The Sixth Sense is an iconic film in today’s popular culture of psychological horror thrillers; with the line, ‘I see dead people’ now being a popular catchphrase. Nominated for six academy awards, and grossing nearly $700,000,000, the film was an immediate success, appealing to a huge audience demographic- its emotional scenes connecting with women, and the horror scenes connecting with teenage boys for example.
The film is centred on Dr Malcom Crowe, a child psychologist, and Cole Sear, a nine year old boy whom we discover has the clairvoyant ability to connect with dead people – his “sixth sense”.
Dr Crowe is shot in the opening scene, by an ex-patient. The outcome of these injuries is not known, but, the scene fades into the next with the sub-title: “The Next Fall” in which we see Dr Crowe, apparently recovered. Ultimately, however, we discover that Dr Crowe died from his wound, but it is only in the final scene that this is revealed. As such, the audience is manipulated throughout the film. This is known as a twist ending, and whilst this can cause an audience to feel cheated, instead, thanks to the scrutiny of the production team, this is not the case. In fact, scenes which the audience could potentially use as evidence that Dr Crowe was still alive, thus limiting the merit of the ending, are used to highlight how the viewer is made to feel a certain emotion, whereas, with hindsight, it could be made to feel something different.
There are three key scenes in which I feel this is particularly well executed. These are: the credits/opening scene, the mind reading scene, and finally, the restaurant scene.
Extra-diagetic and diagetic sounds are combined throughout the soundtrack of the film to add mystery and help to interweave the sound to the action and act as narrative. For example, in scenes where ghosts are present, the breathing sounds of many people are discretely mastered into the audio, so that it is unclear as to whether they are part of the music or part of the soundtrack. Music is an essential part of a film, and in horror films particularly it is used to add to the suspense. Crescendos in the soundtrack coupled with an anti-climax in the plot can lead to the audience being manipulated into a confused and scared state, when used in conjunction with a genuinely significant moment in the plot, it can help to build anticipation.
The film opens in the conventional way, with credits. Like the music, these appear in a spectral manner, creeping onto the screen, with shadows being cast across them; it lasts for three minutes, leaving the viewer in suspense throughout, which is a thoroughly fitting way of setting the scene of this film.
The darkness is cut through by a close up shot of the filament of a glass light bulb which is gradually growing brighter.
A woman walks down some steps into a wine cellar, the camera films this from behind the wine rack and is at slightly below the woman’s eye level. In this sense, it seems that the viewer is lurking, hiding. It suggests a sense of threat. It also causes the viewer to question whether there is in fact a lurking watcher, the actress’ movements suggest that she is at ill ease. She pauses at the bottom of the stairs, staring at the camera before advancing towards it. The sound here is diagetic, her footsteps are loud and resonant, as are the other sounds made as she handles the wine. Such insignificant sounds, amplified to so great a volume help to manipulate the audience into re-creating the experience of being alone, and anxious, where every sound feels amplified. The use of amplified diagesis adds a sense of realism even at this early stage, which makes the film even more scary.
The audience is introduced to shadows, which further adds to the idea of an onlooker or predator. The woman’s reaction emphasizes this, as she begins to feel cold and shudders. Again, this is used throughout the film to symbolize when a provoked ghost is present, there is a drop in temperature, and the breathing of living characters changes.
The viewer, through the way that the camera and cinema as a medium directs the viewer’s attention could be likened to the sixth sense. The writer and director of “The Sixth Sense” described the sixth sense Cole experiences as “a living entity that is morphing from room to room and house to house in a very liquid way” similarly, the camera sometimes follows the character, and other times meets the character, but it is rare for a scene to begin with a motionless shot of a character in a room.
The scene moves upstairs, with a panoramic shot first showing Dr Crowe’s mantelpiece, then sweeping round to focus on Dr Crowe, and his wife, whom we see entering the room from the cellar. She is putting on a jumper, in response the chilling feeling she felt in the cellar. The mantelpiece shot is much warmer and is in direct contrast to the harsher scene which precedes it. The room is dimly lit by candlelight which suggestions intimacy, and the music is warmer to reflect this. The malicious watcher is not experienced here, but there the audience is still observing, as the camera sweeps past the mantelpiece the viewer is forced to look at the cards with interest and read their titles, rather than just observing them as props and scenery.
