“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.”
– Mark Twain
I am 5-years-old and at my uncle’s funeral, sitting in the back pew of a church I’ve never been to before. A plodding, dour hymn hums from the organ behind me. Everything smells like musty carpet, and my brand new shiny black shoes are pinching my toes and blistering my heels.
The casket is at the front of the room. It’s open. I can barely see the outline of his profile as he lies there. I think, maybe, I’ll go up, join my parents, get a closer look. But I can’t compel myself to do it.
It’s the first time death has been a part of my life. I’ve seen my mother cry twice now, and that, more than anything, is scarier than any dead body.
No one has told me a thing about how he got in that coffin, not a word about how he died, or why, or what will happen next.
I want to ask all of these things, but don’t even know how to start. Every adult I encounter tells me how brave I am being, sitting here, alongside the dead.
The truth is, I don’t feel brave at all.
Fear is complicated. As adults, we do our best to mollify our anxieties. We problem-solve. We push the nagging feeling away. We seek advice. We pass the buck. We distract ourselves. And we watch films that dress our fears up as entertainment.
The answers to the whys of horror—why it scares us, why we watch—are myriad and complex. Scary stories offer an escape from reality, one with heightened stakes that are ultimately meaningless to our lives. We can cower with our fingers in front of our our eyes, scream at the screen until our voices are hoarse, and then go home and go to bed knowing there will be no ghostly presence, no masked serial killer, no fearsome monster scratching at our window.
Children don’t know this. Their grasp on reality is fluid and expansive. A seemingly benign encounter with an image they don’t understand can breed nightmares. It’s why we try to keep them from watching scary movies. Yet so often, children play essential roles, and are central figures, in the very movies we try so hard to shield them from.
In movies like Poltergeist, The Babadook, and J.A. Bayona’s chilling El Orfanato, they serve as catalysts of sorts: harbingers of grief, doom, and evil. In The Omen, Orphan, and The Exorcist, they are the evil. This “creepy” child character—pale, quiet, with a dark secret—appears so often that it is rote in the genre.
But more often than not, the child’s perspective is rarely considered in horror, even though it could arguably be the most fascinating. We get glimpses of it in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, though ultimately it is in Jack’s frightening reality, and not Danny’s, that we spend most of our time. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth offers a near-perfect rendering of that perspective, as we see the harsh reality of Ofelia’s war-torn world translated into a bleak imaginative realm. But it’s ultimately more of a dark fantasy than a horror film.
It’s this focus on the child, then, that makes The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 supernatural thriller, uniquely compelling. Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), the curious young boy at the center of the film, is the prototypical horror movie child in nearly every way. But within moments of meeting him, we find there’s something painfully sympathetic about him.
He is hesitant. He speaks in whispers. Cole internalizes everything he encounters, he’s reflective and receptive. He seems wise beyond his years—not precociously, but preternaturally. His tremulous approach to the world around him is evident in every move he makes, and in the way he so often seems paralyzed, overwhelmed by the world around him. He is afraid.
A rough summary of The Sixth Sense would probably go something like this: a psychologist is shot by a disgruntled former patient who, as a child, struggled to put his fears into words. Later, he tries to help another young patient learn how to navigate similar issues, all the while trying to figure out how to reconnect with his wife in the wake of their trauma. The psychologist helps the child learn how to use his ability to talk to ghosts to help them find peace in the afterlife. Then the psychologist realizes that he was one of the ghosts the child was speaking with.
The Sixth Sense is a horror movie, and is best known for its final five minutes—that mind-blowing, did-you-see-it-coming twist reveal that established Shyamalan as an innovative thriller director. And the movie does exist to thrill us, to let us forget our own real-world fears for just a moment.
But it’s also a meditation on something deeper than a cleverly crafted gotcha moment. It offers up a sympathetic, often harrowing examination of how children handle the things they see but can’t process. It reminds us that childhood can be magical, full of sights and sounds that don’t even seem possible. It can also be terrifying, when you’re left to assign meaning to the parts of life you don’t know how to grapple with yet.
Though it’s, more or less, about Dr. Malcolm Crowe’s (Bruce Willis) attempts to get to the bottom of Cole’s psychological setbacks, The Sixth Sense doesn’t ever completely feel like Malcolm’s story. That’s because we mainly discover the world within the film—at least, the one most worthy of exploration—through Cole’s haunted existence.
He sees things other people can’t—more specifically, dead people. The single line of dialogue that confirms this, a terrified confession from a hospital bed, has become so well known, so oft-parodied, that it’s perhaps lost its impact over the years. But within the context of the film, it’s a chilling statement, and one that only scratches the surface of what he is really experiencing.
Cole sees things that are right in front of the adults around him. In some moments, the grown-ups sense them, too—the cool chill of air, the muffled murmur of an agonized voice from beyond the grave. But to Cole, these apparitions are bold, and loud, and inescapable. They’re fragments of anguish and the unfairness of the world, grotesque and uncompromising in their need to be seen. He sees dying children, suicide, murderous rage. And he sees all of these frightening images devoid of context or the ability to explain them away.
These ghostly encounters are a large part of what has made The Sixth Sense such a beloved part of the horror pantheon. But, perhaps more importantly, they are crucial to the film’s emotional core. We need Malcolm to get to the heart of why Cole is being haunted, both because we are afraid for him and with him.
When we first meet Cole, he relies on adult objects to bring him some form of benign comfort. He hides out in super-sized cathedrals and hoards prayer statues and Jesus figurines in his bedroom fort, a fruitless attempt at warding away the not-so-holy spirits. He wears his father’s lens-less eye glasses and broken watch; functionless remnants of the man who left him behind. In all these things, he looks for a safe haven, a buffer, a piece of protection or wisdom from the grown up world, and finds none.
