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Why ‘The Sixth Sense’ Remains the Highest Grossing* Horror Film

I saw dead people, you saw dead people, we all saw dead people.

I don’t know anyone who didn’t see the The Sixth Sense in theaters when it was released in the summer of 1999. Even at the time it was obvious the film was a milestone moment for genre cinema, that rarest of instances where a horror film captures the zeitgeist and changes the way everyone talks about and views movies.

For better or worse, the “twist ending” became a powerful tool for screenwriters and, as far as I can recall, the film’s success also ushered in the era of marketing films based on how much their endings were likely to blow our minds.

The film’s success was a double-edged sword for M. Night Shyamalan who was immediately hailed as a possible heir to Steven Spielberg only to be pigeonholed as ‘that twist-ending guy’ at the same time. You also couldn’t mention his name without some idiot saying “M. Night Shama-lama-ding-dong”, an unfortunate and irritating occurrence that continues to this day.

As for the numbers, they’re astounding. The film raked in $293,506,292  domestically and $379,300,000 internationally for a whopping $672, 806,292 total haul. And that’s off a $40 million production budget!

*Admittedly, The Sixth Sense ranks 3rd all-time domestic gross under Jaws and The Exorcist when you account for inflation, but considering these are 90’s dollars, I hope you inflation nerds that I know are ready to pounce can at least admit this is hugely impressive. And in terms of total gross, The Sixth Sense may still win out in the end (I await your math on this).

As comparison, James Wan’s most successful film to date, The Conjuring, which was considered a massive hit by Warner Bros. only hits at $137, 400,141 domestic. Hardly a stone’s throw away.

So what was the secret of The Sixth Sense‘s success? While no one can say with certainty, I would suggest that the late 90’s was still a time when stars could open a film. Bruce Willis was still hugely bankable while Toni Collette had firmly become an indie it-girl, bringing some credibility to her first studio picture and what may have otherwise been seen as a goofy genre movie. Of course you can’t underestimate some very good word-of-mouth, decent reviews and, an honest to god cracking good script from Shyamalan.

Looking at the movie landscape now, one wonders whether a horror film could ever achieve this level of financial success again. The marketplace is completely fractured, there are a million streaming options from literally every era of movies, and the studio system is far less inclined to push anything that’s not a franchise tent pole, or pre-existing IP. Oh yeah, and then there’s piracy. If horror films of the future never edge The Sixth Sense out of the top spot, it’s likely because of how movie distribution has changed since it was released.

The popular narrative is that M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been a spiral downwards both in terms of quality and financial rewards. While I respectfully disagree on the quality front, it’s worth noting that following the unprecedented financial success of The Sixth Sense, he really had nowhere to go but down.

As Shymalan continues to make his great escape from director’s jail with first The Visit and now the critically acclaimed Split (review)hitting this weekend, I think it’s worth breaking with the popular narrative to reflecting on the nearly 20 year legacy of one of American’s most successful horror directors.


34 Comments
  • Rocky

    I haven’t seen it and don’t want to because everyone spoiled the ending. I would debate this being called a horror TBH…

    • Brian Collins

      If you haven’t seen it how can you make that assessment?

      • Rocky

        because I do as I please

        • Khy

          Or you’re just a dumb bitch

          • Rocky

            sit on a cactus bitch and rotate

          • Flu-Like Symptoms

            Shit! Glad I downed my whiskey before I read that!

      • Satanzilla

        An excellent question. I can see not seeing it because the ending was spoiled, but saying “it’s not horror” without having seen it?

        • Rocky

          it’s a thriller/drama with a slight touch of horror. I don’t need to see it to make an assumption. I know.
          FYI Silence of the Lambs is not horror either.

          • Satanzilla

            Have you seen Silence of the Lambs?

          • notommmm

            Hannibal Lecter is so much of a badass that his abilities can only be explained by calling them “supernatural,” thus tipping the movie into horror territory.

            The Sixth Sense is a supernatural ghost story. That’s an easy one.

