Trying to make 'Sense' of this summer's hottest chiller? Here's the hair-raising truth

By Gillian Flynn
Updated September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

WARNING: Story Contains Key Plot Points

And the secret to The Sixth Sense is … Well, we won’t give it away here. But fair warning: If you haven’t seen it and you don’t want to know what happens, read no further! This piece will dissect all the creepy twists of the supernatural smash.

What we can tell you right now without revealing too much is the business secret behind the Disney flick’s success: It’s the jaw-dropping, now-I-need-to-see-the-film-again ending. ”That’s a very, very important element,” says Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group. ”People are going back to catch all those things you don’t pick up [the first time].” You can say that again. Repeat business, along with great word of mouth, is the reason why Sense has grossed $138.9 million and spent the past four weeks atop the box office.

With that in mind, here’s everything you wanted to know about Sense but were afraid to … well, just plain afraid:

So in hindsight, how well do the pieces of the puzzle fit together?
Remarkably well. Clearly, attention was paid to everything from little details (Bruce Willis never changes his clothes in the film; he wears a sweatshirt at one point, but remember his wife gave that to him just before he … you know) to the carefully choreographed encounters with living people. In the anniversary dinner scene, moviegoers assume Olivia Williams isn’t speaking to Willis because he’s late and, in his words, has ”been distant.” (Now, there’s a clue.) But look again: There’s no real interaction between the two. ”It was a huge technical challenge,” says Williams. ”If I had achieved eye contact with Bruce, it would have killed it completely.” In a similarly smart setup, when Haley Joel Osment comes home to find Willis sitting with his mother (Toni Collette), the audience assumes the adults have been talking. Actually, there’s no discussion. Really. When Collette announces dinner’s in an hour, she’s not planning around the therapy session — it’s because dinner’s in an hour.

Why does Willis have such problems getting into his basement?
He has trouble because his wife has blocked the doorway with a table (Willis’ office is downstairs, and she’s trying to shut out memories of him). But like other ghosts, Willis doesn’t deal with change well, so he can’t understand why the door’s been barricaded — which is why he thickheadedly keeps trying to open it. However, spirits can walk through walls, which is how Willis eventually gets downstairs. Of course, they refuse to acknowledge they’ve broken any physical laws; ghosts conveniently block out things that seem weird in their otherworldly state because, as Sense writer-director M. Night Shyamalan says, they ”can’t accept that they have died.”

Why doesn’t Osment get cold when Willis is around?
The temperature drops only when a ghost gets upset. The only time Willis gets worked up is at the end, which is why Williams’ breath gets frosty.

What’s with all the red? This was a thematic device that becomes apparent on second viewing. As Shyamalan explains, ”Anything that’s tainted from the [ghost] world or has a connection to the other side” is colored red. Hence, all the ruddy objects: the doorknob to the basement, the dress of the murderous mother at the funeral, the box holding the dead girl’s videotape, Osment’s tent, the maniacal stream-of-consciousness scrawl on his desk … Remember when the balloon leads Osment up the winding staircase to the attic, where ghosts slash his sweater? Both the balloon and the sweater are red.

What’s the meaning of the patch of white hair on the side of Osment’s head?
Shyamalan wanted all spirit spotters to share a physical trait. He figured a shock of white would result from the trauma of being a regular on spectral rotations. That’s why Osment has it, as does the deranged patient who attacks Willis in the beginning. Of course, this leads us to one irrefutable conclusion: Former Talk Soup host John Henson must be able to see dead people. “I haven’t actually seen any ghosts,” says Henson. “But I’m hoping in the sequel I get to play the little boy as he’s entering the workforce. I’m a lock to play him.”

The Sixth Sense

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 107 minutes
  • M. Night Shyamalan