Malcolm’s notes on Cole tell us all about the uphill battle he faces. He’s 9, is a child of divorce, and suffers acute anxiety and social isolation. At first, the psychologist believes Cole’s fretful, withdrawn nature is due to his father’s sudden absence. While it’s clear that abandonment, and the subsequent emotional trauma, has made the young boy increasingly vulnerable, Shyamalan stops short of connecting that event directly with his seemingly sudden heightened senses.
Really, how Cole got to the state he’s in is never the crux of the issue. Instead, it’s how what’s happening to him is impeding his ability to lead a normal life. As we learn more about him, we come to understand that Cole craves connection. But his experience in the world is marred with the constant presence of violence and terror, which makes that exceedingly difficult. The other kids gawk at him and call him a freak. Even the adults in his life have a hard time seeing past his eccentricities.
He screams at his teacher, he withdraws from everything, and he recedes into bitterness and distrust. It’s not for lack of trying on Cole’s part, though. He’s attempted, in very childlike ways, to express what he’s seeing and feeling to those around him. He tells his psychiatrist in one of their first conversations that he once drew a violent rendering of one of the ghosts he’d seen, but that “Mom started crying, and I don’t draw like that anymore.” He asks to sleep in his mother’s bed, but can’t tell her why he needs to.
Malcolm and his mother, Lynn (a powerfully vulnerable Toni Collette) do try to connect with him, but don’t understand the fundamental issues driving his psychological fragility. Cole lacks the coping skills, and the context, to explain them; the first time he talks to Malcolm, the only hint he gives to the doctor that he is in desperate need of help is a muttered Biblical verse in Latin.
De profundis clamo ad te domine, Out of the depths, I cry to you, Oh Lord.
This communication breakdown is tearing Cole apart as much as his closely guarded secret. He doesn’t know how to tell the people around him that he sees things that shouldn’t exist.
The truth is complicated, and especially so for children. They see things through the lens of their own limited experience. Often, they don’t know the words to use to describe their experiences.
The truth is scary and messy and full of layers they sense but can’t process.
For Cole, the truth is especially hard with his mother. Lynn tries hard, but is buried under the pressure of a life she can barely keep on track as it is. Her son’s psychological fragility has brought her to the brink as well. He consumes the anxiety she feels for her son’s well being; he makes it part of his burden. Cole can’t tell his mother the truth because he fears it will break her.
Lynn asks him one night over dinner why his grandmother’s beloved bumblebee pendant is in his drawer. He knows the answer she wants—that he took it—but also knows he’ll be lying if he tells her so. Because it wasn’t him, it was his dead grandmother, and that’s not a truth he’s ready to tell.
The same is true of his relationship with Malcolm. He resists opening up to him, tells him only as much as he needs to at first.
Until Cole can make sense of the very real terrors in his own life, he can’t begin to make it a part of their reality. In the end, he finds the help he craves both from the grown-up world he tried to emulate and from the supernatural realm that he fears so much. Malcolm guides Cole toward the realization that the ghosts reaching out to him want help. It is with this knowledge that he finds his own power.
And so, Cole emerges from isolation gradually. He tests the waters of confession throughout The Sixth Sense. He eases Malcolm and his mother, in particular, into the messiest parts of his truth over the course of several conversations.
“Sometimes people think they lose things and they didn’t really lose them. It just gets moved,” he tells his mother. When he tells her it’s Grandma that’s doing the moving in the film’s closing moments, he and Lynn finally forge a connection that stems not just from love, but from some kind of common ground. She may not understand what he sees, but he will keep trying to tell her about it—and that will go a long way for both of them.
“They don’t know they’re dead,” he tells Malcolm. In The Sixth Sense’s final moments, we realize that Cole’s secret wasn’t just meant for the doctor, it was about him. It’s another piece of his journey that was right in front of the adults all along, obvious but ignored. Cole’s inescapable truth becomes Malcolm’s as well, but he is also, at last, able to find peace.
There is something fundamentally heroic in Cole’s story. He faces terrors few adults could stare down and, rather than pushing them away, he accepts them, claims a tranquility in spite of them. When we see him last, he’s made peace with his mother, found friends at school, and at least part of his fearful stoicism seems to have abated.
Many films about childhood chronicle the loss of innocence, or the waning pull of fantasy and wonder. If anything, The Sixth Sense is about a boy who finally finds that childlike joy in spite of the death and sadness that is all around him.
We know in the end that Cole will be okay. His life won’t be easy, but he’s already learned that lives rarely are.
I’m 32-years-old, and standing in front of a congregation of strangers at my father’s funeral. I’ve been asked to say something about him, and I’m not sure when the time comes that I’ll be able to. It’s not that I’m afraid of the crowd, or that I don’t know what to say, but that the words I’d use to describe him feel far too heavy in my throat.
My daughters, 7 and 8, flank me. They’ll be reading notes they wrote about their grandpa. This is the first time death has been a part of their lives, and my youngest, in particular, has been so full of questions. How did he die? Where did he go? Why?
I wonder what this is like for them, and worry that I’m not giving her the answers she needs.
Just before it’s her turn to speak, my 7-year-old glances up at me. Her letter is clutched in her fingers, pressing wrinkles and smudging the lines of the paper. She whispers, “I’m scared.”
I tell her she will do great. And then I tell her, “I am, too.”
She says, “I know.” And maybe that makes it okay for both of us.