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“I’m Ready to Communicate With You Now”: The Millennial Anxieties of “The Sixth Sense”, and Feeling Alone in the City of Brotherly Love…

This Saturday, I’ll be discussing The Sixth Sense on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first.

What do you think these ghosts want when they talk to you? I want you to think about it, Cole. I want you to think about it really carefully. What do you think they want?

Just help.

That’s right. That’s what I think too. They just want help, even the scary ones. I think I might know a way to make them go away.

How?

Listen to them.

The Sixth Sense is a remarkable film, for many reasons.

These days, The Sixth Sense is perhaps best known for its central twist. The film’s powerhouse emotional ending has become a pop cultural touchstone, anchoring jokes in everything from Fifty First Dates to the viral video sensation Jizz in my Pants. Of course, this also complicates the legacy of The Sixth Sense by serving as ground zero for director M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent dependence upon these sorts of twists in movies like The Village or The Happening. Nevertheless, The Sixth Sense has endured in the popular memory as one of the rare twist-driven films that stands up to repeat viewings.

A Cole’d open.

However, it is much more than that. Even beyond that, The Sixth Sense is a lavish production that looks beautiful. Of course, Shyamalan’s ego has done his reputations few favours, from his own cameo as a writer-messiah in The Lady in the Water to his role in a Sci-Fi Channel documentary The Buried Secret of M. Night Shyamalan to the famous Newsweek cover crowning him “the next Spielberg.” Still, The Sixth Sense is visually stunning. Although it is tempting to think of The Sixth Sense as a “small” movie by modern standards, it was actually produced on a budget of $40m.

Rewatching The Sixth Sense twenty years later, it is amazing how much of the film’s visual storytelling lingers. Shyamalan might not have been the next Spielberg, but he had a wonderful eye for composition; that shot of a red balloon drifting up the inside of a spiral staircase, those eerie sequences of Malcolm and Cole wandering through a surprisingly quiet Philadelphia, even the conversations at that church with Cole towering over Malcolm from the balcony as he plays with his toy soldiers.

Pew pew!

However, even more than all of that, The Sixth Sense remains the rare film that is both specifically rooted in its cultural moment and profoundly universal. The story that drives The Sixth Sense is surprisingly straightforward – helpfully encapsulated in Cole’s trailer-friendly assertion that he sees “dead people.” However, Shyamalan understands that ghost stories are about more than just the recently deceased. Ghost stories translate a sense of longing and regret, of disconnect and isolation. The Sixth Sense is fundamentally a story about how difficult it is to meaningfully communicate in the modern world, with or without a pulse.

The Sixth Sense is a story of existential ennui, wrapped up in a set of late nineties anxieties.

M. Night Shyamalan had to eat Crowe on his next few films.

Much has been written about the importance of 1999 as a year in cinema, but The Sixth Sense arrived as part of a miniature horror boom within that. It was released a week after the remake of The Haunting, a film that failed to spark a revolution in big budget summer horror films that now feels like an awkward prelude to movies like The Conjuring. It was released two weeks after The Blair Witch Project, which would establish a template that would come to define early twenty-first century horror. It was released just over a month before Stigmata and Stir of Echoes.

It is interesting to wonder what sparked that boom. After all, the horror genre traditionally thrives in times of great social and economic unrest, while the late nineties were a (relatively) stable and prosperous era. This might just have been misplaced millennial anxiety, a broader cultural dread than the fears permeating movies like The Matrix or Fight Club. It’s also entirely possible that this miniature short-lived horror boom was just a coincidence and that there was nothing underpinning it other than the fact that a bunch of horror movies arrived in cinemas at a time when audiences just happened to want to watch horror movies.

Still, The Sixth Sense taps into some of the feelings of anxiety that permeated the late nineties. The Sixth Sense is a ghost story, but – more fundamentally than that – it is also a story about the breakdown of communication between individuals. This is most obvious with Cole, the young boy who can see and hear what others cannot. Cole has the ability to see the deceased, explaining that these people are fundamentally disconnected from the world through which they are moving. “They don’t know they’re dead,” Cole tells Malcolm. “They’re everywhere. They only see what they want to see.”

