Colour Symbolism: Red in The Sixth Sense

I watched The Sixth Sense with my mum the other night, and I’m glad I did because, despite having seen it a few times before, I’d forgotten just how good it really is. M. Night Shyamalan has gathered a bad rep since The Village, as made clear by articles on the interweb such as this one, and to be honest, there’s been enough written on how dire a director he is. I’m personally a bit tired of it all. I think I’m one of the only people who actually liked The Village, and who thought The Happening was hilarious and therefore incredibly enjoyable (who can deny the comic genius of the plastic plant scene?) But this isn’t going to be a defence of Shyamalan. That would probably take too long. I’d have to engage in existing arguments, and watch The Last Airbender – something I’m not going to do.

Instead, I’m going to be a cowardly English student and talk about colour. I’m planning to write my dissertation on the colour red in Decadent literature of the late 19th Century, and so naturally I’ve been on the look out for anything red in my critical reading at Uni. It seems as though a sensitivity to the colour has passed into my everyday life, as I couldn’t help but notice red appearing symbolically in The Sixth Sense. The colour palette of the film is actually quite muted, except for these instances of bright red that stick out like a sore thumb. Having done a little research (google searching “red in The Sixth Sense”), it’s become obvious that the colour symbolises “anything in the real world that has been tainted by the other world” and is used “to connote really explosively emotional moments and situations” (quotes from Shyamalan himself). It’s discussed by a lot of people, but I thought I’d recap the obvious before moving on to the less discussed ideas of sanctuary and religion:

1. Cole’s red jumper at the kid’s party, and the red balloon, both pre-empt the ghost sobbing in the wall. It has also been said that the image of the balloon rising up towards the light through the centre of the spiral staircase is representative of a spirit rising up towards God, with the staircase representing life’s journey. The fact that Cole wears red here could be symbolic of his situation at this point: he is naive and uncertain, but is drawn to the voices nonetheless. Red is the colour of the spirit world, and so by wearing it he is inadvertently drawing spirits towards him. His duller colours towards the end of the film are a conscious choice. He has accepted his gift but does not wish to draw unnecessary attention, showing that he can control his situation better.

2. Anna constantly wears red after the passing of her husband Malcolm. The various shades of it relate to her psychological state, and how strongly she feels the presence of (or remembers) Malcolm. When she gives the gift of a book to her new potential lover, the red is dull and almost brown, suggesting that she is letting go of her memories and moving on. Her red is rarely aggressive, because Malcolm wishes her no harm, the only exceptions being when she wears bright red at her anniversary dinner, and the red of her antidepressants (unfortunately I can’t find decent pictures of them). In the dinner scene, Malcolm talks directly to her while she is awake, something he doesn’t usually do, but is argumentative and stressed. He interprets her demeanour as bitter and dismissive, and so he reacts to this with negativity. The pills are bright red because they embody all of the sadness left over from his death. Anna is also wrapped in a red shawl whenever Malcolm sits with her as she sleeps, but again this red is not startling, but a softer hue.

3. Kyra’s get well soon cards are mostly on red card, a colour that would have foreshadowed her fate. At her funeral her mother wears a striking red suit with red lipstick, there are red roses, and the box with the tape inside is wrapped in a red velvet ribbon. I immediately spotted the red woman, and was therefore suspicious of her. Her haunting is different to Anna’s. The part she played in her daughter’s death means that her relationship to the “other world”  is more acute, represented by the brightness of her red.

4. There are other obvious instances of red, such as the red door knob to the cellar, the red pen that Cole uses to scribble the voices of ghosts, the red dress of the hanging woman, and the red helmet of the dead woman towards the end. These are all rather straightforward nods toward the spirit world and its influence on the real world.

All of these points prove the theory that red is the colour of the spirit world – of ghosts trapped in limbo – their anger and frustration culminating in a fiery flash of bright colour that signifies their desperation to be heard and understood. Their voices are red with bitterness, and when they wear red themselves, their desire to be seen is taken to another level, thus revealing their inherent selfishness.

But is there any red that upsets this understanding of the colour as anger and bitterness? For me, there is, especially in relation to sanctuary and religion. The statue of Jesus that Cole steals is draped in a red cloak, his tent of refuge is red, the stone of the sword that he raises in the play towards the end is a bright ruby colour, and his mother wears red at one of their closest moments. Interestingly, she rarely wears the colour so obviously, except maybe on her nails. This set me to thinking about Cole’s relationship with his mother, and his desperation for sanctuary.

