“I see dead people.”
How does one cope with a devastating loss? Whether it’s death, suicide, divorce or even heartbreak, how do we adjust to life when these things happen? It’s one of many questions asked in The Sixth Sense, a well-acted and immensely entertaining breakout picture from one M. Night Shyamalan in 1999. This movie established the writer and director for his trademark thrills and iconic twist endings, for better and for worse. So, with the film being twenty years old, how has it aged? What made it become one of the most successful and highest grossing horror films of all time? And does it still creep us today after all these years? Be warned, Spoilers Ahead!
The Sixth Sense‘s story involves a child psychologist working with a young boy after his father has left the family. Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a well-respected psychologist in his field, but an absent husband at home, yet his efforts to help children eventually gets him to work with young Cole (Haley Joel Osment). This young boy is troubled and shows signs of possible abuse. He acts strangely, is made fun of by his classmates and mostly keeps to himself. Working with Cole, Dr. Malcolm tries to understand what Cole is going through and seek a treatment that can get the kid on the right track with his life.
Cole’s mother Lynn (Toni Collette) is a dedicated mother who works very hard and does all she can while raising her son. She cares about him and wonders to herself how to cope with life after her divorce, a haunting moment that left both her and Cole to fend for themselves. Cole appears to have a mundane life but his mother constantly tries to keep him upbeat, especially when he comes home and the two make up stories of how their life will get even better.
The entire film centers on conversations between Dr. Malcolm and Cole, with both characters’ search for answers ultimately leading to a startling realization: Cole is able to see the dead. He can see people walking around, but they are no longer living. Either they’ve died from an illness, accident, suicide or even worse, murder. Yet they see Cole and can even communicate with him. The dead, or better known as ghosts, have some unfinished business and seek Cole out to help them. Sometimes they’re nice, but other times they scare Cole and even us, the audience!
Now The Sixth Sense was marketed as a supernatural thriller but there’s far more to it than that. I recently rewatched the film to remember all that happens, and it’s been at least fifteen years since I last watched it. Yet, like all moviegoers, I remembered the ending and the plot twist. So, even knowing all that happens, The Sixth Sense is fascinating to watch because Shyamalan managed to set up something that we sort of suspected, but were still shocked when it was revealed to be true all along.
With its supernatural thriller roots, The Sixth Sense opened strong when it released on August 6, 1999 alongside The Iron Giant. It would remain at the Number 1 Box Office Spot for five weeks straight, going on to become one of the highest grossing horror films of all time until it was surpassed by 2017’s remake of It. I think this is due to how creepy the film is and, of course, the star power of Bruce Willis. It’s comforting to see an action star take on a serious role that allows us to see if he has good range as an actor. Not only does Willis give an amazing performance, but so do Osment and Collette as well. In fact, the acting, atmosphere, tension, writing and even the film’s dead people make this premise work. I remember first seeing this film and having nightmares of the dead people paying me a visit, a feeling I’ll surely never forget.
Now, while I won’t mention the plot twist specifically, one important dynamic of The Sixth Sense must be mentioned. That would be the relationship between Dr. Malcolm and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams), whose emotional distance is crucial to Malcolm’s character arc. Their interactions, lack of conversation and final revelation all showcase the acting versatility of Bruce Willis beyond his Die Hard status. It’s very effective and drew me to study him as a character.
Even knowing the ending, watching this movie again was a lot of fun for me. This is one of the movies that, when you watch it twice, you’ll appreciate it even more. M. Night Shyamalan was never been able to recapture this hype of this movie in his future filmography, the track record of which is widely documented, but even so he smartly crafts this story with so many little clues that you’ll notice upon multiple viewing. It has a slow pace, burning tension and a surprising lack of action, all of which makes this movie an interesting experience for me to revisit. In a way, it reminds me of 1990’s Ghost in a lot of ways, even if the plots are somewhat different.
The Sixth Sense doesn’t scare me today but it still bring back some fond memories. I come from a divorced family and, while I didn’t shut down the way Cole did, I distinctly remember the feeling of not having a complete home when I was younger. Also, while I’ve never been to a funeral, I have seen a dead body before and it’s not a pretty sight. That experience literally gave me chills and scared me for a while, a moment I wouldn’t wish for anyone to experience.
I love this film’s title simply because we all have a sixth sense, or a little sensory flag that pops into our head when we can sense something is “off.” It’s a catchy title and certainly elevated in memorability by the great acting and well-written script. The Sixth Sense was a film that had people talking and, as the entry that put M. Night Shyamalan’s name on the map, just may be the quintessential Shyamalan if you’re a fan.
So, even after twenty years of cinema, does anyone else remember a more iconic ghost film that left you in awe leaving the theater? Maybe yes or maybe no, but no one will ever forget that infamous line… ”I see dead people.”