The big twist is that Malcolm has been dead for most of movie, that he never recovered from the gunshot wound that he received in the opening sequence and has instead been trying to reconcile himself to his own death by both helping Cole in a way that he could not help an earlier patient and by trying to reconnect with his increasingly estranged wife Anna. The revelation that Malcolm is a ghost puts those two motivations in context; they represent Malcolm’s “unfinished business”, the things that he needs to do in order to properly pass on to whatever awaits him in the great beyond.

Family matters.

Shyamalan is able to slyly conceal this fact from the audience by framing it as an extended metaphor. Cole is the only character with whom Malcolm directly interacts over the course of the film. Although he shared several scenes with Anna, the two often exist at odds with one another. She seems to ignore him, while he avoids direct confrontation. In hindsight, these scenes are based on a fundamental mistaken assumption; Anna cannot see Malcolm, while Malcolm could not speak to her even if he was strong enough to try. However, on first viewing, it appears like the couple are simply drifting apart from one another.

The spectre of divorce looms over The Sixth Sense. Malcolm worries that his wife is having an affair. He cites parental divorce as a formative factor in the cases of both Vincent Gray and Cole Sear. As Emily Todd VanDerWerff remarked, “The biggest ghost in the film, for instance, is the no-longer-present father of Osment’s character, who’s not even dead.” This is a very clever narrative sleight from Shyamalan, who clever uses the basis of the film’s metaphor as camouflage for the metaphor itself. Within the world of the film, supernatural sight masquerades as the trauma of familial separation. Outside that, the relationship is reversed.

Blanket concerns.

After all, it isn’t just Malcolm’s family that seems to be collapsing due to a breakdown of communication. Cole lives with his single mother, Lynn. Cole’s father left her to move to Pittsburgh “with a lady that works in a tollbooth.” There is a recurring sense that Lynn is struggling to cope with the pressure, both personal and economical. She is working two jobs, and struggling to understand what exactly is happening with her son. “You know, I don’t know if you noticed, but our little family isn’t doing so good,” she tells Cole. “If we can’t talk to each other, we’re not gonna make it.”

In the world of The Sixth Sense, the family home is often the scene of violence. One of the movie’s most effective jump scares involves the ghost of a young boy who discovered where his father keeps his gun. Attending a classmate’s party, Cole discovers a voice coming from inside a small storage space, begging to get out. At one point, Lynn is accused of abusing Cole. When Malcolm convinces Cole that he can use his powers to help these poor and lost souls, they turn their attention to the case of Kyra Collins, who was slowly poisoned by her mother in the ultimate expression of the film’s anxieties.

Shades of Vincent Gray.

In this way, The Sixth Sense feels like a logical successor to the wave of popular sixties and seventies horrors that tackled contemporary fears about the perceived erosion of the conventional nuclear family. The seventies were a time of radical social change in America, with a generation of women at work creating a generation of latchkey kids while the widespread acceptance of no-fault divorce shattered the family unit that had been a cornerstone of American culture. This was a cultural trauma that was less obvious than the horrors of Vietnam or Watergate, but it still informed a lot of the horror of the era.

This fear of family dissolution informs films like The Exorcist and Don’t Look Now, tapping directly into anxieties simmering away in the public subconscious. A lot of modern horror is informed and shaped by those seventies classics, from Hereditary to The Curse of La Llorona to Annabelle Comes Home. However, what distinguishes and elevates The Sixth Sense above simple horror movie nostalgia is that it doesn’t simply repeat or reiterate the same old fears. It finds a way to contextualise them in broader culture.

