24 Years Ago, Toni Collette Played The Ultimate Horror Movie Single Mom In Sixth Sense
Lynn is a single mom who’s just trying to get through the day. Or she was until she came into the kitchen and all of the cupboard doors were open.
I watch The Sixth Sense every year around this time, no matter what. I watch it for the big twist ending like everybody else. I watch it for Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis and Bruce Willis’ confounding hairpiece. I watch it to see Philadelphia in a way that feels authentic even though I’ve never visited. But mostly I watch it to see Toni Collette as Lynn Sears and believe her — completely, deeply believe her. The most single mom of all single moms on films. The one performance that feels real and true and, perhaps best of all, kind.
The Sixth Sense wasn’t meant to be anything when it came out back in 1999. M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t a big deal yet, not the level of big deal he became. Bruce Willis was always Bruce Willis, but I’m sorry to tell you that people didn’t really go to movies just to see Bruce Willis then. He was like everyone’s third favorite friend at a party. You were happy to see him, but you wouldn’t have changed your plans if he wasn’t going to be there.
We all went, though, in massive droves. At first because of the macabre story about a little boy who sees dead people. And then again because no one could get over the twist. And again and again, in my case, because of that first scene with Lynn that hooked me.
You might not remember it. Cole is sitting in the kitchen and Lynn is bustling around the house getting ready for her day. She is getting her shirt out of the dryer. There is a basket of laundry waiting to be folded. She reminds Cole to eat his Cocoa Puffs before they get soggy, which is as real as it gets because soggy Cocoa Puffs are dead disgusting. She is not angry or happy or any big feeling, she is simply arms and legs and doing, doing, doing.
She is afraid of her son and afraid for her son, and she will continue to be throughout the movie.
Lynn is a single mom who works two jobs to take care of her son and she’s just trying to get through the day. Or she was until she came into the kitchen and all of the cupboard doors were open. She stops and asks Cole if he was looking for something. She is, in that moment, all the way present. “Look at my face,” she tells him as his little terrified hands leave sweaty prints on the kitchen table. “I’m never thinking something bad about you.”
Except she is thinking something bad. And the worst part is, she can’t share it with anyone. She is alone in her worry and her aloneness makes it bigger, a pit in her stomach that expands and moves until she can’t breathe. She is afraid of her son and afraid for her son as she will continue to be throughout the movie. When he is covered in scratches, or comes to her one night shaking so badly that she breaks down in tears sobbing, “Please tell me what’s wrong. Please!” And the worst part is, he can’t tell her. Not at first. Because she is all he has and he is all she has. This, this is something I understand: the unshared worry, the closed loop of our little family. The bleeding of the lines between mother and child. “I’m tired in my body, I’m tired in my mind, I’m tired in my heart,” Lynn tells Cole when she is at her wit’s end. “We’re going to have to answer each other’s prayers. If we can’t talk to each other, we won’t make it.”
Toni Collette was just 27 years old when she played Lynn. She was several years away from becoming a mother herself, and not a single mother at that. So how does she know? How does she know what it feels like to live in a house that is cold and dark and always a bit messier than it should be, to work two jobs and miss her son’s performance and walk around with guilt, guilt, guilt so deep it’s a tattoo that will never be removed? How does she know what it is to mask that guilt, to push her son in a grocery cart through the parking lot at a run just to make him smile? To make pancakes for dinner, keep Pop-Tarts in the cupboard, because she is still young, too — young enough to want Pop-Tarts.
How does she know what it’s like to go to a kids’ birthday party where she was invited to stay but is always separate, swirling her drink in clothes that didn’t quite make the cut? The jeans too bootcut, the top too low cut. Alone except for Cole, who is alone except for her. The little boy who is broken and no one can tell her why. Because everyone sort of just figures it’s her. Even the ghost of Bruce Willis at first.
Ghost Bruce Willis and everyone else assume that the only thing that could be wrong with Cole is his parents’ divorce. It has to be the divorce. What is worse than divorce? Oh, it must be the divorce is the child version of Oh, it must be stress. A catchall for wounds. But sometimes there are bigger wounds, especially in horror movies where there are actual wounds. From ghosts, which I personally consider worse than being raised by a single mom, but others might disagree.
It’s a little depressing that Lynn in The Sixth Sense is the most relatable single mom on film, but it also makes a dark sort of sense. Because the conceit of this horror movie is the loneliness of no one listening to you when you tell them there’s something happening. How isolated you can feel when everyone is living a life that is totally different from yours. That no one will believe you when you tell them that something is in the closet, under the bed, outside the window.
No one, that is, except the closed circle of you and your kid. Eating pancakes for dinner, taking Pop-Tarts for snacks, doing everything a little wrong and somehow, together, making it right.