The Sixth Sense has one of the most memorable and famous twist endings of all time. But once its secret is revealed is there any mystery left to the film? It turns out that The Sixth Sense does have at least one more big twist that has gone unnoticed for nearly 20 years! And that twist is that the film literally twists at the middle and repeats all of the events in the first half of the film through the second half of the film in reverse order.
This is called a chiasmus. It’s an ancient literary technique that has each part of a story repeat itself to create a beautiful structure. The Sixth Sense is the latest example of Cinematic Chiasmus, and we are going to have a blast finding out exactly how it works in this film!
These are the events of the film, broken down in a way that reveals the chiasmus:
A. After the opening credits a light bulb turns on as Anna Crowe descends into her wine cellar
B. Anna tells a drunk Malcolm Crowe that he put her second in his life to help children
C. Malcolm gets shot by a former patient
D. Cole Sear runs away from Malcolm. He’s afraid of ghosts
E. Malcolm’s first appointment with Cole ends with him saying, “I’m going to see you again, right?”
F. Malcolm translates the Latin words he overheard Cole saying in the church
G. Mrs. Sear is startled by all of the cabinet doors suddenly opening, and she gives Cole some Pop Tarts
H. Tommy pretends to be Cole’s friend, and Cole hesitantly enters his school alone
I. After talking with his mom, Cole slowly gets closer to and then farther away from Malcolm
J. Cole says Malcolm can’t help him
K. Malcolm spends his dinner with Anna just talking about Cole, and she barely speaks to him at all before leaving
L. Malcolm gets angry when Cole describes himself as a “freak”
M. Mrs. Sear discovers a light next to Cole imprinted into family photos
N. Cole attempts free-association writing and tells Malcolm he doesn’t want to be afraid anymore
O. Malcolm is upset when it appears a man is hitting on his wife
P. Cole tells his teacher they used to hang people in their school
Q. Malcolm shows Cole a magic trick that Cole finds funny
R. Malcolm watches a video of his wedding
S. Cole gets locked in the closet with an angry ghost
T. A doctor mistakenly thinks Mrs. Sear may be responsible for the cuts Cole received
U. Malcom tells Cole his secret about why he’s sad
U. Cole tells Malcolm his secret about why he’s scared
T. Mrs. Sear mistakenly thinks another boy is responsible for the cuts Cole received
S. Cole runs in terror and hides in his tent from the ghost of an abused housewife
R. Malcolm attends Cole’s play, which is videotaped by every parent in the audience
Q. Malcolm compliments Cole on his play
P. Cole sees people who have been hanged in the school
O. Mrs. Sear is upset when Cole says he didn’t take her bumblebee pendant
N. Cole sees a boy who accidentally killed himself and he begins shaking with fear in his mom’s arms
M. Anna sells a ring to a couple, saying its memories are imprinted
L. Malcolm breaks a window and angrily walks away at the sight of his wife with another man
K. Malcolm says he has to stop seeing Cole because of the damage it’s doing to his marriage
J. After listening to his old tapes, Malcolm suggests Cole help the ghosts who come to him
I. After comforting his mom, Cole runs away from a scary dead girl named Kyra, but then he slowly walks back to her
H. Malcolm walks with Cole through Kyra’s house, but Cole apprehensively enters Kyra’s room alone
G. Kyra’s dad watches her video and is horrified to see what his wife fed her
F. Cole’s teacher overhears Cole talking to a dead woman at school
E. Malcolm’s last appointment with Cole ends with Malcolm saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Cole”
D. Cole doesn’t run in fear from ghosts anymore, but accepts his fate
C. We see the aftermath of Malcolm getting shot
B. Malcolm soberly tells Anna that he helped one last child and that she was never second
A. A bright light engulfs Malcolm as he ascends to heaven, followed by the end credits
That might seem like a lot to take in… because it is. So let’s compare and explore each of these points in greater detail, beginning at the start and the end and working our way to the middle.