The Sixth Sense scratches at the idea of something happening beneath the surface – the fear that what people don’t talk about is as important as what they actively discuss. When his teacher offers a rosy white-washed history their school’s previous use as a court house, Cole is able to correct him with a more realistic account of what actually happened within its walls. “They used to hang people here,” Cole states. “They pulled the people in, crying and kissing their families bye.” His teacher insists, “This whole building was full of lawyers, lawmakers.” Cole responds, “They were the ones that hanged everybody.”

At his friend’s birthday, Cole is drawn to the soft crying coming from the top of the stairs. The ghost of a man – implied to be a slave – has been locked away in an extremely tight space. “I can’t breathe,” the voice gasps. “If you can hear me, open this door. I swear on my life I didn’t take the master’s horse.” The obvious implication is that this man died in that crawl space, and his ghost haunts the house just as the hanging corpses haunt Cole’s school. This is very much a classic ghost story motif, the idea that past actions (especially horrific ones) leave an indelible mark on a place. (The Shining may be the best expression of this.)

At the end of his wife.

To a certain extent, this helps to mark The Sixth Sense as a story specifically rooted in its Philadelphian setting. (The film has – rightly – been celebrated for its use of the city, drawing on M. Night Shyamalan’s own attachment to Philadelphia.) Philadelphia holds an important place in American history, as home to the first and second continental congresses. It was also the temporary capital of the United States after the American Revolution. Philadelphia was one of the nation’s first industrial centres, accessible to both the northern and southern halves of the young country.

As such, it feels appropriate that The Sixth Sense touches on the idea of the erasure and suppression of history, the way in which the part is erased and uncomfortable truths are quickly forgotten. In some ways, The Sixth Sense feels ahead of its time. Recent years have raised the question of the United States inability to come to terms with the more horrifying aspects of its own history. It seems highly likely that the school books that Cole is reading would gloss over the horrors of slavery, to pick one obvious example. The only way that Cole can know what actually happened is to speak directly to the dead.

Pencil pushing.

However, The Sixth Sense is anchored in Philadelphia in another – more direct – way. Philadelphia is perhaps best known as “the city of brotherly love”, a loose translation of the Greek words that make up its name. A lot of art based around the city riffs on this idea, making Philadelphia a popular setting for stories about human connection. Philadelphia is perhaps the most obvious example, the story of a homophobic lawyer who finds his prejudices challenged when he takes a gay man as a client. Bruce Springsteen wrote Streets of Philadelphia for the soundtrack, capturing the idea of alienation and disconnect.

The Sixth Sense plays to this by casting Philadelphia as a city of isolation and alienation. The film repeatedly emphasises how alone Cole feels. Shyamalan uses negative space around Haley Joel Osment to reinforce this sense of distance, notably in the shots of Cole outside the schoolhouse. Shyamalan also uses long takes and wide angle shots to emphasise the space that exists between actors, especially in conversations between Cole and Lynn or Malcolm. Every character in The Sixth Sense exists apart from everybody else, separated in some fundamental way.

Food for thought.

Cole invests considerable energy into pretending to be something that he is not. At one point, Cole convinces Tommy to pretend to be his friend in order to allay his mother’s worries. When his drawings of murder worry school administrators, he simply starts drawing rainbows instead. “They don’t have meetings about rainbows,” he explains. Cole presents a facade to the world, masking his true self. Despite the fact that everybody knows the premise of the film twenty years later, Cole waits until almost an hour into The Sixth Sense to reveal to Malcolm that he can see dead people.

The Sixth Sense is a film that is about the breakdown of communication – whether between Cole and Lynn or between Malcolm and Anna. There is a recurring emphasis on miscommunication. This is most obvious in the film’s suggestion that ghosts can only talk to certain people, and are ignored by others. However, it is also suggested in other ways. Latin serves as a minor plot point, with Malcolm translating the language from a recording of an earlier patient. “Deprofundus clamo adite domine.”

When Malcolm finds Cole speaking Latin while playing with his soldiers, he asks, “All your soldiers speak Latin?” Cole replies, “No. Just one.” That one soldier must feel completely alone, unable to communicate with the rest of his unit. There is a certain tragedy in being the only person speaking a given language, as it makes it impossible to have a meaningful conversation. The exchange encapsulates one of the core themes of The Sixth Sense, the question of whether people are capable of meaningful communication at all.