            I’ve got another spoiler for you, Rocky: you’re not really a horror fan.

          • Rocky

            yawn… the old ” you’re not a horror fan” rubbish…. People like you make me laugh.

      • Rocky

        yep

    • Khy

      That’s right. Horror is just some lunatic chasing some big breasted bimbo with a butcher knife.

      • Rocky

        yawn… the standard brainless reply I would expect.

        • Khy

          Duh. A brainless reply to a brainless statement made by a brainless moron.

          • Rocky

            does the truth hurt little boy?

      • Vincent Kane

        Only good horror, amirite?

    • Seal Clubber

      It’s definitely a horror. There are some very frightening scenes (in the crawl space with the ghosts, under the bed, etc …). However, knowing the ending going in definitely diminishes the impact (like knowing Darth is LS’s father before going in to see Empire Strikes Back). Then again, I think “Trainspotting” is a horror movie, so what do I know lol ….

      • Seal Clubber

        Horror is relative ….

    • diapers

      I’d recommend watching it even with the spoil. In my opinion, it is solidly horror, in the creepy as fuck spirit corner, ala Oculus. With just a touch of thriller here and there.

    • Creepshow

      The original Saw movie was ruined for me, but I still watched it. And I still want to throat punch that son of a bitch that ruined it for me.

  • Matt

    Great movie, no doubt about it. But for a movie built so heavily on a “twist”, it isn’t a repeated viewing for me.

    • Vincent Kane

      Same. Haven’t watched it again since first viewing. Loved it though.

  • Mamet006

    Never really answered the ‘Why’ which was in the title of the article beyond a vague ‘times have changed’. Times where movies keep hitting the billion dollar mark every year. Don’t cop out with ‘streaming and piracy’ answer. There simply hasn’t been a horror film comparable to the Sixth Sense in all these years. Go down the list and nothing really pops out that could have been as big if the ways of consuming content haven’t changed.

    • Christopher Webster

      Someone floated on Twitter that it being PG helped. I agree with that. It had a cute kid. That’s didn’t hurt.

      Truth is less movies are doing well than ever before. One very particular kind of movie is hitting the billion dollar mark, as you say, and it’s not a film like the Sixth Sense. It’s the same reason actors can’t open films anymore and “characters” can.

      Not a stretch to say that times have changed in such a way that no 40 million dollar horror film like TSS will ever do as well as this ever again. We’ll see!

      • Mamet006

        And we still have had plenty of PG-13 horror movies since the Sixth Sense. None of them coming close. We still have yet to have a movie like the Sixth Sense in terms of quality to come to the conclusion of ‘no film like it could ever do it again’.

  • Halloween_Vic

    Ehhh wasn’t a big fan and didn’t understand the hype, yet I was 9 when I saw it and thought it was boring lol. Surprised Hollywood didn’t gush out a sequel due to it’s box office numbers.

  • Blood Boil

    Milquetoast horror at its finest.

  • Frank Lloyd Jr

    Meh. Stir Of Echoes was better.

  • Colin Christian

    I’ll always prefer Signs,except for the last 2 minutes,but some of the scenes in that flick were terrifying,still one of the best alien invasion flicks ever.

  • Dennis Chenier

    It will be hard for any horror movie to reach those number again because the theaters are overloaded with 3/4 new releases every week. A movie doesn’t stay in theaters long enough to garner that kind of cash.

  • Meisha’s Taint

    “Admittedly, The Sixth Sense ranks 3rd all-time domestic gross under Jaws and The Exorcist when you account for inflation, but considering these are 90’s dollars, I hope you inflation nerds that I know are ready to pounce can at least admit this is hugely impressive”

    FUCK YOU for lying Chris you are a dishonest piece of shit.

  • Flu-Like Symptoms

    Love Matthew Perry’s M. Night Shyamalan story here:

  • Jeremy

    Sixth Sense is not a horror movie, anyone who calls it so is a moron.

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