The Sixth Sense, Part II: Beginnings and Ends

This article is part of an analysis project about M. Night Shyamalan‘s five films from 1999 to 2006: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006). This is the second article about The Sixth Sense. The first is here, the third here. The articles about the other films can be found in this overview.

The purpose of this second article about The Sixth Sense is to analyse the opening scene and the last three scenes. (Direct link to each of the latter here, here and here.) The analysis is mostly based on frame grabs, where the captions constitute a running commentary on themes, motifs, shot compositions, and how the various elements fit in with the extensive, over-arching structure of the film. There will be a text segment after the opening analysis, however, to shed light on Shyamalan’s approach to the film’s ending.

For readers unfamiliar with the story of The Sixth Sense, here is a basic outline of the premise.

In order to discuss the film properly, I will have to reveal the whole plot, including the major plot twist at the end.

A walkthrough of an ambiguous wine cellar

We ended the first article with a scene where Malcolm was listening to an old session audiotape in the basement of his house. That was a fitting place to leave off, because we shall now have a close look at the opening scene, where Malcolm’s wife Anna is fetching wine in that same basement. The scene is spearheading a prologue of nearly eight minutes. Here Malcolm and Anna are at home, celebrating that he has received a public citation for his work. Malcolm ends up being shot, however, by a former patient, Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg), who blames him for not having cured Vincent’s mental problems.

The opening scene lasts 68 seconds and comprises only four shots. Without further ado let us carefully walk through it.

In many cases, due to the darkness and detail of some shots, please be aware of the option to click on the frame grabs to enlarge them. Clicking on them yet again will enlarge them even further.

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From near total darkness, where only some faint reflections can be seen in what turns out to be a light bulb, it springs to life with excruciating, hypnotic slowness…
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…the nearly twenty seconds it takes to become fully lit, together with the camera’s obsession with something that seems of no narrative importance, help the bulb take on an air of profound importance and subtle menace – as if a ghost run by electricity. As soon as it reaches its brightest point, we hear a door being opened. This is the first clearly defined sound in the film, significant since doors, and their symbolic connection to ghosts, are a very important element.
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Cut to a room with the bulb in the background and an open door in the opposite wall, which seems red. This colour is also strongly connected with ghosts. In typical Shyamalan fashion, objects are strongly foregrounded. They turn out to be bottles and the shelves of a wine rack.
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…a woman comes down the stairs…
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…clearly tipsy, she steadies herself at the bottom of the stairs. The partial lighting of her face reinforces the impression that she is not in total command of herself…
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…she starts out for the wine rack, the frontality of her figure, the strange camera placement, its implacable, hypnotic motionlessness, all lend a strong feeling of unnaturalness to the situation. It is as if the camera is commanding Anna to come to it…
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… passing through a series of shadows, she is advancing, the door and the light bulb constant companions in the image. Doors and light sources are objects that will be fetishised in the film. Lamps will especially be connected to Anna, so note that the light bulb will be clearly visible beside her head for most of this shot…
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…she is reaching for the rack…
start 9
…as she reaches, almost imperceptibly, the camera rises and tracks in slightly, and focus is adjusted…
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…she is touching a bottle on the rack…
start 9b
… when she starts looking at the two shelves below, the camera follows her down, and soon up again, like a very smooth elevator…
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… in the process, she is touching several bottles…
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… still looking…
start 9e
…suddenly she finds what she was looking for, back on the original shelf, the light bulb back in place beside her…
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…but as she takes it, a humming, as if from wind far away, that has been present on the soundtrack all through the shot, clearly audible but nevertheless virtually unnoticeable, suddenly dies out, with an almost unconscious intensifying effect. Now she is brushing off dust from the bottle’s label…
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…for some reason, she seems slightly taken aback. Possibly she saw something strange on the bottle, but now she seems to notice something on the shelf. Shyamalan refuses to show what it is, however…
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…it simply looks like she becomes aware that something indefinable is not right…
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…the camera suddenly tracks in, with intensifying effect…
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… almost as if it commands her to turn around…
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…suddenly there is a radical cut, which feels even more brutal since we have stayed with the previous shot for as long as 36 seconds. Her movement is accompanied by an unsettling, piercing sound of her heels against the floor…
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…clinging to the bottle, she stands looking at something, but Shyamalan, maddeningly, once again refuses to show what it is. Notice that the light divides the shot into three sections – together with the three shelves, this belongs to a pattern of thrice-occurring elements in the film – and since the first one contains her, the second her dramatic shadow, it is as if we are encouraged to read something Rorschach-like, perhaps a twisted figure facing her, into the formation of the wall…
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…the fourth and last shot, and for each shot she grows progressively smaller, more vulnerable in a hostile environment. The stairs have replaced the wine rack as a making-things-strange object and, like the rack, represents the goal of her future movement. The unmoving camera and the predetermined goal make her almost seem like a puppet with no will of her own. The shot becomes even more menacing upon repeated viewings, because with increased familiarity with the film’s symbolism and also the geography of this cellar, it becomes clear that the camera is placed right in front of the open door. Its connection with ghosts makes it feel as if there might be ghosts lurking right behind the viewer’s shoulder…
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…she shivers with a sudden cold and looks around. This time there is definitively a shape etched into the cellar wall, of a hooded figure with arms reaching in her direction…
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…facing the camera again, following the strict pattern of this scene of either being shot frontally or from the side…
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…suddenly she breaks into a panic and starts running…
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…up the stairs. Note the Shyamalan neatness in the symmetry enclosing the scene, since she arrived in the left edge of the shot and leaves through the right. We also note that there are formations on the wall shaped like arches – for example above the rack, where the window joins it to form an arc within an arc – in line with the film’s pattern of arc-shaped objects.
start next scene
The contrast in atmosphere couldn’t be greater with the start of the next scene in the living room, with candle lights, children’s drawings and warm music on the stereo. (But note the echo-creating repetition of introducing both scenes with close shots of light sources.)

To get an overview of the scene, let us summarise the three last shots.


