The Sixth Sense: Humanizing Horror

Humanist Horror

by Leah A. Cheyne Volume 7, Issue 11 / November 2003 25 minutes (6221 words)

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) explores the supernatural from a humanized perspective. The success of the film derives, in part, from the complex narrative structure that confounds the spectator’s understanding of the narrative, until its revelatory end. The ability of extra-sensory perception, or ESP, to detect that which lies beyond the normal laws of physics is the basis for the film’s title. The film, however, deals with much more. Part thriller, part love story, and part horror, The Sixth Sense is a voyage of self-discovery, of learning to communicate, and of understanding one’s own perception, as experienced by the two protagonists, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). M. Night Shyamalan’s script subtly examines the effects of alienation, the bonds of relationships, and the inability to communicate in modern society.

The layering of relationships between the various characters, how those characters relate to their environment and each other, and how the spectator’s perception and acceptance of reality is called into question are each examined in this tightly structured narrative film. Questions arise about how M. Night Shyamalan manipulates the spectator into believing one way of viewing the film and then usurping that position to reveal an entirely different way of understanding the narrative, that is in consort with who the spectator empathizes with. This is achieved through the stylistic techniques employed throughout the film, especially point of view shots, the long take and moving camera, and off-screen sound; and through dialogue and acting. By structuring the film around two protagonists, M. Night Shyamalan diverts the spectator’s attention between two story lines: the love story between Malcolm Crowe and his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams); and the progression of Cole as he learns to reveal his secret to his mother Lynn (Toni Collette) so that he can lead a healthy, normal life. These personal journeys remain poignant in the spectator’s imagination long after the film’s viewing through the strength of the acting, script, and directing.

The title sequence and opening shots of the film function metaphorically on both the narrative and the role of the spectator in watching the film. The musical overture during the credit sequence is an acoustical journey which sets the tone for the supernatural in the filmic world. It also provides the overall map for how an inversion occurs between the violence depicted in the film’s real-living world and the tension that is felt by the spectator during moments of the supernatural. The tension that is infused into the film is also reliant upon how and who the spectator empathizes with. This is part of the reason why Shyamalan’s script can be considered as a humanized perspective of the supernatural- those that are made monstrous in the film’s world are also, for the most part, its victims. As the film progresses from the supernatural as unbelievable/unknowable to the supernatural as believable/known, there is transference between the characters that can sense the supernatural and how that experience is visually related to the spectator. The changes that occur in this overture reflect, in hindsight, the shift of the ghosts from malevolent beings to lost souls, and the characters understanding of what these beings are, for better or for worse.

The opening shot of the light bulb sparking to life is, I believe, a statement on the understanding that occurs not only for certain characters within the narrative, but the spectator’s understanding of the narrative structure and the implications of structuring the narrative in this way. The complex dialectical narrative structure leads the spectator into misreading the role that Malcolm plays within society. By placing him as one of the central protagonists, the spectator comes to understand part of the constructed film world from his perspective. Shyamalan situates him in various scenes with both his wife and Cole’s mother. Each of these functions on different levels within the narrative to provide insight into how Malcolm comes to understand his reality and his role within that reality. The spectator, by reason of being a passive voyeur, is asked to share his world-view through the use of stylistic techniques.

Throughout most of the narrative, the spectator is led to believe that Malcolm is a functioning member of living society, working to help Cole overcome his inexplicable fears. It is the revelation at the end, that he too has been a ghost for most of the narrative, that jars the spectator’s passivity. As the light dawns on Malcolm about his situation, the spectator also begins to realize that the narrative must be read in an entirely different light. Whether ghosts are seen or not seen by the characters and the spectator is an interesting aspect of the film’s construction. This plays into the idea of an inversion occurring in the film, that is, where the violence occurring in the film’s real world film decreases as the level of suspense felt by the spectator increases, until Malcolm’s revelation. The believability of the relationships between the various characters adds to the humanist aspect of the film. The emotions —fear, anxiety, depression, hesitation, confusion— felt by the characters in the film transcend the screen.

