Sixth Sense a really good ghost story with a Christian message about love

Published October 1, 1999

WE BELIEVE … in all things visible and invisible.” It has been a long time since there’s been a really good ghost story at the movies. The cinema is a place where a good tale of the supernatural can be spun and waiting for the scare along the way is a quintessential movie-going experience.

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The Sixth Sense

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Starring Bruce Willis **** (out of five)

Warning: Frightening scenes, not recommended for children.

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With computer-enhanced technology, too often film producers go for the big special effect to deliver a jolt. The Sixth Sense by young filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan resists the lure of technology, instead going for a well-told story, beautifully photographed (by the great cinematographer Tak Fujimoto), with a simple but compelling premise: that a young boy, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) sees ghosts all the time, and they frighten him.

The solution to his problem, typical of the late ’90s, is through psychotherapy. The therapist is an award winning child psychologist, fresh from a brush with one of his “mistakes.” Shaken by his fallibility, Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is unsure of himself, but his skill in developing rapport with Cole ultimately brings a resolution for the child, and for himself.

Shyamalan gives many perspectives: in mirrors, through windows, from below, from inside. When the ghosts start appearing, they’re sad, more than frightening, for they are the dead who have been wronged ? unjustly hanged, cruelly burned, murdered with malice of forethought.

Crowe helps Cole realize that all he has to do is to befriend the ghosts and ask them what they want from him. It works – Cole’s terror leaves and the narrative shifts into metaphor: for these are the ghosts of our time and history, and before long we will be among them.

At its core, from the opening images of Dr. Crowe receiving the mayor’s citation of honour to its remarkable conclusion, this film is about how we will be remembered. It offers a touching and Christian message: it’s about love.

Yet, for all its sweetness, this is still a horror film with a musical score by John Newton Howard that adds to the suspense. It is a scary movie, but not humourless. A school pageant where every parent has a video camera is very witty. There are one or two bits of gratuitous violence but hey, it’s a ghost story.

Twice Crowe and Cole meet in an empty Roman Catholic parish church in Philadelphia, and it’s there that they first connect and also have their real breakthrough.

Spirituality plays a role throughout. Cole’s mother (Toni Collette) says she’s been praying, but her prayers haven’t been working. The Sixth Sense encourages you to believe her prayers had been working, but not quite the way she expected.

Yet I longed for people of vibrant faith in this movie. Sadly, it reflects North American spirituality at the end of the century: suspicious of institutional religion, cynical, tired, yet open to the possibility that there might be spiritual reality out there, somewhere.

The actors make this film work. Bruce Willis is restrained, gentle and believable as the psychologist, and young Haley Joel Osment, 11 at the time of filming, turns in a performance you can’t forget.

Shyamalan is clearly a director who knows how to build suspense then take you to a place you don’t expect. Conversations about The Sixth Sense should be of interest to Christians. For if this movie takes you to a place where metaphysical speculation and emotional impact collide, then there is an opening to communicate the wisdom of the church through the ages, assuring believers of the ultimate victory of God over all things seen and unseen.

Peter Elliott is dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, and a member of the board of directors of the Vancouver Film Festival.


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