A. The Light
The Sixth Sense sets the mood perfectly with hauntingly atmospheric music that plays over its opening credits. It then opens on a close-up shot of a light bulb that gradually fills with light as Anna Crowe goes down into her wine cellar to get some wine to celebrate her husband’s achievement.
The film ends with a close-up shot of Malcolm’s face as he goes up to heaven and the screen fills with light. We get one final shot of Malcolm and Anna’s wedding day to reassert Malcolm’s greatest achievement in life before the end credits roll over a collection of the film’s memorable music.
B. You Were Never Second
During a private celebration at their home, Anna tells her drunk husband Malcolm that this is an important night for them because it’s the culmination of years of sacrifice in which he had to put everything second, including her. He’s being recognized by the mayor for his work in child psychology. She says that Malcolm has a gift for helping children who desperately need his attention.
After finally recognizing the truth about himself, Malcolm soberly speaks to Anna one last time. He tells her that he got to use his special talents to really help a child who badly needed his attention. He also adamantly affirms that she was never second in his life – ever.
C. Malcolm Gets Shot
One of Malcolm’s former child patients (all grown up now) breaks into Malcolm’s house and screams at him in tortured agony that Malcolm failed to help him. He then silently pulls out a gun and shoots Malcolm in the stomach, knocking him onto the bed. As Anna rushes to Malcolm, the scene cuts to black. We assume that he recovers from the wound as the film transitions to the next fall.
We see the conclusion of that scene at the end of the film, and we finally learn the truth about Malcolm’s fate. It turns out that the bullet splattered Malcolm’s midsection into a bloody mess, killing him in a just few seconds. He’s been a ghost ever since that moment.
D. Cole Faces His Fears
While sitting on a park bench, Malcolm reads up on his new patient Cole Sear in great detail. As Malcolm prepares to speak to him, Cole hastily runs away in fear to the safety of a church. But he can’t escape Malcolm.
While sitting in a traffic jam, Cole reveals to his mother that he knows what happened in great detail. A female bicyclist was struck and killed by a car, and her ghost is standing right outside his car door. He isn’t afraid anymore. He doesn’t run away from the ghost but waits for her to come to him. And he is finally willing to face his other fear and open up to his mother about his gift of being able to see ghosts.
E. I’ll See You Tomorrow
At their first appointment, Malcolm introduces himself to Cole and suggests Cole might be hiding out in the church to get away from people who may want to hurt him. Cole plays with his toy soldiers and pretends one of them speaks Latin. Cole is clearly apprehensive at the thought of speaking with Malcolm again, saying, “I’m going to see you again, right?”
At their last appointment, Malcolm tells Cole that he did a great job in his first starring role in a play. They both give each other advice about coming clean to the ones they love and not hiding from them anymore. Cole wants to pretend that this isn’t really the last time they’ll talk to each other. Malcolm is clearly reluctant to say goodbye to Cole, saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Cole.”
F. Cole’s Words to the Dead
The night after his first appointment with Cole, Malcolm translates the Latin words he overheard Cole saying in the church, “De profundis clamo ad te, Domine.” He’s perturbed to learn that they translate to, “Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord.”
The night of Cole’s first starring role in a play, his teacher Mr. Cunningham overhears him talking indistinctly. When he curiously inquires about it, Cole says he was just practicing his lines, but he was actually speaking to a ghost.
G. Feeding Time
At the breakfast table, Cole’s mother Mrs. Sear notices a stain on Cole’s tie, so she walks from the kitchen down the hall to the laundry room to get a replacement and then walks back again. It only takes a few seconds, but when she reenters the kitchen she’s shocked to see Cole still sitting at the table and all of the cabinet doors open. She asks him what he was looking for and he simply says, “Pop Tarts.” Before he leaves for school, she makes sure to give him a package of Pop Tarts because he wanted them.