In fact, the camera placements together exactly represent three sides of a square-shaped box – the walls of the cellar – while Anna herself is always facing one side or another of the box, being “boxed-in”. It would have been neat if the initial close-up of the bulb represented the fourth side, but although it is very hard to determine from the background, judging from the shape of the wire inside it, it looks photographed from the same side as the second shot. But there is an interpretation where it is perfectly logical and thematically consistent that one side should be missing. Please consider the following diagram:


If one interprets the camera as representing something threatening, the diagram becomes outright scary. For it seems that the camera placements make up some sort of encirclement strategy – always shifting one wall to the right – leaving just one wall left, the one closely connected with the staircase, her only possibility of escape. So in our metaphorical reading, she has to run for the staircase, or else she will get trapped in the cellar, and in her own fear, forever.

But let us not get lost in geometry, ambiguity is much more fun. What is the scene about? The literal-minded would shrug their shoulders and say that somehow she sensed that Vincent Grey – who probably broke in a long time ago through the upstairs window – was now hiding in the cellar, beyond that doorway. What she saw on the wine rack was simply clues that he had helped himself to some wine, which could help explain why Vincent was so totally out of control later. When she returned to the cozy living-room, however, she wrote the whole thing off as an attack of nerves.

But surely something much more artful is afoot. I vividly remember from my first viewing how peculiarly unsettling, how quietly electrifying the situation felt, without being able to put my finger on the reason. The eerie atmosphere, the stylised staging, the difficulty of connecting the shots to arrive at a consistent geography of the room, the disorienting refusal at any stage to show us what she is looking at – all point towards metaphor. The scene could be a short film about being afraid of the dark, like Cole’s ghostly visitors may serve as a metaphor for a little boy’s fear of the same. It could be a representation of existential fear – also that consistent with Cole’s story, and his diagnosis of “acute anxiety” – remember Anna’s startled look (of recognition?) when Vincent later asks her “Do you know why you’re afraid when you’re alone?” Furthermore, it could be, before the film specifically connects it to ghosts, a demonstration of what is commonly called the “sixth sense”, an intuition that something indefinable is wrong. Or there could actually have been a ghost in the cellar – later, Malcolm’s ghost seems drawn to it, even setting up office there. Considering their strong bond, it is poetic to imagine that Anna is somehow able to feel the presence of his ghost across time, as if she can feel the future, or if his ghost can travel through time. Anyway, the scene suggests that Anna has a greater affinity than most people for sensing the presence of ghosts, which will be important in the ending, and introduces the fact that ghosts will cause an abrupt decrease in temperature. Finally, the scene is announcing ambiguity, slowness and holding back information as an artistic device. (With her subtlety of expression, the second shot is also a delightful showcase for the peculiar plasticity of Olivia Williams’s face.)

We forgot one detail about the scene – one of those things that films yield on closer inspection and repeated viewings – so let us backtrack a bit to the last shot.

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If we zoom in on the background, we see that three of the bottles have red caps.

They are closely grouped together and the only ones that are red. They must be lit from within or digitally enhanced, or else they should have appeared as much darker – so they must have been intended to be seen. The caps seem to fit the motif of thrice-occurring elements, and definitely the colour red motif, connected to the appearance of ghosts. Could those caps, on some level, be what she saw on the shelves and made her turn around? (Incidentally, if you scroll back up a little, to the first shot of the living-room scene, you will see that there are three red greeting cards in that shot, and that the three rightmost candle-holder glasses are grouped together and have a reddish hue.)

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Having escaped the basement, Anna seems entirely safe in the cozy living-room. But the red has followed her.
start next scene zoom 3
(frame enlargements)

For she is positioned right beside the red doorknob of the cellar door. (In similar fashion to when she was standing close to the wine rack, see just above.) We will see this knob several times later in the film when Malcolm is wrestling with the door to open it. The red refuses to let Anna go, for as we can see when the couple have sat down, the doorknob remains visible for quite a while in the background not far away from her. The cellar door is even slightly ajar, as if to emphasise that dark forces may still be at large. Furthermore, in the background we see both the cellar door and the staircase leading to the bedroom where Malcolm will be shot – like portals to dangerous places and to the previous/next scene – their visibility in the shot is not a coincidence. And when the cellar door eventually gets excluded, the staircase always remains in the background, pointing into the future. (In the third article we shall examine Shyamalan’s adeptness at using backgrounds to such subtle effect.)

The above business about red and backgrounds may sound very esoteric, but serve as good examples to show the extreme care and tight control M. Night Shyamalan is displaying in his mise-en-scène and shot compositions. We shall round off this chapter with a high-level view of the entire prologue. It starts in the cellar, continues in the living room at the ground floor, and ends in the bedroom upstairs. This “heavenward” ascent is not only thematically meaningful, but the first among a multitude of foreshadowings or indicators during the rest of the film about Malcolm’s real nature – that he was in fact killed by Vincent and is now a ghost who thinks he is still alive. But there is more:

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The ascension goes even further, because in the last shot of the prologue, the camera is rising towards the ceiling (while also alluding to out-of-body-experiences not uncommon in near-death cases).
start ascent 2
In the first shot of the main body of the film, the “heavenward” movement is completed, with an even higher vantage point.

This last shot is interesting in other ways. My impression is that Shyamalan is playing with our unconscious here: the shape of the greenery area leads my thoughts to a coffin, something that is reinforced by the framing of the black fence, like the black borders traditionally used for photographs of the deceased. Even though green usually represents life, the fact that Malcolm is only seemingly alive fits fine with the green-enclosed-by-black constellation. Furthermore, it is precisely Malcolm sitting there on the bench, waiting for Cole to come out of a house on the other side. Since Malcolm is dead it is symbolically perfectly logical that something representing death should function as a visual barrier. The same barrier continues to be in play when Cole soon tries to run away from Malcolm, who chases after the boy, each on their own side of the barrier.

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There is also a memorial stone in the green area and its inscription plate connects back to the framed citation for excellence that Malcolm had received in the prologue. The memorial stone becomes a symbolic gravestone for Malcolm, reinforced by the ghost-connecting door right above it.
start citation 2
As we see, the “gravestone” finds its natural place in the barrier between Malcolm and Cole. Also, by opening a door, Cole connects back to Anna opening the cellar door in the film’s opening seconds. (And both are opening a door to an area where there, respectively, might be and definitely is a ghost.)

