Flashback: The Sixth Sense

A masterclass of atmospheric chills and brooding suspense, The Sixth Sense remains a genuine horror classic 21 years since its release. We go behind the scenes with producer Barry Mendel.

Back in the days before social media or tell-all trailers threatened cinematic secrecy, The Sixth Sense emerged as a sleeper hit that was able to keep its big twist denouement respectfully shrouded in mystery.

A seemingly straightforward supernatural thriller about a troubled boy who sees ghosts and finds a kindred spirit with a dismayed child psychologist, it caught audiences completely off-guard when a climatic twist turned proceedings on its head. The movie demanded reassessment and cinemagoers flocked back to rewatch the chilling flick from an entirely different context. As a result, The Sixth Sense became a discussion movie that took the ‘highest grossing horror movie’ mantle for almost 20 years.      

For his genre breakthrough, writer-director M Night Shyamalan partially based the story on his own childhood that was spent, in his own words, ‘being scared all the time’ by the prospect of being haunted – something that seeped from his own culture’s accepted beliefs concerning the afterlife. Although he’d only directed two modest films prior to The Sixth Sense, (comedy dramas Praying With Anger and Wide Awake) Shyamalan was well known in the industry for his screenplays, including hit fantasy comedy Stuart Little.

“The confidence in him as a director came from reading his screenplay because it was written really directorially,” Barry Mendel, who was a producer on The Sixth Sense alongside Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, tells SciFiNow. “Every sound, every image and every motion was really felt in the writing and so the argument as to why he should be given the reins of a movie with a ‘studio strap’ was all in the screenplay…”

Conversely, the twist to these supernatural proceedings emerged relatively late in the writing process. “[Night] was writing the script and around draft six he had this idea for the ending and thought, ‘oh, I might have something here’. It was like lightening in a bottle,” continues Mendel. “Then, when you feel like you have something, making it better becomes a lot of fun because you know that if you get this right it’s going to be really worthwhile.”

Helping to throw audiences completely off the spectral curve was the casting of Bruce Willis in the understated lead role of (unbeknownst to all) recently deceased child psychologist Malcolm Crowe. Indeed it’s somewhat ironic, given all the bullets the Die Hard hero had managed to dodge in countless action films, that Willis doesn’t recover from the singular gunshot wound from a trespassing former patient in this movie’s pivotal superbly suspenseful opening sequence. Nevertheless, it was Willis’ more recent acting credentials that were the prime reason for his casting. “He’d been doing incredible work with a string of great performances in films like Pulp Fiction, Nobody’s Fool, The Bonfires Of The Vanities and In Country. Frank Marshall really helped out [in securing him] and we were fortunate that Bruce said ‘yes’,” reflects Mendel.

Indeed Willis is simply exceptional as the quietly inquisitive child therapist who is concealing a literally life-altering truth from both himself and the audience. His portrayal of Malcolm as an easy-going man of near whispering contemplation skillfully hides a terrifying truth. A less measured performance would surely have aroused some suspicions.   

Arguably a tougher part to cast however was that of Cole Sear, the ultra-sensitive boy who “sees dead people” and thus carries the integral heart of the movie. Haley Joel Osment, who had notably portrayed Forrest Junior in Forrest Gump, would give an unforgettable powerhouse performance that was nominated for an Oscar. Mendel, who was present during the auditions, remembers how the, then ten-year-old, secured the part. “He bawled his eyes out in the first scene – it was just breathtaking and magical to watch. It was surprising to see someone act on that level at that age and so it was pretty much decided in the room: ‘like, okay that’s obviously the kid!’”   

Haley Joel Osment gave a powerhouse performance as Cole.

Another equally crucial role was that of Cole’s anguished single mother. Future Hereditary star Toni Collette played the role with equal conviction, in a performance that would rightly secure an Oscar nomination too. “We actually built her part up once we had her as we knew we had an actress that could really do something very deep with it,” remembers Mendel. “The way she worries about her son… lots of actresses have played a mum worried about her son but very few have ever done it that powerfully and that’s a real testament to her. She’s a lynchpin in the movie, her performance is world-class and she continues to give performances that are at that level throughout her career. Night was a huge fan of hers.”

