When we think of horror storytellers it is extremely easy to associate them with a specific sub-genre and style. Wes Craven birthed a slew of slashers in different periods of horror with both A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger and Scream’s Ghostface, James Wan continues to construct a word of haunted homes starting with Insidious, Alfred Hitchcock trapped us in suspense with his first person point of view in Psycho. What comes to mind when you think of M. Night Shyamalan and The Sixth Sense?
A few simple maneuvers here and there, a slip of the hand, a purposeful distraction, and a finale leaving us shocked, guessing how we could have missed such important parts of a sequence happening right before our very eyes only to be truly fooled in the end. It’s a magic trick, you see? A trick that can’t be taught and most certainly cannot be duplicated, its secret buried in the mind of a master, or so we thought.
Today Shyamalan shares his birthday with the theatrical release of The Sixth Sense, a great cinematic illusion that opened his mysterious act nineteen years ago, yet still demands the spotlight time and time again.
The Sixth Sense reeled eager audiences into theaters back in 1999, a year when horror pulled back its curtains to unleash a variety of new sub-genres ranging from Japanese adapted tales with The Ring, to highly stylized period pieces with Sleepy Hollow, to found footage releases with The Blair Witch Project. The shine of the 70’s classics was, forgive me, beginning to dim, the slasher formula was exhaustively recycled, and garish science fiction had lost its appeal. With the dawning of an exciting millennium approaching, a new wave of filmmakers began to pave the road of the unique with the greatest showman, Shyamalan, leading the way.
By now you’re surely educated on The Sixth Sense’s plot and are aware of the third act twist that reanimated horror from its stagnant evolution, but if you are not I beg you to do two things now: One, do not read any further than my next plea as there will be spoiler content, and two, contact me immediately so I may study your reaction after I’ve convinced you to finally watch it.
We all know the story written and directed by Shyamalan, but in case you need a reminder: The Sixth Sense focuses on child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe, played by Bruce Willis (Die Hard), who is attacked by an old patient, Vincent Grey, played by Donnie Wahlberg (Dreamcatcher) after therapy treatment yielded no results in helping his “possible mood disorder”. He takes on a new patient after some time off in Cole Sear played by Haley Joel-Osment, a lonely sad boy who later reveals to Malcolm that he can see the spirits of the dead. As the two bond, Cole’s anxious mother Lynn played by Toni Colette (Hereditary) grows worried by her son’s behavior, and Malcolm’s wife Anna, played by Olivia Williams (Rushmore), grows colder towards him, their marriage borderline estranged. Malcolm concludes that Cole shares the same gift that Vincent had, realizing the only way for Cole to be fearless of these ghosts is to listen to them, helping them cross over from this life. What he does not realize is that he is one of them, having been dead since Vincent’s attack all along.
Whether you are a fan of his work or not, Shyamalan changed horror in more ways than one. His directing style – with single character angles, long drawn-out shots, and engaging dialogue, sometimes dubbed over a secondary occurring scene, was, and still is, freshly artistic and captivating. He signs his pieces with a twist you never saw coming, each ending laid beneath a veil intricately stitched with masterly duping mechanics and expertly hidden exposition.
After giving The Sixth Sense a very thorough viewing, I decided to aim this ‘look back’ at one of horror’s most discussed films by laying out Shyamalan’s deliberate techniques, of which there are three: the first, obviously being the twist ending, the second is sudden “jump scares” throughout a relatively slow-paced story, and carefully placed audio pops contrasting with mostly quiet ambiance. It was not until I tuned my attention in on one scene in particular, possibly the least tense scene of the whole film, that I noticed how purposeful those specific techniques are and how he cleverly disguises this formula for all to see.
Ladies and gentleman, I give you…
The Coin Trick.
Malcolm, being surprisingly uneasy around children given his profession, attempts to connect with Cole using a magic trick. He shows the boy a penny, claiming he will make it disappear from his right hand to his left hand with a Clap. He continues with a shake of the left hand (now supposedly holding the coin) and taps his jacket pocket, claiming the penny is now inside, magically transported. The end of the trick comes with him repeating the first step in reverse with the penny winding back where it started from, in his right hand. Cole is a little nonplussed, taking it for a joke and foiling the magic by letting Malcolm know he’s aware the penny never left his hand to begin with.
