Human beings love to flirt with fear, which is even more attractive when placed under lock and key, visible but inaccessible. We caress the iron bars that keep the caged lions from slashing our faces; we queue up to ride mechanical contraptions designed to make us vomit. Still, nothing thrills us more than stories that imply there are dark forces in the world too powerful to be tamed by human hands. Such tales, be they Gothic novels or the latest slasher movie, speak to us with a directness that slices through our painstakingly acquired veneers of sophistication: a bloodstained man appears without warning in a doorway and we scream, half-afraid and half-ecstatic.
Yet there is a difference between the stories that scared our great-grandparents and the ones that scare us. Nineteenth-century horror stories operated on the assumption, shared by reader and writer alike, that while ghosts and vampires might or might not exist in real life, there could be no doubting the existence of some sort of supernatural realm, meaning that devils might well walk among us. Not for nothing were such novels as Dracula shot through with specifically Christian iconography and symbolism; indeed, they could never have been written in the absence of Christianity, or something very much like it.
With the ebbing of the sea of faith, ambiguity crept into the ghost story, sometimes to striking effect (The Turn of the Screw is all the more frightening precisely because we do not know for sure whether the ghost of Peter Quint is real). But once the tide was out for good, horror fiction, like modernity itself, was reduced to living on spiritual credit: agnostic authors cynically spun new tales of the supernatural, drawing on two millennia’s worth of accumulated faith in order to make their readers’ flesh creep. Of late, the account has been running low, and cinematic horror has entered a decadent phase in which vampires have mostly given way to serial killers whose murderous frenzies are coolly explained away by psychiatrist-sleuths, while semi-satirical movies like Scream openly spoof the all-too-familiar conventions of their genre, like a shipwrecked explorer who eats his own flesh in order to survive.
Far more interesting, if ultimately no less decadent, is The Blair Witch Project, a no-budget film shot for $35,000 that is well on its way to becoming the most profitable independent movie ever made. It is a near-perfect exercise in post-modernism, a horror film whose subject is film itself. The improvised script is as thin as a summer suit: three student filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Michael Williams, and Joshua Leonard) set out to shoot a documentary about a Maryland forest that is said to be haunted. They lose their way and are forced to camp in the woods, growing colder, hungrier, and steadily more terrified as they come to realize that an unknown assailant is stalking them. In the end, they vanish without a trace, leaving behind the undeveloped film that directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez have edited into a movie called—what else?—The Blair Witch Project.
Blair Witch was shrewdly designed to appeal to media-savvy teenagers lured by an Internet-based publicity campaign which left the false impression that Donahue, Williams, and Leonard were not actors playing parts but actual students who really disappeared in the Blair woods. (All three actors are referred to by their own names in the film.) This impression is reinforced by the deliberately amateurish cinematography—the actors shot the film themselves—while the alleged “horrors” are suggested rather than shown, a time-honored technique beloved of cash-strapped producers, though none the less effective for its familiarity.
Alas, Blair Witch, though hugely entertaining, is not especially scary, no doubt because it was all too clearly made by people who do not believe in the demons whose presence they have so cunningly implied. To be sure, there are moments when the movie breaks free of its ingenious conceit and becomes something more than merely artful; near the end, Donahue turns the camera on herself and records a final message to her family that is unexpectedly moving, while the climactic scene, in which the students meet their invisible tormentor, leaves a sharp aftertaste of genuine fear. Elsewhere, though, one rarely feels that the very clever people who made The Blair Witch Project thought they were doing anything more than making a very clever film.
Not so M. Night Shyamalian, the 28-year-old writer-director of The Sixth Sense, whose labyrinthine plot centers on Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis, who is excellent), a Philadelphia psychiatrist charged with the care of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment, who is even better), a nine-year-old boy obsessed with violence whose arms are covered with mysterious scars. At length, Cole makes a confession to Dr. Crowe— “I see dead people”—and the doctor, not unreasonably, concludes that his young patient is a paranoid schizophrenic. But Cole’s problem turns out to be not nearly so simple, and the more time Dr. Crowe spends with the boy, the more he comes to doubt his diagnosis.
For once, the convention of not giving away the surprise ending of a popular film will be honored here: If you’re not floored by the last couple of twists in Shyamalian’s script, you ought to consider taking up script-writing yourself. But The Sixth Sense, while it contains more than a few moments scary enough to make you grab a stranger’s arm, is no ordinary horror movie, but the work of a greatly gifted director who has the power to make reality itself seem hallucinatory. Though the dialogue is nicely turned, The Sixth Sense, like Vertigo or North by Northwest, is meant to be seen as much as heard, and in Shyamalian’s knowing hands, everyday sights—dead leaves whisking down a South Philadelphia street, a helium balloon floating to the top of an empty stairwell—all but quiver with numinous implications.
Yet the film’s impact arises in even larger part from the fact that unlike Blair Witch, not to mention every other horror movie made in the past quarter-century it takes its own subject matter seriously. Not coincidentally, Cole is a Catholic— when he recites the De Profundis, Dr. Crowe is forced to dig out his college Latin dictionary and translate it word by word—and at no time is it suggested that his faith is in any way foolish, perverse, or otherwise inferior to the secular religion of psychiatry. (In fact, the boy’s faith and his mother’s love are the only things keeping him from going mad.) Just as important, Cole’s credibility as a character hinges on the audience’s willingness to believe that he really does see dead people, for his appalling visions are not explicable as mere metaphors or wishful thinking: They are real or they are nothing.
The Sixth Sense is not overtly religious—otherwise, it wouldn’t have become a hit—but its spiritual underpinnings are not extraneous to the film’s phenomenal success, which seems to have taken its producers by surprise and is by all accounts the result not of paid publicity, but the kind of word-of-mouth enthusiasm no money can buy. My guess is that a goodly percentage of its viewers, whether they know it or not, are reveling in the rare opportunity to see a movie that accords with their own convictions; most Americans, after all, believe in God, heaven, and hell, and while I have no information as to Shyamalian’s own religious opinions, I have a sneaking suspicion that they are not dissimilar. This may explain why The Sixth Sense has replaced The Blair Witch Project at the top of the box-office charts. All other things being equal, a film about something is more interesting than a film about nothing.