Illustration by Jenn Marie Watermeier

For most of his life, Evan Dossey generally avoided horror films. The genre made him profoundly uncomfortable. This meant he had enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Over the years, he has asked family and friends which essential horror movies he needs to see and spent the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those folks — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.

The Sixth Sense was the first hardcore horror film my parents took me to see in the theater. Hardcore for an 8-year-old, anyway. While I was hardly new to the genre, this movie seemed to explore darker depths of disturbing material I hadn’t seen before. I remember pacing in front of the poster before the showtime, pondering whether I was ready for what was in store. Little did I know The Sixth Sense would be the only horror film to truly haunt me for years to come, resulting in the lack of sleep to which this essay series’ title refers.

By the time we saw the film that summer, it was still standing as the number one movie at the box office. Given its wide audience appeal and PG-13 rating, I figured it couldn’t be that scary, right? Boy, was I wrong.

Although it has an intense opening scene, The Sixth Sense simmers at a slow burn for a long spell before boiling over with big scares. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan devotes most of the first act to establishing a tender, disarming relationship between child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and his latest patient — a quiet, troubled boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment).

Unfortunately, the film’s marketing campaign didn’t keep Cole’s secret a surprise. He sees dead people. But the film sets this up rather subtly. We see mysteriously opened cabinets in his kitchen and scratches on his arms. In his history class, he says his elementary school was used as a place to hang people during the Revolutionary War. But nearly an hour goes by before a scary ghost makes an appearance.

Up until this point, I was fairly comfortable during the film. When the following scene arrived, fear struck me like a lightning bolt.

Cole wakes up in the dark and dashes down the hallway to the bathroom. While he’s doing his business, a woman walks past. It could be his mother, but the dropping temperature and air of dread suggest otherwise. Cole cautiously walks to the kitchen and sees the back of what looks like his mom. The woman whips around and turns out to be the ghost of an abused housewife who turned to suicide. She thrusts out her slashed wrists and yells at him as if he’s her husband.

Just like Jaws scared people away from swimming, this scene made me afraid of getting up in the middle of the night to pee. One of the reasons why is that it seemed like something that could possibly happen to me. After all, I was around the same age as Cole.

This scene has lingered in my mind late at night for decades now. Because this series is partly about confronting the films and cinematic moments that scared us most, I thought, “Why not track down the actress who played the kitchen ghost and scarred me for life? Maybe she could help me better understand why this scene crawls so deeply beneath my skin.”

It turns out that the actress behind the ghoulish glare and bruise makeup is a lovely woman named Janis Dardaris. When I talked to her over the phone, I brought her back to 1999 and described the sense of inescapable fear I felt during her scene, shuddering in a stadium seat of my local theater.

Janis Dardaris

“That must’ve scared the hell out of an 8-year-old boy!” she said.

“Yeah, I think I actually cried,” I recalled.

“I’ll bet you did!” she replied.

Because Dardaris is a well-known stage actress in Shyamalan’s home of Philadelphia — and the film’s shooting location — a casting director called her in to audition for the part.

“They were having a hard time casting that role because they needed somebody who could be scary, and I thought, ‘Oh, I got this,’ ” Dardaris said.

She certainly nailed it, making viewers feel the traumatic weight of her character’s tortured life and the ferocity of her anger, all in the span of about 30 seconds.

“In a short amount of time, you get her whole story,” she said. “Only in death can she fight back (against her abusive husband), and he’s not even there. She’s haunted. Even in death, she has no sense of release, which makes it all the more tragic and terrifying.”

That’s what makes these ghosts so unsettling. It’s not so much that they are haunting Cole; it’s that they themselves are haunted and seeking catharsis. In the case of the kitchen ghost, she’s seeking revenge.

“That scene has a timeless quality,” Dardaris said. “Women are still being abused, people are still dying, and we don’t know if the dead are still among us.”

It wasn’t until many years after The Sixth Sense that Dardaris had an experience that opened her up to the possibility of seeing spirits. While catering a party for the prestigious publishing agent Joni Evans, she met Rosemary Altea, the psychic and author of the bestselling book The Eagle and the Rose, which explores Altea’s encounters with dead people. Dardaris happened to be dealing with death and grief herself at that point, as a close friend of hers died of cancer.

“Rosemary found out I was in The Sixth Sense, and she said, ‘That’s my story.’ I didn’t believe she saw dead people, so I tested her and asked, ‘Do you see anyone in my life?’ She said, ‘Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. Someone in your life just died of cancer, and they were going to build your cupboards or something?’ My friend who died of cancer was going to build shelves in my home. That freaked me out.”

Because The Sixth Sense is about sharing spiritual connections, I told Dardaris about receiving what clearly seemed like a message from my dad a few years after he died. On my birthday, I was sitting at home alone, aimlessly digging around in my pockets, distracting myself from my dad’s absence. I asked for some kind of sign from him. When I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket later, I found a text above my mom and brother’s numbers that read “POP,” like the nickname for dad. Did I accidentally type this while my hand was in my pocket? It seemed too strange to be a mere coincidence.

The Sixth Sense isn’t just about sinister spirits; it’s also about comforting encounters with those who have passed. Take the scene in which Cole finally reveals his secret to his mom (Toni Collette) and talks about an important message he received from beyond his grandmother’s grave. Like Dardaris’s conversation with the psychic who saw her friend, it’s a painfully intimate exchange that proves the past is not behind us and our loved ones are not truly gone.

While this film used to haunt me, it now soothes my soul. When I watch the kitchen ghost burst on screen, I’ll think, “There’s my friend, Janis!” — a bright, enchanting spirit transformed by the magic of movies.