The joke is on us. What appears to be a charming scene interpreted as an appropriate chaism for the film’s events specifically, I found holds even more weight when looking at Shyamalan’s work as a whole combined with his first-born masterpiece. The whole film is one big coin trick, one he’s been pulling on us for well over a decade.
Let’s peek behind the curtain.
In the nearly two hours of runtime of The Sixth Sense, there are maybe only 7 minutes where the volume peaks over a whisper. And that includes its creeping score. Shyamalan advances this silence technique by working it with its significant other: booming interjection. I never noticed how sudden these loud pops of sound were until turning this on for a family movie night, my mother asking me to turn the volume up continuously throughout the first 10-minutes. Once we reached a comfortable level of being able to hear the soft dialogue, the first boom interjected: Anna’s gasp when Vincent’s shadow falls over her and Malcolm. Her quick, loud shock wailed through our television resulting in a few of our own follow-up yelps. Through Vincent’s angry screams and even the gunshot, we aren’t as shocked with sound like that of her gasp ripping through the quiet.
We’re met with that shock again almost 15 whole minutes later when Lynn enters the kitchen to find the drawers and cabinets hanging open out of nowhere. Long drawn out moments again filled with a murmuring tone only to be shattered by her jolting gasp. Another 20 or so minutes build up tension forcing us to pay attention to the characters and their conversations and we’re hit with the Stuttering Stanley scene. The intensity and the sound bursts into the scene, our hearing now completely out of focus. How about that balloon pop in conjunction with Cole’s screaming from the cupboard during the birthday party scene? The rock through Anna’s shop window? Each time the score’s instrumental pang comes out of nowhere as a ghost is suddenly present in a scene? All separated by consuming, purposeful quiet.
“The intensity and the sound bursts into the scene, our hearing now completely out of focus. “
With each segment of the coin trick, Malcolm makes a gesture with his hand, whether it be a wave or a shake, but his sudden clap is what throws the observer off-key. It’s a simple method, complete misdirection. The observer is busy keeping track of the movement when a sudden, loud CLAP interjects to knock them off their game. What happened? Did I miss something? Wait, where did the coin go?
Sudden sounds, especially as we are conditioned to regular low, mellow notes over time (well over an hour’s worth), are used to distract us as viewers. It’s a tactic necessary to draw our attention inward, slowly and steadily leveling our consciousness, before the interjecting boom blares the nerves out of us just as the claps throughout the coin trick do to the observer.
Waves and Shakes
As we’re relating Shyamalan’s cinematic moves to that of the coin trick, what some would consider “jump scares” mimic Malcolm’s wave and shake of the hand. These movements are the meat of the sequence, and they’re not particularly ‘jumpy’ in terms of action, but rather suddenly riddle us with fear. The Sixth Sense is full of waves and shakes, scenes created to develop the plot and warm up the brain.
We can separate a few of the slower monotone scenes from the ones that build in potency as the dialogue moves along, i.e. the “I see dead people” scene. The potent scenes, the waves and shakes that make up this film are Shyamalan’s most relied upon actions intentionally crafted with the end in mind.
Vincent’s scene at the very beginning, the wrist-cutting woman, the boy who was wreckless with a gun, the hanged fugitives, Stuttering Stanley, Vincent’s therapy audio recordings, and each scene with our semi-final ghost played by a young Micha Barton (The OC, Homecoming), Kyra, are all pieces of subject matter moving us towards the filmmaker’s endgame. Subject matter that is relatively scary to audiences honing in on those parts of the brain that force us to think about what’s happening.
Each of these scenes are building blocks adding one to the other as we reach The Sixth Sense’s end, yet each measured in simple, almost stabilized intensity. They are the movements of our sequence begging our attention and keeping us focused as the trick is being carried out before us.
Now, we give the penny another little shake, this one in particular being the scenes related to Kyra and Cole overcoming his fear to help her, as the coin has mysteriously made it way into Malcolm’s pocket. Problem solved? The end, right?
“But that’s not the end of the magic trick.”
