Don’t you just love that sleeper hit from the 1990s about a ghost who stays on earth after he dies to try to help the people he cares about? Which movie am I talking about: either 1999’s The Sixth Sense or 1990’s Ghost. Both movies have so many similarities, it’s easy to get them confused.
- The main character stays on earth after he dies to help the woman he loves.
- The main character doesn’t realize he’s dead at first.
- Both films include an attempt to expose a murderer.
- A spiritual medium is the only one who can see and/or hear the dead main character, until…
- The main character’s lover is able to see and/or hear them at the end.
Here’s the plot of The Sixth Sense: A Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist, is shot by a former patient one night. His relationship with his wife soon disintegrates and he tries to salvage it and his self-respect by helping a new patient, a boy named Cole Sear. At first he doesn’t believe Cole is really seeing ghosts, but he soon becomes convinced and encourages Cole to help the ghosts. Little does Malcolm know that he’s actually a ghost, too. He was killed at the start of the film. He makes peace with his wife and then goes to heaven.
Here’s Ghost’s plot: A young banker named Sam Wheat is shot and killed by a mugger one night. Instead of going to heaven immediately, he stays to help his girlfriend Molly Jensen and solve the riddle of why he was killed. It turns out he was killed as part of a money-laundering scheme. He finds a spiritual advisor named Oda Mae Brown to talk to Molly for him and thwart his murderers’ plans. After the bad guys are both killed, he says goodbye to Molly and then goes to heaven.
Now let’s talk about all of the similarities in these films.
It’s All About Relationships
Both movies are primarily about relationships. In its very first sequence, The Sixth Sense shows Malcolm, played by Bruce Willis, and his wife celebrating an award he just won for his work as a child psychologist. Malcolm’s wife is concerned that he had to put his work ahead of her for a long time, but now they can pick up the pieces of their marriage and move forward. That plan is cut short, however, when he is suddenly shot in the stomach by his former patient who says Malcolm failed to help him.
Ghost begins with Sam and Molly moving in together. They’re not married, but they hope to be soon. Molly worries about what art experts will think of her sculptures because it could help her win recognition in her field, just as Malcolm did in his. One night as they’re walking down a dark street, the young couple is mugged. Sam bravely defends Molly and after a brief scuffle, a shot rings through the air and the mugger runs off with Sam in hot pursuit.
Surprise! He’s Dead
In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis is dead. I, like everyone else who saw this movie in theaters, did not see that one coming. You can’t kill Bruce Willis! That’s outrageous. That’s like killing Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger in an action movie. It just isn’t done. And yet The Sixth Sense had the gall to go ahead and do it. Somehow M. Night Shyamalan crafted the story in such a perfect way that no one even suspected Willis’ character Malcolm was dead after the opening scene. It turns out the gunshot did catastrophic damage to his body and he died in seconds.
Ghost’s surprise is a little different. As Sam returns from chasing the mugger off, he gets the shock of his life (or death, I suppose) when he discovers Molly holding his lifeless body. It turns out the gunshot pierced his chest and killed him instantly. He’s now a ghost. That was a pretty good fake-out, even if it lasted a fraction of the time of The Sixth Sense’s surprise. In both films, the moment that the main character discovers he’s dead is handled well. Their shock turns to horror, then confusion, and finally acceptance.
Slow vs. Quick Payoffs
Going along with the previous section, it’s interesting to see how these two films’ ideas pay off. The Sixth Sense takes a long time to show that Malcolm is dead, why he can’t open the basement door, and what Cole’s problem is. Ghost quickly surprises us with the fact that Sam is dead, shows how he overcomes his inability to open doors, and exposes Oda Mae as both a fraud and a genuine spiritual medium when she’s able to hear Sam talking to her.
There’s nothing wrong with either approach. The Sixth Sense has a great pace, even though it’s often slow. The film has an eerie quality that permeates the film and becomes almost oppressive at times. I love all the mystery and suspense it creates. It always feels like it’s building to something great, and it never disappoints in its payoffs. Ghost is slower in the beginning, but it soon speeds up and does a great job rewarding the audience as it goes. For example, Sam is constantly problem solving. He can’t communicate with Molly, so first he tries to get her attention by scaring her cat and then he talks to a spiritual advisor named Oda Mae Brown who can hear him, but can’t see him. Molly doesn’t believe her when she first calls, so Sam gives her personal information to relate to Molly to prove she’s not lying. In my favorite scene, he comes up with the brilliant plan of learning how to touch things in the physical world.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer vs. Quantum Leap
In the late ‘90s, a TV show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer became immensely popular. I personally didn’t watch the show, but from what I understand it involved a teenage girl fighting demons and ghouls in between classes and boyfriends. In the early ‘90s, there was a popular TV show called Quantum Leap. My mom loved that show and so did I, despite its adult themes that went way over my head at the time. That show was about a physicist who travels all around the past, trying to get home with the help of his sidekick, Al, a hologram.
Why do I bring these two shows up? Because they show a key difference between The Sixth Sense and Ghost. The Sixth Sense was made at the height of Buffy’s popularity, and the ghosts in that movie work a lot like the ghouls in the TV show. Malcolm is able to open doors, break glass and interact with the physical world as though he were still alive.
Ghost came out a year after Quantum Leap debuted on TV, and Sam is similar to the hologram Al. Neither one of those characters can touch anything in the physical world around them because they’re not really there. Al is just a projection and Sam doesn’t have a body. Later in the film, Sam learns how to focus his emotions in order to touch things, but it takes a lot of effort. It’s interesting to see how these films might have been influenced by what was popular on TV at the time.
