It's been 12 years since the release of The Sixth Sense. As so often happens with cultural ephemera, that gap in time feels wider than it is; it seems even more distant when you surround the film's 1999 debut with other details of the era (Bill Clinton was still president, Michael Jordan had not yet considered playing for the Wizards, and Rebecca Black was a 2-year-old who didn't know what day it was). The Sixth Sense is an "old" movie, at least relative to what we classify "new" movies to be. But I'm still not sure what the statute of limitations is on discussing this sort of situation, so I am going to err on the side of caution:
Something happens at the end of this film.
One could argue, in fact, that what happens at the end of The Sixth Sense is (more or less) the entire movie. Everything hinges on one reveal, expertly plotted and subtly performed. Once you see the conclusion, dozens of opaque intimations suddenly become transparent. The film was eventually nominated for six Academy Awards, losing Best Picture to American Beauty but generally sustaining a better critical reputation over time. In the decade that followed, Sixth Sense architect M. Night Shyamalan has directed six other movies, four of which have similarly relied on a (now formulaic) twist; none have been successful, and a couple have been ridiculous. But virtually everyone still agrees that The Sixth Sense succeeded, and — 40 years from now — it will likely be the only Shyamalan movie anyone remembers. And this is all because of that one twist. Much like 1992's The Crying Game, Shyamalan's film was defined by its ability to create a reality that was wholly inverted by the detonation of one secret; the twist not only changes the narrative, but also forces the audience to recontextualize every previous scene they've witnessed. It's almost like getting two movies for the price of one — the one that you saw, and the one you had to reimagine.
But could The Sixth Sense exist today?
Now, I don't mean "Do we still have the technology to make this picture?" because (obviously) we do. We could make it better, probably. I'm also not asking, "Would the twist to The Sixth Sense be spoiled on the Internet?" because (obviously) that would happen, too. It's simply how the media now works. I'm also not wondering if simultaneously promoting and protecting The Sixth Sense would be a marketer's nightmare, because that's undeniable and not particularly important. What I'm asking is this: Are screenwriters now affected by "spoiler culture" before they even begin the writing process? If you know a twist will be unavoidably revealed before the majority of people see the work itself, and if you concede that selling and marketing a film with a major secret will be more complicated for everyone involved would you even try? Would you essentially stop yourself from trying to write a movie that's structured like The Sixth Sense?
This is an impossible question to answer definitively, since this type of internal decision would be mostly unconscious (it's difficult for any writer — or any person — to be cognizant of the factors dictating the choices they don't make). It's even impossible to answer specifically, because M. Night Shyamalan elected not to speak to me for this story (and for totally understandable reasons). But this is the type of modern problem that's still worth thinking about, if only because it dwells on one of the hidden downsides to the New Media period — an intangible, self-imposed ceiling on creative potentiality.
Every so often, a random contrarian will publish an essay titled, "In defense of spoilers" (or something along those lines). The writer inevitably explains why the concept of media outlets (or rogue bloggers, or quasi-celebrity Twitter accounts) preemptively ruining movies or books or TV shows is an infantile complaint and a minor nuisance. Not surprisingly, almost no non-critic takes this argument seriously. It comes from a purely egotistical point of view; the writer believes his or her thoughts about a piece of art are more valuable than the art itself (and therefore can't be constrained by the collective experience of the audience).1 But complaining about spoilers is like complaining about bed bugs — they're always going to exist, they're only going to become harder to avoid, and worry merely amplifies the displeasure. Everyone is aware that this is how the modern media works. Everyone, including the very people generating the art that's being spoiled. And that creates a new kind of problem.
Let's start with the premise that a screenwriter should not make creative decisions based on what he (or she) thinks the audience wants, since doing so would be the polar opposite of original. Just about every writer agrees with that axiom artistically, but it's becoming harder and harder to achieve — particularly when a product's commercial success is directly tied to the Internet. The clearest example was ABC's Lost. During its unfocused third season, the creators of Lost directly responded to online complaints from viewers who felt the show did not properly illustrate the lives of non-essential cast members; the writers introduced "Nikki and Paulo," a pair of Brazilian con artists who were awkwardly jammed into the story before being buried alive a few episodes later. Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof openly classifies this move as a mistake he can't justify in retrospect.
"It just turned out to be a bad idea," says Lindelof, phoning from his office on the Disney lot in Burbank, Calif. "I'm a fanboy, so it's my nature to go on the Internet and follow what people were saying about my show. The same places I was getting my intel about other shows were suddenly talking about my show, so of course it was exciting. But there's just this central contradiction to how people respond to a TV show like Lost. People who watched the show wanted to be heard and expected us to respond to them, but they also said that they didn't want us to make things up as we went along. Well, if there's a master plan, you can't listen to the audience."
As his TV career continues, it's unlikely that Lindelof will make a mistake like "Nikki and Paulo" again — it's the type of misstep one can learn from, because it reinforces his conscious resolution to ignore feedback. But what about Lindelof's unconscious relationship with his fan base? Even if he locks himself in a hatch, he knows his personal brand will attract the type of person who hunts for clues and twists; he knows his audience is populated by people who want to express their opinions in public and define the collective perception of the show,2 and he knows that any crumb of information leaked about his projects will be proliferated instantly. Even if he chooses to ignore these truths, he will still know they're true. And that's going to have a consequence on what he ultimately writes. He'll unconsciously attempt to negate those problems before they even happen.
"On a personal level, this has absolutely affected me," Lindelof says. "I'm in the process of thinking about whatever my next TV show will be, and I'm constantly thinking about this very question. I know whatever I make will carry the scent of Lost — it's like I've just left a strip club. There will always be this belief that what I make will not be what it seems. I've become such an unreliable narrator. So as I think about my next project,
This, in a nutshell, is spoiler culture's hidden virus: the paralysis of anticipation. The risk of having a twist-based story ruined is greater than the potential reward from its payoff. It would be safer for Lindelof to create something more straightforward and less fragile, even if his natural inclination is to do otherwise.