Why 'The Sixth Sense' Remains So Powerful, 20 Years After its Release

Cole (Hayley Joel Osment) confides in Malcolm (Bruce Willis) in 'The Sixth Sense' (1999). (Hollywood Pictures)

Twenty years ago this week, a strange little movie about a strange little boy hit movie theaters and promptly exploded in a way that no one could have predicted. Despite The Sixth Sense's inherently dark subject matter—child is tortured by ghosts; recently traumatized psychologist tries to help—its appeal proved oddly universal, sitting at the top of the box office for five weeks, grossing $672.8 million in the U.S. alone.

Some of the reasons for the movie's mass appeal were obvious. The jawdropping twist ending was water-cooler fodder for weeks after the movie's release; Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment's performances were both so authentic, their roles as Dr. Malcolm and Cole Sear became iconic overnight; and the grief-related side-plots (Cole's mom and Dr. Malcolm's wife both suffer from recent losses) brought a heart and soul to the proceedings that horror movies sometimes lack. The marks The Sixth Sense left on pop culture weren't just immediate, they've since proved impossible to erase.

Against all the odds—and despite the endless spoofs it's spawned over the last two decades—watching The Sixth Sense today is just as affecting as it was in 1999. That timelessness is thanks in part to its universal themes around life and death, but ultimately the movie's enduring watchability has far more to do with what Cole's character really represents.

In the movie, Cole is a nine-year-old medium, isolated and bullied by peers because of a general inability to fit in. Cole isn't picked on because other kids know he's psychic, he's picked on simply for being perceptibly different—a predicament painfully familiar to anyone who has suffered through a similarly miserable adolescence. Even when Cole tries his best—as when he recreates a magic trick shown to him by Dr. Malcolm for another child at a birthday party—he is out of step, through no fault of his own.

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In its darkest moments, The Sixth Sense allows Cole to represent not just misfits and minorities, but individuals in the process of surviving abuse. Though he has a loving mother (played stirringly by Toni Collette), Cole is dealing with abuse—both physical and mental—from disturbed spirits. Through his sixth sense he is also exposed to the horrors of domestic violence (the ghost of a bruised and suicidal housewife appears in his kitchen), and the gory and tragic results of households that don't keep their weapons and children separate. Witnessing these scenes, Cole isn't just one single kind of abuse survivor—he embodies all of them.

Forced to bear witness to these traumas, it's impossible for him to interact on the same level as his unencumbered peers, and he suffers in silence, as so many real-life survivors do. In his second session with Dr. Malcolm, Cole confesses that after he drew a picture of a man attacking another man, his school held a meeting about it. "Mom started crying," he says. "I don't draw like that anymore ... They don't have meetings about rainbows."

While Cole stays quiet to save his mother from getting hurt, to avoid causing disruption in school, and to prevent embarrassing personal scrutiny, he still has moments where the details can't help but spill out. And he is often punished for this honesty. When he tells his mom he's not the person who keeps moving a brooch that belonged to his grandmother, she shouts at him and sends him away from the dinner table. When he tells a teacher that their school, originally a courthouse, used to contain a gallows, his teacher tells him in no uncertain terms that it's not true—despite the fact that Cole has seen otherwise with his own eyes.

In these scenes, The Sixth Sense offers understanding to survivors who are hesitant to speak up, but much of the rest of the film is spent encouraging them to try anyway. Cole's relationship with Dr. Malcolm—a symbol of rescue, redemption and recovery—is meticulously designed to demonstrate a specific message to abuse survivors: While not everyone will believe or understand what has happened to you, seeking assistance from outside sources remains worthwhile. One person who believes you, The Sixth Sense tells us, is all it takes to get on the road to healing.

Remarkably, the movie also tells viewers, in explicit terms, to believe survivors—a concept that has only found mainstream, widespread acceptance in the age of #MeToo. ("How can you help me if you don't believe me?" Cole asks at one point.) The tragic figure of Vincent Grey—the psychic man who shoots Dr. Malcolm and himself at the start of the movie—also acts as a stark warning about the damage wrought when survivors are not taken seriously.

Ultimately, The Sixth Sense is about gaining control and ownership over whatever hand you have been dealt. Dr. Malcolm finds personal healing while helping Cole, which, in turn, enables Cole to pay it forward. By accepting assistance, and learning to trust another person with his secrets, Cole stops running away from the things that scare him the most, and figures out how to turn them into a force for good. In the end, The Sixth Sense is a guidebook on how to transform darkness into light, pain into healing, and trauma into love. Its impact was seismic in 1999, but, 20 years on, we need its lessons more than ever.

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