Immediately after the opening shot, the spectator is introduced to Anna Crowe alone in the basement, searching for a bottle of wine. The eerie, isolated atmosphere of the basement, which sends a chill through Anna’s body, later becomes associated with all the lead characters’ experience, although in different ways. From the opening sequence, it is the female who appears to have a sense of something out of the normal. Anna’s chill and changed facial expression during the basement scene, from contentment to discomfort, recurs throughout the film for different characters. There is no explanation given for this occurrence, other than as atmospheric mood.

Anna returns upstairs to Malcolm. While admiring a medical prize awarded to Malcolm from the Mayor of Philadelphia, Anna, without trying to sound critical, tells Malcolm that she feels he has placed his career as a child psychologist above everything else in life, including her. Later episodes in the film show this not to be true according to Malcolm’s perspective. Moments later they retire to their bedroom, only to be frightened by the shock appearance of a prowler in their upstairs bathroom. We learn that the young man, Vincent Grey, was a former patient of Malcolm’s. The distraught young man questions Malcolm’s professional abilities when he tells him that he failed to help him. Vincent, as a pathetic, alienated figure, represents the monstrous young man who has forced himself back into Malcolm’s life. Yet a parallel is drawn between Malcolm and Vincent through the framing of the men: the camera pans right on Malcolm as it pans left on Vincent. If Vincent is a monster because he cannot fit into society, then Malcolm is a monster for having failed to help him. That being said, Vincent is also a victim because Malcolm could not attain Vincent’s level of understanding, which caused Vincent to become a lost soul. The physical violence Vincent bestows on Malcolm, a gunshot to the stomach, is the most graphically violent moment of the film. Not only does the spectator see Vincent firing the gun, but also Malcolm being hit by the bullet. Vincent’s choice to take his own life with the same gun is kept off-screen, but the blast permeates the soundtrack.

Vincent Grey

This extreme act finds a form of justification later in the film, when Cole confesses the secret that Vincent could not: “Do you know why you are afraid when you are alone?” This line by Vincent foreshadows Malcolm’s experiences with Cole, without directly informing either Malcolm or the spectator. The spectator’s limited knowledge concerning the unexplained nature of Vincent’s anger, is closely linked with Malcolm’s perspective during this sequence. This is partially established through the use of point of view shots. As Malcolm walks across to discover who the intruder is, the camera moves towards Vincent; when Vincent walks toward the bathroom door the hand-held camera moves back slightly; the shot cuts to Malcolm as he falls back onto the bed in shock, and the hand-held camera briefly pulls back. This technique is used throughout the film and is a subtle way for Shyamalan to make the spectator identify with characters on screen and make links between them. Although Anna exchanges words with Vincent, the scene centers on the parallel drawn between Vincent and Malcolm. Vincent Grey prepares the spectator for the introduction of Cole Sear on many levels. The similarities between the two boys are manifested physically, emotionally, and psychologically. For the remainder of the film there is a marked decrease in violence, a rarity in the horror film. This is due to the introduction of Cole Sear and the weaving of the two story lines. The elements within the film that can be considered violent are often associated with unexplainable events.

Cole (like Vincent before him) is one of those rare people who can communicate between realms. His fear derives from his inability to accept, harness, or understand this power. His fatal plight, the need for him to overcome the fear of this ability, forms the basis of the film’s future story line. The exact nature of his gift is not disclosed upon his introduction. Instead, Shyamalan builds upon episodes that call into question events taking place in the tangible world, occurrences that shock, terrify, and upset Cole as well as other characters in the film. Malcolm is the conduit that introduces Cole to the spectator. We first see Cole through Malcolm’s eyes. When we see Cole coming out of his front door we notice a patch of white hair on his head, which was also visible on Vincent’s head. By continuing the subjective point of view shots during Cole’s introduction, the spectator is invited to draw upon the similarities between Vincent and Cole, thereby drawing another parallel in the film. Shyamalan further emphasizes the similarities through comparison shots of replicated words on Malcolm’s notepad, one for Vincent and one for Cole. If Vincent was viewed as both monstrous and human, then a question may be posed: will Cole also be monstrous and human? This is what the majority of the narrative explores: the reasons for the varying character behavior as viewed by Malcolm, Cole, and society.

