“The Sixth Sense” & the Weight of Childhood Trauma

The Sixth Sense Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense (Buena Vista Pictures)

Haley Joel Osment’s gripping performance elevated M. Night Shyamalan’s second feature to a horror masterpiece.

Quentin Tarantino’s extremely uncontroversial Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood features something not often seen in his films: a child character. It wouldn’t be unreasonable, given the tone and timbre of his movies, to assume that Tarantino doesn’t work particularly well with child actors. Surprisingly, the scenes with nine year-old Julia Butters as a young co-star of Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging cowboy actor Rick Dalton are among the most affecting in the movie, showing a warmth and tenderness rarely found in a Tarantino production.

It takes a deft hand to direct a child, particularly when it comes to maintaining a line between natural and a screenwriter’s often misguided idea of how children actually sound and act. For all of his flaws as a director/screenwriter, where M. Night Shyamalan particularly succeeds is with his child actors, getting performances out of them that feel organic, without the sense that a stage mother is standing just off-camera, glaring at them. The Sixth Sense, released twenty years ago this week, features if not one of the finest performances by a young actor in all of cinema, then certainly of the decade. Haley Joel Osment, often with just a weary glance, will break your heart, paste it back together, then break it again.

The 90s seemed to be the peak decade for insufferable child actors, none of them distinguishable except for the length of their bowl cuts. Their direction seemed to be limited to “make it broader…no, BROADER,” and often they spoke as if they were channeling Borscht Belt comedians. Or, on the flipside, they were hired largely because they were cute and not directed at all, left to stand there desperately looking like they’d rather be anywhere else in the world. It’s a bit beating the dead horse to bring up Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace as an example of a badly directed child actor, but it must be said — this poor kid is lost at sea in that movie, almost certainly capable of giving a good performance with the right guidance, but instead acting as though he’s in a cereal commercial.

Fun bit of Hollywood trivia: the actor who lost out on playing Anakin Skywalker? Haley Joel Osment. His consolation prize was getting cast in The Sixth Sense, which, all things considered, worked out pretty well for him.

Osment had mostly done television work before being cast as Cole Sear, a little boy “blessed” with the “gift” of communicating with the dead, and while TV kids particularly tend to play to the back row, none of that is present in his performance. His voice is barely above a whisper much of the time, and his guarded body language is exactly of someone who has a terrible secret. It’s a familiar posture to anyone who’s suffered trauma as a child. The movie alone holds up, and the twist survives years of overanalyzing it for flaws and plot holes, but it’s Osment’s performance, particularly in his scenes with Toni Collette, that really elevate it. It’s simply one of the most affecting, deeply human ghost stories ever made.

Cole’s ability to see ghosts isn’t a matter of will. He can’t escape them, and living in a permanent haunted house makes him wary and withdrawn. He’s the “weird kid” in school, where even his teachers regard him with equal parts pity and distaste. If you’ve ever been the “weird kid” in school (and I mean weird weird, not cool weird, there’s a difference), you’ll recognize in Cole the desire to be normal tempered with the tired resignation that it’s not going to happen. Even at such a devastatingly young age — Christ, do you remember being nine years old? — he knows that the secret he carries is too much for anyone to comprehend, and that he’s better off just staying where he is, holding it inside and going through the motions of living a normal life.

His voice is barely above a whisper much of the time, and his guarded body language is exactly of someone who has a terrible secret. It’s a familiar posture to anyone who’s suffered trauma as a child.

Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) offers Cole both friendship and understanding, and it’s like a drink of water after a long drought. It’s Malcolm’s job to appear unruffled by whatever his young patients tell him, but Cole doesn’t know that. All he knows is that he finally told someone what he’s been experiencing, and wasn’t treated like a freak, or as if he was making things up for attention, as so many children hear when they tell a secret about themselves. 

At Malcolm’s suggestion, Cole avails himself to some of the ghosts he encounters, offering to help them finish some mortal world business so that they can accept their fate and move on to the next plane. In one instance, it’s showing up at a little girl’s funeral wake to give her father a videotape proving that her mother poisoned her to death. Then, of course, there’s Malcolm himself, who thinks he’s there to help Cole, when really their roles are reversed. It’s not entirely clear whether Cole realizes that Malcolm is a ghost too, but his subtle advice that he should try talking to his wife, whom Malcolm believes himself to be estranged from, in her sleep suggests that he does. 

If not, one wonders what Cole will do when he discovers that Malcolm has abruptly disappeared. He’s making such sweetly delicate steps towards a normal life (whatever “normal” means), learning to live with his ghosts, as so many of us must, and making friends. Cole might be okay without Malcolm in the long run, though, because he lets one another person into his world — his mother, who loves him dearly but hasn’t the first clue what to do about her strange, broken child. 

If Titanic is the biggest tearjerker of the 90s, then certainly The Sixth Sense runs a very close second (if anything, it’s more effective because the emotions feel more organically earned, and less like someone shaking you and demanding that you cry, dammit, cry), thanks to its last ten minutes. Cole, with great trepidation in his eyes, tells his mother his secret, which she initially greets with disbelief and annoyance, then fear, then shock, and finally grief, for the loss of her own mother, and for realizing what a burden her poor child has been carrying all this time. Cole cries with her, because the sight of a parent crying is always upsetting for a child, but maybe there’s a little relief there too. It’s out finally, his secret, and his mother still loves him.

Osment tore everyone’s goddamn hearts out and stomped on them again as a child robot who just wants to be loved in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and did the best he could with the mawkish garbage that was Pay it Forward. Then he just disappeared for a while, mostly doing voiceover work for several years before returning in a series of supporting roles that appear to have been chosen by throwing a dart at a bulletin board, like the Entourage movie, Yoga Hosers, and Netflix’s recent Ted Bundy drama. He’s a capable enough adult actor, but even if Osment never worked again, Cole Sear is one of the great child characters in film, up there with Elliott in E.T. and Addie Pray in Paper Moon. He bears the weight of knowing that the veil between worlds is thinner than most of us understand.

The Sixth Sense Trailer:

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