To retain legitimacy upon repeat viewings, scenes were very carefully staged so that no other character apart from Cole actually interacts with Malcolm. It’s a classic case of audience manipulation that cleverly plays with assumption upon initial viewing and would surely have done the old master of suspense Hitchcock proud. “I imagine it was fun for Olivia Williams, [who portrays Crowe’s widow] to play that dinner scene when her husband never shows up. She’s playing it as angry wife who is stood up by her husband on her anniversary and [also] playing the bereaved wife who is reminiscing about their anniversary, all in one scene,” considers Mendel. “It was just a tremendous amount of fun for the actor, for the director, the editor and for everyone.”     

Nevertheless, for eagle-eyed viewers the filmmakers provided evocative clues throughout the story embedded within the mise-en-scene. The appearance of red signifies anything that has been tainted by the otherworld, while sweltering breath emanates in the company of deeply troubled apparitions, which subsequently explains why Malcolm doesn’t provoke any. “There’s all these little subtleties in the movie that are quite fun. It’s something that we worked very carefully on during the script and in the filming stage,” continues Mendel. “The amount of clues that makes it feel satisfying on the second view [that were there] if you were paying very close attention but which preserves the level of surprise that we want people to have. The thoughtfulness that Night put into the writing process paid off because when we showed the movie it just kind of worked the way we hoped it would.”

The Sixth Sense includes many clues to its twisty ending.

Not that everything centered predominately on the twist. The Sixth Sense had to successfully work on its own right too. “One of the things that we worked on very hard was if the movie didn’t have a twist ending and was simply a story of Malcolm trying to help this little kid, who was going through a similar experience to one of his past patients, and was just a simple story of redemption and helping a troubled boy out, would the movie be a good movie?” says Mendel. “We worked really hard on that as if the twist never happened and tried to make a movie that would really emotionally satisfy people.”      

The hard work paid off when the film was both enthusiastically embraced by critics and became a global box office sensation that ultimately took the mantel of highest grossing horror movie, (until Andy Muschietti’s IT knocked it off that pedestal in 2017). All of which was ironic given what a personal film this was for rising director Shyamalan. “Night was shooting in his hometown of Philadelphia where he grew up, in a story that’s kind of in some way about his childhood of feeling different, special and singled out,” continues Mendel. “I’ve always liked personal filmmaking, even though The Sixth Sense is kind of like a big budget blockbuster in retrospect. At the time we were making it we were also thinking of it as a very personal film and that’s another reason it resonates with people. He’s not crafting it for the masses, he’s telling in some ways his own story.”

Another key to The Sixth Sense success is how the film upends the horror genre to confront classic conventions of ghosts. “Like The Ghost & Mrs Muir, Blithe Spirit and other ghost movies that are not horror movies [it explores] the idea of what ghosts are across cultures throughout the world and how they tend to be restless spirits that have issues unresolved from their former life.”

Due to the richness of its narrative, The Sixth Sense also explores many other diverse themes and encapsulates such weighty subjects as the Munchausen Syndrome, child abuse, helping people through the grieving process and being the outcast at school – all are issues that could be at the heart of individual films.

The Sixth Sense explores many diverse themes and encapsulates weighty subjects

“These are all rich topics so, with all credit to Night, the movie ends up being a very rich story with a lot to chew on,” continues Mendel. “I was blown away by these concepts and the emotion in the story.”

Despite hinging on a big twist ending, Mendel reflects that audiences at the time were generally sensitive to preserving any hint of a reveal to others. “They weren’t saying ‘wait till you get to the twist. You won’t believe it!’. People were much more polite about not spoiling movies back then and simply said, ‘watch the movie. It’s really good!’ so that they could have that experience of being genuinely frightened,” he considers. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen very much anymore. Now, when we watch something, we’re told beforehand that it has a twist ending. The Sixth Sense was in a time before people felt perfectly comfortable ruining it for you before you even sat down.”    

Upon reflection, everything from the subtly revealing, painstakingly thought out production design, to the lingering shot-to-shot compositions, (courtesy of Silence Of The Lambs cinematographer Tak Fujimoto) to James Newton Howard’s eerie yet ultimately benevolent hypnotic score, alongside the intensely unorthodox soundtrack, powerhouse performances, together with Shyamalan’s restrained yet assured direction, make The Sixth Sense a deeply spellbinding experience.

While horror cinema may have also been experimenting with found footage shockers at the turn-of-the-century, there was something truly satisfying and rewarding about having the time-honoured tradition of the ghost story revived in such a deep, emotionally complex and hauntingly fresh way for unsuspecting audiences.

The Sixth Sense is available on Blu-ray from Walt Disney Studios.