuned for Part 2 which will discuss what "Moon Knight" gets wrong about DID.

1 Source
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  1. Şar V, Dorahy MJ, Krüger C. Revisiting the etiological aspects of dissociative identity disorder: A biopsychosocial perspectivePsychol Res Behav Manag. 2017;10:137-146. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S113743

By Cynthia Vinney, PhD
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.