There is a temporal ellipsis that occurs between the first scene with Cole and the Vincent episode, one in which several months have passed (the intertitle reads “The Next Fall”). If Malcolm is the spectator’s conduit, then the construction of time and space in relation to him is important, especially when considering that the narrative is instilled with two possible readings for the spectator. Editing, in relation to Malcolm, begins to take prominence in the construction of space. The camera shows Cole physically entering the church but cuts from a shot of Malcolm outside the church to one where he is inside the church approaching Cole. This technique of cutting from Malcolm on one side of a door to another recurs throughout the film.

"In the olden days, in Europe, people used to hide out in churches. They would claim sanctuary.” Malcolm

In considering Malcolm as still alive, which is the first or most likely reading of the narrative, the reasons for Cole’s fear and his need for a sanctuary are unknown. The spectator is deliberately misled by Malcolm’s ontological status. Comments similar to this lead the spectator to relate to Malcolm, to empathize with him, throughout most of the narrative. The introduction of Lynn Sear, immediately following the church sequence, also marks the second instance of the possible supernatural in the narrative. Lynn’s subjectivity plays an important part in establishing the possible supernatural in the first half of the film. It is her gaze, her outsider status in her son’s life, that enables the narrative to be read as potentially supernatural. The lack of communication between mother and son, the fear, the harm, the hurt that this causes in their relationship, forms most of the middle of the narrative. When she enters the kitchen she is startled to see every kitchen drawer and cupboard inexplicably open, when only moments earlier they were all shut. The style employed by Shyamalan to bring the spectator into Lynn’s character begins exclusively with objective points of view. Only after Cole has left the kitchen does Shyamalan cut to a shot from Lynn’s subjective point of view: Cole’s sweaty (or wet) handprint quickly evaporating from the kitchen table.

Since the spectator is restricted to Lynn’s perspective, the rational explanation for what happened with the drawers/cupboards is withheld. It, like the evaporating hand print, is a strange, perhaps fantastic event experienced by Lynn and the spectator. In a later scene Cole confesses his secret to Malcolm, a confession that helps explain some of the fantastic elements in the story, like who opened the cupboards. Once the spectator is aware of the source of Cole’s fear, Shyamalan visually shows the spectator what has only been previously alluded to through the soundtrack. Lynn, however, is not made privy to this information until the denouement of the film. Although Lynn may appear at times as an outsider to her son, her consistently comforting words form a recurring motif that establishes her as a loving mother, coping with unusual circumstances. The solidity of Lynn and Cole’s bond, despite the communication problem, is directly contrasted with another relationship revealed near the end of the film, the relationship between the recently deceased young girl Kyra and her mother.

There are moments in the narrative, such as the evaporating handprint, which are presented as Lynn’s subjective gaze. They operate on the level of giving the spectator insight into her emotional state. Like Anna in the basement, Lynn’s gaze and the reaction shots of her changing facial expressions denote her sensing that something is terribly wrong with Cole, but without fully knowing what or why. These sequences occur when Lynn is alone. Another subjective look involves her closely examining a row of photographs in the hallway of their house. The family pictures each have a blur of light near Cole. The reaction shots inter-cut into this sequence provides the spectator insight into Lynn’s character. She is made sympathetic by her confused reaction at discovering something new and unexplainable within the photos.

The next incident implicates Malcolm into her and Cole’s situation. Implicate, that is, because it appears as though Lynn is aware of Malcolm’s presence in Cole’s life. Before this shot, however, there is the first session at the Sear house between Malcolm and Cole. The session begins with Lynn and Malcolm seated opposite each other, apparently looking at each other, and turning their heads only once Cole has entered the house. The implication to the spectator is that they have been discussing Cole while he was at school. This is further alluded to by Lynn, who asks Cole when he enters, “Hey baby, how was your day? You can tell me things if you need to.” It is common knowledge in North America that a psychologist session usually lasts an hour. What would make her say such things if Malcolm, as the end reveals, is not able to communicate with her? This may account for why Shyamalan, in the final revelation sequence, inserted a flashback of this shot, to show the spectator that although Lynn and Malcolm visually appeared together, she was not aware of his presence.