The three endings

“Observe: The magic penny. Looks like an ordinary penny. But I do my little magic shake, and… now it’s in my right hand. But that’s not the end of the magic trick. I do another little shake, and… [it’s] right there in the vest pocket. But that’s not the end of the magic trick. I do another little shake…and… [it’s] right back in the left hand where it started.”

After Cole’s confrontation with his teacher, “Stuttering” Stanley, Malcolm tries to lighten his mood by performing a silly magic trick. Malcolm’s monologue, quoted above, could serve as Shyamalan’s credo as regards his trademark plot twists. They are not always limited to one per movie, at the end. In The Sixth Sense there are three major events which send the film careening in a different direction: Vincent Gray shooting Malcolm at the latter’s night of celebration; Cole confiding in Malcolm that he is seeing ghosts; Malcolm realising he is a ghost himself. The two latter are genuine twists, redefining what we have seen before.

Even more fittingly, Malcolm’s speech could be applied to the three different endings of The Sixth Sense. Its last three scenes – Cole and Malcolm bidding farewell after Cole has made decisive progress; Cole finally telling his mother, too, that he is seeing ghosts, resolving their difficulties; The dead Malcolm reassuring his wife that she was “never second”, thereby giving them both peace – all three scenes are marked by finality, redemption, resolution, closure. And the last scene is indeed “right back in the left hand where it started”, since it is inextricably intertwined with the very beginning of the film.

It is not that difficult to imagine the film ending after both the first and second of these scenes. But it is “not the end of the magic trick”. Furthermore, the tonality of the endings is very different. It is almost as if Shyamalan has set out to demonstrate various ways of ending a movie. The first one is the typical Hollywood ending: the two protagonists part ways, both smiling and happy, without any disturbing undercurrent except for a standard “smiling through tears” device – their decision to pretend they will meet again tomorrow. There is also the standard device of repeating a previous phrase, but with a new and humorous twist to provide the audience an easy way of appreciating how much the characters have changed: “I thought Tommy Tammisimo sucked big time.” Finally, this is the only moment in the film where the music verges on the saccharine.

It is not that Shyamalan has set out to make a bad scene – it works fine in its way – but there is a certain glibness and predictability almost not worthy of a film like The Sixth Sense. It is almost as if Shyamalan is saying to the audience: “Well, that is the type of ending you usually get in a mainstream Hollywood film, but now I am going to show you the real thing.” So we get the scene in the car, quivering with absolutely truthful, raw emotional power. With the audience still reeling, the mood yet again changes abruptly – “that was the emotional ending, now for the intellectual one.” After a quiet start, the viewer is soon subjected to a rush of information that has to be pieced together quickly, while we, as bewildered as Malcolm, are trying to cope with the rapidly piling up of evidence that Malcolm has been a ghost all along.

So there is a crescendo of plot connections to be made. There is also a cascade of redemptions, resolutions and closures. All the while, as the three endings grow progressively longer and more complex, there are an unusually large number of motifs, phrases and situations from earlier stages of the film that will reappear, something that adds even more to the general sense of coherence and finality.

Those reappearances will be dealt with as we discuss each ending on an individual basis. Let us now talk about redemptions and resolutions. During the dinner scene Cole’s mother utters another line that can be said to be emblematic for the whole film:

“I mean, I’ve been praying, but I must not be praying right. Looks like we’re just gonna have to answer each other’s prayers.”

This is exactly what happens during the three endings, where the characters are virtually lining up to help resolve each other’s guilt and problems.

  • In the first ending, Cole and Malcolm provide important advice to enable each other to be instrumental in this process. Cole tells Malcolm that he may be able to communicate with his wife by talking to her while she sleeps. Malcolm encourages Cole to come clean with his mother about his ability to see ghosts.
  • In the second ending, the resolutions start. All four characters of the film’s two difficult relationships will end up co-operating in resolving each other. When Cole tells Lynn about the ghosts, her honesty when saying that she would never think of him as a freak, encourages him to say that he has been in contact with the ghost of his grandmother. The message he relays from her that she is proud of her daughter Lynn “every day”, resolves Lynn’s lack of self-belief and probably also guilt over having had a difficult relationship with her mother. In the end, Cole and his mother join in an embrace one feels will wholly resolve their difficult relationship.
  • In the third ending, Malcolm frees Anna from her depression by telling her in her sleep that “You were never second,” and also by giving her an opportunity to say a proper farewell. Anna herself has played a part in Malcolm’s resolution (and consequently her own) by dropping the ring, setting in motion Malcolm’s gradual realisation that he is a ghost.

So all four major characters are given the opportunity to move on to a new, improved plane, and everyone has helped. This is already a pretty solid foundation of unity and coherence, but there is more.

  • Through Cole’s action of delivering the videotape evidence about her murder, Kyra is set free from her ghostly existence. (Cole confirms to her little sister, who has probably seen Kyra’s ghost too, that she will never come back.)
  • One must assume that Cole’s grandmother is also set free, after he has delivered her message of pride to his mother.
  • Kyra’s ghost has helped set Cole free by appearing in his house, his first step of coming to terms with his powers.
  • Malcolm has also helped set Cole free by discovering the key idea, “They just want help, even the scary ones. I think I might know a way to make them go away…. Listen to them.” At the same time, helping Cole was a necessary step for Malcolm to be freed himself.
  • The ghosts of Kyra and Cole’s grandmother would themselves never have been freed without their own actions, which at the same time help others.

Everybody is interconnected, in a vast web of closure and mutually beneficial co-operation. One could even say that Kyra’s father has been helped, however brutally, by the opening of his eyes to the murderous nature of his wife, something that frees him from the illusion that his daughter died of an incurable illness. Not to speak of Kyra’s little sister, who seemed next in line for murder.

So there is a strong feeling of thematic unity in The Sixth Sense. Let us briefly consider some other contributing factors. All of the four main characters have something in common: they strongly miss another person.

  • Malcolm misses his wife.
  • Anna misses his dead husband Malcolm.
  • Cole misses his father.
  • Cole’s mother Lynn misses her own mother.

Sleep is also important. All three main characters who are living beings are helped to sleep, or calmed during their sleep, by others.

