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We finally understand the ending of The Sixth Sense

The year 1999 saw the release of revolutionary films like The Matrix and The Blair Witch Project. It was also the year that M. Night Shyamalan frightened audiences around the world with a haunted tale called The Sixth Sense. Starring Bruce Willis and Haley Joel OsmentThe Sixth Sense nabbed six Oscar nominations and was the highest-grossing domestic horror film for nearly two decades. And all these years later, we're still talking about Sixth Sense in hushed and reverent tones, thanks to that incredible ending. 

This touching-yet-terrifying ghost flick ends with one of the greatest twists in movie history, a final revelation that carries a pop cultural impact rivaled only by The Empire Strikes Back. The last few minutes redefine the entire film and give the movie a totally new meaning. If you want to know what the film is really about, then ignore that sudden chill and pay no attention to the bloody woman right behind you. Instead, let's dive into the ending of The Sixth Sense and figure out what's happening in Shyamalan's modern masterpiece.

Meet Malcolm Crowe

This twisty tale of spirits and ESP begins with a quiet, romantic evening. After the opening credits, we're introduced to Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a respected child psychologist. This guy is a real pro when it comes to helping kids. In fact, he's so dedicated to his job that the city of Philadelphia has awarded him with a nice, shiny plaque. To celebrate the occasion, Malcolm and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) have decided to stay in, drink some wine, and fool around.

These two are madly in love, and Anna is incredibly proud of her husband's accomplishments. But hey, no marriage is perfect. Anna is feeling left out of Malcolm's life, and while she's singing his praises, she mentions that he's put everything second — including her — to help children in need. She doesn't mean it maliciously, but it's something that's going to stick with Malcolm for a while. Still, it doesn't spoil their evening, and the two quickly move to the bedroom… but the party comes to a screeching halt when Malcolm finds somebody lurking in their bathroom.

Doctor-patient reunion

One minute, Malcolm Crowe is having a lovely evening with his wife. The next, he discovers a nearly nude dude hiding in his bathroom. This creepy guy is Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), and he's having a really rough night. He's wearing only underwear, he's covered in scratches, and despite all the tears, he's a terrifying figure.

Malcolm quickly recognizes Vincent as a former patient, all grown up and seriously unhinged. Shivering and seething, Vincent lives in constant fear and blames Malcolm for failing him as a child. The psychologist tries to console his old patient, but Vincent isn't here to reminisce. Instead, he pulls out a pistol and shoots Malcolm in the stomach before taking his own life.

Bleeding badly, Malcolm falls on his bed, with Anna frantically trying to help, and it's here the scene fades to black. In just eight minutes, M. Night Shyamalan has introduced two major things that will haunt Malcolm for the rest of the movie — his failure to help Vincent and the fact that Anna feels like she's second place in his life. Those regrets will lead Malcolm into the world of a terrified child who desperately needs help.

Seeking sanctuary

After Malcolm takes a bullet to the belly, we jump forward to "the next fall," where he seems to have recovered. ("Seems" is the key word here.) He's sitting on a bench, pouring over a notebook, and waiting for his new patient: Cole Sear, an isolated nine-year-old who suffers from a "possible mood disorder." But when the adorable Cole spots Malcolm, the kid immediately looks away and goes full Usain Bolt, sprinting for a nearby church.

Malcolm finds his little patient hiding between the pews, whispering a prayer. The doctor takes a seat and apologizes for missing an earlier appointment, but the kid doesn't react. Cole is incredibly nervous around Malcolm (maybe because he knows something about this guy we don't — hinthint). Fortunately, Malcolm is really good with kids and gets Cole to relax, but as they're starting to connect, he notices the boy has some nasty scratches on his arm. With his mysterious wounds and paranoid behavior, Cole reminds Malcolm a whole lot of Vincent, the kid he couldn't help. Haunted by his failure, the good doctor is compelled to save Cole and right the wrongs of his past.

Of course, getting inside Cole's head is going to be a challenge, and as their impromptu meeting comes to an end, Malcolm sees Cole snatch a religious icon from the front of the church. It seems Cole has a strong affinity for Catholicism, even if he isn't big on the whole "thou shall not steal" thing.