The second session at the Sear house is more complex in presentation. The scene begins with Malcolm and Cole discussing Cole’s father but cuts to Lynn, possibly at another time in the narrative, as she cleans Cole’s room. Malcolm’s voice-over which continues during the scene with Lynn, gives him an almost omniscient power during this sequence. The spectator is removed from the immediate – the session between Malcolm and Cole – and temporarily placed in another sphere within the narrative, one associated with Lynn’s attempts to understand the inexplicable events surrounding her child. As Malcolm explains ‘free association’ writing to Cole in voice-over, Lynn discovers examples of it written by Cole. Using the same technique as the kitchen episode, Shyamalan establishes the spatial relation of Lynn through a long take, inserting a cut to provide the spectator with Lynn’s perspective. Shyamalan accentuates the horror of this discovery by two quick cuts that move in to closer views of the paper containing Cole’s free association writing. In the presentation, the cutting between scenes leads the spectator to question how Malcolm can know this information, unless he has spoken with Lynn. It solidifies both characters as existing on the same level when, in fact, they do not. I find this the most disturbing sequence in the film as his voice-over, and Malcolm by extension, becomes associated with her gaze, if only temporarily. The spectator senses the same shock and horror felt by Lynn through the style used to reveal this information, information Malcolm seems to already possess. The suturing of Malcolm into Lynn’s subjectivity creates a bond between them, even though Cole first reveals the ‘secret’ to Malcolm (and the audience) during the hospital sequence. That being the case, these scenes are related to the spectator from Malcolm’s perspective. They placate the spectator into a comfortable position of identification with Malcolm.

There are other sequences after the Vincent episode in which the spectator is given moments of Malcolm’s situation with his wife Anna. The anniversary dinner, situated between Malcolm’s two visits to Cole, is a key moment. Malcolm arrives late for the dinner: “I’m so sorry Anna. I just can’t seem to keep track of time.” Malcolm’s apology is the first hint that the laws of time may not apply to him. The ensuing conversation, one-sided at that, between Malcolm and Anna concentrates solely on how a gulf has opened between Anna and Malcolm, one in which has seen them become alienated from each other. Through choosing to focus on helping Cole overcome his fear, Malcolm has become a stranger in Anna’s life, an observer to the events surrounding her. As stated earlier, some of the issues the film explores are the level to which people become alienated through the choices they make in life and how this leads to the inability to communicate properly. After the anniversary dinner scene, Malcolm’s attempt at interactions with his wife all occur within their home. The tone set during the anniversary is further accentuated by his bedside visits to Anna. Without knowing why, she turns away from him whenever he watches her sleep. As the spectator’s viewing position is posited in his realm of knowledge, the spectator is led to understand that their marriage has taken a turn for the worst. They may be shown in the same frame and Malcolm may seem to be interacting as if they are a couple as existing in the same reality, but Anna is a world away from Malcolm in terms of their relationship. Interaction does not exist between them, and this is just as frustrating for the spectator who empathizes with Malcolm, as it is for Malcolm.

There are two sequences in the Crowe house where Malcolm is greeted by a voice emanating from the television set. These operate in direct contrast to how Malcolm, and the spectator, sees his post-Vincent relationship with Anna. Both times a videocassette is playing, catching Malcolm off-guard. The first time he is greeted by a woman’s voice: “Malcolm, sit your cute butt down and listen up.” As Malcolm moves towards the television, a point of view shot brings the spectator closer to the image on the television. The wedding guest’s speech is a reminder of the happiness and love once shared by the couple, and of Anna’s undeniable love for Malcolm: “She’ll do anything for you.” The camera cuts back and forth between Malcolm’s facial reaction, smiling in fondness of the memory the tape has for him, and the television set. Shyamalan uses television imagery throughout the film in a very interesting way. For Malcolm, it is a record of their happiness and love. The second wedding videotape insert occurs near the end of the film, just before he realizes that he is dead. The third clip from the videotape constitutes the closing shot of the film, one that shows Anna and Malcolm in a final embrace. Ironically, this particular shot is at the end of the film, but at the beginning of their life together.

