The Sixth Sense (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

The WTF Happened to This Horror Movie series looks back at M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 breakthrough film The Sixth Sense

“I see dead people.” It’s one of the most memorable lines in modern cinema history. Back in the summer of 1999, everyone and their dead grandmother was saying those words in hushed tones, imitating young Cole Sear, the haunted protagonist of The Sixth Sense (watch it HERE), which was as big of a cultural phenomenon as the movies had seen in years at the time. Thanks to an effective trailer, a word-of-mouth buzz that could not be ignored, the overall high quality of the product itself and, of course, that shocker of an ending, The Sixth Sense was one of those rare things at the cinema: a movie you simply could not miss, unless you didn’t mind being left out of the conversation completely. And most of the success was thanks to that one very compelling admission: “I see dead people.”

But that now infamous line almost wasn’t in the original script. In fact, neither was the that equally infamous twist ending. Like so many other movies, The Sixth Sense changed quite a bit before it hit theaters, and if its savvy writer-director M. Night Shyamalan hadn’t been so determined to make a movie that was an instant-classic, it might never have been made at all. Huddle up in your safety tent and stay with us until the surprise ending as we find out WTF Happened to The Sixth Sense.

It’s not any kind of revelation to say that back in 1999, M. Night Shyamalan was not a household name. He had made two films at that point: the first was Praying with Anger, which he’d made while still attending NYU using money borrowed from family and friends. The second was a coming-of-age drama called Wide Awake, which was made in 1995 but not released until 1998. Wide Awake was a miserable experience for Night thanks to one man who’d made plenty of people in Hollywood miserable: Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein’s poor treatment of Shyamalan and Wide Awake stung the director profoundly, prompting him to vow to never work under such conditions again. Night was determined to write and ultimately direct a screenplay that was so good that it would ensure he’d be able to call his own shots from then on. Of course, now he had to actually write it…

The Sixth Sense (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Night had been interested in ghosts ever since he was a kid and wanted to tell a story that used troubled spirits as the catalyst for a grounded and sensitive drama about the afterlife. Trouble was, coming up with the right hook wasn’t easy. Night wrote a couple of drafts that he considered garbage, threw them out and started over, always a Page One rewrite. In some of the early drafts, a serial killer figured into the plot, and the lead character was a crime scene photographer.

At a certain point, the figure of a hyper-sensitive child who could communicate with ghosts came to him, finally giving him a protagonist he could work with. The line “I see dead people” was put in the script, then taken out, put back in, and so on. The script still needed something else to ensure it wasn’t just another supernatural thriller, but something much more effective and memorable. Finally, like a helpful spirit, the ending emerged to him as if out of a dream. Hopefully you know the ending, we’re going to guess you do. With that humdinger of a finale in his back pocket, Night’s confidence in his script suddenly skyrocketed. Now every character seemed clear to him, every scene of suspense was much more vivid; the human drama became that much more personal and emotional. That groundbreaking movie he’d been envisioning after the gut-punch of the Wide Awake experience was in Night’s hands. Still, it took him at least ten drafts to get it to where he wanted it.

Night has seemingly never lacked for confidence, and though he was still unproven and unknown, his belief in his script was so strong that he was going to gamble heavily on it and himself. Night had instructions for his agent when it came to selling the script: It would go out to all the major studios in town via messenger at the exact same time. The minimum bid for The Sixth Sense was to be one million with a guarantee Night would sit in the director’s chair as well. Years later, Night admitted he was not bluffing with these requests, and if no studio had bitten, he would have shelved the project, perhaps forever.

Four studios passed on the script, but a couple others were about to get into a bidding war for it: Dreamworks, New Line Cinema, and Disney. New Line initially offered $2 million, which probably would have blown Night away, had Disney not bettered them with an offer of $3 million for the screenplay and another 500 grand for Night to direct. Naturally, that’s the deal Night took. He’d made $3.5 million in the span of an afternoon. He wasn’t even thirty-years-old yet.

With Night firmly ensconced in the director’s chair, it was time to cast his film. Night had had Bruce Willis in mind when writing the role of Malcolm Crowe, the child psychologist whose job it is to reach a frightened young boy who claims he sees dead people. After Bruce received and read the script, he said yes very quickly. He admitted to being blown away by the ending and foresaw that audiences would similarly be startled by it. That said, Bruce was obviously intent on not playing the role with the surprise in mind, saying in an interview he had to forget about the fact his character was a ghost while acting. Night liked the idea of subverting Bruce’s action hero image with a kinder, gentler role that would hopefully surprise an unsuspected audience.

The Sixth Sense (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

But the role of Cole Sear was the most crucial. A nine-year-old boy constantly beset by horrific visions, Cole had to be pitiable and vulnerable, but with considerable inner strength. The role required a real actor. Naturally, the casting directors saw loads of young actors – including Michael Cera, if you can picture that – but one youngster stood out: Haley Joel Osment. Haley was by no means a newbie to the acting scene, having been cast in several TV shows and movies – most notably he played young Forrest Jr. in 1994’s Forrest Gump. Osment’s father, who was an actor as well, would help him prepare for his auditions, so when he went in for The Sixth Sense, he was very well prepped. Osment recollected that he’d spent so much time with his lines beforehand that he was very ready for his audition by the time he met with Night. He even wore a suit to his first meeting.

