Was the ending of ‘The Sixth Sense’ really a surprise?

sixth sense

Yeah, I know — I’m almost two decades late on this.

But when “The Sixth Sense” came out, I was uninterested. The trailers with the terrified little boy saying, “I see dead people!” just didn’t move me to want to watch.

But recently I kept seeing it promoted to me on Netflix, and last night I was giving platelets at the Red Cross, which immobilizes me with nothing to do but stare at my iPad for a couple of hours, and I’ve heard for years that the movie is good, so… I started watching it.

And I figured out the “surprise ending” in the first scene. And everything that happened subsequently confirmed it. In fact, it was telegraphed so strongly, and so persistently, that I couldn’t see how anyone would miss it.


Now, let me admit right off that I had a helping hand. I knew there was a creepy, even shocking ending. I thought I had heard that the surprise was that the little kid himself was dead. But it became quickly obvious that that explanation didn’t work, and that another premise was completely inescapable. So I had a big leg up.

What I can’t figure out is whether I would have seen exactly what the “surprise” was without that hint Maybe not. But certainly I would have had questions along the way, such as:

  • Why doesn’t the big-deal, award-winning psychologist Malcolm Crowe have an office? Why doesn’t his young patient, Cole, go to see him there? Why does their first meeting involve Crowe spotting Cole and chasing him down the street? I really think these details would have made me expect answers — and if they weren’t forthcoming, would cause me to start speculating.
  • Why does the psychologist go everywhere with the kid — to school, to the hospital, to his home, to a funeral, to his school play, which his mother doesn’t even go to because she’s holding two jobs (which raises the question of how she pays the psychologist to look after her son 24/7)? Why doesn’t such a celebrated shrink have other patients? Why does he says he used to be a great child psychologist?
  • Why doesn’t the boy’s mother ever speak to Crowe when they are together? More than that, why doesn’t his wife, who we saw in the first seen was very warm and affectionate toward him, never speak to him or even look at him? Sure, there’s misdirection intended to make you think there’s a problem in the marriage, but it’s lame and unconvincing.

If you could see all of these things without figuring it out, I guess it would create a wondering tension that would make the reveal at the end a real kick in the head. But is that possible? Did people really not figure it out?

And if it was a big surprise, I sort of feel like Shyamalan undersold it. The reveal seemed low-key for such a realization on the part of the central protagonist — nowhere near as powerful as, say, the star’s realization of the truth about himself at the end of “Memento.” Beyond that, the resolution of various conflicts seemed a bit too pat and easy. What caused the teacher to give the outcast child the lead in the school play, for instance?

Assuming you saw it, what was your experience? No big deal, I’m just curious, after having heard how effective the movie was all these years…

12 thoughts on “Was the ending of ‘The Sixth Sense’ really a surprise?

  1. Jeff J

    I saw it for a dollar in the student center theater at NC State a few months after it was released. A rude guy ran up and down the line of people buying tickets yelling “Bruce Willis’s guy is dead! Bruce Willis’s guy is dead!” and I didn’t care. Because I was oblivious enough about actors that I couldn’t identify Bruce Willis by name when attending one of his films. And because I was sure that the trailers had told us he was dead.

    In the group I saw the movie with, half us us were surprised by the reveal and half of us believed the trailer specifically told us the secret.

  2. Dave Crockett

    OK, in retrospect, the ending may not have been as much of a surprise as you wanted. You assume that Crowe had to have an office and not seeing one was a spoiler. I have dealt with psychologists who do not maintain a Starbucks storefront and some actually make housecalls. Why does he go everywhere with the kid? I dunno, perhaps he was obsessed with the child’s issues. Some psychologists actually care about their patients. Why doesn’t the mother speak to Crowe? The story was about the kid’s problems, not hers. None of those criticisms struck me as obvious spoilers.

    But I appreciated that Shyamalan employed a lot of the editing conventions to slyly misdirect the viewer. The fade-to-black transition after the attack on Crowe normally suggests a timeline/location shift. The viewer is misdirected as to what kind of transition it actually is because we never see EMS, hospital or funeral scenes. On many occasions, the viewpoints are edited in the “normal” way (with the mother and his wife, particularly) to show apparent action/reaction between speakers. The viewer is again subconsciously misdirected by editing convention. Why is the wife not affectionate in later scenes? The viewer is misdirected by actions which we’d seen in many other films suggest that she’s having an affair.

    This is not to say that I’m a great Shyamalan fan. Actually, pretty much everything he’s done since Sixth Sense has struck me as pretty lame…. Still, Sixth Sense fooled me. And I watched my wife as she viewed it at a later date with me, and she was fooled as well. Sloppy editing bothers me (e.g. “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” with how many unnecessary cutaways of characters staring at the viewscreen in shock, horror or surprise?). So many movies I see today should have lost about half of their final version on the cutting room floor. Clever use of editing sleight-of-hand was fun and the cinematic post-mortem on WHY we were fooled was entertaining.

    My $0.02. 🙂

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Well, of course, I had knowledge that there was SOME kind of shock ending, and it involved someone being dead, so it’s not like I’m Sherlock Holmes.

    But during that transition — cutting from him lying on the bed, gutshot, to a daylight street scene months later — I thought, “Well, is he dead?” And I immediately thought, Yes, of course he is. And from then on, I felt like Shyamalan was smacking me in the face with it…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      That initial scene with the kid — with Willis chasing him down the street — was particularly odd. I think even someone who knew NOTHING about the film’s premise would think “What’s going on here?”…

  4. Doug Ross

    One minor point – a lot of psychologists/therapists work of of offices in their homes. Probably because it’s not worth renting a place for what is likely 20-30 hours a week. And there are the tax benefits of writing off the home office.

    Now, did you also recognize the symbolic use of a certain color ?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Sorry, Norm! I didn’t mean to spoil it for you.

      But sometimes I just… can’t… hold it back…


      Dang! Sorry. I did it again…


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