For the other characters with a vested interest in visual records, the memories are less pleasant. The introduction of Jeffrey, Anna’s aide at her store, brings a confusing element into the love story plot. Malcolm and the spectator are first introduced to Jeffrey through off-screen sound as Malcolm works in his basement office. After Malcolm has asked Anna to get the door, the surprise at hearing a male voice asking his wife out for a date, and the laughter shared between Anna and Jeffrey, throw him for a shock. Shyamalan, using a long take and moving camera, holds steadfastly on Malcolm, capturing his reaction to the event. This is one of the techniques that the director uses to endear Malcolm and his frustrating situation to the spectator. Anna’s refusal to go to ‘Amish country’ with Jeffrey in this instance situates her within the confines of her marriage to Malcolm; she remains the faithful wife and the change in his facial reaction visually notes this fact. Through choosing to stay within his office and at his work, Malcolm becomes a bystander to the events unfolding between Anna and Jeffrey. Anna’s emotional distanciation from Malcolm asserts itself during the later episode at her store. After Anna gives Jeffrey a birthday present, they share an intimate, yet awkward moment. The spectator becomes aware of mutual feelings between these two characters. A shattering glass is heard off-screen that breaks the moment between them. Cole’s voice is then heard on the soundtrack asking Malcolm what he wants, which is the first indication that Cole is progressing toward a healthy life. Malcolm audibly admits that he wants to talk to his wife like they used to. Neither Malcolm nor Cole were present in the store. Instead, the camera pans from Anna and Jeffrey looking for the perpetrator of the shattered door (the source of the off-screen sound) to Malcolm, already a block away. This leaves the question in the spectator’s mind of how Malcolm could have known that the intimate moment was taking place. Malcolm, however is not the only character experiencing alienation in the narrative.

Thus far, the essay has focused on how the spectator’s comprehension of the narrative, and love story element of the film, is aligned with Malcolm’s perspective. As I have argued for the possibility of two simultaneous story lines within the film, consideration must also be given to the sequences in the narrative structure involving Cole and the supernatural aspect of the film. These are instances when Cole must face society, the living or dead variety, on his own. The sequences where Lynn is given the power of the look, without the understanding, occurs with other characters in Cole’s life as well. The second psychologically traumatic episode involving the supernatural occurs at Cole’s school. I have labelled this scene the “Stuttering Stanley” episode. When Cole says, “I don’t like people looking at me like that,” the confused schoolteacher begins to walk toward Cole: “I don’t know how else to look,” the teacher replies. From Cole’s perspective, a point of view shot reveals the other children and Mr. Cunningham looking at him in disbelief. Music is key in creating tension in the spectator during Cole’s supernatural episodes. Cole begins taunting Mr. Cunningham with the refrain, “Stuttering Stanley, stuttering Stanley.” The shot/counter shot between Cole and Mr. Cunningham captures the reactions of both characters: Mr. Cunningham in angered shock and a tense Cole, as Mr. Cunningham approaches Cole’s desk. The scene ends with Mr. Cunningham slamming his fist on Cole’s desk and stuttering, “Shut up, you….freak.” The reasons for Cole’s reaction and how he possesses this personal information about Mr. Cunningham are not immediately made known to the spectator. Instead, the spectator is kept in a similar position as the other children, dumbfounded by the eruption of emotional and physical violence between Mr. Cunningham and Cole.

The next supernatural event occurs at Darren’s birthday party. It begins with an exterior low angle shot of the old styled Philadelphia house. This is the perfect setting for the supernatural to occur because the house, much like the school building, appears to have a history behind it. This sequence establishes Cole as someone unwanted by the other children, who remains outside his peer group. His attempt to fit in with Bobby, using the same magic penny trick that Malcolm used to cheer him up after the Stuttering Stanley episode, fails. The camera then frames Cole alone in Darren’s hallway at the base of the stairs, with Lynn in the background with the other mothers. The issue of class difference comes to the fore in this sequence. While Cole is visibly alone in the hallway, his mother is emotionally alone amidst the other women in the background. Lynn notes Cole’s social isolation by commenting on how he doesn’t get invited to places.