  • Malcolm is staying by the hospital bed until Cole falls asleep.
  • Malcolm is also calming Anna’s distressed sleep in the third ending.
  • Cole is calming his mother during her nightmare about Cole being hurt. This last event is especially important, since it comes directly before the appearance of Kyra’s ghost. The fact that he was able to soothe his tormented mother seems to inspire him to overcome his fear of the ghosts, so that he can start listening to what they want.

The doors of the ghost world and the lamps of loneliness

Before delving into the endings, it might be fruitful as preparation to have a brief look at two strands of symbols/motifs, namely doors and light sources. As we saw earlier, an indicator of their importance is that a light bulb and the opening of a door are the first objects we respectively see and hear in the opening scene, and heavily connected because the door is opened exactly when the light bulb is at its brightest. Remember also that Anna was shown with the light bulb beside her for most of the second shot, and Vincent’s line to her, “Do you know why you’re afraid when you’re alone?”, is one of the many things that connect loneliness to light sources.

There are two slide shows about doors. The first one shows examples of how doors are connected with ghosts. Fittingly, the first ghost appearance in earnest, the furious suicide victim in the kitchen (spitting out, “No, dinner is NOT ready!!”) is setting the stage: in a 24-shot scene, where except for two establishing shots, a close-up of a thermostat and some character close-ups, all shots have doors and doorways in them. Shyamalan even contrives to include doors in the long shot of the ghost in the kitchen, because her favourite thing is opening doors of closets and cupboards. The second show is about Malcolm’s connection with doors. (It is placed below the discussion of lamps to avoid the visual distraction of two slide slows running simultaneously.)

Now for a look at some lamps. Four of the five example shots follow each other closely during the same sequence, the succession underlining the lamp motif. In the first example Malcolm is coming home. Further down the street, on a landing similar to the one Malcolm will use to enter his house, there is a couple embracing. Considering this being a film set and Shyamalan’s track record of using backgrounds, they are intentionally put there for a purpose, probably to mildly accentuate Malcolm’s ruined relationship to Anna.

lamp 1
There are two lights from street lamps very close to them in the shot – please click to enlarge – but at Malcolm’s level in the image, there is but one lamp.
lamp 2
Ghosts are often associated with repetitive behaviour, and Malcolm seems to haunt his own house. For twice in the film, like a ritual, we see him enter, shot from the exact same camera placement, the scenes always ending with him struggling with the cellar door. Both times, he is met with a lonely lamp…
lamp 2a
…this time, he passes through the kitchen, also with a single lamp…
lamp 3
…whose placement in the frame echoes this poetic image. Here both Malcolm and Anna, across the barrier of death, are very lonely.
lamp 4
During the next occurrence of the homecoming ritual, their wedding video is running on the TV set. All the time he is watching it, the lamp is carefully included in the shot. When he sees their kiss on the video, he gets the idea of going upstairs, where Anna is in the shower. In a discreetly poetic touch, when he is turning his head to get up, visually it looks like he wants to join the lamp.

We end this small survey with some shots of Malcolm and doors. His door business is mostly to do with the door to the house and the cellar door. (When we see him entering in the lamp shot above, he is only coming out of the door – we almost never see him go all the way through doorways in the film, possibly to avoid connecting him to closely with the other ghosts, protecting the twist.)

The first ending: “I’ll see you tomorrow”

Here Cole and Malcolm bid each other farewell, right after the boy’s triumphant starring role in the school theatre production of “Young King Arthur”, and the exquisite humiliation of the detestable Tommy Tammisimo, relegated to the role of the village idiot. (In fact, that scene contains yet another ending, the end of the play.) We have already mentioned several aspects of the scene, for example their important advice to each other. To expand a bit on their conceit pretending they will meet again tomorrow, this is probably a wistful reference to Cole’s own, absent father, whom Malcolm has come to replace as a father figure. One of many indicators of this is that like Cole clings on to left-behind items of his father – for example glasses, gloves, a watch; even his all-important red tent uses golf clubs as tent poles – Cole adopts Malcolm’s phony magic trick, which he shows to his sullen classmate during the birthday party. The situation gets added resonance due to the fact that The Sixth Sense was shot in sequence (on Shyamalan’s insistence), so this is the last scene where Osment and Willis acted together.

The scene is short (110 seconds) and quite simple. The heavy lifting of finality-creating references to previous stages of the film has not quite started yet, and in this aspect the scene is about par for mainstream films. But there are a few things worth mentioning. Cole’s sudden elevation to stardom – which amusingly reflects Shyamalan’s own trajectory after this film – forms a gentle closure to the daydreaming game Cole used to play with his mother: “I was picked first for kick ball teams at recess. I hit a grand slam to win the game. Everybody lifted me upon their shoulders and carried me around, cheering.” The last part became literally true.

At the end of scene they only nod knowingly to each other, having achieved total understanding. They have traveled far since the total failure of the mind-reading game.

end 1a
Visually, the establishing shot connects to the arc motif.
end 1b
Through the whole scene, Cole is shot against the ancient-looking ornamented window and Malcolm against a “modern” background. Cole is often connected to a motif of ancientness/modernity, where he is not seldom representing something that spans the gulf. Here he is still in his costume from the play with an Arthurian setting, and still brandishing his sword, but is also wearing his modern jacket.

The second ending: “Grandma says hi”

Here Cole finally tells Lynn about his ability to see ghosts and finds an irresistible way to convince her. This is easily the film’s most moving scene, in large part due to Toni Collette‘s brilliant, heart-wrenchingly honest performance. (It was precisely this scene that convinced her to take the role and similar to the previous scene, the last scene shot between them.) But, as in the dinner scene, one still marvels at 10-year-old Osment’s ability to flawlessly participate in long takes, like in the end segment of the first shot here.