Cole retreats to two spaces of safety in reaction to the spirits that chase him. The church, and his tent. As seen at the start of the film, the church doors are a bright red, and so is his tent:

So, contradictorily, red is both a colour of danger and ghosts, and of safety and refuge. I think the key to understanding this contradiction is in religion and all its contradictions and promises. Cole’s understanding of religion is a simple one. He sees the church as a place to escape the spirits’ voices that are haunting him, and yet he enters possibly one of the most spiritual places he can find. Similarly, his tent is his home-made sanctuary, and yet is a colour that would most definitely attract spirits. He wants to hide behind the positivity of Christianity, and ignore the darker side, thereby ignoring the problem that he faces in his life. It is not until he accepts his situation, and learns to deal with it (to help the ghosts pass on, instead of denying their existence) that he becomes less drawn to these spaces of harsh red. The last scene of him in a church sees him stood in front of a bright stained glass window, with colours such as yellow and pink on offer, but no red. He has learnt a life of balance, and therefore the extremes of the colour palette do not need to make as much of an appearance. This is not to say that red is a purely childish and negative colour. Red can still represent something positive in Cole’s life, but in excess, and uncontrolled, it is dangerous to his mental health.

In the play of “The Sword in the Stone” that Cole performs in at the end of the movie, he is given the part of Arthur. When he pulls the sword from the stone, it has a deep red ruby set in to it. The act of releasing the sword, and the colour of the gem, are representative of Cole’s new ability to harness his power. Red (representative of the spirit world and faith) will still play a large part in his life, but he will be able to control it and harness it (even wield it as a power), just as Arthur is the only one able to lift the weapon. The concentrated nature of the red in the form of a small gem (you almost miss it if you’re not on the look out for it) and its deep colour (it is not brash or acrid), are a turning point for the colour in the film. It is no longer running wild, hurting Cole and distressing him, or causing him religious confusion, but becomes part of his nature.

One option for Cole in his time of distress would be to turn to his mother. However, she does not understand or want to believe his predicament, and her ignorance to his troubles is represented by her lack of red. Her embraces do not help Cole, even though they may be offered with good intentions. She must listen to Cole’s story in order to truly be a space of safety and happiness for him. Therefore, when she finally hears his secret in the car at the end, she wears her most obvious red. Instead of being a figure drained of bright colour, leaving Cole to run to the church and his tent, she now possesses a warmth that she should have possessed as a mother all along, and is his new refuge, as represented by their final hug.

Red is an undeniable tool in The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan has admitted this himself, and it has been discussed endlessly with reference to the spirits and strong emotion. I hope I’ve been able to add my own little twist on the colour’s meaning in pointing out the importance of the sword scene, and of Cole’s relationship to the Church.

Sorry for such a long post! Peace out.

11 thoughts on “Colour Symbolism: Red in The Sixth Sense

  1. Well. This is eloquent, excellently put together and thought provoking. I have literally never put any of my words remotely this well together.

    See? I even fucked that up.

    Thanks for the follow lookin forward to more of yours!

    • hunkamunka says:

      Thank you! I’m hoping to do more writing like this in the future rather than just film reviews. I really loved your blog, I’ve been really getting in to zombie movies recently and loving watching all the old 70s and 80s zombie gore flicks!

      • Well, we’ve seen our fair share of zombie flicks, but tend towards the more recent dreck as we look forward to covering horror conventions (helps to review movies folks have been in, even if they’re right garbage)

    • Debbie Gardner says:

      Your post is NOT too long. It is thorough! I did not notice the red as a symbol until I saw Kyras mother’s bright red dress at her funeral. That was too obvious not to notice . The red lipstick stuck out like a sore thumb, a red one, lol. Then the red door knob also stuck out. Your explanation of how the red was a sanctuary as well as a sign of danger is very complete. I enjoyed it. Especially how his mom’s red sweater became the symbol of the new sanctuary for Cole. By the way, do you know that some cultures use red veils and red trim on wedding clothes? I got my nephew and his wife bride and groom teddy bears as a little gift and they came from China. The veil and the grooms tie are red.

  2. Bennett says:

    you helped me actually understand this symbolism for an upcoming highschool english movie analysis. Well worth the read

  3. […] There’s a few explanations for this. First, like the series Lost, all the characters are dead, and we’re near the point where the more in-tune characters start to begin that something isn’t quite right. It’s like The Matrix in that regard as well. Hina’s red dress is massive foreshadowing, duh. I’ve seen the same device used in The Sixth Sense! […]

  4. […] M. Night Shyamalan’s first and best film without much competition, this original ghost story is an extremely tense thriller that showed far more promise in its young director than has been delivered. However, we cannot forget how good this debut was. Culminating in one of the great cinematic twists, The Sixth Sense helped propel Haley Joel Osment to young stardom more than any prior project, and it brought back Bruce Willis big time. But that big shock doesn’t have to be so big if you’ve got an eye for the color red. As it happens, before Cole or the audience sees a ghost there is always a noticeably red item that shows up in the frame. Screen Muse highlights this out in this post. […]

  5. […] isn’t only a cheat. It also adds layers of subtext to original stories. Think of the way the color red is used in The Sixth Sense or the lighting cues that Dean Cudney used in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The way Sandy […]

  6. Teri Munroe says:

    Really good outlook on the color red in the movie The Sixth Sense

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