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The Sixth Sense

August 31, 2015

T6Sis the story of a frightened and confused little boy named Cole Sear, who is troubled by his unique ability to perceive a spiritual dimension invisible to the rest of us. “I see dead people,” he confides to psychologist Malcolm Crowe, and the audience soon shares in Cole’s terror through numerous encounters with deceased individuals who search him out in order to receive help from him. About the deceased whom the boy encounters, we learn two important facts: they do not know they are dead and they only see what they want to see. The latter accounts for the former. Because they are able to falsely reinterpret the clear signs of their death their delusion is maintained. So they really don’t realize that they are lost ghosts “walking around like regular people.”

The plot’s potential for illustrating elements of Christian theology is significant. Some people are indeed dead but don’t know it. Moreover, they see what they want to see. The doctrine of original sin teaches that all of us have an innate propensity to fail morally, to rebel against our Creator, and to seek our own way. The New Testament portrays this as a sort of living death in need of remedy by a second birth, as Jesus figuratively put it. The Sixth Sense provides a stark, unforgettable image to match this view of the human condition. In this film the dead are entirely unaware of their state of being, and they ignore or misinterpret the plain signs of their situation. They suffer a deception at the most fundamental level, from which no escape is possible without outside intervention.

Closely related to this theme is the film’s implicit picture of conversion as a “gestalt” switch. Those who finally come to recognize they are dead do not do so gradually over time. Rather, their awakening is sudden, shocking, and life-changing. Triggered by some unexpected event that forces them to see their actual condition, they awaken all at once to the truth. Similarly, the Christian view is that one’s spiritual condition of death is not something one slowly comes to see. This realization, too, is usually sudden, shocking, and life-changing. And while the movie provides only hints of spiritual renewal to go with it’s picture of spiritual death, there is enough redemption to complete the illustration: When spiritual change comes, it arrives with a gestalt switch of one’s perspective on the world, as Paul notes a Christian is “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come. Everything has changed. The new convert is, so to speak, a different person with a wholly different view of the world.

Cole’s ability to perceive disembodied spirits is the source of severe and constant torment for the boy. Since it is not something he can turn on and off at will, he knows that at any moment he may encounter another ghost. This nearly drives him mad, until he receives help from Dr. Crowe, who encourages him to use this gift to help others. Cole proceeds to do so, and it is precisely then that he begins to find relief from his torment. Still, the boy possesses an ability that is both a blessing and a curse.

In many respects, our blessings are our curses, and our curses are our blessings. The theme is portrayed in the history of ancient Israel, which proved faithful when in bondage and in the wilderness but became spiritually lazy and rebellious after entering the promised land of plenty. It is portrayed in the life of David, whose moral-spiritual peak occurred during his time of torment with Saul but who rebelled when he had been blessed with kingship. And it is portrayed in the life of Judas Iscariot, whose intimacy with Jesus was converted into a temptation to rebellion.  In these and countless other biblical narratives, the blessings of wealth, political power, and personal intimacy metamorphose into curses through the temptations they create. David, Judas, and the Israelites could not (or did not) withstand this temptation, and their stories serve as implicit warnings to the rest of us. We all have been blessed in various ways, endowed with significant gifts that constitute the blessings that can curse.

A final biblical theme in The Sixth Sense is the idea that our gifts create obligations. Cole’s gift is not merely a fortunate or unfortunate quality to be coped with, but an ability which, because of its power, bestows an implicit duty upon him to use it for good and useful ends. As Jesus notes, “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded. As young as he is, Cole is obliged to use his peculiar ability to help others. Not until he does so can he find freedom from his torment. More importantly, it is only when he acts on this duty that the needy around him find relief from their own torment. So Cole’s mercy towards others redounds as mercy upon himself. The two go hand in hand. This, too, is a significant Christian theme.

“As for us, we have this large crowd of witnesses round us.” In a similar way, the creeds of the Church refer to the “communion of saints”. What does this tell us about the status of those who have died and their relationship to the living on earth?

Cole Sear: I see dead people.

Malcolm Crowe: In your dreams?

[Cole shakes his head no]

Malcolm Crowe: While you’re awake?

[Cole nods]

Malcolm Crowe: Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?

Cole Sear: Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.

Malcolm Crowe: How often do you see them?

Cole Sear: All the time. They’re everywhere.

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