For my day job, working with the International Screenwriters’ Association, I asked our membership to tell me what they feel is the most well-written supernatural movie. I defined this as ghost story movies, demon, exorcism, possession and witchcraft movies. I posited the same question on our WhatsYourGhostStory Facebook page. (Also, if you are a writer, I highly suggest clicking the logo above and joining our free online community for writers) The plan was to then do a blog post on the leading vote-getter, YOUR favorite supernatural script:
Well, the many votes are in when it comes to your picks for the best written supernatural movie. I have to say, my favorite thing about how the open voting went was what a wide range of films and eras were covered. However, the stand out winner was “The Sixth Sense.” I was a little surprised that “Exorcist” or one of my personal favorites, “Poltergeist,” didn’t get more love. That said, it’s hard to argue against “The Sixth Sense.” For one, it was a box office sensation, bringing in $672.8 million internationally in 1999. Domestically, it did nearly double the business as “The Matrix” in the same year, so you know it reached a lot of people.
“The Sixth Sense” set the bar during a great a year for supernatural films in America. Its $293.5M domestic take easily beat experimental indie phenom “The Blair Witch Project” ($140.5M), “Sleepy Hollow” ($101M), “The Haunting” $91.4, “Stigmata” ($50M), “House on Haunted Hill” ($40.8M) and the tragically unheralded “Stir of Echoes” ($21.1M).
Honestly, this might be a hall of fame year for spooky cinema. So, how did “The Sixth Sense” stand out in such a crowded pack?
We’ll all jump to that “you gotta see it to believe it” twist, which M. Night credits to great storytelling in an episode of DJ MacHale’s “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” Listen to DJ talk about “The Sixth Sense” with ISA’s Max Timm by clicking on the image to the left (the portion that discusses “The Sixth Sense” starts at 53:30).
However, that twist is meaningless if we haven’t gotten fully involved with our characters. Even in the trailer, you can see a tremendous amount of character development and you get a feel, not just for the adventure that the characters are embarking on, but how they are handling the challenges that they’re tasked with. Re-live that trailer here:
Even from the trailer, a you can see the characters dealing with the weight and difficulty of their challenges. Of course, you can’t deny the quality of the acting performances as well.
While the premise, the world and the depth of the characters are important, there are a million times where this film could’ve fallen apart. Writer/Director, M Night Shyamalan talks about how he early on had to establish the “rules” of the story to make sure continuity and believability tracked throughout the script.
This is a great way to think about approaching any script. “The Sixth Sense” has an element of fantasy in it because we are dealing with the supernatural and concepts that are only theory. So, it’s easy to see how the writer would benefit from creating a set of rules for their story and character to live by. But why limit it to fantasy? Our stories and characters all have plot hurdles and personality flaws that they need to address before the story can end and the character arcs can complete. Why not think of our scripts in the terms of “rules that cannot be broken” unless some other need is addressed that allows for change to happen logically?
Whether it’s “The Sixth Sense,” “Ghost Story,” “The Changeling,” “The Innocents,” “The Eye,” “The Others,” or one of the other great supernatural films, the only real difference is the setting/world/arena and the specific second act adventure activities. Otherwise, it’s all about solid script writing as usual.
Editor’s Note: My personal top five favorite supernatural films include the original Thai version of the Pang Brothers film “The Eye,” “Poltergeist,” “Stir of Echoes,” “The Conjuring” and “Rosemary’s Baby.”