Note: this essay spoils the whole movie.
“I couldn’t believe Bruce Willis was dead the whole time!”
I was still in grade school when The Sixth Sense came out, much too young for its more intense scenes, and all I knew about the movie was what I overheard my parents and aunt and uncle discussing. At the time, I had no idea that the biggest twist had already been spoiled for me.
All too often horror is brushed aside as a gimmicky, niche, or seasonal genre, but The Sixth Sense—with its building tension, supernatural elements, and ghoulish horror—nevertheless remains one of the cinematic accomplishments of its decade. The early 2000s exploded with psychological thrillers, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that The Sixth Sense played a significant role in the genre’s surge.
While The Sixth Sense’s twist ending is as common knowledge as Darth Vader’s being Luke’s father, it wasn’t so for audiences of then-29-year-old M. Night Shyamalan’s film in 1999. The movie grossed nearly $700 million worldwide, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, among other awards. It’s been recognized in countdowns for best films, scripts, and quotations. “I see dead people” is a pop culture reference staple.
The Sixth Sense was not my official introduction to horror in movies or television. I was no stranger to the adaptations of my beloved Goosebumps books or the Nickelodeon series Are You Afraid of the Dark? (few experiences in life are as delicious as watching a Y7 show when you’re only six). However, thrillers were new territory for me the first time I sat down to watch the movie. Soon enough, I was in search of more like it. Much like with my gushing over Let the Right One In, my love for The Sixth Sense stems from its psychological intensity.
The story was simple: child psychologist Malcolm (Willis) returns home one night with his wife after being recognized for his contributions to the community. A patient of his from years ago has broken into his home, accuses Malcolm of not helping him, and shoots the doctor and then himself. The next fall, Malcolm has a new patient: eight-year-old Cole (Haley Joel Osment), whose behavior reminds him of the boy he failed. While Malcolm thinks Cole’s unsociable behavior and distance stem from his missing father, the problem actually lies with Cole’s ability to see ghosts and experience their terrifying anger and pain.
The movie has sudden ghostly appearances and loud noises that inspire a reflexive flinch, but it’s the human moments, not the thriller elements, that draw me in. Even Osment’s father, actor Eugene Michael Osment, told his son that the movie wasn’t really about horror but communication. At the core of the film is the human need to reach out and connect to other people, an emotional experience understood by both children and adults.
With the film’s small cast, the viewer spends time with the characters and has the chance to learn about their personalities, goals, and fears; putting them in unsettling and even dangerous situations had a much stronger emotional impact. Viewers can’t help feeling a parental instinct to protect Cole, not only from the spirits that haunt him, but also from the flesh-and-blood bullies in his classroom. Even Malcolm, despite lapses into egotism over his abilities and moments where he projects more than listens, earns sympathy. He demonstrates his care and compassion for Cole by attending his school plays to promising to stay with him until he falls asleep after a particularly frightening encounter with a ghost, and the audience sees that this determination not to fail another child comes at the cost of spending time with his own family.
As much I enjoy watching films and going to the movie theater, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “film person.” I pick up on narrative elements like foreshadowing or parallels but don’t always take note of direction or artistic choices in lighting or camera work. The Sixth Sense actually has one of my favorite examples of film technique, though. In an early scene, Malcolm asks Cole if he’d like to play a game in which Malcolm tries to read his mind. Cole must take one step towards or away from him based on whether his predictions are right or wrong; if Cole reaches the chair opposite Malcolm, he must sit and talk, but if he reaches the door, he can leave. Warily, Cole accepts.
Malcolm’s predictions start off gentle but direct, such as Cole’s not thinking a psychiatrist can help him because one couldn’t help his mother (Toni Colette) after his father left. As Malcolm tries to push what he believes is the root of Cole’s problem—his missing father—Cole steps further and further away. At one point, the camera isn’t on Cole at all, but trained on Malcolm instead, drawing back from him after another missed guess. Seeing Malcolm from Cole’s perspective while still so distanced from the character’s thought process created a sense of displacement and a need to understand this character. It also sets up an excellent parallel for the infamous “I see dead people” scene, in which we are also in Cole’s perspective, slowly zooming in on Malcolm’s face when Cole explains that ghosts don’t realize they’re dead.
The direction and writing surrounding Malcom is also noteworthy in that they allow viewers to pick up on new hints and clues leading to the famous twist ending with every rewatch. Malcom’s attire throughout the film is only variations of the suit, coat, and sweatshirt he wore the night he died. The color red, absent even in the smallest details for most of the film, signals death and emotional extremes, and appears only at peak moments of plot or character development. While the color follows Cole more closely, it sneaks into Malcolm’s life as well, in all of the clothes his wife (widow) wears and the doorknob leading down to his basement, hidden behind a table Malcolm’s ghost doesn’t register until he realizes what’s happened and how his posthumous view of the world is selective.
Perhaps my favorite scene in the entire film, however, comes at the end. Cole’s mother Lynn juggles two jobs, a home in disarray, and communicating with and defending her ostracized child. Not wanting his mother to think of him as a freak like everyone else, Cole refuses to confide in her about the ghosts until his sessions with Malcolm come to a close. He tells her that his grandmother visits often. To prove he isn’t lying, Cole tells his mother about a trip she took to her mother’s grave and a question she asked. The answer, he says, is “every day.”
“What did you ask?” Cole asks his mother.
Through her tears, Lynn answers, “Do I make her proud?”
Even more than closure for Cole—who by now has accepted Malcolm’s suggestion that the ghosts are seeking someone to listen and help them, adopted a more positive outlook, and started to make friends and participate in school—this piece of the narrative is really a happy ending for Lynn. Kept in the dark for so much of the movie, Lynn finally understands her son and can support him the way she couldn’t before. She knows that her mother is with her and Cole all the time. Her son is communicating and opening up, and they are a team. Their family pieces back together.
The Sixth Sense sets the bar pretty high for a first horror film, and sixteen years haven’t diminished its quality for me in the least. The film sparks an emotional connection through its script, acting, and filmography. It’s a true accomplishment that a movie that instills such fear in its opening scene can communicate tremendous hope in its final one.