At the funeral for a little girl named Kyra, Kyra’s father watches a video delivered to him by Cole. It’s a funny little puppet show Kyra was filming to amuse herself while she was suffering from a debilitating illness. She gets interrupted by her mother in the middle of filming, but the camera keeps rolling as the mother brings Kyra’s soup. Kyra’s father is shocked to discover that the mother had been putting poison into Kyra’s soup to keep her sick and telling her not to protest that it tastes funny.
H. Cole Enters Alone
A bully named Tommy makes Mrs. Sear believe he is Cole’s friend by acting friendly to him on their way to school. But as soon as they get out of her sight, he ditches Cole because they were never really friends. Cole then looks at his school in great fear before he finally walks into it alone.
Malcolm escorts Cole to Kyra’s house during her funeral. He loyally stays by Cole’s side the whole time until they go upstairs out of sight of the other guests. At Kyra’s bedroom door, they must part ways so that Cole can face what is inside by himself. He stretches out his hand and fearfully opens the door and steps inside alone.
I. Closer and Farther Away
When Cole gets home from school, his mother is waiting for him. He assures her that he had the best day ever, and she goes to prepare dinner for him. Malcolm is waiting for him, and he plays a game where every time he guesses what Cole is thinking, Cole takes a step toward a chair to sit down for an appointment. At first it works, and Cole comes within a single step of sitting down. But then Malcolm begins to make a number of incorrect guesses until Cole backs away so far that reaches the door and is free to go.
Cole gets awakened by his mother, crying out for him in her sleep. He gently helps her to fall into a restful sleep before returning to his bedroom. Unfortunately, a scary ghost is waiting for him. It’s Kyra’s ghost, and she looks so scary at first that Cole runs away from her in terror. He’s on the verge of never looking back, but he musters the courage to return to his bedroom and ask Kyra if she has something she wants to tell him.
J. You Can’t Help Me
Before walking away, Cole gives Malcolm one last chance to read his mind. When Malcolm says he doesn’t know what Cole is thinking, Cole replies, “I was thinking: you’re nice, but you can’t help me.”
After walking away from Cole as a patient, Malcolm tries one last time to believe him. He listens to an old tape of an interview with his former child patient who eventually shot him as an adult. He’s surprised to learn that ghosts are real, so he rushes back to Cole and tells him that in order to make the ghosts go away he has to help them.
K. Marital Woes
Malcolm tries to be casual when he arrives late to a date with his wife at a restaurant. It’s their wedding anniversary, and he spends the whole time talking about Cole while she sits silent. He is obsessed with learning Cole’s secret and helping Cole to make up for his own past failure. He thinks she’s frustrated with him because she barely seems to even acknowledge his presence. She appears to leave in a huff with a curt farewell.
Malcolm is visibly shaken when he meets with Cole to tell him he can’t be his doctor anymore. He says that his marriage is suffering greatly because of all the time he’s been spending on Cole’s case, and he has to try to repair the damage, if possible. Malcolm has trouble even making eye contact with him. Cole pleads with Malcolm to believe his secret, and he says that Malcolm can’t help him if he doesn’t believe him.
L. Malcolm’s Anger
The first time we see Malcolm get angry, he’s outside with Cole. Cole tells him that he doesn’t want his mother to look at him the way everyone else does – like a freak. Malcolm swears for the first and only time in front of Cole to adamantly declare that Cole is most definitely not a freak.
The second time we see Malcolm get angry, he’s outside Anna’s jewelry store. He sees a male friend of hers get awfully close to kissing her, and his emotions get the better of him. He reacts in fierce anger, breaking a store window and walking away incensed.
M. Imprinted Memories
While looking at old family photos on the walls, Mrs. Sear is surprised to see something she had never noticed before. Every picture of Cole has a little sparkle of light imprinted to the left of his face.
While selling an expensive wedding ring to a couple, Anna waxes philosophical about it and says that many of the old items in the jewelry store have memories of dead former owners printed on them.
N. Cole Can’t Open Up
Mrs. Sear is horrified to find the shocking and brutal results of Cole’s attempt at free-association writing. Malcolm is exasperated by Cole’s lack of communication, and he bluntly asks what Cole wants to change in his life. Cole responds by saying that he doesn’t want to be afraid anymore.
