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John DoughertyOctober 06, 2023
Haley Joel Osment and Buce Willis in a scene from the film The Sixth SensePhoto: imdb

The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.

This is a ghost story.

As a teenager, I spent a summer working at a movie theater. Most of the time I worked concessions or cleaned up after shows, but once I was sent up to the projector room to check something. It was long, low-ceilinged, dark. My nerves were already crackling when I saw it:

A spectral hand, blue-white and translucent, gliding along the wall.

In “The Sixth Sense,” faith is both a sanctuary and a gateway to mystery and horror.

I felt a spike of fear, and then a sharp thrill of belief. Here was proof, flickering before my eyes, that the supernatural was real. The world was more than homework and driving lessons and sweeping up spilled popcorn. I knew, without a doubt, that there was something beyond.

Of course, a millisecond later I realized it wasn’t a ghost at all: just a reflected image from one of the projectors, striking the wall. (To make this realization even more deflating, there’s a decent chance that the film being projected was the third “Austin Powers” movie). But I held onto that feeling, the mixed terror and wonder of encountering the supernatural.

That feeling sums up the double-edged promise of many of my favorite horror movies: the spiritual is real, but it can also hurt you. Throughout October (or “Spooky Season”), Catholic Movie Club will cover some of those films, beginning this week with one of the defining scary movies of my generation: M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense” (1999).

When it first came out, “The Sixth Sense” was a sensation due to its buzzy twist ending (which I won’t spoil here, just in case), and its announcement of Shyamalan as a rising talent. (I remain a staunch defender of his work, even though public opinion turned on him pretty quickly; Philadelphians have to stick together.) The film follows Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a Philadelphia child psychologist who, after a traumatic encounter with a former patient, dedicates himself to helping another child with similar troubles. Cole (Haley Joel Osment) is bright and kind, but also isolated and prone to strange outbursts. Malcolm suspects Cole is acting out because of his parents’ divorce, but the truth is much more disturbing: Cole can see ghosts.

In “The Sixth Sense,” faith is both a sanctuary and a gateway to mystery and horror. Cole finds rare moments of peace in a church and surrounds himself with religious statues when he’s scared, but it’s his very sensitivity to the supernatural that makes him vulnerable. The ghosts he encounters are distressed and erratic; sometimes they just frighten him, but other times they lash out, leaving scratches and bruises.

His eyes are open in a unique way and that exposes him to horrors that most people can’t even imagine. Through Malcolm, however, Cole learns to think of his ability in a new way. Yes, it’s frightening, but what if it’s also a gift? Because Cole can see these restless spirits, perhaps he’s the only one who can help them find peace.

Isn’t that true of our faith, as well? The Gospel calls us to open our eyes to things others would rather avoid, precisely so we can meet and serve Christ in our neighbors on the margins. It’s the Good Samaritan refusing to look away from the bloody man on the roadside, the prophets who spoke out against injustice even though they knew that road might end in martyrdom. Yes, it would be easier and much more comfortable to avert our gaze, to insulate ourselves from the suffering of the world. But God wants us to live with our eyes open, so that we can see the brutal realities of the world and respond with love and compassion, doing our part to build up the Kingdom of Heaven.

Faith is scary because it requires us to embrace what we don’t understand. But faith also reveals the deeper purpose of our lives. Cole discovers a vocation, a gift for helping people who should be beyond help. When we open ourselves to faith with all of its terror and wonder, maybe that’s what we discover, too.

“The Sixth Sense” is streaming on DirecTV and available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.

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