My Theories About The Sixth Sense (SPOILERS)

→ in

When I was a young Christian teenager, horror was a bumpy road to cross. It wasn't because the churches told me anything fanatical such as “all horror movies are satanic,” no. It was because my father saw no point in celebrating fear. As a result I was always careful. One of the first real horror movies I had ever seen (not counting kids horror-comedies such as The Nightmare Before Christmas or The Haunted Mansion) was M. Night Shyamalan's most famous film, The Sixth Sense. I was sixteen at the time, but I was still very careful about horror. Because of a strange history I have with the genre in question, now I have no fear of it (I still maintain my Christianity), and horror movies almost never scare me. But The Sixth Sense was a key turning point in my life when it came to storytelling, and I've seen it four times.

In recent times, I saw it two days in a row. Why? Well, the first time I ever saw it, I gave it an 85/100. Then I gave it a 91. And after the first in the two-day marathon, I was considering a 100, but I was worried I might be overhyping it. I've given several movies I've watched a 100/100 over the last couple months and I'm afraid I'm letting my critiquing skills get soggy. So I watched it again after reading an article written on about some key features. But before I go into that, lemme explain the full plot of the film.

Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who was recently shot by a now-adult es-patient Vincent Gray, who claims Malcolm failed him. A few months after surviving the bullet wound, Malcolm is drawn to nine-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osmont), who has many of the same behavioral traits as Gray. Malcolm believes healing Cole will make up for the failure of Vincent Gray, so he spends a lot of time with Cole in order to gain his trust, and neglects his now distant wife who's been taking anti-depressants. Cole is considered a freak by his schoolmates, and after a horrific bullying experience, he tells Malcolm his secret: he sees dead people, and there are signs of their presence, such as an inexplicable cold passing by. And apparently, they only “see what they want to see” because they don't realize that they are dead. Though initially skeptical, Malcolm soon goes over old recorded sessions between him and the young Vincent, and after capturing a quiet Spanish voice saying “I don't want to die” on one of the records when no one else was in that room (and the random cold mentioned on the tape), he realizes Cole is truthfully a clairvoyant.

Meanwhile, Cole has trouble talking with his mom about his power, which frightens him severely. Malcolm tells Cole that he should try listening to the ghosts to see what they want. When Cole does so with the ghost of a visiting sick girl, Malcolm takes him to the girl's house where Cole finds a box with a video tape under her bed. Showing the tape to the girl's father, it's revealed that the mother was consistently poisoning her. With the girl satisfied, she can move on to the afterlife.

Now that Cole has coped with his ability, he's been making friends at school and living happily. Cole tells Malcolm that he should try talking to his wife while she's asleep, and the two part ways since they've helped each other. Cole confesses his power to his mother, and proves it by revealing information about his grandmother that no one told him. As for Malcolm, he goes back home to see his wife sleeping. But when he sees the sleeping wife dropping a wedding ring while wearing her own, he realizes that he's gone so long without it, and he starts noticing other things around the house, proving something: he is DEAD, and his wife is coping with her loss. She's distant because she doesn't even see him. Now able to move on, he tells his wife that she was never second and that she was the world to him. With his wife seeming to notice in her sleep, he passes on to the next world.

Alright, so since this is still a movie review, lemme go over what I personally liked and disliked about the movie. First and foremost: the emotional tension. It was absolutely flawless. Throughout the movie I was drawn in by the story and I had a constant feeling of tension and dread until Cole learned to accept his powers and the ghosts around him. Then it turned into a perfectly touching family drama in which Cole's story had a perfect ending. And then the plot twist came, and I felt a powerful punch from both worlds.

The second most important thing to focus on is the foreshadowing. The foreshadowing is so tightly-knit that I can't help but compare this movie to The Godfather for its incredible rewatch-value founded on this aspect. The finest example IMO is when Malcolm is sitting with Cole's mom but she's silent, and barely takes any notice of Malcolm. This is later revealed to be untrue because she didn't even see him, and as a psychologist he must've assumed that she was too bothered to speak. This is amplified by the third most important factor: the expressions. Shyamalan's careful camera work shows a lot of humanity in the expressions. Haley Joel Osmont's acting in particular is worth mentioning. Even as a nine-year-old he was doing as good of a job as Bruce Willis was doing, if not a better job. Though, I need to mention that Willis is mostly known for action movies, so he might have been out of his element. Still, to see Haley butt heads with Bruce Willis and act just as well is worth mentioning on its own.

