Aside from the comedy, there is only one film genre determined by the response it intends to elicit from the audience: the scary movie. These films terrify the viewer while not placing them in any real danger. They can be more suspenseful than gory when the story involves ghosts, and The Sixth Sense is a prime example. It achieves a thrilling effect on the audience through expected genre tropes and unexpected storytelling details.
In this 199 film written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, Bruce Willis plays Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist trying to help 9-year-old Cole Sear (Hayley Joel Osment), who has similar symptoms to a disturbed ex-patient who broke into Crowe’s house one night. While Cole’s mother (Toni Collette) tries to protect her son and figure out what’s happening with him, Cole eventually admits to Crowe that he can see the dead. Once he believes Cole, Crowe advises him to listen to the ghosts and try to help them. The boy’s life is better for it.
This being a scary story, there are a lot of “jump scares” to jolt the viewer whenever Cole sees a dead person. Sometimes, they are just there in the background, such as the group hanged in his school back when it was a courthouse. This is not only frightening but serves to show how prevalent this occurrence is for Cole. Other times, the ghosts speak to him, like the teen boy who says, “I’ll show you where my dad keeps his gun” and then turns around to reveal a gunshot to the back of his head. They even occasionally leave physical marks on Cole. All this is typical for this kind of narrative but The Sixth Sense executes it very well.
There are also elements to this tale that you can’t really anticipate. One of the most famous things about this film is its twist ending (spoiler!), when it reveals Malcolm is dead and one of the ghosts Cole sees. I’ll never forget watching this in the theater with my mother and having her lean over to me after the scene where Cole helps a ghost for the first time (a girl poisoned by her stepmother) and say, “Bruce Willis is dead.” Remarkably, nothing leading up to this reveal undermines it. Interestingly, before this final scene, Cole tells his mother about his ability, resolving the emotional core of the film. It is a touching scene, and something unusual for a supernatural thriller.
These unexpected and expected aspects of the storytelling in The Sixth Sense impact the audience in a memorable and visceral way. There are many other ghost stories on screen and other scary films with twist endings, but there is a reason this film was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The Sixth Sense influenced many films that came after it, particularly in Shyamalan’s own career, but it is a perfect example of achieving a genre’s intended effect on the viewer.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.