Writer and director M. Night Shyamalan is returning to the big screen with Old, which promises to be a fresh start for the director who defined modern suspense films in the 2000s. Every one of his projects in his two-decade catalogue — from The Sixth Sense all the way through his Unbreakable trilogy — carries with it a unique theme: fear. So, we wonder, what are his movies afraid of?
I’ve compiled a list of Shyamalan’s biggest films from the past 22 years, starting with 1999’s The Sixth Sense through his upcoming film Old. Instead of ranking each one on quality — because, let’s be honest, most of us are in agreement about which ones are good and which are bad — I decided to explore what fear is present and explored in each film (keep in mind this is a subjective list but one that is also 100% correct). This culminates in an overall fear that’s present in all his work. Well, except for She’s All That. Yep, Shyamalan worked on the script for the classic ‘90s “boy meets nerd and gives her a makeover” movie. Though the only thing to fear in that one is being “wack.”
The Sixth Sense (1999): Death
Shyamalan’s breakthrough smash hit, about a boy who can communicate with the dead, is about the nature of grief and the uncertainty of what lies beyond. In this film, ghosts in limbo don’t realise they’re dead because they’re so afraid of accepting that they’re gone. That’s why the nature of death itself is the first, and arguably most famous, fear that’s present in Shyamalan’s work.
Old (2021): Mortality
His newest film, Old, exists along a similar line but takes a vastly different approach. Based on the graphic novel Sandcastle, written by Pierre Oscar Lévy and drawn by Frederik Peeters, Old is about a group of tourists trapped on a beach where they rapidly age by the hour. This one isn’t so much about the fear of death (although I’m sure they’re scared of that too) as it is about having one’s life stolen from them.
Signs (2002): Faithlessness
Call Shyamalan R.E.M. because his films are always losing their religion. A major theme in his work is the loss of faith and the fear that comes with not knowing your place in the universe. Nowhere is that more clear than in Signs. It’s about a former priest who grapples with the death of his wife as the world is confronted by the possible existence of aliens. Whether one believes in God or extraterrestrials, believing you’re not alone is a powerful thing to lose.
The Village (2004): Isolationism
Say what you will about the ending, but the rest of The Village was made of some decent stuff. It’s about a young woman who lives in a remote village ruled by a council that continually warns them of the dangers of the outside world — dangers they’ve manufactured to keep their people under control. It’s a cautionary tale against isolationism and the importance of knowledge over ignorance. But also, that ending was ridiculous.
Lady in the Water (2006): Irrelevancy
This movie sucks. I’m not gonna lie. That’s mostly because of how ham-fisted it is about showcasing Shyamalan’s genius. The filmmaker cast himself in this modern fairy tale as a prolific writer destined to inspire a generation, and be sacrificed (meaning assassinated) for it. At this point, Shyamalan had seen his reputation as the industry’s greatest talent be tarnished with The Village, so this comes across like a dive into Shyamalan’s psyche. It’s presented as confidence when really it’s a fear that he’s not as prolific as folks built him up to be.
The Happening (2008): Climate Change
Shyamalan tried to tackle current issues with his first R-rated film, The Happening, which presents a world where plants can fight back against climate change. It’s a noble cause, and something our planet could benefit from right now, but it was bogged down in the problem of being a terrible film.
The Last Airbender (2010): Adaptations
Shyamalan has mostly avoided adaptations of other people’s work. A few exceptions include 2021’s Old and, perhaps his most famous adaptation, The Last Airbender. This was a live-action version of the popular Nickelodeon show, Avatar: The Last Airbender (now enjoying new life and popularity). The feature film was something fans had been eager to see for years, and that first teaser trailer promised something magnificent. I was hyped! But the movie itself was, let’s be honest, probably one of the worst films ever made. The acting was atrocious, the special effects laughable. There was no heart in a story that’s nothing but love. Maybe Shyamalan was so afraid of disappointing fans that he didn’t take risks. Maybe he wasn’t interested in a story that wasn’t his own. Maybe the studio interfered. Whatever it was, it proved that adaptations were not his thing. We’ll have to wait and see how Old does.
Devil (2010): Well, You Know…
This one stands out because it’s the only one on the list that Shyamalan didn’t write or direct. But it was based on a story he created, so it’s still his vision. The premise is simple: “What if a bunch of people were stuck in an elevator… and one of them was the Devil?” Did it work? Eh. But it’s a great premise and one that plays on a very basic fear of being trapped with someone who’s far more evil than you know. Who can you trust? It’s a theme that was explored even more in the next film.
After Earth (2013): Fear Itself
This collaboration with Will Smith was a post-apocalyptic tale that rewarded absolute boredom. It was a story about monsters who hunt by sensing fear, so characters have to train themselves to be as bland as possible in order to avoid being killed. Doesn’t make for a dynamic viewing experience!
The Visit (2015): Deceit
This found-footage flick signified Shyamalan’s return to form, telling a genuinely scary story in a format that’s very much hit-or-miss. Upon first glance, the fear presented in this work is about family. But as you learn what’s really going on underneath the surface (I won’t spoil it here), it becomes more about the fear of being deceived. What happens when you find yourself in a situation out of your control because you’ve been lied to by someone you’re supposed to care about?
Unbreakable (2000): Weakness
There have been many anti-superhero movies and shows over the years — including Mystery Men, Watchmen, and Brightburn — but Unbreakable stands out because, in many ways, it was ahead of its time. The 2000 thriller was Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense. Even though “I see dead people” is his most famous work, Unbreakable is considered his greatest. It’s about Bruce Willis’ David Dunn accepting his greater destiny as a superhero — just as his “archnemesis” Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) embraces his. Both of them have been given supernatural gifts that take each of them a long time to understand and accept. But they come with an opposing weakness that shows how, as Once Upon a Time’s Rumplestilskin would say, “All magic comes with a price.”
Split (2016): Being Predictable
This one is tricky. The film has received some criticism for stigmatizing mental illness, so to suggest the film “fears” any part of its subject material would play into those issues. But I don’t think that’s the most interesting fear present in this movie. You see, this feels like Shyamalan’s attempt to break out of his box and do something different, with Split turning out to be a stealth sequel for Unbreakable — 16 years after the first one had come out! The result turned out to be the biggest twist he’d given us since, well, that one we all know about. And it worked. This made audiences hungry to see what Shyamalan would do with a full-on franchise. Unfortunately, the end result did not deliver.
Glass (2019): Franchises
You can lead a horse to water… Shyamalan’s plan to make an indie alternative to the Marvel and DC cinematic universes would have been a fantastic one. If it had worked. But Glass was a massive disappointment, struggling to connect the pieces and let the characters define the story instead of the other way around. It’s hard to say what he, or the studio backing him, was afraid of doing here — but it seemed like the idea of returning to characters he’d created and continuing their story was something that just wasn’t clicking.
So, What Are M. Night Shyamalan’s Films Afraid Of?
Every one of Shyamalan’s movies addresses a unique fear — whether it’s something shown on screen or an implied issue behind the camera. No matter which one it is, they all have one thing in common: loss of control. Every single one of the creator’s films deals with the fear of losing control. Of having something taken away from you. This goes all the way back to 1999’s The Sixth Sense with Dr. Malcolm (Bruce Willis) and continues through every subsequent film. Whether it’s the environment (The Happening), the people in your life (The Village, The Visit), or even his own superhero franchise (Glass), it’s all about what happens when you no longer control your own life or destiny.
Old arrives in theatres on July 22, and I’m sure it won’t be a total downer.