As for problems, one can easily assume that the subplot pertaining to ghosts “only seeing what they want to see” is a half-assed way to write a story because it creates an ongoing series of convenience. In fact, one can even say that the story wasn't touched up on quite enough. Before I wrote this (and befroe watching it a second time), I read an article about potential plotholes for this movie (ironically, Imdb of all places didn't list any). This article brought up a very strong point: how did Malcolm ever find out about Cole? He couldn't have done it by going back to work. How could he go so long without anyone seeing him? And wouldn't his office be given to someone else? How did he cope with this, and how did he get access to Cole's file in the first place?

Two sum up the question, it has two parts: A: How did Malcolm not know he was a ghost for so long?” B: How did he find Cole? Well, this goes back to two different things I noticed in the movie. First of all: the sick girl who came directly to Cole. Second, a more in-depth analysis of “seeing what they want to see.”

First, the little girl specifically came to Cole. How did she know where Cole lived? She didn't. None of the ghosts did. What they knew subconsciously was that he could speak to them. GHOSTS ARE ATTRACTED TO CLAIRVOTANTS. In psychological terms (which is fitting for this psycho-thriller), you could say that any ghost is subconsciously attracted to a clairvoyant. This partly explains why Malcolm was subconsciously seeking out Cole.

Second, keep in mind that this is a nine-year-old inexperienced clairvoyant saying “They only see what they want to see.” Think about this common ghost trope: a ghost haunts a place until its soul is appeased, or a goal is completed or a curse is lifted. Then they can go onto the afterlife. This is a VERY common trope that you'll see in plenty of ghost movies. The Ring, Drag Me to Hell, The Haunted Mansion and Polaroid are all different takes on this trope. Since most horror movies focus on scares and kills, one of the most common reasons is revenge. But in The Sixth Sense, instead of people hunting down Cole they're CRYING OUT TO HIM, asking him for help. What's also common in this trope is that ghosts will have a one-track-mind or obsess over one thing before they reach the afterlife. Wasn't that what Malcolm needed? A kid to help him redeem himself? And didn't he get that in the end?

This is a psychological horror movie about ghosts, so an appropriate theory is that subconsciously, a ghost cannot accept it's a ghost until the ghost's goal is completed and a piece of the ghost's humanity is restored, allowing them to leave the human world behind. This is basically what Cole was TRYING to say, but how many professional dealings had he been through with the ghosts?

So we have four ingredients to work with as I explain my theory pertaining to The Sixth Sense.

  1. Ghosts are attracted to clairvoyants.
  2. Ghosts subconsciously only see what still makes them human until their goal in the human world is complete, then they can move on.
  3. Malcolm Crowe is a child psychologist and a ghost.
  4. Cole Sear is a nine-year-old kid and a clairvoyant with minimal experience.

After Malcolm Crowe's death, his soul was searching for any kid that he could heal, and as a result he spent less time with his wife because she couldn't complete that goal. But because his wife was the most important thing to him during his living days, he couldn't let her go. So he noticed things he didn't want to, like the potential new boyfriend or the anti-depressants. In this time, he only saw enough to maintain his basic grip on humanity like any other ghost. The movie doesn't chronicle this at all because the movie is mostly about Cole's connection to Malcolm, and not about Malcolm looking for someone like Cole. It would've been a boring sequence to see after the shooting or at the ending. In fact, if it was shown at the ending, the emotional touch would have been messed with and less effective.

After trying to speak to several children and parents who ignored him (because they couldn't see him), he must have looked through the office files for someone just like Cole. He probably didn't even get outside much. When he found a boy with Vincent's behavioral issues, he was DRAWN to Cole like any other ghost. He needed to complete his first goal with Cole by healing him and redeeming himself, so then he could complete his second goal and reconcile with his wife. Ironically, it was the clairvoyant who suggested that. After his goal as completed and he knew how to achieve his second goal, he was able to see reality as anyone else saw it, and he could move on immediately after making up with his wife.

As for his possible changing clothes in the house and moving objects, it's likely that the wife noticed that, and tried to tell people about her “hallucinations,” and took the anti-depressants after that, and learned to cope with this haunting as an after-effect on her subconsciousness brought on by the shooting.

