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Cinematic Storytelling: Writing for the Unconscious

By Jennifer Van Sijll

The Case of The Sixth Sense

One has to wonder what Freud would have said, seated in a modern day Cineplex while watching the final credits of M. Night Shyamalan's extraordinary film, The Sixth Sense. It's hard to imagine a greater homage to Freud's concept of the unconscious than its deft exploitation in one of the 20th century's greatest suspense films.

Shyamalan's script is a masterful dance between Freud's concepts of the conscious, that information the audience is aware of knowing; and the unconscious, that information it is unaware it knows.

It is Shyamalan's use of the unconsciousness, specifically that part that Freud termed the preconscious, which produces the psychological roller coaster ride we experience.

Here's a brief description of how Freud's preconscious, unconscious and conscious states work. Freud's preconscious is especially significant.

Preconscious, Unconscious and Conscious

The preconscious mind stores information that is currently not in use. It is relatively easy to access and can be triggered by memory, emotion, need and so on. The information is held in latency. It lives just beneath the conscious mind, like a batter on deck but not yet called up to bat.

This is where Shyamalan's clues, which initially seem unimportant, get tucked away to be retrieved later.

The unconscious mind is like the preconscious mind in that it holds information that we don't know about. The difference is that it holds repressed information that isn't easily accessed. This is where the ego, id and super-ego live. This is the stuff that is boarded up with a big "Keep Out" sign nailed to the door.

One might argue that this is the linchpin to protagonist Malcolm's (Bruce Willis) character. He has suppressed his own death and has to journey past the "Keep Out" sign to discover he is dead.

And lastly what you already know:

The conscious mind is all the stuff that we are aware of and use in the present. These are our senses, memory, facts and products of our reasoning and action. It's the information that we have called up to bat and that now stands at the plate.

So how does Shyamalan apply these in The Sixth Sense?

The Case of The Sixth Sense

The genius in both the movie and the script is the virtuosity with which Shyamalan guides the audience's preconscious. In Act 1 he shows us all the clues we need to solve one, or even both, central riddles of the movie. Yet we don't see the clues or solve the mystery until Act 3.

Why? Because Shyamalan doesn't want us to know yet. Instead, he intentionally directs us to tuck information in bins incorrectly labeled, or labeled "unimportant."

As good viewers we follow orders despite, in some cases, overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Later, when Shyamalan wants us to retrieve the information, he uses a new piece of information to trigger it. We place the "old" alongside the "new" and through their juxtaposition form a third idea, a synthesis. Although the third idea is not part of the visible story playing on screen, it is an important part of the plot. Our engagement heightens, as we ourselves are now co-authors of the story.

Misdirection

It is with some incredulity that millions of viewers allowed themselves to be so easily "tricked" into believing Malcolm was still alive. Despite seeing Malcolm take a bullet in the chest, then laid out on his bed, clearly his last moments of life, we decide in the scene that follows that he made it.

How could this possibly happen?

This is because the audience was sufficiently tempted by three pieces of information that contradicted his death.

1. The first is by way of balanced composition. The chaos of the shooting scene is replaced by the perfect symmetry of the next shot. A street runs down the middle of the frame, with near identical row houses flanking either side of the balanced frame. Balance means order, rest. We know this from our own lives, and as a pretty good sign in the movie world. So we are tempted to be hopeful.

2. Then we see superimposed text that reads "Next Fall" and then "South Philadelphia." We no longer have time to think about the past as we go into automatic in deciphering immediate, and what we believe to be essential, background information to the story. This helps us forget our doubts, and focus on the screen.

3. The third is that we see Malcolm sitting on a bench. His actions and appearance help us over the threshold of credibility.

At first it appears that Malcolm is holding his hand over where we imagine the chest wound should be. It makes sense that such a blast to the chest would leave residual pain. He also appears less large, subdued, and more vulnerable. When we see him reading his notes on the Vincent Gray case, we begin to construct a possible storyline, something like this: Malcolm has narrowly escaped. The trauma has forced him to slow down, and his guilt over the first boy's death has motivated him to redeem himself, to take on a similar case.

Lastly, it's what we want to believe.

Later in Act 2 or 3, depending on our ability to sort out planted clues, we will have our memory triggered. We will then revisit the earlier shooting scene and every subsequent scene in the movie. We now realize with delight and surprise how Shyamalan intentionally misdirected our filing of every scene from Malcolm's shooting onwards.