In the next shot the camera is looking up through a winding staircase as a red balloon ascends to the top of the house. Red becomes an important marker of the supernatural in the film. In this sequence, Cole is also wearing a red sweater that is given prominence later in the narrative. The camera follows Cole as he begins to ascend the stairs, and stops when he does; a voice becomes audible on the soundtrack: “Is someone out there. Please, open this door, I can’t breathe.” Shyamalan provides the spectator with Cole’s point of view, revealing the attic door to be wide open. The voice, however, is asking Cole to unlock the door and let him out of the room. His trance is broken when Tommy Tommisino, the class bully, and Darren join him on the stairs. In a malicious move, the boys put him in the attic room, which frightens Cole into a state of immobility. Tension is created within the film’s world when the balloon that brought him upstairs bursts. The violence, for this episode, remains off-screen. Cole’s screams, bangs, and thumping audibly pierce the entire house, calling Lynn’s attention away from the first floor dining room. The spectator is invited to experience the moment as the mean-spirited boys and Lynn do, from outside the locked room. One of the inexplicable elements of this scene is the door. Lynn, trying desperately to get into the room, cannot open the door until the door unlocks itself. Did Cole lock himself in? If not, who did? Who inflicted the lashes on his body? These questions are not answered in the narrative. They remain an unexplained fantastic event.

After Lynn has entered the attic room, a parallel is drawn with the Vincent episode through the use of slow motion cinematography. This stylistic device highlights the traumatic level of the episode, especially for Lynn. Lynn, much like Anna during the Vincent episode, has been relegated to the position of a bystander, unable to help until it is almost too late. The hospital scene, which I have earlier alluded to, immediately follows the attic episode. The doctor, played by M. Night Shyamalan, in asking Lynn to justify the markings on her son, represents the sceptical side of society. Lynn has no explanation for how the cuts and bruises keep appearing on Cole’s body. In the next scene Malcolm visits Cole in his hospital bedroom. Here Cole confesses to Malcolm his ability to see dead people, which sheds light for the spectator on the various inexplicable episodes that have occurred up to this point in the narrative. Now that Shyamalan has revealed to the spectator, via Malcolm, the root of the problem concerning Cole, the rest of the supernatural events center on Cole overcoming his fear. There is a transition after this episode from the supernatural as inexplicable/unbelievable to the supernatural as accepted because the spectator’s position has shifted to Cole’s knowledge/position. His transformation is aided, finally, by his willingness to communicate with someone else.

The next episode involving the supernatural takes place a few scenes later. It is an extension of the original kitchen cupboard scene. Suspense is created by drawing out the revelation of the ghost from Cole’s point of view. The series of shots at the beginning of this episode are from an objective point of view. When Cole senses the ghost and walks toward the kitchen we cut to his subjective point of view. Once the ghost woman turns around, the spectator is shown the spirit, as Cole sees them all, battered, bruised, and wounded. The music becomes louder as Shyamalan cuts into a close-up of the woman’s slashed wrists and she starts screaming at Cole. What she actually says has nothing to do with Cole. She perceives Cole as if he were her abusive husband. Unlike the previous supernatural episodes, there is no violence in the world of the living. Cole’s fear is based on her accusing scream, but it is not directed at him. Cole takes refuge in his tent sanctuary. Once inside the tent, the camera remains with Cole, while the female ghost remains in the kitchen. Frightened as he might be of her, she is shown to pose no physical threat to him. From this incident onwards, the ghosts may be frightening to look at, but the malevolent aspect bestowed on them earlier disappears. Instead, the monsters of the earlier part of the film are rendered from this point on as lost souls searching for answers.

Cole’s classroom answer during the Stuttering Stanley episode —“They used to hang people here”— becomes the basis for the next supernatural episode. After the first school play, Malcolm’s discussion with Cole is interrupted in the school hallway as he realizes that Cole is no longer by his side. Cole’s continuing fear of the ghosts frightens him to the point of immobilization during this scene. This is the first of two supernatural incidents when another character is with Cole. It is during these incidents that the spectator is provided with visual imagery of the ghosts from Cole’s perspective. Once Malcolm notices the look of fear on Cole’s face and Cole points toward the trouble, Shyamalan inserts a point of view shot of the ghosts hanging from the rafters of the hallway. The ghosts, though still frightening in appearance, are this time as immobile as Cole. When Malcolm’s perspective is offered to the spectator, the upper hallway is empty. Until Cole understands his role as a conduit for the apparitions to communicate with the living, fear will continue to engulf him. The intertwining of Malcolm and Cole is important at this part of the narrative for Malcolm, as a man of science, still has no logical, reasonable explanation for Cole’s fear. He remains unconvinced of the existence of the supernatural. It is only after he re-examines a tape recording of a session with Vincent Grey from ten years earlier, towards the end of the film, that he can truly help Cole and himself in the process.