The scene is governed by two personal journeys. Armed with his new-found confidence and insights into the ghost world, Cole is now relentlessly pursuing his goal of being completely honest with his mother. Lynn’s journey is longer and much more tumultuous. In the car she starts out sounding rather complacent, almost smug. For even with all the verve and warmth with which her character is painted, there is still a faint air of neglect, or maybe just denial, about her relationship to Cole. She does not seem to think twice about Cole’s many scratches and, even though her stress is understandable, ends up scolding him at the dinner table, an irritation one feels is initially awakened by Cole using her ex-husband’s gloves at the table. In addition, she somehow perpetuates her own mother’s refusal to attend Lynn’s dance recital as a child. Her tone is so disinterested that one even doubts she really means it, when she says she would have given “anything to have been there” when they talk about her absence.

ending 2 complacency
Just another boring day, it seems. There are portents of change, however. We have never seen her with this big red sweater, and we all know what the colour red connotes in this film.
development montage
Toni Collette’s finest acting hour? Another signal of change: her usual red nail polish is changed, but her nails and hands are used as expressively as always.

At the end of the scene though, we suddenly realise that many of her own problems spring from a lack of approval from her dead mother. This insight strikes the viewer like a hammer blow, and Collette’s performance is so spontaneous and unforced that one is filled with fresh wonderment that human beings think these things are so important. The scene is given an especially resonant tenor by the fleeting appearance of the traffic victim’s ghost outside the car window. Another brilliant idea, lending freshness and immediacy to the scene, is the fact that Cole’s communication from his grandmother is meaningless to him, and us, until the very end of scene, because he does not know the question that his grandmother is replying to.

The scene’s direct emotional resonance is augmented by a considerable number of references to previous scenes, conjuring up more or less conscious emotions and ideas from the viewer’s memory. Many of the links are in the dialogue. This article, however, is supposed to lean heavily on visuals. And, although there are less obvious nuances, these links are rather clear – of the “Tommy Tammisimo sucked big time” type, intended to be consciously noticed. Nonetheless, for the sake of completeness the dialogue links are given in this addendum.

On the other hand, it is somewhat surprising that this intimate scene should connect back to the film’s most flamboyant situation, the “Stuttering Stanley” scene: both are dealing with a grown-up character’s childhood trauma, about which Cole has “supernatural” knowledge, and where an initial shock is replaced by healing, at least to some degree. After all, later in the film Stanley has become quite friendly with Cole and could even replace Malcolm as a father figure.
ghost 1
The next example is not an outright reference, but a similarity in strategy. At the end of the initial long take, Cole tells Lynn that he knows the traffic victim is dead and that she is “standing next to my window”.
ghost 2b
There is an abrupt cut, even more so since the previous shot was so long and stable. The new camera position makes us feel – because we have learned to trust Cole’s expertise in these matters – that the ghost is standing right behind us. Lynn even looks up briefly, almost straight at the camera, and the ghost. This feels uneasy, it is almost as if we are sharing the ghost’s position and point-of-view…
ghost 3
A new cut, to the ghost. She even seems to gaze directly at Lynn, as if daring her to disbelieve Cole’s story. (Shyamalan had really no other choice than to use the intermediate cut to Lynn, because moving the camera in the initial shot to reveal the ghost would have robbed us of its exquisitely startling appearance. But the cut provided an additional chilling effect).
ghost 4
A similar effect was earlier achieved in this shot (by the way, note the little joke in that the sports scoring board beneath the ghosts says “visitors”, and also that they hang in a formation reminiscent of a winner’s rostrum)…
ghost 5
… but the effect is here even more chilling, because the camera placement much more forcefully places us with the ghosts behind our back, and again, to a degree, sharing the dead’s point-of-view. Some of the same queasiness is created in a similar way in the film’s fourth shot, where we get the impression that there might be ghosts behind us, in the open door. (Incidentally, this is the only time before the third ending that Malcolm is perfectly framed in a doorway.)
ghost 6
Back to the initial shot. We see a large building in the background that is the Shiloh Baptist Church. There is a red door in it (and another red one in the larger entrance a bit further away). The red is of course announcing the impending appearance of the traffic victim, but more subtly, the red door connects to the door of the church where Cole used to seek refuge. It is a measure of his growth that he is now outside such a church, in no need of shelter any more. Also, the shape of the door connects to the arc motif.
ghost 7
This is another very subtle item. In the background of every shot of Lynn, radiating on a subliminal level, there has been a door in the building opposite. The connection to ghosts is obvious by now, but this seems more specific…
ghost 8
…since its colour is quite similar to this one, which dominates Kyra’s bedroom and the rest of her family’s house (conveniently, there is a door in this shot too)…
ghost 9
… and the colour of Kyra’s gown is even more similar. That the door should directly connect to Kyra is only logical, since she was instrumental, as mentioned in the text segment, in the chain of events…
ghost 9a
…leading to this embrace. It is almost as if Kyra is watching over them, recognising that Lynn is far from the abusive “bad mother” Dr. Hill suspected her to be, but the “good mother” compared to her own utterly evil one…
ghost 9b
… their embrace of course connects back to the scene where they made up after the dinner quarrel. Here there seems to be a case of intertwined mutuality, however. While Lynn comforted him here, in the car it is Cole who comforts her. Another nice touch is that while Lynn wanted to help Cole in her nightmare – in that scene, too, Cole comforted her – Cole will end up helping her in real life, in the second ending.

The third ending: “You were never second”

To avoid interrupting the flow of the story, I have chosen also to include images that do not have any particular interpretative value nor any need for explanation.Unless otherwise noted, the analysis contains frame grabs of all the shots. Only pertinent dialogue has been included.

