“I see dead people.” An iconic line, one much parodied and ridiculed since its debut in M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 horror-drama The Sixth Sense.
No, I will not be focusing on the scene in which young Cole Sear (the superb Haley Joel Osment) tells his psychologist, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis, doing wonderful, understated work), of his macabre predicament. It may be this film’s most iconic moment—and it makes for a far more dynamic screenshot—but I’d rather focus on an even more intimate scenario.
We know that Cole is a sensitive, deeply troubled kid; that’s why his mom wants him to get help in the first place. Throughout the film he finds himself, in moments at once terrifying and horribly melancholic, in the presence of ghosts. They are seeking his help, and the notion of a ten-year-old hoisting the weight of the world’s dead on his shoulders is one of the more upsetting thematic veins running throughout The Sixth Sense.
Around every corner, Cole finds another reason to fear the world: executed convicts from the 1800’s hanging in his school hallways, a little girl poisoned by her own mother, a teenage boy, unaware of the bullet hole through the back of his head, who still wants to play with his father’s guns. These are horrific visions on screen, and M. Night Shyamalan (who has since become the laughing stock of the film industry) milks a great deal of real, palpable dread from them.
Late in the film, when Cole and his mom are stuck in a traffic jam, he sees what has caused the back-up: an elderly biker struck down by a car. He tells his mom about this, and she is understandably concerned. Her silence worries him. “What are you thinking about mama?” he asks. “You think I’m a freak?” It’s a tragic moment, the emotional apex of a lifetime of alienation for this emotionally-bare child.
Though his mom assuages his fears, the worry never leaves her face.
Cole then tells her that he sometimes speaks to his grandmother, who passed away recently. Her death, already a contentious point between mother and son, is an unwelcome topic of conversation. But the tension is broken when he reveals, to both the audience and his mother, that his gift could be used as a wonderful tool for healing.
He describes a conversation with his dead grandmother, and though his mom has spent her entire life thinking otherwise, he reveals that her mother did in fact attend a pivotal ballet recital. “She said you were like an angel.” Cole is even able to answer a question that his mother never thought she’d possibly have resolved. Needless to say, his mother is deeply affected by this revelation.
The scene, devoid of histrionics or James Newton Howard’s evocative score, is quietly earth-shattering for both characters. Mother suddenly understands son and son suddenly feels the weight of his terrible secret depart. Terror gives way to emotional catharsis and all we have to watch and listen to are the beautifully spare performances on display. The actors, an Australian veteran and a young newcomer, are both delivering the perfectly arced script at their full capacity, bringing a lived-in reality to the supernatural premise of the film. It’s a tear-jerker, y’all.
No wonder both of them, along with Shyamalan’s direction and writing, were awarded Oscar nominations the next year. The Sixth Sense also became the first “horror” film since The Exorcist to receive a best picture nomination; fine company indeed! And well-deserved.
Like that film, The Sixth Sense applies a great deal more than jump scares and a disturbing premise to its horror pedigree. Cole’s childhood innocence is corrupted, along with the realist world-view of the adults who surround him. And though life may never be “normal” for him and his mother, their love and respect for one another may just see them through.
Check out this beautifully-wrought scene (devoid of any scares, I promise) below, and let me know your favorite Sixth Sense moments!