The creepy life of Cole Sear

So, who exactly is Cole Sear? Well, he's an odd little boy with some very uncanny abilities. He knows things that a nine-year-old shouldn't know, like the fact his school was once a courthouse where innocents were hanged, and that his history teacher had a major stuttering problem when he was a boy. It's almost like someone very old is giving him information about the past. Cole also practices free association writing, and the stuff he jots down is incredibly violent and disturbing. But is this coming from his mind, or is it something he heard from an especially angry soul? 

Regardless, the kid has some sort of dark secret that leaves him shaking in fear at night — something so horrible he won't even tell his mom, Lynn (Toni Collette). She's a hard-working single mother whose life is falling apart. Her husband recently ditched her, she's struggling with the death of her mom, and her son is clearly troubled. Plus, she's dealing with a lot of weird stuff around the house. Rooms get chilly without explanation. Doors and cabinets keep opening, seemingly on their own. And if that wasn't weird enough, Lynn notices strange glowing lights in every photograph of Cole. It's almost like there's something supernatural hovering near his shoulder, and it's starting to feel like this boy is haunted by something besides a mood disorder.

Malcolm's marriage woes

While Cole is dealing with a traumatic secret, Malcolm's got serious stuff going on at home. Ever since the shooting, his marriage has been falling apart. Things are so bad that Anna is eating alone and sleeping by herself. Even though Malcolm desperately wants to communicate with his wife, she just won't talk. Malcolm suspects she's angry because he's so wrapped up in Cole's case, but he feels Cole is his shot at redemption. Still, his second chance might be ruining his love life.

Things come to a head when Malcolm is late for an anniversary dinner. When he finally arrives at an Italian restaurant to meet Anna, he finds her sitting alone, looking miserable. After sliding into his chair, Malcolm apologizes for being late, but she won't say a word or make eye contact. He tries paying for the check, but Anna grabs it first and then walks away, leaving him dejected. Even worse, Malcolm catches his wife embracing another man. The two are on the verge of a kiss when Malcolm angrily punches a window. Of course, he takes off running before they see him, leaving only a cracked pane in his wake. As far as Anna is concerned, it's almost like Malcolm was never really there.

Door knobs and strange games

The Sixth Sense is full of little clues for the major twist that's coming. For example, throughout the film, Malcolm is constantly trying to get into his office, which is down in his wine cellar. But every time he jiggles the red doorknob, it's locked. Cue Malcolm fumbling for his keys, a quick cut, and then he's instantly in the cellar. This might seem like standard movie editing, but it's important to note that we never see Malcolm open the door. Log that away for later.

And then there's the mind-reading game. Cole comes home from school to find his mom and Malcolm silently waiting for him. Cole immediately goes quiet and waits for his mother to leave before looking at the doctor. Even then, he won't say a word, so Malcolm devises a "mind-reading" game to communicate with the kid. He'll guess facts about Cole's life, and if he gets something right, the boy will take one step forward. This let us learn some details about Cole (for instance, he doesn't believe Malcolm can help him). But is that because Cole doesn't trust psychologists, or is it something spookier?

Cole's actions here are very telling. He refuses to speak to Malcolm until he's sure his mom is out of earshot. He even looks into the kitchen to make sure she's busy before playing the mind-reading game. It's almost like he doesn't want his mom to know he's talking with Malcolm. Is this the behavior of a troubled child, or does Cole know something about this guy we don't? Here's a hint: it's definitely the latter.

I see dead people

Up until this point, The Sixth Sense has been coy about what's wrong with Cole. But when he attends a birthday party, the boy hears a frightening, angry voice coming from a behind a thick, solid door. Cole is clearly freaked out, and things get worse when a group of bullies lock him inside the closet. The kid goes into panic mode, and when he finally escapes, Cole is so traumatized that he ends up in the hospital.

