Apple TV+’s psychological thriller series ‘The Crowded Room’ stars Tom Holland as Danny Sullivan, who is arrested after a shooting in 1979. To understand what happened on that day, what prompted Danny to commit the crime, and who his accomplices were, he is interviewed by Rya Goodwin, a psychologist. As Danny starts to talk about his childhood and how he befriended the people who eventually pushed him toward the things he’d done, a disturbing picture emerges.
Created by Akiva Goldsman, the show goes through many twists and turns before telling us what exactly is happening with Danny. Despite being a thriller, it presents a fascinating and realistic portrayal of a person going through a tough time and the things he has to do to ensure his survival. If you are wondering whether any aspect of this story has been taken from real-life events, here’s what you should know. SPOILERS AHEAD
Is The Crowded Room a True Story?
‘The Crowded Room’ is partially based on the life of Billy Milligan and is inspired by Daniel Keyes’ 1981 non-fiction book ‘The Minds of Billy Milligan.’ Several aspects of his story have been incorporated into the show but are presented through a fictional lens. Billy Milligan came into the limelight in 1977 after he was arrested in a case of serial rape and robberies in the Ohio State University area. He was accused of kidnapping, raping, and robbing three women, though he didn’t remember committing any of those crimes.
The reported crimes occurred between October 14, 1977, to October 26, 1977. On October 27, Milligan was identified by one of the victims through his mug shots. He was in the system because he had been previously convicted of rape and robbery. Once his fingerprints matched with the one found in the car of one of the victims, the police arrested him. Elliot Boxerbaum, the OSU police investigations supervisor, who arrested Milligan, said about him: “I couldn’t tell you what was going on, but it was like I was talking to different people at different times.”
When analyzed by several psychiatrists, it was revealed that Billy Milligan had dissociative identity disorder. He had around 24 personalities, of which two were found responsible for the crimes that Milligan was arrested for. This led the defense to claim that Milligan was not guilty on the grounds of insanity, and the jury acquitted him, making him the first person in the country’s history to do so.
In ‘The Crowded Room,’ Danny Sullivan is a variation on Milligan. He, too, exhibits dissociative identity disorder, where different personalities show up whenever he needs them. For Milligan, Ragen, who talked in a Yugoslavian accent, was the muscleman; for Danny, it’s Yitzhak, an Israeli. One of Milligan’s personalities was a 19-year-old lesbian, Adalana; in Danny’s case, it’s Ariana. Allegedly, Ragen committed the kidnappings and robberies, while Adalana was responsible for the rapes. Reportedly, she did it because she wanted affection.
Danny’s disorder stems from the abuse perpetrated by his stepfather. Milligan made the same claim about his stepfather, Chalmer Milligan. After he was diagnosed, he was sent to a psychiatric facility where he was treated. After receiving therapy, his personality was fused into one that wouldn’t be prone to inflicting harm on others. 1988 he was released from the hospital and received outpatient mental treatment until August 1991. He died in 2014 at the age of 59.
While the Apple TV+ series is inspired by Milligan’s story, it sticks to a fictional approach by making several changes. Tom Holland, who plays Danny Sullivan, said the show’s creators “felt like it was a more appropriate story to tell from a fictional point of view.” To play Danny, he thoroughly researched Milligan’s case. He read Keyes’ book, watched the documentary about Milligan, and spoke to experts in the field of psychiatry to get inside Danny’s headspace.
For Akiva Goldsman, it was about exploring the roots of the character and seeing what led him to the things he was accused of. “For me, it was about really creating empathy — to create a character that you would really ally with. That you would feel connected to, and so his journey would become the audience’s journey,” he said. “It was really important to us to tell this story in an authentic way, as well as a sensitive way,” Holland added.
While it is a thriller that peels away at the layers one by one, through its many twists and turns, Holland said it’s a rather human story at heart. “It’s a story about heartbreak. It’s a story about love. It’s a story about betrayal. And, most of all, it’s a story about a young kid’s determination to survive,” the Spider-Man actor said. With all this in mind, we can say that ‘The Crowded Room’ is inspired by real-life events, but it does through a fictional approach by making Danny his own person, separate from Billy Milligan.