Surprise endings are often frowned upon in storytelling as a chief artifice imposed on a narrative to which setting, character and theme must bend the knee. This goes even deeper with movies, since there is such a collective audience with cinema that surprise endings risk being spoiled outside of the theater, and they also tend to decline upon further viewing. But, there are exceptions to every rule, and the things that make surprise endings so problematic for middling storytellers is what makes them tremendous in the hands of an expert. Case in point: The Sixth Sense, a movie that not only totally surprised audiences when it first came out but has managed to hold up even some 20 years after its release, because like any other kind of special effect, the ending to this movie wasn’t the point. It was just another way to get there. Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan might have arrived like a thunderbolt with this marvelous ghost story of his, and subsequently earned more than a few haters once his movies began to deliver steadily diminishing returns. But none of that takes away from how good The Sixth Sense really is, and why it is such an enjoyable ghost story…in part, because it’s not really about ghosts at all. But more on that later.
First, the story. Child psychologist Malcom Crowe is taking on his first major patient almost a year after one of Crowe’s former patients—now all grown up and more disturbed than ever—ambushes and shoots Crowe in his own bedroom. Now, Crowe and his wife hardly speak at all, and he is wholly consumed by his work, perhaps in an obsessive bid to atone for failing to help the patient who blasted him. Crowe’s new patient is a young boy named Cole Sear who says he can see ghosts all around him, and is tormented by his constant encounters with the departed. Crowe writes off Cole as delusional until an old interview tape with his old, trigger-happy patient reveals that maybe there really are such a thing as ghosts and maybe those who can’t help but see and hear them are suffering a unique form of torture. Crowe isn’t an expert on ghosts, but he does know how to help kids, and the treatment he suggests for Cole is a unique combination of therapy that could help more than just the patient. For young Cole, whether the cure proves worse than the disease remains to be seen.
This is a low-key horror movie that very slowly introduces us to a character’s all-consuming dread, and the horrible weight of having to live with a terrifying problem from which there is absolutely no escape. The more we see Cole struggle with his ghost problem, the more we begin to wonder if Crowe really can help him. And as poor Cole teeters on the edge of a complete mental and emotional breakdown, we realize that to see someone suffer like this is bad. To see a child do it is almost unbearable.
And that is where the Sixth Sense works so well. As a horror movie, Shyamalan is willing to hit us with a few jump scares, but this is more about dread than fright. Here, the more we get to understand exactly what Cole is up against, the more we understand that what we think we’re supposed to be afraid of, and what we’re actually supposed to be afraid of are two very different things. Key to all of this is the cast of characters, all of whom bring to the table a deep set of conflicts and issues demanding some kind of resolution. Each of them is kind of sailing past the other like ships in the night, which subtly ups the tension throughout. As we see Cole fray, we see his mom fray. As we see his mom fray, we see Crowe’s wife fray. As we see Crowe’s wife fray, we see Crowe fray. As we see Crowe fray, we see Cole fray. And on and on it goes. Good characters are the engine of any good story, and a big reason why The Sixth Sense is such a great movie is because it has such great characters.
Of course, no discussion of this movie is complete without mentioning its surprise ending, a stinger so ably set up that re-watching the movie immediately after the first showing concludes is even more enjoyable because suddenly every clue and warning suddenly stands out like glowing guideposts. The answers were there all the time, we just didn’t see them because, like with any great magic trick, we were too well misdirected all along.
But beyond that, there are other endings to this movie that matter just as much. The conclusion of Cole’s particular arc delivers an especially satisfying ending that reveals the ultimate truth of this and any other ghost story: that ghosts shouldn’t be scary simply because they exist beyond the grave. They should be scary because they are in pain, and when people are in pain, they can do some pretty scary things. How the Sixth Sense flips the script on the way we see ghosts is a far more meaningful narrative reversal than its much-ballyhooed surprise ending. The surprise entertains very much, indeed. But the revelation over what it really means to be a ghost is something that provides serious food for thought.
Which brings us to the moment of truth: Cole’s final conversation with his mom during the movie’s epilogue. After much help from Crowe, and more than a little personal courage on his part, Cole finally tells his mom about his cruel gift to see the undead. The way in which he proves it is heartbreaking, because we get to see the wall between mother and son crumble, proving that indeed, what haunts us the most isn’t how we die, but the things left unsaid when we do.