Later, Cole is shocked to find the ghost of a young man who accidentally shot himself in the head. Cole goes to his mother and humbly asks her if she’ll let him sleep in her bed, even though she might be angry with him for something he did earlier. She happily says yes, but as she holds him she cries because he’s shaking with fear and he won’t tell her why.
O. Grave Misunderstandings
From the wine cellar, Malcolm overhears a conversation between his wife and another man. The man is trying to invite Anna to take a trip with him because she’s seemed sad lately, but she says she’s fine and she turns him down. Malcolm doesn’t understand that Anna is grieving his death, and the man isn’t attempting to lure her into an affair, but he really just cares for her.
At dinner, Mrs. Sear demands to know why Cole keeps taking her bumblebee pendant from her closet and putting it into his dresser. It was a special gift from her mother, and she can’t come to terms with his reluctance to fess up to taking it. She doesn’t understand that her mother’s ghost is responsible for taking it. She likes to hold it because it reminds her of how much she loves her daughter.
In class, Mr. Cunningham asks if anyone knows what their school was used for in the distant past. Cole raises his hand and says that they used to hang people there. This disturbs the teacher and all of his classmates. Cole reacts angrily to Mr. Cunningham’s condescending look and he starts calling him “Stuttering Stanley” louder and louder until the teacher slams his fist down and yells at him to shut up.
Later, we get to see how Cole knows that they used to hang people at the school. While walking down a school hall, Cole suddenly gets paralyzed with fear because he sees the ghosts of people staring at him as they hang from nooses. He gets quieter and quieter as he explains the creepy feelings he gets when the ghosts are near.
Q. Magic Trick
Malcolm finds Cole in the principal’s office. When Cole says he doesn’t want to talk, Malcolm decides to share a magic trick with him. He puts a penny in his left hand and magically transports it into his right hand, then into his vest pocket, and finally back into his left hand. Cole tells him he knows the penny didn’t actually disappear, and he just kept it in his left hand the whole time. But he admits it was funny.
Malcolm walks with Cole after a school play ends, and he tells Cole that the play was better than Cats. Malcolm says he wants to talk more about what Cole told him at the hospital, but he soon realizes that Cole has pulled a disappearing act of his own. But he’s not too far.
R. Videos Made with Love
Malcolm is moved by the sight of a video playing at his house of his and Anna’s wedding day. It’s a joyous celebration of their love.
We get to see the other side of the camera later. At Cole’s play, Malcolm sits in the audience while every parent in attendance whips out a video camera to lovingly capture every moment of their children’s play.
S. Angry Ghosts
Cole gets begrudgingly invited to a classmate’s birthday party. He gets distracted by a red balloon, and he follows it up a staircase to a small closet where he hears someone angrily demanding to be let out. Unfortunately, a couple of kids choose that moment to play a practical joke on him and lock him in the closet with the angry ghost. He can’t get out, no matter how much he screams for someone to help him and how much his mother struggles to rip open the closet door. After an eternity of terror, he is finally released by the ghost.
Cole begrudgingly answers nature’s call in the middle of the night. A woman walks past him on her way to the kitchen. He thinks it’s his mother from a distance, but it turns out to be the ghost of a brutalized housewife who killed herself and is boiling mad. Cole runs away from her as fast as he can and hides in his red tent among the figures of Jesus Christ and other holy men he’s taken from the church. Thankfully, the ghost doesn’t follow him.
T. Blaming the Wrong Person
A doctor who patched up Cole insinuates that Mrs. Sear may be responsible for the cuts and bruises he found on the boy. However, she knows that she is innocent.
After bringing Cole home and finding cuts on his back that he couldn’t have made, Mrs. Sear calls the parents of one of the boys at the party and demands he and his friends keep their hands off her son. She doesn’t know that those kids are innocent.