End at the Beginning
Malcolm gives one final shake and clap ending with the penny magically returning to his right hand. The subtext of this simple trick’s ending being that we’re right back where we started from. What Cole so appropriately points out is that Malcolm had the penny in his right hand the whole time, it never went anywhere. Cole is the observer of the crowd pointing out the truth behind the artifice of the magician’s act.
This comes across to the audience as Cole being the all-seeing entity of the story. He can see the dead, and therefore can see through the trick’s ploy. But what his deadpan comment suggests further, is that it is Malcolm himself who holds the key (or the penny) to the sequence of this story. It begins with his death and ends with his death, the whole twist of him being a ghost stuck among the living throughout his time with Cole running parallel to the penny remaining in his hand through the whole trick. He aids Cole in coming to terms with his fear of listening to the ghosts that haunt him, all the while Cole is aiding him through the afterlife’s ascension. Like the coin, Malcolm never moved onward from where he began in the first place, needing Cole to point out the obvious in order to come to terms with this trick he has (unknowingly) performed.
The syntax of Malcolm’s silly coin trick runs linear with Shyamalan’s profound formula. Like unsuspecting observers hoodwinked by a magician’s cunning strategy, audiences experiencing The Sixth Sense, or almost any Shyamalan film, we are nimbly deceived by the shakes and waves of his scare tactics, thrown off by the unexpected claps of sound, and ultimately trapped in this chaism’s last twist with the prominent clues hidden by waves, shakes, and claps, finally exposed by the enlightened observer.
Though many directors and writers have attempted to apply this method, it is my strong opinion that all films with a big twist ending pale in comparison to The Sixth Sense. As horror fans, we appreciate the common understanding that while there are great possession films out there, none can attain The Exorcist’s standards. Once a film has really broken ground in our genre by achieving that unique status, the films that attempt to follow in its footsteps will always remain beneath it. The Sixth Sense, like Shyamalan, leads at the forefront sheathing imitators and shams beneath its veil of success.
Shyamalan, being the experienced magician he is, recycles this trick throughout his career. However, what separates him from the one-trick-pony shows were often subjected to within the horror genre is that each time, this same trick is actually different. The sequence may remain, but Shyamalan has that special quality of shaking and waving the penny around in a multitude of ways that the only element we can expect when being participating in his audience is that, of course, there will be a twist in the third act.
Shyamalan is so skilled in the application of this coin trick that he can begin it by placing the penny in one hand and make it disappear… for 17 years before revealing it to be in that same hand all along.
After a scattered hiatus between the release of The Village in 2004, and the release of After Earth in 2013, the director seemed to fade into the background. Cue the dry ice and closed curtain, right? Many believed we had seen the last of the showman, that he had gifted us with his grand finale in his first release, until he reemerged relevantly successful with The Visit in 2015. Fans welcomed him, and his unmatched twist endings, back to the genre with open arms.
“Fans welcomed him, and his unmatched twist endings, back to the genre with open arms.”
The Visit wasn’t the only card up his sleeve. In 2016, Shyamalan pulled off the longest running coin trick in all of cinema’s magical history with the release of Split. I remember the slight feeling of disappointment run through me as the last few minutes of the film revealed no twist, just a well done, well acted flick. What happened to my penny?
Then, with a quick wave and a shake, Bruce Willis’ David Dunn of his second collaboration with Shyamalan, Unbreakable, a dark superhero tale released back in 2000, appears within the absolute last-minute of Split marrying the two films with a twist so bold I know I let out my own sudden dramatic gasp when I realized what was happening right before my very eyes. There’s my penny!
For 16 years there was a quiet stillness to Shyamalan’s career, few of his films making true movements within horror, but then came the CLAP! Multiple claps. An entire theater, actually.
Shortly after, a third installment of this ambiguous trilogy, Glass, was announced bringing the characters of Unbreakable and Split into one film that will surely leave us in the same mystified, gloriously shocked state we can only find ourselves in at Shyamalan’s hand. The Glass trailer recently premiered at the San Diego Comic Con in mid-July with reception all pointing to extremely high anticipation.
Like the penny, and like his first story’s iconic lead, Dr. Malcom Crowe, M. Night Shyamalan never left. He has always been present, watching, waiting, and planning his next trick to ascend above our beliefs.
This artist and the rich, phenomenal, complex worlds he shares with us, his observers, has proved one very important thing:
Some magic’s real.