Rewatching The Sixth Sense, it is striking how much of the film is captured through media; how often characters point to tape recordings and video cassettes in order to explain the world around them. Malcolm listens to tapes of earlier sessions, and comes home to find his wife watching their wedding video. Lynn finds her eye drawn to photographs hanging on the wall, looking at little specks of light that she had never noticed before. Kyra exposes her mother’s crimes through a video tape delivered after her death. Even at the climax, the audience at Cole’s school play is a sea of camcorders.

A matter of record.

To a certain extent, this emphasis on documentation is an extension of the film’s ghost story themes. In many cases, these documents and recordings are the last evidence of people long gone – a way for Malcolm to hear the words of a dead patient, for Anna to reconnect with her deceased audience, for Kyra’s father to see his daughter one last time. They also serve as a reminder of how inherently subjective perspective is, how flawed and narrow an individual’s perception of the world can be. After all, Cole did argue that ghosts like Malcolm “only see what they want to see.”

This is a wonderful thematic bow. It allows Shyamalan to build on the themes of familial dissolution associated with seventies horror to produce a film that spoke specifically to millennial anxieties. At the end of the twentieth century, there was a growing sense of existential unease and social disconnect. There are any number of ways to quantify that unease, from Denis Leary’s rants about how “no one is happy!” to the explosion of Prozac sales over the course of the decade. While horror was often tied to periods of social unrest and inequity, the turn of the millennium brought its own unique horror.

Cole comfort.

What if this was as good as it got? What if this was the end of history? What if there were no more wars to fight and the economy was stable, and there was some sense of personal security? What if all of that was true and people still weren’t happy? More than that, what if the absence of these terrible things was a problem of itself? What if the unipolar moment stripped out an essential ordering principle for contemporary society? What if people were more free and more comfortable than they had ever been before, and that was what was making them unhappy?

Even as the economy boomed, and as the DOW soared, there was an increasing sense that society itself was starting to unravel. In 2000, Robert D. Putnam would publish Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, which adapted his 1995 article Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Putnam argued that American culture was becoming increasingly fractured and disjointed. It could be argued that this fracturing would build to a more existential schism within the twenty-first century, perhaps even the erosion of the idea of a shared consensus reality.

Soldiering on.

This anxiety ripples through the culture of the late nineties, most obviously in the boom of “virtual reality” films that would insist that the world was an illusion or a trap designed to ensnare individuals; The Truman Show, Dark City, The Matrix. It also bubbled to the surface in Fight Club, which suggested its own fraying of shared reality. The Sixth Sense is at once of a piece with these films and also subtly difference. Like the Narrator in Fight Club or Thomas Anderson in The Matrix or Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, Malcolm spends most of The Sixth Sense living a lie and finds himself forced to confront reality.

However, The Sixth Sense is much more moody and melancholy than contemporaries like The Matrix or Fight Club. Those films advocate (with varying degress of sincerity) for a revolution, a firm rejection of the status quo in order that the protagonists might be free. In contrast, The Sixth Sense suggests a more personal and intimate reconciliation. The Sixth Sense believes that the huge gulf between people can be resolved through the simple act of communication, that people can reach out across a seemingly infinite void and find a helping hand.

Cole is initially skeptical of Malcolm and lies to protect Lynn. However, he comes to terms with his gift when he opens up to Malcolm, and his journey is complete when he finally allows himself to share his secret with his worried mother. Similarly, Malcolm is able to find peace and rest when he finally talks to Anna, and the film implies that this attempt at communication might also bring Anna some much needed closure. For a film so invested in alienation and isolation, The Sixth Sense is a surprisingly optimistic and humanist fable.

The Sixth Sense is a movie about the importance of communicating in a chaotic world. It has aged remarkably well.

2 Responses

  1. Fantastic analysis!

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