And it's there, after several scenes of bonding with his psychologist, that Cole reveals his secret to Malcolm, dropping one of the all-time iconic movie lines: "I see dead people." According to Cole, he sees ghosts everywhere, and over the next few scenes, he lays out some paranormal guidelines. Ghosts don't know they're dead, and they can't see each other. They only see what they want to see, which means they ignore proof that they're dead. Additionally, if a ghost gets angry or upset, the temperature drops and things get frosty, which is why it's always cold at Cole's house.

Once Cole returns home, we finally get glimpses of the terrifying spirit world. There's a suicidal housewife in his kitchen and a kid with his brains blown out wanders into Cole's bedroom. Even at school, Cole sees three old-timey farmers hanging from the rafters. The ghosts seem drawn to Cole, and whenever they arrive, he hides in a makeshift tent filled with stolen religious icons to keep the spirits at bay. After all, these ghosts say horrible, scary things, and sometimes they attack, leaving Cole scratched and bruised. With these gruesome ghosts around, it's no wonder Cole is a little screwed up.

Malcolm figures it out

How do you solve a problem like Cole Sear? Well, at first, Malcolm believes his patient is suffering from schizophrenia. But as he digs into his research, the psychologist makes a shocking spiritual discovery. While going through audio recordings of old sessions with Vincent Gray, Malcolm hears a faint voice in the background. When he turns up the volume, he realizes there's someone else in the room, talking to Vincent in a foreign language and screaming, "I don't want to die."

That's when Malcolm realizes that both Vincent and Cole have been blessed/cursed with the ability to see the dead. And now that he understands what's going on, Malcolm develops a theory that might help Cole. Maybe these ghosts aren't mean, Malcolm reasons. Maybe they just want someone to listen. Perhaps they need to complete an unfinished task before they can shuffle off this mortal coil, and maybe Cole should help them. It's quite a burden for a little boy, but Cole agrees to try. When a ghostly little girl with vomit pouring from her mouth shows up, Cole goes from terrified kid to Phantom Private Eye.

Cole cracks the case

With Malcolm by his side, Cole the Ghost Detective takes a trip across town to visit the house of the sickly ghost girl. When the duo arrives, they discover a depressing funeral reception for the recently departed girl. But as Malcolm and Cole are exploring the house (without anyone paying attention to Malcolm, you might notice), the ghost girl shows up and hands Cole a videotape.

VHS in hand, Cole gives the tape to the little girl's dad. And when he pops it in the VCR, the dad sees a secret recording of his wife poisoning his daughter. It's a messed-up case of Munchausen by proxy, but thanks to Cole, the little girl gets justice, saves her younger sister from a similar fate, and moves on to the next plane.

After realizing these spirits just need help, Cole finds himself less afraid of the gore-caked ghosts. He can now harness his sixth sense for good, and he won't end up like poor Vincent. Sadly, that means it's time for Malcolm to go, but before he fades from Cole's life, the two share some sage advice. Malcolm encourages Cole to tell his mom about his ghostly abilities, and Cole gives Malcolm a tip on how to talk with his wife: wait until she's asleep, and then she'll listen and won't even know it. Malcolm doesn't realize it yet, but that tip will finally set him free.

Grandma says hi

For nine years, Cole Sear has seen ghosts, and for nine years, he's kept that a secret from his mom. He's worried she'll think he's a freak, but now he's ready to come clean. Stuck in a traffic jam, Cole claims there's an accident up ahead, that a lady died in the wreck… and that she's standing right by his window. Lynn Sear is freaked out by this, but things get even creepier when Cole lets her know that "Grandma says hi."

That's when Cole explains that his deceased grandmother visits him occasionally, and then he starts dropping information that only Lynn and her mom would know. In one of the film's most emotional moments, Cole delivers a brief message from his grandma to her daughter: "Every day." Those two words cause his mom to break down crying because, as we find out, Lynn once went to her mother's grave and asked, "Do I make you proud?" Now she finally knows the answer.

Not only can Cole help the dead, but he also brings comfort to the living. This scene also lets us know that even if Malcolm is no longer his doctor, Cole is going to be okay. After all, his mom believes in his powers and will always be here for this little guy. But as for Malcolm, well, the dedicated doctor is in for one creepy surprise.