Now I have four rules of critiquing any artform, whether it's a movie, song or book or whatever you want. This set of rules can easily be applied to ANY artform:

  1. What is the goal of this art piece?
  2. Does this piece of art meet its goal?
  3. What basic qualities does the art sacrifice in order to achieve the goal?
  4. Are the sacrifices made up for by other elements of this piece of art?

  1. The Sixth Sense is M. Night Shyamalan's attempt at creating a touching psycho horror-thriller with unique plot twists. And the themes pertain to growth and communication.
  2. YES. It DEFINITELY meets its goal at that. The plot twists are unique, the tension is crazy, and the emotional depth is phenomenal, which pairs perfectly with the tension. The idea of communication and friendship stemming from it is what made the ending(s) so good.
  3. I'd say the sacrifice itself is a bit of consistency and explanation. All we got was the mild experience of a nine-year-old kid.
  4. I'd say that the sacrifice was fine. More story depth would have taken away from this. Cole is just now learning the basics of this world, and Malcolm himself is guilty of the same behavior that a ghost shows, so if there was anymore story-based depth to it, it would have drawn from the experience the point of the film brings. The emotional tension, twists and ending effect were all worth this sacrifice which, based on my premise, has a perfectly plausible explanation. And the rewatch value that comes from the constant foreshadowing is a reason to keep looking for more details, just like The Godfather. Honestly, when it comes to constant tightly-knit foreshadowing, this movie's closer to The Godfather than any other movie I've seen so far.

Overall, I'd say this film was a pure success in storytelling. It was quite the influence on my part. But to be fair, concerning my theory on ghost behavior and its relevance to the story, there is another question to be asked of this specific movie:

  1. Did M. Night Shyamalan think that far ahead when he wrote this?

Probably not. I've seen some of his other movies, and he just doesn't have that depth anymore. Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense were huge successes. My guess is that Shyamalan didn't try as hard anymore because he knew he could sell a good thriller with his name alone. As proof of his decision not to try, you have to wonder what was going through his head when he thought any of the acting in The Last Airbender was a good idea. Keep in mind that as the director, he had a front row seat to the whole movie. After that failed, he must've taken some time to think about his career, and now he's doing pretty successful thrillers again. Or, maybe there's that lightning-strikes-twice chance that most of Shyamalan's movies have some great storytelling depth that people can't comprehend on a “normal level,” and these films need to be dissected as heavily as Lost Highway. Not The Last Airbender, though. Definitely not The Last Airbender. But I doubt that.

Overall, I think the so-called shoed-in subplot, “they only see what they want to see,” has an actual basis behind it. And since my theory is built entirely on the two biggest themes of the movie: psychology and ghosts, I think it fits perfectly. I see no reason not to give The Sixth Sense a 100 rating. I mean, even though Shyamalan probably didn't think as far ahead as I did with my theory (as suggested by future films), I think the theory works so well that that doesn't matter. He probably did think of ghost behavior when he made this. The ghosts were obviously drawn towards the clairvoyant, and I think it needs to be acknowledged as a possibility.

Great Review. I agree with your theory.

I remember watching this movie as a kid with my friend in the movie theatre. Was too young to be watching this but we knew the older kid who worked at the theatre who let us in. Had nightmares for weeks afterwards lol.

Anyway, I got pretty much the same thing from watching the film. The other ghosts would have no reason for coming to see the kid unless they knew he could see/interact with them. I doubt the ghosts randomly found him by chance.

And I saw the Bruce Willis and Cole interaction the same way, however maybe more of a mutual benefit. Bruce Willis was trying to help Cole and subconsciously was hoping Cole could help him. By helping Cole, he was also helping himself.

Really great storyline, I’m a big fan of Shyamalan. Ending was amazing. You don’t see something like that in movies too often.Shyamalan was very young when he made this film.*

Like you say he wasn’t really able to replicate this same success in other work, but it’s hard to do when this film was so great. I really liked ‘the Village’ though, another one of his films with a plot twist ending.

You ready? You look ready
I don't think the "ghosts only see what they want to see" is half-assed. I think it's quite fully baked. Even living humans see only what they want to see.

Great post btw.
"This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined." -Baruch Spinoza

I don't think the "ghosts only see what they want to see" is half-assed. I think it's quite fully baked. Even living humans see only what they want to see.

Great post btw.


The reason some people consider it half-assed is because it makes things too convenient for the plot. Personally, I thought that was justified this time. I read a similar criticism for Train to Busan, which I haven't seen yet but might get around to soon since I've been going through more zombie movies.