This year's Academy Award nominees for Best Picture--"The Green Mile," "The Cider House Rules," "The Insider," "The Sixth Sense," and "American Beauty," the winner--had something in common besides being nominated. All are paeans to the importance of the examined life. In all of them, the protagonist learns the importance of truth telling and living your life with integrity.

Two of the nominees--"American Beauty" and "The Sixth Sense"--shared something else: They're ghost stories. Not as in "Boo!" but in the sense that in both films, the examined life is impossible without dying first. In both films, death becomes a metaphor for understanding. In both, ghosts provide the moral center.

M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense," a horror story set in Philadelphia, tells the story of Cole Sear, a 9-year-old Catholic school student, played by Haley Joel Osment (who lost Best Supporting Actor to Michael Caine). Calling Cole "troubled" would be an understatement. He is emotionally fragile: withdrawn, anxious, even paranoid. What neither his mother nor his teachers understand is the source of Cole's fragility: He sees dead people.

In desperation, his mom turns to Malcolm Crowe, a psychologist played by Bruce Willis, for help. Their first meeting takes place in an especially baroque Catholic church--the only thing missing from the set is the Infant of Prague--where Cole has fled for shelter, all the while repeating "De profundis, clamo ad te, Domine." ("From the depths, I cry to thee, O Lord.") The church and the Latin Psalter are only two of the many Catholic images Shyamalan includes to add atmosphere to the film.

These images prompted J.A. Hanson, a teaching fellow in the philosophy department at Fordham University, to characterize "The Sixth Sense" as a "uniquely Christian ghost story." (Actually, "Catholic" would have been the better choice of words.) Writing in re:generation quarterly, Hanson said that Shyamalan's ghosts are reminiscent of the spirits in "The Divine Comedy": souls passing through a kind of purgatory on their way to eternal rest.

But as Cole tells Malcolm, the problem is that many of the dead people he sees don't know they are dead. And because they don't know they are dead, they can neither find peace nor come to terms with how they lived their lives. In Shyamalan's story, death enables us to see our lives, and ourselves, as they really are.

Death as the bringer of clarity is also a theme in Sam Mendes' "American Beauty," albeit in a less obvious way. Mendes' narrator and protagonist, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey, who took away the award for Best Actor), is speaking to us from the grave. Even alive, Lester lived in a kind of purgatory. His life, despite the trappings of suburban success, was a mess: a job he hated, a frigid wife who cared more about her roses--American Beauties--than about him, a daughter he couldn't connect with, and a sordid preoccupation with his daughter's best friend. Even his efforts at changing his life only served to underscore his spiritual emptiness--an emptiness that he fully comprehends only when it's too late.

Movie buffs will recognize Mendes' use of a narrator speaking from the grave as a homage to Billy Wilder's 1950 classic, "Sunset Boulevard." In Wilder's film, Joe Gillis (William Holden), whom we first meet floating facedown in a swimming pool, tells us the story of how he got there.

In both films, two men, who spent most of their lives hiding the truth from themselves and others, are forced after death to see their lives as they lived them. In these films, as in "The Sixth Sense," death becomes a metaphor for understanding.

"The Sixth Sense" and "American Beauty" weren't the only movies with ghosts released last year. But they were easily the most successful, both artistically and commercially. I don't want to overstate the case, but I think that their use of ghosts had something to do with their success.

While the other films were content to use ghosts the way they've always been used--to scare the audience, as seekers of revenge--these films, despite being very different from each other, both used ghosts as a way of telling us something about ourselves. In both films, instead of being content with saying "Boo!" the ghosts said "Think!" The result was the kind of storytelling that gets recognized at Oscar time.

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