WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD
That The Sixth Sense became the phenomenon it did is perhaps less to do with its inherent qualities as a ghost story than the slyly worked "shock" ending being traded off at dinner parties the world over.
Indeed, it drew countless back to the cinema for reappraisal, just to see how they were hoodwinked so easily. The real trick, however, was to deliver such an emotionally complex story in the guise of a horror movie. In fact, nothing in the film was ever what you expected. M. Night Shyamalan, an Indian born but Philadelphia grown director who stems from a family of doctors, has a rather morbid fascination with linking children, spirituality and the paranormal. His first film, the ineffective Wide Awake (1998), studies a young Catholic boy trying to prove the existence of God after his grandfather dies. In The Sixth Sense, his device is more poignant and direct, a ghost story about emotional loss and unresolved differences — in which a boy is the cipher to the needs of the recently departed. A traumatic experience at its mildest, so child psychologist (and, yes, recently deceased) Malcolm Crowe (Willis) comes to his rescue and, in turn, his own.
As is oft the case, watching The Sixth Sense knowing that Willis is a ghost, opens the film up to a different perspective. A game of totting up all the pointers — most of which seem pretty blatant back to front — and just how skilled Shyamalan is at throwing us off the scent. The creative team devised a set of rules in which the film would operate while sustaining the shock of the denouement. Whenever the colour red appears it is a sign of something tainted by the dead; the steaming of breath in the presence of ghosts implys a strong negative emotional undercurrent (thus explaining why Willis' benign therapist doesn't elicit any); and the fact that Crowe can only add clothes to the look he was wearing the night he was killed.
Of course, this does not answer all questions: the fact that ghosts do not know they're ghosts would suggest a degree of personal confusion on their behalf — like why can I only talk to this pint-sized know all? Why do I not sleep or eat? Willis' expert performance, every inch of him understated, is vital in concealing the truth. He is soft and humane, suggesting psychological details with small gestures and an almost whispering tone (a skill only 12 Monkeys has born witness to before). How could he possibly be thought of as dead? But all the evidence is there.
The film, for its first half at least, is terrifically chilling (once the ghosts have proven benign much of its scariness evaporates). With Osment's ability to project childlike vulnerability without mawkishness or smarm, events play to the heart of a very basic human instinct: protecting a child.
When the ghosts appear, they whisk past the camera, the temperature drops suddenly, filigree hand-prints appear on table tops, building to full scale revelations of seemingly normal apparitions — with the exception of their fatal wounds (a boy turns round to reveal that the back of his head has been blown off). Subtlety is the key throughout, not big ding-dong stingers but evocative trails and hints of the truth, most of them mapped out across Osment's tormented face. Shyamalan's direction is the model of restraint — disquiet and stillness pervade while he expertly utilises sound to enhance the discomforting feeling of something indefinable being present (allowing the audience its own "sixth sense").
The background noise is a symphony of hissing breaths, the score, by James Newton Howard, splices in sonorous markers — such as just discernible evil, snarling voices — to add dramatic impact. Visually the film is elegantly austere, The Silence Of The Lambs (1991) cinematographer Tak Fujimoto shoots in mute, autumnal browns and greys, evoking a funereal gloom cast over the European-style architecture of Philadelphia (ironically, the same setting as 12 Monkeys — this city does Willis a lot of favours).
Osment — whose casting was pivotal — is a true discovery. He has to carry the heart of the movie as well as distract us from paying too much attention to Willis', well, deadness. Especially in the moments of supposed peril (the boy is, in fact, never in serious jeopardy) which he faces alone, the young actor handles the fear and vulnerability of his predicament with an emotional force. One of the film's sweetest nuances is in the expertly realised relationship between Cole and his blue collar mother (Collette) — he feels he cannot explain his predicament to her; in turn she cannot comprehend what is tormenting her son — emphasising Shyamalan's message of reconciliation. We must all just connect before it's too late.
There is an unnerving but emotionally satisfying maturity to The Sixth Sense that makes it so much more than a beautifully worked parlour trick. It's a ghost story about being human.
Since November 8, countless articles have been written about “fake news,” hacking, and new forms of harassment and hate speech. A group of us at Data & Society have been following these conversations with great interest because, over the last several months, we have been tracking the various ways in which old and new media can be used to shape how information flows. Our work and interest in these issues stems from a project that we’ve undertaken to understand Who Controls the Public Sphere in an Age of Algorithms?
Although many people are anxious to understand how much influence old and new media had over the US presidential election, the reality is that we will never know comprehensively. We can, though, seek to understand how different cultural and technical factors are shaping the contemporary information landscape.
To document some of our thinking, we are releasing six pieces that look at different issues that we think are important for trying to make sense of the relationship between technology and current political dynamics in the US.
- In Hacking the Attention Economy, danah boyd describes some of the tactics and strategies that people have taken to manipulate old and new media for fun, profit, and ideology. This essay explores decentralized coordination efforts, contemporary information campaigns, and cultural logics behind gaming the system.
- In What’s Propaganda Got To Do With It? Caroline Jack brings historical context to the use of the term “propaganda,” arguing that the resurgence of this label amid social anxieties over the new media landscape is reflective of deeper cultural and ideological divides.
- Did Media Literacy Backfire? by danah boyd examines how media literacy education efforts to encourage the public to be critical consumers of information may have contributed to widespread distrust in information intermediaries, complicating efforts to understand what is real and what is not.
- In Are There Limits to Online Free Speech?, Alice Marwick explores how the tech industry’s obsession with “free speech” has been repurposed (and newly politicized) by networks whose actions are often seen as supporting of hate speech and harassment.
- Why America is Self-Segregating is danah boyd’s attempt to lay out some of the structural shifts that have taken place in the United States in the last twenty years that have magnified polarization and resulted in new types of de-diversification.
- In How do you deal with a problem like “fake news?” Robyn Caplan looks directly at the challenges that companies face when they seek to address the inaccurate and often problematic content that is spread widely on social media sites.
These six pieces build on a few earlier essays as part of our work on media, accountability, and the public sphere, including:
- Gilad Lotan’s Fake News is Not the Only Problem, which outlines how bias and propaganda are often more damaging than deliberately misleading information.
- Ethan Zuckerman’s Ben Franklin, the Post Office, and the Digital Public Sphere, which explores how information infrastructures have long been wielded to move many kinds of “content.”
Taken together, these pieces begin to shed light on some of the challenging dynamics that we face as we grapple with and imagine what information looks like in a highly networked society. Democracy requires the free flow of information, informed citizens, and accountable media. What happens when the basic infrastructure of information and publics isn’t functioning as people expect and need?