end 1
We have seen the door to Malcolm’s house many times, from several angles, but this is radically different, radiating upcoming change and strangeness. The only time we have seen Malcolm himself from above before, is when he lies bleeding in the last shot of the prologue. This signals that we are about to return to the film’s beginnings as well as to a life-or-death situation. The shot starts with an empty street, which deliberately slows the pace of the film, but also signals emptiness as in death…
end 2
…Malcolm enters the shot. Note that the shadows from the thick post and the others objects fall at different angles. This physical impossibility, too, implies the strangeness to come. The long shadows also recall those in the last shot of Kyra’s post-funeral sequence (see the third article), calling up sadness, mourning and death…
end 3
…look how two of the shadows fit virtually exactly with the sides of the door, as if leading Malcolm on. Although heavily connected with doors, except for the scene where he enters the bathroom to watch Anna shower, we have never actually seen him enter one before now.
end 4
His third homecoming, but this angle is also totally new. The emptiness at the start of the shot is for the same reasons as in the street shot, in addition to creating a rhythmic, visual echo. The shots are chains in a procession towards an inescapable fate…
end 5
…Malcolm enters, catching sight of something in the living-room. We can only see something red in the corner, but what we can see, due to the new angle, is that there is not only one, but in fact two lamps by the entrance. (Highly appropriate for this film, the second lamp was formerly hidden by a door.) The earlier loneliness of the single lamps will eventually be replaced by emotional peace and mutual understanding…
end 6
…Malcolm comes further into the living room, as the camera can begin to reveal another new item, that there is an arch (also framed) above the doorway. Both the fact that it joins the many other arch-shaped objects in the film and its participation in the presently on-going process of revealing a more complete picture of the house, echo the coming coherence and understanding Malcolm will get about his own status…
end 7
…Anna has fallen asleep watching their wedding video, an item that seems to have become an obsession with her. The red blanket refers back to the earlier scene where she also was asleep when Malcolm came home, and helps call forth the same sadness and inability to communicate. The color is very similar to Lynn’s sweater in the previous scene and signals that Anna’s most profound problems, too, soon will be resolved…
end 8
…now we see that the shot connects Anna closely with lamp, like in that earlier scene, even more solidly grounding the situation in their fundamental problems. But there is a small difference, a potential for change, in that the lamp is reflected in the mirror, and it is possible to interpret that reflection as representing Malcolm. Cole talked to her mother in her sleep, and Malcolm now follows Cole’s advice.

We will leave out the next eight shots, which go back and forth between the two, during which the following conversation takes place:
Malcolm: Anna?
Anna (after a long pause): I miss you.
Malcolm: I miss you too.
Anna: Why, Malcolm?
Malcolm: What? What is it?
Anna: Why did you leave me?
Malcolm: I didn’t leave you.