One such scene that quickly comes to mind is when Malcolm stands at the door to the basement turning the doorknob of the locked door.

Locked Door - Scene Repetition and Progression

1. The first time we see him do it, and then somehow get into the basement, we just assume he had the key. Our minds fill in the missing parts to make the story work. Similarly, when Malcolm enters the basement, we also don't ask why his office moved to the basement, or where all the boxes came from. Nor do we wonder why his wife was cold and he isn't.

2. The second time Malcolm is at the door, we are being asked to pay more attention. We are asked to change the label on the scene's bin from "unimportant" to "maybe important." Here's how Shyamalan gets us to switch labels and draws us just a bit closer to discovery.

The doorknob is lit differently and we now see it is made of red glass. It is unlikely that a red doorknob isn't significant, so we hold the thought. The shot is also held longer. This time Malcolm actually shakes his empty pockets forcing us to ask how is he going to get in. He could still have the key, but the pocket option is now eliminated. Another way of underscoring a scene is to frame the shot exactly the same as an earlier one. In this case, the action and shot's composition are both identical. Whenever an audience sees something twice, they assume that they are supposed to search for significance.

The shot is sufficiently brief that these ideas are still relatively fleeting. Consequently, we accept as generally credible that Malcolm could have found a way to get to the basement. However, a tiny bit of doubt has entered our minds, held somewhere in our preconscious, and ready for recall later.

What is remarkable is Shyamalan's deftness at producing these shadings. At the same time the movie can't succeed without them. In Act 3, Shyamalan will rely on us to quickly retrieve the scene, "the one with the red door knob that we saw twice" to make a final, necessary connection.

3. At the end of Act 3, Malcolm tries the door a last time. This time Malcolm realizes what it means and panics. By this point we suspect he is dead and don't need exposition to understand what the audience and Malcolm discover simultaneously: the only way Malcolm could have gotten through the door is to have walked through it.

Visual Clues

Very specific visual clues are also are embedded throughout the film. The most profound is what the script describes as "tiny clouds of cold air." These are formed when a character's breath hits the cold air. At first the clouds seem unimportant; we believe them to be organic to the circumstances we see. So we hold them in our memory. Once we know that they mean a ghost is present, the other instances when we saw them are quickly remembered. The true meaning of the "open cupboards" scene from Act 1, and many others, begins to be understood. We now make this clue part of the consciously known story; the information is now actively used as a warning device. If we see a "tiny cloud of cold air" we know there's a "ghost in the house."

Spotlighting

Strangely, Freud used the term "spotlighting" to describe how the conscious mind selected information it was presently using. The mind basically "shone a light" on what it was interested in and left in darkness everything else. When it needed something from the preconscious, it would retrieve it, spotlight it, and then place unneeded things in darkness.

"Spotlighting" is precisely what Shyamalan does. The significance of clues moves back and forth under a light, and from this dance we learn how to remember what we need to know.

Icebergs

Similarly, when Freud drew up the topography of the consciousness, he likened it to an iceberg. What we actively engaged in was a thin band that appeared on the surface. The bulk of our consciousness, however, was made up of the preconscious and the unconscious that lay beneath the surface.

The topography of The Sixth Sense is strangely similar. The bulk of the story lies beneath the surface, held in place until it's called up to the surface.

Conclusion

When cinema was in its infancy, Vladimir Pudovkin wrote about the importance of the "psychological guidance of the spectator." His words resonate when watching Shyamalan guide us. Shyamalan not only creates symbols to be retrieved, but continually returns to them, adding a bit more light each time until we see the full meaning, much like the journey of life.

Whether Freud's model of the unconscious is right, wrong or otherwise, is for others to debate. What remains useful is the model which helps us to comprehend the full significance of the movie's most popular parking lot question, "When did you know?"

The Sixth Sense tells us what it takes to make a great suspense movie work: a great story, a bit of magic and the ability to knock on the door of the preconscious. Wow.

Sources:

Freud, Sigmund. "The Structure of the Unconscious" reprinted in www.members.tripod.com.

Meet the Author: Jennifer Van Sijll

Jennifer van Sijll, who has an MFA from USC's Department of Cinema-Television, teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State and consults on film and television projects in San Francisco and Los Angeles.