Cracking the Case
Malcolm convinces Cole that the only way to stop the ghosts he sees from hurting him is to help them. The first ghost he helps is a little girl. Cole visits her house and finds video evidence that her mother poisoned her to death. The girl wanted to protect her little sister from a similar fate by having Cole expose this ugly truth to her father.
Sam, thanks to his ability to catch people unawares, finds out his friend is laundering money for drug dealers. With the help of Oda Mae, he thwarts his friend’s evil designs and exposes him as a murderer and thief.
In both films, the ghosts who stay on earth have something they left undone while they were alive, and they need the help of someone who’s alive to complete their task. We’ll talk about those go-between characters next.
The Medium Winds Up on Top
Both films include a medium who is the only one who can see or hear the main character. Cole and Oda Mae couldn’t be more different, in terms of their characters or how they connect to the plot. Cole is a white 10-year-old boy who is shy and awkward around other people. Oda Mae is a black 30-ish woman who has no qualms about breaking the law and conning people. But for some reason she’s an extremely likable character.
Cole is an integral part of The Sixth Sense’s story. He is one of the main reasons Malcolm is still on earth; Cole is so similar to the patient Malcolm failed to help years ago that he’s like a second chance for the psychologist. The film spends equal time with these two main characters. Oda Mae, on the other hand, is always treated as an outsider to the story. Sam bumps into her and discovers she can hear him purely by accident. He has to coerce her into helping him communicate with Molly, and as soon as she’s done, she makes a quick dash for the door. She wouldn’t even be part of the movie again if Sam didn’t seek her out a second time to help with his bank scheme. She angrily storms off again at that point, demanding he never talk to her again. But he breaks his promise when he visits her a third time to warn her she’s about to be killed by the same people who killed him. Every time she thinks she’s out, they pull her back in.
Interestingly, both Haley Joel Osment and Whoopi Goldberg received Oscar nominations for their roles while Bruce Willis, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore were all passed over completely. Goldberg even won in her award category.
Talking in Your Sleep
The ending of The Sixth Sense is one of the most satisfying endings of all time. Of course, Ghost’s ending is also good, but it’s much more predictable. Cole (I don’t know if he ever figured out he was talking to a ghost the whole time) suggests Malcolm should try to talk to his wife while she’s asleep because she won’t talk to him otherwise. It works, but in the course of their conversation, Malcolm realizes the reason his wife is so sad and distant is because he is dead. He comes to terms with his own death and finally leaves after telling her she was always his top priority. She thought she was always second in his life after his work (that’s another thing this film sets up early on and doesn’t pay off until the end).
In Ghost, Sam gets both of the villains responsible for his death to kill themselves. After they’re dead, heavenly light shines down and for some reason Molly is able to both see and hear Sam one more time before he leaves for good. It’s a touching conclusion full of tears and goodbyes, although it almost goes on too long. I started to worry Sam would take too long, and the heavenly light would shut off before he could jump into it, like it did last time. Then what would he do? Haunt Oda Mae for the rest of her life, I suppose.
Thank goodness neither film decided to kill another good main character to heighten the drama or bring the characters closer together. It’s much more poignant to simply let the main character die and leave than have someone else he loves join him. I actually thought they might kill Oda Mae since it would be fitting to allow her to annoy Sam for eternity after what he did to her. Thank goodness they didn’t.
Besides their stories, The Sixth Sense and Ghost have a lot in common in how they were received by audiences. Adjusted for inflation, both films grossed more than $350 million in the United States, and were relatively inexpensive. That made them hugely profitable, even though they had virtually no hype built up around them. They seemed to come out of nowhere and take audiences by storm.
Ironically, M. Night Shyamalan wrote the screenplay for Stuart Little, a big hit in 1999, and three years later Bruce Joel Rubin, the writer of Ghost, wrote the screenplay for Stuart Little 2, which turned out to be much less successful.
Bookends of the ‘90s
Another interesting tidbit is the fact that The Sixth Sense heralded the end of the decade while Ghost came out at the beginning of that same decade. The ‘90s began on the tail end of Ronald Reagan enthusiasm with the economy approaching a short recession. They ended with Bill Clinton’s personal disgrace and the dot-com bubble about to burst. The two films seem to represent their times in many ways.
Ghost is primarily a love story with a supernatural and comedic twist. It’s mostly upbeat and shows how people’s hard work and ingenuity are rewarded. The Sixth Sense is primarily a drama with a supernatural and horror twist. Its story is more focused on the cold hand of fate and how it’s impossible to change what happens to us, but only how we deal with it. Though Cole is able to make the ghosts stop hurting him, he still has to deal with them probably for the rest of his life. Neither film delves into religion or the existence of God, though The Sixth Sense spends a lot of time in a church. Ghost doesn’t even bother to deal with the ramifications of Sam’s and Molly’s out-of-wedlock relationship.
While The Sixth Sense and Ghost are definitely unique films, it’s intriguing to see all of their similar plot points and characters. The female love interests have little more to do than be depressed and cry over their lost loves. The most interesting characters are the mediums who do all of the work that the main characters can’t. Apparently, ghosts are such interesting characters, they just won’t disappear.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
All photos from The Sixth Sense and Ghost are the copyright of their respective owners.