U. I See Dead People
The most iconic scene in The Sixth Sense is appropriately the turning point of the film’s chiasmus. Malcolm tries to tell Cole a bedtime story, but he’s not very good at it. Cole suggests it needs some twists, which is appropriate because what happens next is the actual twist of the chiasmus. Cole asks Malcolm to explain why he’s sad. Malcolm is reluctant at first to open up about that because it runs counter to his training, but when he sees that it’s the only way to reach Cole, he finally lays it all out on the table. He explains his failure with the first boy and with his wife. And he says he really wants to help Cole so that he can find peace and forgiveness. Cole asks him how the story ends, and Malcolm responds that he doesn’t know.
This is the turning point. Cole takes a deep breath and plunges in, telling Malcolm he’s ready to tell him his secret. “I see dead people,” he declares. He explains that they’re everywhere, they don’t see each other, and they don’t even know they’re dead. This is a huge moment, and Malcolm fails to grasp its significance. He believes Cole is suffering from a number of pathologies, and he can’t take his words at face value, which proves to be the height of irony because Cole was describing him to a T.
Everything changes after this scene where the two main characters share their secrets with each other. For the first half of the film, we mainly see things from Malcolm’s perspective. We don’t know for sure what’s going on with Cole. All we know is what Malcolm knows. Only after the turning point of the chiasmus do we see the ghosts that Cole sees every day. Of course, we’ve been seeing Malcolm the whole time, but he doesn’t know he’s a ghost and neither do we until the very end.
A Sixth Sense
What do you think? I’d say The Sixth Sense works remarkably well as a chiasmus. And it makes perfect sense, too. The story is set up in a way that creates a wonderful mystery in the first half and then pays it off perfectly in the second half. Plus, Malcolm and Cole need each other to find solace, so it makes sense that they would both be in pain the first half and then slowly find their way to retribution by the end by retracing their steps and realizing that they were looking at everything all wrong the first time around. It’s all a matter of perspective.
I love discovering chiasmus in films that are already amazing. And I also love that I get to be the first to pick up on it and then share it with the world. What can I say? I just have a sixth sense for these kinds of things.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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I always like it when movies and shows do things like this. Have you ever seen Leverage? The finale mimics the first episode and rather comes full circle to how it all began. There’s just something satisfying about that. Have you ever seen the movie The Game, with Michael Douglas? I’m not really sure if it would have the same sort of symmetry but it seems like the sort that should be analysed.
I’ve never seen Leverage, but thank you for recommending it. I saw The Game many years ago, and I remember enjoying it. I believe it begins with Michael Douglas’s father jumping out of a window to his death and the climax involves Douglas jumping out a window, too. That could be interesting to look at. Thank you for that idea as well!
I think it’s a pretty safe bet that ‘The Game’ is a chiasmus.
David Fincher’s first film was Alien 3, and the chiasmus structure builds out the Alien trilogy, described in your article above.
His film following ‘The Game’ was ‘Fight Club’ and that is one is a chiasmus – 100%
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I watched ‘The Sixth Sense’ over the break to check out its chiasmus structure.
I think Shyamalan gives a little hint in the second scene about the films structure – Bruce Willis does some ‘Dr. Suess’ Backwards then forwards talk – and his wife comments on it. It’s such a strange one off, that I thinks it’s intentional.
This is similar to Yoda’s backwards and forwards talk in Empire Strikes Back, a nod there to that films structure.
This is a bit more of a stretch – but I also think in the same scene the discussion of ‘the very expensive frame’ that his award came in is also a comment on the twist at the end – a lot of effort goes into ‘framing’ the film the way it does, to set up the twist..
I’d say the chiastic structure is the main component of this elaborate (expensive) frame. Comments on the frame in the dialogue maybe wink at the viewer seeing the award – and not the frame. If that’s right – then the dr. Suess lines are a chiasmus reference..
Not a fully formed idea – but a nice little Easter egg for chiasmus enthusiasts.
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I like it. Thank you! Those are very fun references to “framing” devices 🙂