The ignominious fate of The Sixth Sense (1972) television series (nothing to do with Willis either) — butchered, derided and ultimately forgotten — is undeserved and so we’re going to spend some time exploring the show and what makes it a candidate for rediscovery for fans of paranormal and supernaturally-themed titles.
The series has its basis in Sutton Roley’s 1971 made-for-TV movie Sweet, Sweet Rachel. A number of other television films of the time, like The House That Wouldn’t Die (1970) and A Taste of Evil (1971) had popularised themes of hauntings and psychological horror. Roley’s film features Stephanie Powers as the titular Rachel, grieving for the husband who killed himself and worrying that her uncontrolled psychic abilities drove him to it. But she’s not the only one in the family with such ESP powers as Dr. Darrow (Alex Dreier) finds out in this psychic-murder-mystery. As he investigates what actually happened he must also use his own abilities to stay alive long enough to discover the truth. The film was written by Anthony Lawrence, a well-established writer who had previously worked on shows like Naked City (1959-1963), The Outer Limits (1963-1965), Medical Center (1969-1976) and many others. Lawrence would go on to use the central concept of a doctor of parapsychology investigating cases of apparent hauntings, psychic attacks and murder to create a weekly series. The main doctor for the show would be Dr. Michael Rhodes, played by Gary Collins, and Rhodes would similarly have his own ESP powers and frequently use this ability to solve the case. Collins was a well-established television actor who would go on to his greatest success as a talk-show host in the ‘80s.
The Sixth Sense also has its roots in a popular subset of paperbacks of the time, that of the women-in-supernatural-danger and house-of-evil kind. Only a year before, that great gothic-romance-horror-science fiction soap Dark Shadows ( 1966-1971) had finished its run (as well as producing two feature films). Marilyn Ross (a pseudonym for author Dan Ross) had written a series of novels that separated from the show’s ongoing arcs, usually involving Barnabas and Quentin solving a supernatural mystery that frequently involved a damsel-in-distress. Many of the titles featured a woman arriving at a large house for some reason or other and finding love and supernatural danger within. Or it would feature a house with a dark and violent history and sinister intent for its new, often temporary inhabitants, as can be found in titles like Richard Matheson’s Hell House (1971). Around this time we also got novels like Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973) which were, like Matheson’s tale, quickly adapted into films. It’s a trend that would continue on for some years, with authors like Bernard Taylor, Michael McDowell and V.C Andrews twisting these basics into ever more threatening directions in their novels. For those interested, there’s more on this era of writing in the marvellous Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ‘70s and ‘80s Horror Fiction (2017, Quirk Books) by Grady Hendrix.
So it’s easy to understand how The Sixth Sense could have been considered a sure cert for success. As we’ve established, its core elements — paranormal mystery and women-in-danger — were staples of many television movies and popular novels hitting big at the time. As much as the series was inarguably a paranormal show (with that element of the plots never being in question) it was also designed around the standard procedural template of many other hit shows. Imagine that Rhodes is essentially a detective solving a crime and it’s not substantially different in that respect. However, a few things made it stand out at the time. Firstly, although recent series Night Gallery (1970-1973) had found some moderate success with television horror, it was part of a number of anthology shows that had used the tools of the paranormal and horror for its stories, and was not a continuing series. Though it is strictly horror as compared to The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), Thriller (1960-1962), The Outer Limits, et al which used the genre occasionally, Night Gallery was different for each week’s instalments. The Sixth Sense’s closest anthology relative is one of the first that specialised in such themes, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (1959-1961). The John Newland-hosted series told stories of possessions, hauntings and other such unlikely events and presented them to viewers as documents of truth about the unexplainable. Again, as an anthology every single story was different and featured no reoccurring characters or situations.
So in this respect, The Sixth Sense is one of the earliest American series that featured the same characters involved in different plots each episode. Another point that stands out with the show is that it takes its premise completely seriously.
There’s no late-60s style camp or arched eyebrow in delivery, and unlike contemporary entertainment like the Carl Kolchak movies and the later Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975) series it rarely uses humour to cut the tension. It is sincere, and expects its audience to completely buy in as well. There’s no cynicism involved and although the series regularly involves characters who refuse to believe or doubt Rhodes, they usually end up converted through the evidence of that week’s events. The third element that separates out The Sixth Sense from simply being a procedural in different clothing is how the paranormal is presented. For an early ’70s show, it often goes out of its way with stylised jump-cutting, use of surprise, shadow, slow-motion and atmosphere-building to make the frequent paranormal events, deaths and attempted murders genuinely unsettling. And in this, the show does not make allowances for people — it’s actually out to unnerve. This is particularly evident in the sequences where Collins must survive attempts on his own life, or the occasionally out-of-nowhere scares the show throws at us. By today’s standards this is now quite tame of course, but the show was, at the time, using what often made one-off weekly movies scary for home audiences and attempting to utilise it on something that was also inviting you back each week for more.
There’s much to appreciate and enjoy about this show, especially if you’re a fan of the aforementioned anthologies and series of subsequent shows like The X-Files (1993-present) that deal in tales of the paranormal and the unexplainable. Not least in that The Sixth Sense had some outstanding episode titles: “I Do Not Belong to the Human World”, “Dear Joan, We Are Going to Scare You to Death” and “I Did Not Mean to Slay Thee’’ amongst many others through a 25-episode run. As it’s a ‘70s series there is also a great list of guest stars who appeared in the run, including John Saxon, William Shatner, Joan Crawford, Henry Silva and many others. It took the plots and inspirations from classic and contemporary films and novels and tried to do something with them. Though many of the plots are now familiar versions of common tropes from the paranormal, the series often attempted to do something interesting with them.
Sadly, the series is either not considered at all or remembered as part of the syndication butchery that affected Night Gallery. Both shows didn’t run for long enough for the syndication sweet spot (usually considered four full seasons or ideally a hundred or more episodes). The Sixth Sense had initially completed a short run of 13 episodes in the early part of 1972 and despite ratings that were not exactly that of a hit it would come back from 12 more later in the year. It didn’t fare well enough in the ratings against the likes of Mission: Impossible (1966-1973), itself nearing the end of its run and dipping in viewers, and so would not return for a third season. To make use of both Serling’s show and the total run of the Collins series, a thoroughly ridiculous idea was agreed: edit episodes of Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense together into half hour-long episodes and make Serling suffer shooting new introductions for the segments from a show he had nothing to do with. You could imagine that by cutting down two near-50 minute shows (at least in Gallery’s first two seasons) to 25 minutes and editing it into something totally unrelated would cause problems, and so it did. Both the Night Gallery segments — often also edited down — and The Sixth Sense episodes became an unintelligible mess that benefited neither.
And this is how most people came to remember The Sixth Sense — a mess of a series that, for decades, blighted Serling’s show. Its reputation became one of a ruiner that failed in its own right, and perhaps that is why the series has rarely been shown in its full form since the initial broadcast. That assessment of it, as a poor show that made worse a better show, is unfair. A recent French release in 2014 of the complete show on DVD, in its unedited and original sequence, allows us to rediscover a series that, whilst not an unheralded and lost-to-the-ages absolute classic, has much to offer. Collins is a winningly convincing lead, and although he’s not given too much to do, when he is he really works to sell it. It’s spooky, occasionally scary, often gripping, imaginative, and is entertainingly out-there fun. For genre fans and those who enjoy television (and television movies) of the period, please seek it out. It is time very well spent.