end 9
This answer seems to agitate Anna. As if gripped by an urge to communicate, Anna starts to move her hand, which has been clutched around something all through the scene…
end 10
… she starts to open it…
end 11
… something falls out, announcing itself initially with a strange sound – Shyamalan’s usual holding back of information to raise expectations – before it comes rolling from under the chair…
end 12
…it is a ring…
end 13
… a jump cut for dramatic effect…
(ANALYSIS FLASHBACK: the ring connects back to the “magic penny” that Cole pushes towards Malcolm on a table in an earlier scene: the size of the coin, the wooden surface, the circular shape, its direction and movement (but sliding instead of rolling), the finger touching the coin – all these elements act in concert to form the connection. Curiously enough, while great pains were taken all through the film to hide the fact that Malcolm had no ring, in the “magic trick” scene where the penny first appears, no such attempt is made. Granted, the trick itself provides misdirection, but this omission links ring and coin in a peculiar, indirect way, as if to subtly emphasise the “magical” nature of Anna now dropping the ring.)
end 14
…Malcolm is confused. How did she manage to lose her ring all of a sudden…?
end 15
Anna has now stretched out her hand, as if to show him that she still has the ring…
end 16
…but there is no ring on his own hand…! This is the film’s “Vertigo” moment, where a sudden sight of something – Scottie looking at the vertiginous hair spiral on the back of Judy’s head – sets in motion a torrent of memories and insights. Anna’s ring, as it goes out of focus, is transformed into a large blob of light, as if mocking him. (Cole enters in ghostly voice-over, after a long sigh: “I see people.” Note that the original line is changed, “dead” omitted to help create a more gradual understanding,)
end 17
… Malcolm can’t believe his eyes…
end 18
… he looks back at Anna…
end 19
…but sees only a flashback of Cole, like Anna losing the ring, in his own way tried to tell him something… (Cole: They don’t know they’re dead.)
end 20
…note how perfect the direction of glances fit the editing, both in the actual situation and to smoothly integrate the flashbacks. Here he is “looking down” at Cole in his hospital bed…
end 21
…he gets up while Anne is totally oblivious to the turmoil…
end 22
…he looks away, in the direction of the entrance door… (Malcolm: How often do you see them? Cole: All the time.)
end 23
…the direction towards the door fitting perfectly with this new short flashback…
end 24
…now Malcolm has moved into the entrance. Now we see for the first time there is another door inside the outside door, the doubling of doors perhaps suggesting that his full realisation that he is a ghost is near… (Cole: They’re everywhere.)
end 25
… he looks in another direction…
end 26
…into the kitchen (by the way, note the arc-shaped backs of the chairs)…
end 27
…now he realises that what he saw during his first homecoming as food set out for him, was in fact her own half-eaten meal. The red napkin connects the meal to the restaurant meal, where she said “happy anniversary” to the napkin. This could in fact be a napkin from that restaurant – or the napkin seen with the take-away food the night Malcolm was shot – an item of obsession like the ring and the wedding video…
end 28
…Malcolm is now looking into the restaurant flashback… (Cole: They only see what they want to see.)
end 29
…where he now understands that Anna never noticed him…
end 30
…the ghostly intersecting of hands, where the film music, just for this flashback, weaves in two deliciously chilling occurrences of “The Devil’s Note“…
end 31
… and again she is connected with a lamp. The red and yellow flowers match the autumnal leaves outside the couple’s broken bedroom window, the flowers in the antique shop when Anna gives Sean a present, and other flowers in the film. And I won’t even mention her red dress…
end 32
…the standing Malcolm’s angle of looking is now adjusted downwards, as if he is looking down at Anna at the table…
end 33
…then he becomes aware of a voice…
end 34
…it is from the wedding video, whose sound has been suppressed for a while. It is Malcolm speaking, beckoning to his ghost and saluting him with the glass. To me, this moment always sets off associations to the epilogue of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There a shocked hero at the end of a film also receives fantastic insights in a place where time and space seems to have broken down, and gets his attention drawn by a sound (fallen cutlery), which turns out to be caused by another version of himself, whose dinner could be connected to our restaurant scene immediately before…
end 35
…now he is looking in the direction of the cellar door…
end 36
…flashback to him struggling to open the door…
end 37
… the following reality adjustment seems to hit him hardest of them all, perhaps because the cellar was his office when working on Cole’s case, his reason to exist…
end 38
…(by the way, note the careful consistency of showing Anna in the far background) we see the door at about the height we have seen it when he has tried to open it…
end 39
…but now it is revealed it has actually been blocked all the time. Remember that both times he tried to open it before and reached for a key in his pocket, we never saw him open and enter through it…
end 40
…his legs giving away under him, he rests against the wall, his emotions in deep upheaval…
end 41
…then he notices something about Anna…
end 42
…in a superbly chilling and transcendent moment, we see that her breath is frosty. This has twice happened to Cole when in proximity to ghosts in emotional upheaval (the furious suicide case in the kitchen and Kyra in his tent). This makes the icy breath one of the thrice-occurring elements in the film…
end 43
…things are just piling up for Malcolm. There is no escaping the conclusion…
end 44
…the camera tracks out, as his face is distorted in the painful realisation that he is a ghost…
end 45
…but in a brilliant coup de théâtre, pulled off due to the virtually identical patterns on the wallpaper and the pillow, the emotional pain is transformed into a physical one, as the camera is in reality rising from the bed where he lies shot…
end 46
…about here, we join the shot from the prologue…
end 47
…as if the realisation that he is a ghost has caused him to lose his mooring in time and space…
end 48
…Anna wants to examine the wound…
end 49
…a helpless spectator, as if to a film of his own death with which he is unable to intervene, he can only despair…
end 50
…back in the prologue, a bullet hole in his stomach is revealed…
end 51
…he weeps, but it is almost as if the tears are coming across time from his own ghost…
end 52
…brilliant acting by Bruce Willis, with a face that already resembles a death mask…
end 53
…the ghost checks that he too has a bullet hole (this is the reason he was clutching his stomach when he stormed away from the antique shop – which fits symbolically, since Anna’s suitor was an intruder in his life, like Vincent Grey)…
end 54
…Anna is discovering something really bad…
end 55
… blood streaming out of Malcolm’s lower back…
end 56
…Anna is very worried…
end 59
….and turns him over to reveal a terrible-looking exit wound…
end 60
…with an almost trance-like movement, like a puppet with no will of his own, his ghost repeats the same movement…
end 62
…with the same preordained result. Like the other ghosts, he walks around with the wound that killed him…
end 63
…some great acting by Olivia Williams as well…
end 64
… with a tremendously expressive face…
end 65
…note that the iconic wedding ring is here prominently placed, lending extra resonance. In a death scene that strikes me as very realistic, Malcolm says: “I think I’m okay. Really, I think it just went – went in and out. It doesn’t even hurt anymore.”
end 68 with curtain
Then he dies. In yet another example of Shyamalan’s care in staging, discreetly in the background, in the upper left part, we see the curtain move in the wind from the window, as if the film is waving goodbye to Malcolm. A very delicate idea, but also highly logical, since the reason that the wind is coming in at all, is that the window was broken by Vincent Grey when he entered – a poetic-ironic link between murderer and victim.
end 69
It is over. There is a heavy, dying breath on the soundtrack, as we witness a lyrical image of yearning and insurmountable exclusion. Expanding on the device when everything starts to come together for Malcolm about Cole’s case – see the first article – this is the film’s most coherent view of the interior, in reflection of Malcolm’s now complete understanding. We see him perfectly framed in a doorway, for only the second time in the film. The first one was in the hanged-ghosts scene (see shot in the second ending chapter) where it was emphasised that Malcolm could not see the ghosts. But here the framing firmly underlines his status as a ghost and his new understanding. For the first time, both doors to the corridor are open, adding to the feeling of clarity. As if trapped in the prologue, the only real life he had in the film, we see him close to the, by now, almost iconic cellar door and bedroom staircase. Anna is reconnected to the lamp of loneliness, but it is more distant, like an afterthought, and the former negativity of that symbol is now alleviated by the two lights each side of Malcolm, their symmetry suggesting he is starting to reconcile himself to the situation. (On some level, the strong foregrounding of Anna here and the fact that she sleeps through the whole scene, makes it almost look as if she is dreaming everything since the prologue.)
end 70
In the previous shot, there was a resurface of the short lullaby theme when Cole comforted his sleeping mother, but now it plays in much expanded form, and continuing for the rest of the scene. As Malcolm is calming down, Anna’s icy breath is much less marked – now only fuelled by his sadness – and will soon disappear.
end 71
In a film that otherwise is quite careful about recording the characters’ movements, there is a cut to him suddenly sitting by her side, as if he has accepted his ghostly nature and has stopped moving as a living person.
end 72b
While the camera softly tracks in, Malcolm says, “I think
I can go now. I just needed to do a couple things. I needed to help someone. I think I did. And I needed to tell you something. You were never second. Ever.”
end 73b
Like Lynn got confirmation that she was indeed greatly loved by her own mother, Anna now gets a reassurance of her own.
end 74
As Malcolm says, “I love you”, she clenches her eyes and mouth in immense relief…
end 75
…after which she almost opens her eyes, and seems to want to declare her own love. Shyamalan wisely leaves it at that to avoid the danger of cliché.
end 76b
“You sleep now. Everything will be different in the morning.” The first sentence is exactly what Cole said to his mother after he had calmed her. The second sentence, besides the obvious that her depression will end, connects to Malcolm pretending that “I’ll see you tomorrow, Cole.” that concludes the first ending, and the film’s many morning scenes (which all start by shots of statues in Philadelphia).
end 77
“Good night, Malcolm.” This connects to, but in great contrast, to her bitter “happy anniversary” in the restaurant scene. There is a delicate, almost imperceptible whiff of frost on her breath as she says this (impossible to catch on the frame grab).
end 78
She smiles happily.
end 79
“Good night, sweetheart.” Another closure, since this is what they would have said to each other had Malcolm survived that fatal evening.
end 80
No more unfinished business left, he closes his eyes as if joining her sleep…
end 81
… starts to fade away into whiteness – commonly connected with death, but since Anna has been closely connected with lamps, one can also say that he is surrendering to her light…
end 82
…then he disappears into the whiteness…
end 83
…but the magic trick is not over just yet, because out of that same whiteness emerges a coda, a fleeting moment from the wedding video. Representing a love that lives eternal in this whiteness? Commenting on the fleeting nature of happiness? The ghost’s last memory before obliteration, somehow escaping the white? The video connects back to the scene when Malcolm arrived home when this video was playing, where he witnessed this exact scene…
end 84
…Malcolm is dead, but the video recording is left behind in which he will live on, in fact in his happiest moment. They kiss delicately but passionately…
end 85
… and then start to fade away…
end 86
…into the same darkness at the start of the film, before the lamp in the cellar was lit, illuminating the story of the film…
end title
…out of that same darkness now comes this announcement.

