I turned 12 in 1999. Some film buffs like to say the year was one of the greatest in cinema’s history, spawning storied releases such as Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. As a pre-teen, most of these went over my head – I was just starting to dip my toe in the world of adult cinema. Like most of my peers, I had been illicitly smuggled into Titanic the previous year despite its 12 certificate. Buoyed by that experience, I had my sights trained on a 15 rating, so I took on The Sixth Sense, bracing myself for “moderate horror”.
“Moderate horror” is probably a fair assessment given that there’s no depravity or gore in the film – it’s more about the psychological chills. But it still feels like understatement for a film that sparked a 20-year fear of the dark.
The film is about a boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, who is able to see and talk to the dead. Bruce Willis, playing a child psychologist, tries to unravel the mystery. It culminates in an iconic plot twist, a genuine pop culture phenomenon.
In a possible vindication of the certification system, the film was both hugely enjoyable and deeply perturbing. I began to obsess about the idea of faint ghostly outlines materialising in the shadowy corners of my bedroom, perhaps hovering above my hi-fi, or sitting peaceably on my feather-filled inflatable armchair. I’m not sure where this supernatural being would have come from in a house built in 1992 – an ancient burial ground beneath the foundations? A poltergeist on a mission to terrorise suburban tweens? Either way, a sighting felt like a matter of when, not if.
Naturally, this was always going to dovetail with an overactive imagination to culminate in a “ghostly experience”. It happened a fortnight after I returned from my first long-haul holiday, when I was lying awake at around 3am.
I heard strains of sinister choral music. Initially I dismissed it as coming from my parents’ bedroom TV – but it grew louder, sounded too creepy, and it was too late for that. Then the sounds suddenly stopped, and all the dogs in the neighbourhood started barking. Then my brother came into my room. It seemed a strange coincidence that he too would be awake in these early hours – he must also have sensed the supernatural presence.
After that point, my fear of ghosts grew to the point that I struggled to sleep without a light on (a source of private shame for any teen). Years later, in a plot twist worthy of M Night Shyamalan himself, my parents mentioned how they’d struggled for weeks to recover from their post-Florida jetlag and had regularly stayed up watching TV till the early hours. Obviously, that’s why my brother was up too. I assume a cat had set the dogs off.
Yet that dose of realism didn’t expunge my fear of the dark. I am a deeply rational person yet to this day, when I am in the bathroom and someone accidentally turns off the light, I’m immediately transported to the scene where Osment is trapped in a dark closet, ghosts looming into view. As my panic steadily rises, his iconic line comes into my head: “I see dead people … walking around … like reg-glar people.”
All this might suggest that the film was a traumatic experience I now regret, but I don’t. My fear of the dark is more a cathartic way to experience a primal emotion – terror – than something that holds me back. It fascinates me that stories can shape our emotions and experience as well as reflect them.
I took other things from the film. Although its plot twist might seem a bit silly in retrospect, my 12-year-old mind was blown. I like to post-rationalise it as having instilled in me an appreciation for the power of clever storytelling. As a journalist, my favourite stories are those told from sideways angles or by making unexpected connections.
And Shyamalan was such a phenomenon. It was inspiring to see a film-maker become a household name for their writing. There weren’t many others, bar perhaps Charlie Kaufman, whose Being John Malkovich (a film I would grow to love at a more appropriate age) came out the same year.
It was Shyamalan, though, who had the biggest impact on my teen years. The biannual cycle of anticipation in the run-up to his latest film, and the inevitable crushing disappointment when it turned out to not be as good as The Sixth Sense: it’s my most enduring memory of early noughties cinema-going.
Yet despite feeling at the time like I was a privileged witness to a seminal piece of cinematic history, I’ve never summoned the courage to rewatch The Sixth Sense. But during lockdown I’ve got a lot of extra time on my hands. I just hope my boyfriend is ready to start sleeping with the lights on.