The dinner scene between Cole and Lynn introduces an aspect of the supernatural on a personal level for Lynn: the mysterious shifting of her dead mother’s bumblebee pendant from her room to Cole’s room. This prepares the spectator for the emotional crux of the film, the revelation of Cole’s secret to his mother. When Cole does not admit to moving the pendant, Lynn opens up emotionally to Cole: “God I am so tired Cole. I’m tired in my body. I’m tired in my mind. I’m tired in my heart. I need some help.”

The next supernatural event, immediately after the dinner conversation, calls into question Cole’s perception as being different from the spectator’s. The scene shows Cole in the hallway, his line of sight concentrated on Sebastian, the family dog, as the dog flees his room; ambient music creeps onto the soundtrack. The quick rise and fall of the music accompanies the fleeting appearance of a teenager in Cole’s room. The camera is positioned so that the spectator sees the ghost before Cole does. By the time Cole turns around to see the ghost, the teenage boy comes out from Cole’s room, Cole’s own private space, and whispers to Cole “I’ll show you where my Dad keeps his gun.” As the boy turns we see a bloodied hole in the back of his head. Immediately after this encounter Cole asks his mother, “If you are not very mad, can I sleep in your bed tonight.” She replies that she is not mad. The reality is that she is as confused, frightened, and helpless as Cole because she is out of options.

Two scenes later Malcolm tells Cole that he can no longer help him and will be leaving him. Cole tries to convince him not to leave, asking, “How can you help me if you don’t believe me?” This leads Malcolm back to the ten year old Vincent Grey session tapes, where on close inspection he hears the sound of a third voice, a ghost, saying the words, “I don’t want to die” (in Spanish). From this, Malcolm deduces that the ghosts Cole is seeing are not monstrous threats, but lost souls seeking help. The result of this choice brings the spectator to the film’s true monster, Kyra’s mother. Of all the acts and suggestions of violence seen in the film, Kyra’s videotape, the physical proof that a mother would wilfully murder her own child, is considered by modern standards the most vile act. The spectator is positioned with the father, sympathizing with him as the video enlightens him to the truth behind Kyra’s death. The whispered comments as Malcolm and Cole make their way through the mourning house, hint at a long-term illness. Even so, for a parent to see their own child as a burden and then murder them is unfathomable. Questions arise as to why Kyra’s mother would give up and resent her daughter to the point of killing her. These remain questions unanswered.

The ‘Monstrous’ Mother

There is an ambiguity at the conclusion with regards to the Cole part of the narrative. Once Cole has informed Lynn about his extraordinary gift, Shyamalan concludes Cole’s story line with the reconciliation between mother and son, in the form of a mutual hug, without expanding the dialogue to disclose the possible future that awaits them. The ability to see dead people, in the same state they were when they died, is a scary enough premise. How would society react if it became common knowledge? The director leaves this for the imagination of the spectator to ponder.

Perhaps the most shocking sequence in the film is the final one, after the Cole story has finished. Cole’s hospital confession to Malcolm affects his life, his perception of all that he has known from the Vincent episode onward, and reveals that he has seen everything the way he wanted to see it. Only after Anna knocks the wedding ring onto the living room floor does he then acknowledge that his life has been over from almost the beginning of the narrative. The ring, a symbol of life, is no longer in his possession, and shortly after, he ceases to exist in relation to the world created by Shyamalan. The final video image of Malcolm and Anna embracing is both the beginning of the end and the end of a beginning. It leaves the spectator wondering where one starts and one ends. By examining the various episodes and scenes in the film, and how they conveyed narrative information to the spectator, there emerges a feeling that Shyamalan has immersed the film in many layers to create a dialogue between director and spectator. The similarities and contrasts constructed in the narrative between various characters directs the spectator’s empathy and attention to some elements in the film’s world, while leaving others to the imagination. The stylistics used to position the viewer with different characters subtly explores the various issues at work in the narrative. The study of this complex structure is far from complete. What can be drawn from the examples given here is that The Sixth Sense weaves together horror, love, and mystery to examine the complexities and ambiguities facing modern (wo)man.

Volume 7, Issue 11 / November 2003 Essays   Film Reviews   genre_horror   horror   m. night shyamalan   temporality