Narrative Structure in The Sixth Sense: A New Twist in "Twist Movies"?
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The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006) 55-64


Narrative Structure in The Sixth Sense:
A New Twist in "Twist Movies"?

Apart from the acting of young Haley Joel Osment, which won universal praise, The Sixth Sense met with mixed reviews. Stephen Holden of the New York Times called it"gaggingly mawkish supernatural kitsch," while Desson Howe of the Washington Post found the direction "superb" and the writing "wonderfully mystical," with "a twist that will put your head in a swirl." The surprise ending, of course, was the film's major talking point and was discussed endlessly on internet chat forums. Some found it a contrived gimmick. Some remained unaffected, claiming they saw the twist coming a mile away. Others found the finale a brilliantly executed piece of cinematic storytelling.

Much of the controversy centered on the question of whether or not the film actually "made sense," whether or not it was logically consistent. Having seen the film, people intuitively try (to some extent at least) to test and compare the new piece of information—that Malcolm was dead the whole time—with what preceded it. Was he not wearing different outfits at different times in the movie? If so, how did he manage to change clothes? How could he have dinner with his wife in a restaurant on their wedding anniversary if he was already dead? Why could we not see his gunshot wound (which we do see in the montage sequence at the end)? After all, the fatal injuries of all the other ghosts that we see in the movie are visible to us.

This essay is divided into two parts. The first part examines one of the key questions that a historical poetics of cinema seeks to answer according to David Bordwell: what are the principles according to which films (in this case, a single film) are constructed, and how do they achieve particular effects? ("Historical Poetics of Cinema" 371). In practice this means that I want to examine the narrative structure of The Sixth Sense in order to arrive at some understanding of the peculiar reactions it elicited from movie audiences. For purposes of brevity and clarity I limit my discussion to the response of spectators who were taken by surprise by the film's ending (though that presumably represents the overwhelming majority of viewers). The second part aims to situate the film's narrational strategies historically.

In outlining the film's constructional principles I will make use of the terms syuzhet and fabula, adopted from Russian Formalism. The syuzhet is the actual arrangement and presentation of audiovisual information. However, practically all films contain gaps that the audience must fill in. Seeking order and coherence, we instinctively make hypotheses about what is going to happen (and, in some cases, about what has already happened) as we are watching. Some hypotheses will be confirmed, others turn out to be false (in which case we will try to create a new hypothesis that accounts for whatever syuzhet information caused the original hypothesis to break down). The fabula, then, is "the whole story": the intersubjective narrative pattern that spectators create—progressively and retrospectively—through suppositions and inferences based on the partial visual and aural evidence of the syuzhet. In neoformalist terminology, then, the challenge with which The Sixth Sense presented spectators was one of establishing whether the information in the syuzhet was contradictory or, rather, was the foundation for a rational, coherent fabula.

I.

The Sixth Sense's fabula is certainly coherent up to the turning point, but with the introduction of the twist it is liable to break down, and it is not easy to immediately [End Page 55] piece together a new one where everything adds up. There is simply too much previous syuzhet information that appears to contradict what we are now being asked to accept. We might try to think back, but, because it did not seem relevant at the time, chances are we did not pay particular attention to Malcolm's clothes...