But there is more coherence, completeness and closure. Incidentally, one form of completeness arises out of the formal device of the fades we just saw, because the film fades away both into whiteness and darkness, and what can be more complete than that?

end video bordered more
Light and darkness, tears and poison: There are two videotapes in the film, spanning the extremes of life – the bliss of a wedding, where the bridesmaid cries from happiness; and a mother who poisons her own child. Like Malcolm and Anna’s kiss will live forever, so will the murder of Kyra. There is also another tape connection between Malcolm and Kyra’s father, in that both achieve all-important understanding as a result of information on a tape featuring dead people (in Malcolm ‘s case: Vincent Grey).
end eyes
Malcolm dies with eyes and mouth open – as if symbolising the unfinished business that made him a ghost – but at the end, both are closed. It is as if the film have closed his eyes, as we do in real life with the eyes of the deceased.
end kiss
A kiss reflected in the citation, framed as the wedding video later will be by the TV set, placed in the same chair where Anna will fall asleep watching the video.
end kiss 3
After having seen the video himself, when he goes to see her, there are only reflections, frames, loneliness, an insurmountable barrier.
antique shop 1
The ring? In the antique shop scene, apparently rather disconnected from the rest of the film, Anna is telling the Indian couple, “I imagine that the woman who owned it loved a man that she couldn’t be with…. I think maybe when people own things and then they pass away, a part of themselves gets printed on those things, like… like fingerprints.” When the female customer earlier accused the man of not appreciating her enough, Anna seemed to fade away into thought, recognising her own situation of feeling “second” when Malcolm was alive. There are so many distracting elements in this scene – Shyamalan using misdirection? – that it is easy to overlook its thematic importance.
antique shop 2
The final connection to be made: a shot that clearly links the Blue Sapphire she wraps up with her own wedding ring, visually marking that she got the idea of using Malcolm’s ring from this episode. Did really a residue of Malcolm stay with that ring, and was it this that drove her to drop it?

The musicologist Richard Middleton describes form (quoted from Wikipedia):

…through repetition and difference: difference is the distance moved from a repeat; a repeat being the smallest difference. Difference is quantitative and qualitative; how far different and what type of difference. According to Middleton, musical form is “the shape or structure of the work.” In many cases, form depends on statement and restatement, unity and variety, contrast and connection.

M. Night Shyamalan has orchestrated The Sixth Sense with a definite sense of musicality. This analysis has attempted to capture “the story behind the story”, how elements of a more covert nature tell a parallel version of the story of these characters. Forming a supporting structure for the overt narrative, they affect the audience on an unconscious level, at a depth that traditional storytelling alone may be unable to reach.



Addendum: Dialogue links in the second ending

We are here going to briefly discuss the many references in dialogue in the second ending to the rest of the film. The most direct link, of course, points back to the similar “I see dead people” scene. Cole says to Lynn “I’m ready to communicate with you now,” which invokes the line “I wanna tell you my secret now,” in the first scene, but the much more grown-up phrasing speaks volumes about Cole’s development. Cole follows up with “Tell you my secrets,” linking even more strongly to the previous scene and also to the film’s important word “secrets”. (“Communicate” also links to Malcolm’s wife’s explanation to the Indian couple in the antique shop about the sapphire ring, as if Cole is like a medium that can pass on things, like the ring.) In both scenes, it is notable that the tone of Malcolm and Lynn’s questioning of Cole is quite similar.

Cole says, “What are you thinking, Mama? You think I’m a freak?” “Freak” is another important word, and the thing he has been most afraid of is that Lynn would look at him the same way as his taunting schoolmates. Vincent Grey, too, describes himself as a freak (subconsciously triggered by Malcolm guessing that Vincent may be called Ben Friedkin).

Ready to communicate
Cole getting ready to communicate.

Lynn answers, “Look at my face. I would never think that about you. Ever. Got it? Cole: “Got it”. This connects directly back to two other situations:

  • The breakfast scene: Cole: “Well, what are you thinking, Mama?” Lynn: “Lots of things.” Cole: “Anything bad about me?” Lynn: Hey, look at my face. I was not thinking something bad about you. Got it?” Cole: “Got it.”
  • The scene after the dinner quarrel: Cole: “If you’re not very mad, can I sleep in your bed tonight?” Lynn: “Look at my face. I’m not very mad.”

“Think” is another important word. After Lynn has confirmed his belief in Cole, she seems to falter in the face of the supernatural and ghastly nature of Cole’s problem. She says, “Just let me think for a minute.” By its very similar wording, this seems intended to directly reference the scene where a confused Malcolm tries to recollect who Vince Gray is, when he says “Just give me a minute to think.”

“Think” in the meaning of guessing other people’s motives and inner thoughts, is also important. The whole mind-reading game between Malcolm and Cole is centred around it, accentuated by Cole’s piercing question at the end: “What am I thinking now?”. Other instances:

  • Lynn to the suspicious doctor: “You think I hurt my child? You think I’m a bad mother?”
  • Malcolm to Cole: “You think I’m sad? What makes you think that?”

Incidentally, the breakfast scene contains an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). Cole’s line to his mother, “Well, what are you thinking, Mama?”, is very similar to Marnie’s “Hmm. What are you thinking now, Mama?”. Both scenes are early in the films, introducing the mother, take place in a kitchen, between a mother (standing) and her offspring (sitting at the table), in families without a father and with great communication problems. In both scenes the question has to do with the mother’s judgement on problematic behaviour. (When first seen in the films, both Marnie and Cole are carrying a bag.) That The Sixth Sense should reference this famous predecessor is not that strange, since the colour red is of utmost importance in both works.


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