By Mike Glyer: Sixth Sense was number one at the box office more weeks in a row than any film since Titanic, so my warning that this article is basically one big spoiler may not matter. I think everyone went to see Sixth Sense twice: the second time to admire the way they’d deceived themselves about what was happening when they saw it the first time.
Whole schools of philosophy study how we know what we know, without the benefit of buttered popcorn. But cinema teaches us to separate the real and unreal by simple visual language — the character’s thoughtful face in a close-up precedes a memory flashback, hazy focus is used for dreams, distorted images combined with unnatural movement and coloration signify hallucinations, etc.
The audience’s very familiarity with cinema’s visual language makes film a wonderfully tricky medium for ghost stories. We in the audience automatically assume we are partaking in a kind of cinematic super-reality, prone to believe that because something is presented on the screen without any of these visual cues that it’s a true event within the context of the movie. Sixth Sense helps build up its surprise ending by telling Bruce Willis’ side of the story with the same realistic visual language as the boy he helps.
But nobody actually told you Bruce Willis didn’t die in the opening scenes.
He was laying right there with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. Maybe instead you should have remembered what another movie, The New Centurions, taught you about those kinds of wounds — people don’t usually survive them.
A hindsight montage of Bruce Willis’ memories given as part of the movie’s climax shows Sixth Sense has “played fair” with the audience.
For example, there’s a scene where the boy’s mother and Bruce Willis are seated in her living room waiting for her son to come home. When that scene is recalled at the end of the movie, the audience, now aware that Bruce Willis really did die in the opening scenes, can inspect it and recognize that nothing in the mother’s body language or conduct even acknowledges the presence of another person in the room.
The filmmakers not only send visual double-messages about what happens in that scene. They cleverly invite us to fill in a backstory full of assumptions about what must have been happening before the scene even began. Seeing the two adults sitting together, both of them visible to and communicating with the boy, we automatically imagine that before the scene began the two adults were anxiously talking over his problems and wondering why he was late. We are quite surprised to discover at the end of the movie the thought was entirely our own idea. Obviously, if we had been shown the mother’s point of view, Bruce Willis’ chair would have been empty.
It is said that radio uniquely engages the imagination of the listener to fill in the other four senses it cannot transmit. But Sixth Sense made me conscious of the way film also calls up the audience’s awareness of place, emotion and timing to communicate numerous facts, in this case from the setting of a scene. This allowed the makers of Sixth Sense to finesse the audience into mistaking the Bruce Willis character’s point-of-view for the omniscient vision it is given at other moments in the film.
Sixth Sense even manages to tease the audience for quite awhile into wondering whether we are watching a ghost story or a psychological thriller, deliberately building a tension between scientific and spiritual realities. On the basis of evidence accumulated scene by scene, the audience must decide: Is the boy hallucinating? When we moviegoers see what he sees, are we seeing a supernatural “reality” or an enactment of his hallucination?
Sixth Sense no less enjoys playing with popular culture images of the afterlife, mainly ghosts, of course. From years of reading science fiction we’ve observed how the genre’s writers refine its icons and formulas story by story in a kind of reactive dialogue. The same decades-long process has equipped the ghost-movie audience with a whole liturgy of prompts and responses, but without the referee of science forcing writers to discard any of them. So scriptwriters get to choose any of several mutually exclusive models of ghostliness to answer the essential questions that drive a ghost movie.
For example: What causes people to become ghosts when they die? Sixth Sense, like a long line of movies from Topper to Ghost, says ghosts were people who suffered a violent demise with compelling business left unfinished. Sixth Sense even has in common with The Canterville Ghost that the spirit must do something redemptive before it can pass on to the next world. In contrast are movies like Poltergeist, where the hauntings begin because people have violated the dead, for example, by building a house over a cemetery. Yet others, like The Legend of Hell House and the Bill Murray version of Ghostbusters, are based on a pseudo-scientific idea that a properly designed structure can perpetuate the evil genius of its deceased maker.
Then there is the critical question of: What makes possible any communication between the living and the dead? At the end of Sixth Sense it’s clear that there, despite living in a world full of ghosts, people ordinarily have no communication with the dead, except one young boy who has a special — and to him, terrifying — capability.
Finally comes the question: What control can the dead exert over the world of the living? In Sixth Sense the answer is — all too much. The boy is visited by ghosts who (1) don’t know they’re dead and (2) are able to get angry and inflict scratches on him.
Although ghosts’ ability to physically impact the world of Sixth Sense is less important than in Ghost, it is interesting to see that the ghosts in both movies are capable of focusing emotional energy to make things happen in the physical world — Patrick Swayze’s character first learns to move a penny, later to use forceful violence in defense of his girlfriend. After Bruce Willis’ character was revealed to be a ghost, I realized he had experienced a similar evolution, doing magic tricks with a penny, then later, punching a cobweb of cracks in the glass door of his wife’s antique shop.
Also taking place in her antique shop is the scene where she is selling an engagement ring to a couple. She suggests that people somehow spiritually imprint themselves on the things they owned. I still haven’t decided whether that scene is another clue about the set of rules determining how supernatural forces operate in this movie, or only contrasts her own sweet, naive beliefs with the vivid and frightening experiences the boy relates to her husband. If the former, it explains why she’s locked the door to the basement of their home where we see postlife Bruce Willis researching his old patient records.
Gnawing over these questions is one of the residual pleasures of seeing a well-written movie. So here’s another one. Late in the movie, the boy persuades his mother that the dead communicate with him. That part of the conversation begins when he tells her “Grandma comes to visit me sometimes.” Unlike the other ghosts, he doesn’t seem to have been afraid of her — why? Just because she’s grandma? The film’s other parents, both the living and the dead, seemed pretty scary to me! And there’s a pressing spiritual question — Why is she still around?
Whether Sixth Sense is a supernatural thriller or a horror movie partly depends on whether its special effects cross your own personal boundaries of stomach-flipping. There’s a lot of Beetlejuice-inspired imagery of ghosts bearing all the stigmata of the event of their demise. Sixth Sense is graphic compared to Topper, sedate compared to most serial-killer flicks. And even in the 1990’s there’s still a taboo about portraying children in danger that Sixth Sense pushes hard against before giving its audience the relief of seeing the boy safe and happily reconciled to his gift.
On the whole, the writers of Sixth Sense exhibit a wonderful awareness of the cinema’s visual language, the tradition of ghost movies and our cultural mores. With acrobatic creativity they spin old knowledge into new surprises. From now on, it is not even safe to assume that a movie’s only “bankable star” can’t die in the first reel!