How many of your favourite horror films rely on the jump scare? I suspect that many of what we consider a good horror film have very few. Take The Shining, for example. Aside from the odd jump scare, towards the ending of the film, the horror of The Shining is watching a character descend into madness. If used correctly, the jump scare can help shock and strike fear into the audience. The jump scare technique intended to scare the audience by surprising them with an abrupt change in image or event, usually occurring with a loud, frightening sound. Often a writer or director will decide to hold onto the jump scare before inserting it into the film, usually at points where the viewer is not expecting anything alarming to happen, or it can be used as the sudden payoff to a long period of suspense.
If executed properly, the jump scare can, well… scare! The sudden scare will cause your body to put itself in a defensive position and try to ready itself for battle in case you’re in danger. The fear you feel is your body trying to warn you too late. The jump scare was often a technique that was saved for towards the end of the film to give the audience one last scare before the credits rolled; take Carrie (1976) for example. Carrie appears to have died, and her classmate Sue is seen at the end of the film coming to lay flowers on Carrie’s grave. Just as she places the flowers on the ground, a hand bursts out from the ground and starts to drag her down. Then we realise it’s just a dream. The director matches up the cut of Carrie’s hand to Sue’s mother’s hand as she wakes Sue up. Unlike the jump scares that we have become accustomed to, the jump scare here is unexpected, as the source material that it is based upon does not end this way. For the rest of Carrie‘s runtime, there haven’t been any further examples of the jump scare being used. Even the famous pig’s blood scene at the prom is done in slow motion, like a dream taking place in front of our eyes. Compare this scene to the remake, and the gracefulness and surrealism have been lost. Horror works best when it comes across as something that can’t quite be explained, and something that our brains can’t quite process.
Often considered an example of lazy writing, the jump scare seems like a guaranteed way to get the audience to respond to the film. We can see the jump coming a mile off; the main character will be alone in a creepy situation, where it is dark and quiet, then suddenly there’ll be a hand grabbing their shoulder, or a cat will jump out from the shadows, a friend/neighbour will knock on the window, or the phone will ring. In normal life, things like these always occur and they very rarely scare us. Perhaps the laziest example of this type of jump scare occurs in The Amityville Horror (1979), where the source of the mysterious noise is nothing more than an innocent cat jumping through an open window. With this type of jump scare, there is almost always a music cue; with the director believing the audience isn’t quite intelligent enough to work out what is meant to be scary. These jump scares do not scare, but rather they startle. However, being startled is not the same thing as being scared. Being startled is like getting a paper cut; the pain is sudden, sharp, stinging and unpleasant, but you forget about it immediately. Whereas the sensation of being well and truly scared is having your entire sense of reality and safety being destroyed, and becoming vulnerable in the open.
If modern horror film directors want to continue using the jump scare technique, they should make sure that it isn’t used too often. When it is used the audience needs to be invested in the character who is being scared. Take the effective use of jump scares in the first Insidious (2010), especially the jump scare that takes place when the red-faced demon appears behind Josh (Patrick Wilson). The build-up to this scare is effective because the main characters have been discussing the haunting without anything paranormal taking place within the scene. The sudden cut to Josh’s reaction seems like our usual reaction shot, but the fact that we can see the danger and the character can’t is what is truly scary. This jump scare occurs well into the film, and the viewer has gotten to know the characters so much that they almost feel like family and the viewer feels for them.
Still, if poorly made horror films jam-packed with jump scares continue to make money at the box office, then I doubt that we’ll see the jump scare disappearing from the big screen anytime soon. Hopefully, film directors will move past this cheap trick and will look at other methods to strike fear into the very souls of cinema attendees. Just remember, a jump scare lasts a few seconds, but true horror can last forever.