The couple is reflected in the award, and they are at ease. The reflection in the silver causes their image to be slightly fuzzy and out of focus, again, this makes the scene feel warmer.
However, this reflection also poses to the audience the question of how the success of couples is often measured through their social achievement, rather than the actual functionality of them; Mrs. Crowe says, “This is a big day for us”, whilst Dr Crowe, the single recipient of this award appears unmoved by it.
The next scene I will analyze follows shortly afterwards, it manipulates the audience on a different level to the way described in the opening scenes. The scene opens with a two-shot depicting Lynn Sear (Cole’s Mother) whom we have met in an earlier scene, and Dr Crowe. They are sat and appear to have just finished a conversation, and are waiting for Cole to come through the door. We discover later in the film, that Lynn has no awareness that the doctor is there. This is an example of the way that film as a medium has evolved so that the viewer can make inferences as to what occurred in the moments leading up to the shot. In a book, for example, such assumptions cannot be made, unless implicitly implied by the author. I was reminded of this when, at a later point in the film, Cole describes the dead people he sees as only “seeing what they want to see”. Here too, the audience is seeing what they want to see.
When Cole enters, it is through the door that is in the centre of the shot. The shot is set up like this because Cole’s entrance is significant. The dialogue that then occurs between Cole and his mother seems to be a “technique” and I assumed that this had been on a suggestion of Dr Crowe – further manipulation.
When the doctor plays the mind reading game, there is little response from Cole. At first, his responses are just nods and shakes of the head; this helps to express the unhappiness felt by this character. When Cole steps forwards and backwards to communicate is similar to that attempted by spirit mediums like ouija boards, (“Tap once for yes” etc.)
There are many pauses in the piece, which creates suspense. When Dr Crowe asks if Cole has a “Secret [he] doesn’t want to tell [him]” extra diagetic sound is reintroduced, which emphasizes Cole’s moving forward to reply yes.
We learn a great deal about Cole in this scene, not only from the content of his answers, but their nature too. Haley Joel Osment superbly shows the fear Cole feels through his eyes, and the camera is at eye level so that this can be captured. The audience feels great sympathy towards Cole, he shows unnerving maturity in his answers, and is confident, which makes the audience feel upset when he says “I was thinking ‘you’re nice, but you can’t help me'”.
The scene which immediately follows is the restaurant scene. This is a short, but very effective scene between Malcom and Lynn Crowe. Lynn is dressed in red, which is a colour used throughout the film to signify death. She is also sitting alone, in a busy restaurant filled with tables of couples. This works to highlight the loneliness and isolation felt by Lynn. The audience is cleverly manipulated here, and this is a prime example of a potential flaw in the plot, however, upon close inspection of the scene, it is clear that any response from Lynn is purely created in the audience’s mind. The opening shot of this scene is a wide establishing shot, this allows the audience to see Lynn sitting in context with the situation, and allows us to see her “reaction” when Dr Crowe sits down. He sits without moving the chair or affecting his surroundings in any way. As Dr Crowe sits and is apologizing we feel emotion on two levels.
First, there is the feeling of concern and mystery surrounding Cole’s cuts, which Dr Crowe is discussing, which is coupled with the sadness that the audience feels that such a young child could be harmed like that. On the other level, there is sadness for Lynn; we are aware from the first scene that she felt that her husbands career was prioritized and that she felt ignored, and the way she is visibly upset in this scene contributes to our sympathy for her. In fact, she is sad because her husband is dead.
This scene works so well because of the assumptions the audience has made. If the audience was not aware from the first scene that there were potential problems in the marriage, they might not be so easily convinced by this scene and would perhaps predict the ending.
The scene fades into darkness when Lynn leaves saying “happy anniversary” to herself. The audience is manipulated into personally interpreting this as bitter resentment, but in actuality, she is heartbroken, and filled with grief.
Throughout the film, the director manipulates the audience in a similar style to that of other horror thrillers, but the psychological impact which this film leaves on you is individual and has become characteristic to the director Shyamalan. The plot is simple, yet raises a multitude of personal questions to the reader, and ensures that the viewer leaves the film satisfied and freaked out from their film experience in the short term, but in the long-term leaving asking themselves and those around about issues raised in the film relating to life after death and clairvoyance. This is the final manipulation the director has over the audience, by ensuring that his audience leave the cinema with the issues on their mind and in conversation, he has ensured that the sixth sense is a film which will be watched, enjoyed and studied by many generations.