Doctor Malcom Crowe, child psychologist and recent recipient of a distinguished award from the Philadelphia city council, is shot by an old client who then kills himself, propelling Malcom into a new existence of guilt and horror as he comes to terms with his new after-life. Not that he actually knows he’s dead. This particular fact is crucial when viewing the film, The Sixth Sense directed by M. Night Shyamalan, despite the fact that there is almost no way to know that he was killed in the first five minutes of the movie unless you have already seen the twist ending. Therefore, what follows is a narrative that shows you the truth, just not the whole truth.
After the shooting, we flash forward to the next Fall, where a guilt-ridden Malcolm, devastated by his failure in saving Vincent Grey, focuses on a new client, Cole Sear.
Vincent Grey: Divorced Parents, Acute Anxiety, Social Isolation, Possible Mood Disorder
Cole Sear: Divorced Parents, Acute Anxiety, Social Isolation, Possible Mood Disorder
The boys have the same story on paper, which makes Malcolm believe that he can assuage his guilt over losing Vincent by saving Cole. This is understandable in the context of a ghost story, as ghosts are people with unfinished business, however, Malcolm is unaware that he is dead, as are we. As Erlend Lavik says in his essay Narrative Structure in The Sixth Sense: A New Twist in ‘Twist Movies,’
Although The Sixth Sense contains a mystery and a final solution, the film differs from traditional detective stories in one crucial sense: in the time-honored Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot tradition it is commonly held that the reader or viewer have access to the same information as the detective hero and hence, in principle, the opportunity to solve the mystery before or at the same time as him or her.Erlend Lavik, pg. 56
Since the audience follows the story from Malcolm’s point of view, we are just as blind to the signs of his death as he is, which makes the twist ending that much more satisfying. Next, we are introduced to Cole, and right from the start, we know that there is something mysterious about him that seems to differ from Vincent. Later, we realize that it is because he is not suffering delusions—he really can see dead people.
We learn through Cole that “the dead cannot see each other, that they see only what they wish to see, that they do not themselves know that they are dead, and that it gets cold enough to see one’s breath when a ghost is angry” (Lavik 57). This lays the groundwork for the rest of the film, not just because the mythos of the paranormal has now been introduced, but also because Malcolm has finally gained Cole’s trust. He is one step closer in his personal quest to redeem himself.
However, Malcolm is not just anguished over Vincent. He also feels like his marriage is falling apart because of his dedication to his work. Before he was shot, his wife comments that he has “put everything second, including [her]” (The Sixth Sense 05:36-05:50 ), for his patients. After his first session with Cole, he races to the restaurant that he proposed in to meet her for their anniversary dinner, only to realize that he is too late.
On first viewing, this scene is uncomfortable as we feel anger towards Malcolm for missing dinner and towards Anne, his wife, for not hearing him out. But once we know the truth, all one can feel is pity: “Malcolm desperately tries to salvage his marriage, unaware that he is in fact completely powerless, while we come to realize that Anna, far from leaving in anger, is in fact grieving as she pays a visit to a place that held a special meaning in her former marriage” (Lavik 58). This regret coupled with his guilt is further reason for him to stay on Earth.
Malcolm himself fully expresses this pain in his bedtime story to Cole, which prompts him to confess his own secret of seeing dead people.
Malcolm, of course, believes Cole is merely hallucinating due to psychosis, but he is proven wrong when he replays old tapes of his sessions with Vincent and realizes that Vincent was also speaking to ghosts, further aligning Cole and Vincent in Malcolm’s head. Together, Malcolm and Cole figure out how to help the ghosts, giving them peace and allowing Cole to face his fears. His guilty conscience now clear, he turns to fixing his relationship with his wife, who helps him finally realize that he has been dead the whole time. Flashbacks interspersed with present day footage show us and Malcolm what we all have missed, throwing the integrity of the narrative into question. But we know now that the truth was always right in front of us; we, like Malcolm, just did not want to admit it.
Shymalan, M. Night, director. The Sixth Sense. Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, 1999.