The first time I saw The Sixth Sense, I felt very lied to. I probably watched it around 2016–2017 during a stint when I decided I was going to feel out my threshold for cinematic fear, starting with basic slumber party thrillers and then moving up through the classics to state-of-the-art terror, if I could make it that far. I had experimented with some scary movies over the years, and while I found that most weren’t so bad, some of them really got to me. I wanted to know why that was.
By the way, there will be spoilers for both The Sixth Sense and The Ring in this article. (If you missed out on the turn-of-the-millennium wave of supernatural thrillers, you might want to turn back now.)
I knew the famous line, “I see dead people,” and of course, I knew the twist ending. (Bruce Willis is dead people!) I remembered the hype from 1999, and I thought this movie had a reputation for being super-scary. But what really surprised me was that I found this movie not scary at all, but rather profoundly sad. Instead of telling the precious, terrified little Cole (Haley Joel Osment) that what he’s seeing isn’t real (because this clearly didn’t work out with another patient), Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) suggests that maybe he could just talk to the ghosts and see if maybe this ability that he has is a gift, with a purpose.
And so Cole faces his fears, but he also develops incredible empathy; the “dead people” tell him sad stories about what happened to them, and he shares a healing message from beyond the grave with his own mother. The overall effect for me had nothing to do with fear, but betrayal, and the intense consequences of emotional wounds and broken human relationships.
Determined to understand my relationship to the spooky, I decided to continue my Halloween horror binge with another storied supernatural thriller: The Ring. And wouldn’t you know it, underneath the unsettling images on the legendary haunted VHS tape and the whole “seven days” thing, there’s another incredibly sad story!
Children are notorious for adding another “turn of the screw” to already spooky stories. Remember the kids from Poltergeist, The Shining, The Others, The Omen?
It doesn’t escape me that another strangely gifted child is central to the plot here. We find out that the little demon-child behind it all, Samara (Daveigh Chase), was adopted by a couple that can’t have their own children. She has an unexplained, eerie power to burn images into people’s minds. We do find out that she’s not doing it on purpose, and like Cole, she can’t control her powers. Only, Samara’s doctors can’t figure out how to help her. Her adoptive parents keep her out in the barn for a while, until Mom decides to try and smother her with a garbage bag, fails, and Samara is left to die in a well. (Seven days, indeed.)
The effects are scary, but the tragedy is that the daughter this couple always wanted turned out to be more than they could handle — and they didn’t handle it very well. To sum it up, a little girl with frightening supernatural powers is a terror: she cannot be helped, and so she is murdered and becomes even more monstrous. And in the same movie, a little boy (the protagonist’s son Aidan) views the cursed VHS tape, so he must sacrifice someone else to save his own life. (I would be curious to see a rundown by gender of how children fare in scary movies: if my hunch is correct, more girls are possessed, whisked away into their closets and thrown into wells while more boys overcome their fears, are mere observers or are otherwise plagued in ways that don’t completely restrict their autonomy.)
Now, by this point, I’ve definitely learned something about the “thriller” genre.
Sometimes the things that go bump in the night are not completely malevolent, but misunderstood.
Not out-and-out evil, but abused and hurting. It can raise questions about when revenge is warranted and to whom it is entitled. It holds up a mirror to the ways we deal with the unknown, the other. It tests the boundaries of whom we consider human.
Horror is definitely not for everybody, but I think at some point, it’s worth it to put aside the genre labels and ask, “What am I really afraid of?”
Because as far as I can tell from these “thrillers,” a lot of people are really afraid of being sad. If we look closely, we can see how taboos around death, grief, abuse, all these “negative” things don’t keep us safe, but instead make us cold, defenseless and alone.
When we suppress the ugliest truths, we breed monsters.
So if you’re with me so far, and maybe you don’t want to have any haunting imagery burned into your retinas, but you have a healthy curiosity for the things that make us tick. And maybe you want to get into the spirit of the season with something a little spooky. I highly recommend the 2017 British film Boys in the Trees; it walks the line between nostalgic, slightly kitschy Halloween tale and stirring coming-of-age drama — with just enough of a twist to evoke that thriller feel. And the music is awesome.
Corey, a high school senior (Toby Wallace) spends Halloween night bumming around with a noticeably younger boy, Jonah (Gulliver McGrath). Through the stories they tell, we find out they used to be friends but have become estranged. They pass through the scenes of stereotypical Halloween rites of passage: swarms of trick-or-treaters, mischievous kids TP’ing houses and lighting firecrackers, smoking cigarettes and passing a bottle of whiskey around a bonfire. There’s even a pretty realistic teen girl character who has to leave the bonfire early to work her shift at a convenience store.
Situated on either side of puberty, Corey and Jonah face very different sets of social and physical risks. Cheap thrills lose their artificial flavoring, and instead, we get a sobering taste of cowardice. But what can be more invincible than two teenagers on a Halloween night? You’ll have to watch to find out how much is at stake — and if the boys make it home by the time the sun rises November 1st.