The great big twist

The greatest twist in horror history starts with somebody sleeping. When Malcolm returns home, he finds his wife conked out in front of the TV. She's drifted off watching videos of their wedding day, so Malcolm takes Cole's advice and talks to the unconscious Anna. Still asleep, Anna responds, "Why did you leave me?" And that's when the ball drops… or rather, the jewelry does.

A wedding ring tumbles out of Anna's hand and clatters to the floor. Malcolm sees that Anna is still wearing her own ring, and suddenly realizes his wedding band is gone. He thought he'd been wearing it, but no, his wife had it all along. And that's when everything clicks. 

Panicking, Malcolm remembers Cole's big speech about how ghosts don't know their dead and how they only see what they want to. And now, he suddenly realizes the truth… and realizes there's a big bloody stain on his shirt, courtesy of Vincent's bullet. As he freaks out, the room grows chilly, and Anna's breath fogs up. Now, Anna giving him the cold shoulder makes way more sense. She hasn't been ignoring Malcolm — he's been dead since the beginning of the movie.

Why hasn't he moved on? Well, Malcolm has been haunted by two big things: failing Vincent and making his wife feel less important than his work. Now that he's saved Cole, he can check Regret #1 off the list. And after accepting that he's dead, Malcolm sits by his sleeping wife and tells her, "You were never second. Ever. I love you." Even though she's unconscious, Anna gets the message, and that gives Malcolm the peace and courage to finally fade into the afterlife.

The ghostly life of Malcolm Crowe

So how did Sixth Sense keep its twist a secret from both the audience and its characters? Well, first off, Ghost Malcolm never interacts with anybody besides Cole. In the scene where Malcolm and Lynn are seated across from each other, Lynn has no clue he's there. That's why Cole won't talk to Malcolm until his mom leaves the room. Malcolm, on the other hand, doesn't notice that Lynn is ignoring him. Ghosts are in such denial that they ignore anything that proves they're really dead. 

And Malcolm never had any "appointments" with Cole. The doctor was drawn to the kid because of Cole's sixth sense, and he justifies it by imagining that they had a meeting. He also ignores inconvenient details like that pesky office door. When Malcolm realizes he's dead, he finally sees why it was always "locked" — Anna dragged a table in front of it because she didn't want to visit her dead husband's workspace. But Malcolm has been blind to the table, and after fumbling around for his keys, he would unknowingly drift through the walls, which is why we never see him open the door.

But what about the anniversary dinner date? In the world of The Sixth Sense, ghosts can affect physical objects, as when Malcolm angrily smashes a window. So why doesn't Anna notice stuff moving around at the restaurant? Well, because Malcolm never touches anything. He doesn't move his chair and he doesn't grab the check, so Anna never realizes her spectral husband is sitting right there.

Really, there's a big tip-off when Cole sees Malcolm for the first time. The kid takes off running for a church because he can see the bloody stain on Malcolm's shirt. He knows Malcolm is just another dead guy, and he only starts trusting him once Malcolm proves he's not a scary spirit. No matter how hard we look, there just aren't any plot holes in this ghostly masterpiece.

Red means dead

M. Night Shyamalan is a director who loves playing with colors (see the Unbreakable trilogy and The Village for proof), and when it comes to The Sixth Sense, red is a major motif used, as the director has explained, "to indicate anything in the real world that has been tainted by the other world." And if you're paying close attention, you'll spot red all over this freaky film.

When Cole seeks sanctuary in the Catholic church, the front door is bright red. Whenever Malcolm tries to get into his cellar office, he's struggling with a red doorknob. The murderous mom wears red at her daughter's funeral, Lynn wears a red top when Cole reveals his secret, and Anna is constantly surrounded by red, especially when Malcolm is near. She sleeps with a red blanket, wears a red dress to their anniversary dinner, and takes red antidepressant pills to deal with her grief.

Cole's little tent is obviously red, and when he's assaulted by the ghost at the birthday party, red is everywhere. A red balloon leads him to the spirit, and when the ghost attacks, it tears his red sweater. Shyamalan does a masterful job of using the color to bridge the gap between the real world and the supernatural. Remember — red means dead.