While Osment impressed during his early audition, Night was hesitant to cast him. He had pictured Cole to be a darker, more brooding character, and Haley was, as Night put it, “a sweet cherub, a beautiful blond-haired boy”. But after Haley’s second audition, Night knew he’d had his guy, saying watching Haley’s performance made him feel as though he’d never heard the dialogue before, and that Haley got to the core of Cole’s vulnerability and need. The audition left both Night and Haley in tears and Haley with a job, one probably a lot bigger than he anticipated at the time.

The third most important role in the film is that of Cole’s working-class mother, Lynn. Toni Collette happened to be in NY to meet Martin Scorsese for a role in Bringing Out the Dead, and while in town got the script for Sixth Sense. While she was very impressed by the script and her subsequent meeting with Night, Toni’s sights were fully set on the Scorsese film. She was contacted by her agents and told she was offered the part – and in her excitement she thought they meant Bringing Out the Dead, but instead they meant Night’s film. Slightly disappointed that she didn’t get the film she really wanted, Collette eventually found the experience of making Sixth Sense incredibly rewarding, even helping to craft the character’s look, from the wig right down to clothes she went out and bought herself. Working with Haley was especially notable for Toni, who would break down in very real tears for the classic sequence at the end where Cole finally reveals his secret to his mother.

But no actor threw themselves into their work more than Donnie Wahlberg, who only gets a handful of minutes of screentime as Vincent Grey, a former patient of Malcolm Crowe’s. Wahlberg, probably still best known as a member of New Kids on the Block at the time, starved himself for weeks ahead of shooting, losing approximately 40 pounds in an alarmingly short amount of time. So committed to his character’s headspace was Wahlberg that one night while he and a friend were strolling around Philadelphia improvising lines, Wahlberg freaked out and ran off, hiding in bushes and creeping through the streets in the early morning hours. He didn’t want to go back to his hotel room because he knew that’s not something his character would have done, and by the time the big day arrived he was in a very fragile headspace. Wahlberg also wanted to play his sequence in the nude, but since that wouldn’t fly with Disney, a compromise of some nasty tighty-whities was made. Afterward, Donnie admitted he didn’t even remember shooting the first take, but he was so impressive that Bruce made a speech to the entire crew praising Donnie’s efforts.

For his part, Haley was pretty committed to his job as well. During one scene where he had to get into the right headspace quickly, the young actor started to throw himself into a door in order to feel wounded. Naturally, no one saw this alarming moment, as they most certainly would have stopped him – after all, ten is far too young to be going method.

Haley had himself a dedicated collaborator in Bruce Willis, who was in awe of the young actor’s talent that he used those emotions while in character to depict Malcolm’s fascination with Cole. For Night’s part, the trick of working with Haley was to treat him as a normal actor, not a “child” actor, as Haley was so precocious he could handle being treated as if he were an adult. Key to Haley’s performance was Night’s insistence that he didn’t play Cole as pathetic, instead wanting Cole to express emotions of anger and fear. He wanted Cole to be a fighter, not a sad little boy.

The Sixth Sense (1999) – WTF Happened to This Horror Movie?

Filming on The Sixth Sense concluded in November of 1998, on its way to an August 1999 release. Disney screened the film to about 1,000 people one night to a crowd that was evidently fully engaged with it. At one point during the screening, something happened with the projector and the film started wobbling. Night’s editor, who was sitting next to him, advised him to go up to the booth and tell them to stop the film, but Night declined, sensing – pun intended – that the audience was so with his movie that they didn’t care. Turned out he was right. When the movie was over, the audience sat in stunned silence, and the multiple Disney execs in attendance probably thought they had a bomb on their hands for a minute or so. But it was a testament to the film – and its knockout ending – that the moviegoers were simply digesting what they’d just experienced. Night later found himself mobbed by people in the lobby who recognized him as the writer/director of the Sixth Sense, which was soon to become the toast of the town.

Disney put a lot of advertising power behind the movie, which at the beginning of the summer wasn’t exactly thought of as a major player. Releasing on August 6th against competition like The Iron Giant and The Thomas Crown Affair – not to mention the second wide weekend of The Blair Witch ProjectThe Sixth Sense surprised with a very good $26 million opening. But what impressed more was what happened next: in its second weekend, it made $25 million, dropping a minuscule 3%. It remained consistent, dropping just a little bit week after week. It had become the must-see movie of the year, maybe of the past few years.

All in all, Shyamalan’s film finished its domestic box office run with $293 million, which placed it in the top ten domestic box office earners of all time for a while. It ultimately made $672 million worldwide. Night had bet on himself, and it turned out he was absolutely correct to do so.

Then came the awards. The horror movie found itself an unlikely dark horse at the 72nd Academy Awards, earning six Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing and Supporting Actor for Osment and Supporting Actress for Toni Collette. 11 at the time, Osment is still among the youngest nominees in Oscar history. It went home empty handed that night, but its legacy had already been cemented.

M Night Shyamalan has had a rollercoaster of a career since 1999, filled with the kinds of highs and lows you’d expect from someone who found worldwide fame after an unexpected massive hit. While his filmography can be considered inconsistent, his name still carries plenty of weight in the industry. If he ever manages to reach the heights of Sixth Sense again remains to be seen, but there’s no questioning he put his imprint on the genre forever with The Sixth Sense which made horror fans out of us all.

A couple of the previous episodes of WTF Happened to This Horror Movie? can be seen below. To see more, head over to our JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.