‘The Sixth Sense’ and How M. Night Shyamalan Primed Viewers for One of the Scariest Scenes of All Time
(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: M. Night Shyamalan’s specific visual rules for the supernatural effectively triggered a fear response in viewers, setting up the biggest scare in The Sixth Sense.)
“I see dead people,” became an iconic mantra after the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s debut feature twenty years ago. Whispered by a timid, melancholic little boy with a supernatural affliction during a moment of confessional vulnerability, the four-word line aptly summed up the film’s entire premise. A PG-13 drama centered around a dejected child psychologist aiming to redeem himself by helping a troubled young boy through his trauma matched its emotional potency with devastating supernatural scares. These elements, combined with one hell of a twist ending, made The Sixth Sense the sleeper hit of 1999.
In the decades since the film’s release, M. Night Shyamalan has solidified his reputation as a king of twist endings, racked up an impressive list of credits, and fostered emerging voices in film and television. The latest of which is Tony Basgallop’s Servant, premiering over Thanksgiving. While Shyamalan’s career has grown immensely since 1999, his impressive debut is a crowning achievement. The film’s blend of heartbreaking character work and potent, bone-chilling scares is uncannily effective. While The Sixth Sense boasts no shortage of goosebumps-inducing spectral encounters, none hold a candle to the film’s most terrifying encounter of all with a vomiting child ghost. A vital scare scene for which Shyamalan invested a lot of time visually and emotionally priming the viewer to achieve maximum levels of fear.
Bruce Willis stars as Malcolm Crowe, a celebrated child psychologist with a chip on his shoulder after a harrowing meeting with a former patient, Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), leaves him with the profound feeling of failure. That encounter also resulted in estrangement from his wife Anna (Olivia Williams). Malcolm finds a chance for redemption when he meets Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), an isolated and detached boy with eerily similar issues as his former patient. Cole harbors a terrifying secret and being raised alone by his single mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), only exacerbates Cole’s problem.
The Story So Far
One year after being shot in his bedroom by the disturbed Vincent Gray, Malcolm sets about working a case eerily similar to Vincent’s; Cole Sear. His prior failure to address Vincent’s childhood hallucinations has affected his relationship with his wife and shaken his faith in his profession. It’s also given him a fierce determination not to fail again with Cole, though Cole’s fear and trepidation prove to be a significant hurdle of its own.
Cole has no friends, save for his busy mother. He’s bullied at school and spends most of his waking life terrified. Everywhere he goes, he sees ghosts. On the streets, in his school, and even in the comfort of his home. The only safe zone seems to be his blanket fort. Often, the ghosts are angry and their deaths violent; a woman with slit wrists in his kitchen or a boy with a gunshot wound to the skull lingers in his hall. Though he initially runs away from Malcolm in terror, Malcolm’s perseverance slowly earns Cole’s trust. Eventually, Cole confesses his dark secret; he sees dead people. A secret Malcolm dismisses as delusions. He even considers dropping the case.
When Malcolm revisits his files from Vincent’s case, he listens to an audiotape of a session that reveals a third, ghostly voice. The dawning realization of the truth that Cole and Vincent both saw spirits brings a new course of treatment; Malcolm suggests Cole attempt to listen to his spectral visitors. That communicating with them might make the unrelenting horror of their visitations diminish.
Cole wakes in the middle of the night by his mother having a nightmare. He comforts her while she sleeps and returns to his makeshift tent. Paused outside of the tent’s entrance, the temperature drops, and the boy realizes something is coming. Petrified, he struggles to open the fastened door while maintaining a watchful eye behind him. When he finally succeeds, he backs inside to keep vigilant. He sits inside with a flashlight, breathing hitched and cold, when the clothing pins above rip away. The camera pans across the tent’s ceiling and over, showing the gruesome face of a vomiting young girl inside Cole’s tent. Cole flees in fear, crashing his tent in the process, and spends an excruciating 60 seconds peering over and around furniture, working up the nerve to approach the sickly girl. Cole’s fear palpable, he chokes out, “Do you want to tell me something?”
This scene is the film’s scariest by necessitation. It’s a crucial turning point for Cole; this is the first time he stops running and instead decides to face his fears head-on. Shyamalan doesn’t treat it as a small gesture, either. These ghosts are scary, and it’s a Herculean effort for Cole to fight his instincts to head back to that fort and communicate with a ghost girl that won’t stop vomiting.
To highlight that, Shyamalan crafted a specific set of visual rules for his supernatural world, to prime viewers in fear. He’s actively putting the viewer in Cole’s shoes by making us just as afraid as he is, boosting the emotional weight of the narrative in the process. Long before this scene takes place, Shyamalan subtly establishes the color red as a signal for the otherworldly. The color palette is void of red, unless in the case of ghosts. A bright red balloon trails up to the attic at a birthday party, where Cole has an unpleasant run-in with a ghost. Anna’s red shawl or the doorknob of Malcolm’s basement office are both items that relay a direct connection to the supernatural. Cole constructed his consecrated fort from bright red blankets, but up until this critical scene, all of the ghostly encounters have been outside of the tent. Inside has been deemed safe by Cole. Until this petrifying scene, that is.
It’s the perversion of his safe space that heightens the fear. The one area in the film that acts as a buffer between him and his haunters is his sacred tent. The immediate clue that it’s tainted is his icy breath once inside; Shyamalan’s other primary signal of the supernatural. It’s not just color, but sudden drops in temperature that indicate the arrival of the dead long before it shows up. That it’s happening inside Cole’s tent sets off serious alarms for the viewer before the sick girl makes her appearance known.
Shyamalan takes these central visual clues and heightens them with the way he frames this scene. Wide shots of the hallway, the bright red tent flanked by darkened walls, alternates with closeups of Cole struggling to open and get inside the tent. The wide shots become disorienting; Shyamalan tilts the camera at an angle to heighten the tension further as Cole finally backs into the tent. Inside, it’s pitch black. Cole’s pale face and icy breath is lit from the singular glow of his flashlight, which he then turns on the tent’s red walls. The entire screen fills with red, a warning of imminent danger, as the camera pans over with the flashlight to reveal Cole’s latest visitor. Shyamalan uses dramatic contrast in both the lighting and the camerawork, in conjunction with the foundational visual clues and Osment’s masterful acting as the fearful Cole, to deliver one sucker punch of a scare.
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