Thursday Rethink: 16 Years Out — Watching The Sixth Sense for the First Time

I had never watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense until the other night. I’d certainly heard a lot about the film. It was 16 years ago that it became a pop culture phenomenon, garnering six Oscar nominations and racking up $293 million at the domestic box office. And it’s a film that has had a long cultural half-life. References to it, and more often jokes about it, are still made today. It is an unavoidable cultural touchstone. I already knew about the film’s final twist, where Bruce Willis is actually dead the entire time—it’s an unavoidable spoiler in our culture to the point that there are T-shirts with this plot point on it. I even knew the famous line “I see dead people.” I knew that the film had terrified many people—my fiancée claims the film seriously scarred her psyche. I knew that the film had announced M. Night Shyamalan as a major talent, and also doomed him in the cultural conversation, as every follow-up film would inevitably be compared to his breakthrough film.

So picture my surprise the other night when the film I finally watched bore little resemblance to the horror film I’ve heard about for the past 16 years. Less a horror film or a gimmicky thriller overly reliant on its fantastical twist, The Sixth Sense is instead an abundantly sad film. It’s quiet and melancholy, much like its main character. It’s also gentle and incredibly moving. I was kind of floored by how little effect my knowledge of the twist had on the film’s epilogue reveal, or by how long the film takes to confirm young Cole Sear’s (Haley Joel Osment) special gift.

Watching The Sixth Sense with fresh eyes, but fully aware of the cultural conversation surrounding it, was an enlightening experience. It clarified how much of our conversation about films is controlled by momentum and critical mass. Critics and the public-at-large often latch onto one aspect of a film and that aspect begins to define it. But 16 years out, when no one is debating the film anymore and its cultural influence has diminished to little more than comic fodder, you’re better able to appreciate a film for what it is. These are my observations on The Sixth Sense and the film that remains after the public conversation has died away.

The twist is not the film’s focus.

Let’s get this out of the way. The twist that Bruce Willis’ Dr. Malcolm Crowe is a ghost for the majority of the film’s runtime is not its focus. It’s an emotional climax for Malcolm, a way for him to experience the catharsis he’s taught Cole to give to other ghosts. That’s all. It doesn’t drastically change the viewer’s understanding of the narrative of the film. The majority of the film has to do with Cole coming to terms with his gift and learning to coexist with his unhappy mother (Toni Collette). The twist does recontextualize all of Malcolm’s interactions with Cole, but mostly it’s meant to clarify a subplot and bring the film full circle.

When the film came out, the twist was all anyone talked about. Even now, people dismiss Shyamalan as that director who only makes films with twists. This descriptor may be true of his later films (and even then, it’s a stretch), but with The Sixth Sense the twist is not the film’s selling point. It has had such a lasting impact because it’s what the film leaves us with. It’s our final impression of this startling film. It’s the final cymbal clash of a symphony that’s astonishing in its own right.

A drama, not a horror film.

The Sixth Sense is not a horror film. It’s main aim is not to scare viewer, but to move him or her to tears. By modern standards, the film is tame. Yes, it does trade in the occasional horror convention, like when James Newton Howard’s score spikes when a ghost appears, or Shyamalan’s gliding camera subtly obscures supernatural events in order to make them more unsettling. But think about how rarely the scary scenes focus on the scares above all else. The scene always stays with Cole. Most horror films detach from the character, addressing the viewer directly, or only use the character as an audience surrogate. In The Sixth Sense, it works the other way around. The viewer is involved because the viewer cares about Cole. Shyamalan scares us only when the scare is necessary to help us identify with Cole. He uses our feelings of terror to draw us closer to his main character.

Even when the scene does scare us, like when Cole is locked in an upstairs closet at a peer’s birthday party, the scares are more born out of Cole’s emotional trauma than in any conventional horror film. In this example, we don’t see any ghosts, but we do see the physical and psychological pain inflicted on Cole. That’s what counts.

The Sixth Sense is primarily a drama because it crescendos during the emotional confrontations, not during the ghost scenes. And even though the scary scenes are memorable, they don’t hold a candle to the dramatic ones, like the final scene between Cole and his mother where he reveals his gift. When a film can leave you in tears after a son confesses his fears to his mother, you know you’re working with something a little different than a conventional horror film.

A spiritualist drama without the spiritualism.

The Sixth Sense has no interest in the mythology of ghosts. It spends no time discussing the rules of apparitions or how to combat them. Anything that hints towards a larger mythology about spirits, like the photographs of Cole with optical flares or his little safety tent full of Christian icons, goes uncommented upon. There are no scenes where Cole goes to a psychic to undo his gift or with discussions of how Cole acquired his gift in the first place. All that matters is that Cole sees ghosts and that this ability torments him. Shyamalan has no interest in crafting a spiritual mythology. He only cares about the supernatural inasmuch as it affects his characters emotionally.

The only time the film dabbles with spiritualist conventions is when Malcolm investigates a way to help Cole by looking up his old case files about a past patient. That Malcolm determines that the ghosts want Cole to listen to their problems and help them come to terms with their mortality is the closest the film skirts to the spiritualism found in other ghost stories. That The Sixth Sense avoids all of these tired clichés about mystics and spiritual auras and the rules of ghosts—look, I’m a fan of the Paranormal Activity franchise but the mystical mumbo jumbo is not its strong point—speaks to just how special a film it is. It’s truly original.

The culture’s view of The Sixth Sense may have coalesced around one very specific element of the film 16 years ago, but all these years after its release it’s time to rid ourselves of the cultural assumptions and finally see the film for the remarkable, unconventional drama that it is.

Do you remember watching The Sixth Sense 16 years ago? Do your memories of it skew closer to the cultural conversation that surrounded it? Or do you recall it being closer to Aren’s assessment of it? Let us know in the comments.

The Sixth Sense (1999, USA)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan; starring Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams.