Bright Lights Film Journal

“Dad, Is That You?” Revisiting M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense

“Fatherhood, in a sense of a conscious begetting, is unknown to man.” — James Joyce, Ulysses

Fathers don’t know they are fathers. But Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) knows he is a gifted child therapist who, like a good father, always says the right thing to his patients. One night he brings home an award for his work with troubled children — with this award the mayor and city of Philadelphia proclaim Malcolm as their “son.” His wife Anna feels proud and validated; she will seal his coronation with a long-awaited intimate evening. Then an intruder appears in their bedroom — Vincent, an exile of Malcolm’s past, a naked, psychotic man-child, trembling, bearing omens — “You don’t know so many things.” Recognizing his former patient, Malcolm attempts to calm him by recalling the child he once worked with — gentle and sensitive — the Vincent who might, in this moment, quiet the damaged and volatile adult. But Vincent has no use for suave clinical speak; he’s after something Malcolm can’t put words to.

On the M. Night Fans website, Shyamalan says of The Sixth Sense: “Ultimately, it’s about learning how to communicate those fears, whether it’s communication between a doctor and the patient, a husband and a wife, a mother and a son or between ourselves and loved ones who have passed on. As we all have seen, not communicating with, or keeping secrets from people we love can destroy marriages, careers, families and even lives. That in itself is horrifying.”

Two things strike me in this synopsis: the odd compartmentalizing of “marriages, careers, families” apart from “even lives,” and the absence of “father” from the said relationships. There is no main father character in The Sixth Sense, or is there? I believe Shyamalan is keeping a secret — a secret not overtly communicated or later revealed by shifting the audience’s point of view. The Sixth Sense is mysterious, not in its tale of the spirit’s preoccupation with crossing-over, but because The Sixth Sense is secretly an allegory of self-doubt, a story of a man held in his self-made limbo, anchored there by his own feelings of paternal inadequacy. A man (a father, as I will show) erases himself at the thought of occupying an unknown state, haunting to him because it is imagined, fictitious.

Childless Malcolm doesn’t know he’s dead. Fatherless Cole sees the dead, who “don’t know they’re dead.” We don’t know why Cole sees the dead, only that they appeared when his parents divorced and his father left. To redefine Malcolm’s limbo (initiated by Vincent’s omens), we must first accept Malcolm’s role as Cole’s surrogate father. When Malcolm and Cole first meet, the boy already mirror’s Malcolm’s paternal curiosities — Cole wears his dad’s glasses (without lenses) both to masquerade and to “see” as a father — but more importantly Cole sees, in Malcolm, a father who doesn’t know he’s a father. Their interactions repeatedly illustrate an uncertain Malcolm testing the waters of fatherhood on Cole, and often unsuccessfully. Malcolm can’t tell bedtime stories, distract or humor Cole when he’s down. In the “mind reading” game, Malcolm pretends to read Cole’s thoughts by using therapeutic finesse to label Cole’s resistance to working with him. But the moment Malcolm, out of insecurity, resorts to nostalgic definitions of fatherhood as in “Your dad gave you that watch for a present before he went away,” Cole withdraws, unconvinced by Malcolm’s commitment to his role. Though, in the clinical sense, the therapist (when male) is symbolically paternal to the patient, the somnambulistic Malcolm is not in a conscious (professional) state and Cole is not his patient. Malcolm’s soft ineptness is expressed by Cole in his conclusion that, “You’re nice, but you can’t help me.” Malcolm then wanders among a triad of relationships he struggles to identify with: father-son (Malcolm-Cole), husband-wife (Malcolm-Anna), and father-mother (Malcolm-Lynn).

Malcolm and Anna represent the marital relationship apart from children, but still one that prepares the potential father. As is apparent when fawning over his award, it is Anna’s part to praise and reinforce any positive paternal qualities, “Finally, you’re being recognized . . . they’re saying you have a gift.” As much as it is Vincent’s purpose (as Malcolm’s ill-fated archetype) to debunk the false status of the (paternal) state, it is Anna’s purpose to help him identify with it; otherwise, he lacks any recognizable cultural or instinctual context to define himself. From our point of view (before we know Malcolm is dead), the scenes with Anna suggest the marriage burdened as the role of lover is neglected for that of the surrogate father. Malcolm’s efforts to create a paternal bond with Cole erode the bond with Anna, who we assume feels abandoned and is falling out of love with him. Malcolm watches Anna flirt with a co-worker, a younger man he labels “cheese dick,” suggesting the sophomoric sexual performance of the young unfettered by responsibility. Longing for reassurance as a competent lover, Malcolm watches a wedding video where a bridesmaid gushes over him — “She knew she loved you from the first time you met.” Anna too, when selling a wedding ring to newlyweds, indulges longingly while supplanting in the bride-to-be the idea that marital passion is eternal. In Shyamalan’s world, in his dual role as husband (with Anna) and co-parent (with Lynn), Malcolm may question the tenuous fidelity of the wife but never the parenting ability of the mother.

With Lynn, Cole’s mother, Shyamalan expresses the innate and resolute ability of mothers to parent. Although neither Anna nor Lynn can see Malcolm incarnate, we are first led to believe that he communicates with both (we interpret Anna’s silence as anger). He never speaks to Lynn (despite being Cole’s therapist) but seems to regard her mothering with great reverence. He observes a tender ritual between the two — Lynn, clearly exhausted from work, describes a fictitious day filled with fortune and play, and Cole, depressed after a day at school, responds with equal fantasies of popularity and worship among his peers. When confronting Cole’s pathology (and the paranormal happenings around him), Lynn responds with natural strength and certainty, always reaffirming her devotion to him despite her fears, as opposed to Malcolm, whose interactions with Cole (his imagined son) can at best be defined as a series of hits and misses.

Near the end of the film, while sitting in a traffic jam, Cole finally tells Lynn of the ability that haunts him. Lynn, the confident and faithful mother, doesn’t need confirmation from the Otherworld, but is granted it by her son to illustrate Shyamalan’s idyllic notions of motherhood, or the seamless integration of maternal devotion with identity. Cole recalls for his mom the answer to a question she posed to her deceased mother, “Do I make her proud?” (as a mother) and the answer, “Every day.” Shyamalan believes that though flawed, mothers hold heroically to their identity as parents, while fathers, consumed with doubt, escape into ambiguity.

Whether contrasting with stoic motherhood or wallowing without conviction in Malcolm’s actions, fatherhood (or its absence) continues to take various forms in The Sixth Sense. Of all the troubled spirits Cole can see, there are only three that we hear speak to him, and each victim died tragically as a result of some form of paternal neglect — a beaten housewife trapped and victimized by her spouse to the point of slitting her wrists, a boy with his head blown open from playing with his father’s shotgun, a sickly girl gradually poisoned to death by her mother, right under father’s nose. As a well-intentioned but lost father figure, Malcolm intervenes to the best of his ability, but it is Cole who must experience, alone, these paternal crimes that saturate the world around him.

Shyamalan clings excessively to things for relational stability; fetish objects abound in The Sixth Sense — glasses, rings, pendants, pennies, dolls — all express a desire to give form, to make lasting what is transitory in our lives — identity, relationship, and family. Paternal institutions and the city’s classical architecture frequent the screen; they also provide concrete respite from the film’s precarious associations with fatherhood. Cole finds solace by hiding in the church; his classroom is lined with portraits of presidents. These established power structures serve to contain or provide escape from a darker and more personal paternal doubt. Cole also longs for more certainty from his relationship with Malcolm: “What am I thinking now?” “How does the story (of your sadness) end?” “How do you know for sure?” (they won’t hurt me) “You believe my secret, right?” With each question Cole is asking Malcolm, Aren’t you a father to me? Malcolm’s response is a consistent “I don’t know.”

Having listened to ghostly voices on taped sessions with Vincent, Malcolm now believes in Cole’s ability to see the dead. At this point Shyamalan prepares to wrap up his trope of spiritual hope and a peaceful transition from purgatory. But he cannot resolve his story without again reflecting on another obvious paternal allusion — the father archetype in the King Arthur play. That pulling the sword from the stone ritualizes the end to Cole’s nightmare speaks much more to the father-son dynamic than to Shyamalan’s surface symbol of Cole’s renewal and acceptance of his ghostly visions. In another time, the image of fatherhood has been socially realized by living within a code of patriarchal order; identity wasn’t so messy. Similarly, the post-industrial father could bypass ever dissipating cultural claims to fatherhood by simply defining himself in his work. The latter could be Shyamalan’s preference, which would explain Malcolm’s primary goal in rectifying the professional error he made with Vincent by saving Cole — forget defining fatherhood, just do good work. Still, the King Arthur play is revealing as it marks the end of Malcolm and Cole’s relationship — when the sword is drawn, Malcolm is freed from the binds of defining himself as a father — and Cole’s independence now overshadows the obscurity of Malcolm’s quest. It wouldn’t be the first time (as in pop psychology) that myth was used, albeit simplistically, to color contemporary struggles of identity.

No longer the father to the son (because Cole no longer needs him), Malcolm finally returns (with Cole’s advice) to mend his torn marriage, the only relationship remaining. Cole tells him to speak to Anna while she sleeps (in an unconscious state). Unsurprisingly, Shyamalan succumbs to the conventions of middle-class marital cliché as he tells the sleeping Anna that she was “never second” (to his work). Malcolm’s revelation in the end simply solidifies an indolent faith in a rightness and order to the spirit world that eliminates all ambiguity, but the mysteries of fatherhood — the fear of identifying completely with what is (in Joyce’s words) a “legal fiction,” a “mystical estate” — are left to vaporize, briefly visible, like breath in the cold. And maybe, for fathers everywhere, that’s enough..