There’s nothing worse than a horror movie that isn’t scary. When the entire purpose of your movie is to scare people and you fail to do that, then it’s hard to deny that the movie completely failed at its job. There can be a lot of reason why a horror movie isn’t scary. If the actual concept isn’t terrifying, then it’s going to be an uphill battle to get audiences into a state of fear and panic. If you’re making a movie that relies on special effects, you better be sure that they’re up to snuff or else your movie is going to be mocked and ridiculed (see The Haunting). What usually happens though is that a director will take the easy way out of scaring its audience; they’ll resort to jump scares.
We’ve all had our experiences with jump scares, whether we like it or not. They’re those moments where something will pop out and yell “BOO” to get a cheap shock moment out of the viewer, or give them a false scare by having a loud sound effect chime in to startle you. Either way you slice it, the majority of bad horror movies tend to resort to jump scares as their main tricks and even major horror movies tend to use them every now and then.
For most people, the very idea of a jump scare is enough to invalidate a movie based solely on principle. If horror movies like The Babadook and The Witch can create a horrifying atmosphere without ever resorting to jump scares, then the very idea of a jump scare is a useless tool. It’s a tool that doesn’t need to be used because you can create effective horror without ever needing to use it. I would like to argue that not only do jump scares have a place in horror movies, but they can create some of the best scares in any given horror movie.
In my mind, jump scares are a valuable tool in the horror director’s toolbox. Their purpose is a fairly simple one; the immediate release of pressure. A competent horror director will create tension, build on it continuously without any scares, then release all of that built up tension in one moment. A jump scare signifies a change in the movie. Now whether that change is going from buildup to action or buildup to normalcy is besides the point. The fact remains that jump scares allow the audience to prepare themselves for a shift in tone inside the movie’s universe.
What a bad horror director does is they don’t understand how to effectively create that tension. When I think of a bad horror movie, my mind usually goes to classic flicks like The Bye Bye Man or Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. In both of those movies, the directors seems to rely almost exclusively on jump scares to frighten the audience. Bizarre shit happens in Blair Witch 2, but all of the “scary” bits usually just focus on a loud noise, whether it’s a sound effect or scream, coming out of nowhere or a strange image popping up for a few seconds. The same can be applied to The Bye Bye Man, which overuses jump scares to the point where you’re tired of them by the halfway point of the movie.
I’m of the mindset that every horror movie gets one jump scare to use. It doesn’t matter how it’s implemented, but all horror movies get one cheap scare. When used minimally, the release of tension can actually feel good. When you expect a horrifying monster to pop out, only for it to be a friend of the protagonist, we laugh at ourselves for getting startled so easily. It’s only when that trick is used repeatedly that it becomes a problem.
To prove my point, I wanted to take a look at three different GOOD horror movies that used jumpscares in different ways and examine why they’re so effective. To do that, let’s look at The Conjuring 2, The Thing, and Psycho.
I will admit upfront that I’m not a big fan of the Conjuring universe, or at least its tangential titles. I haven’t seen The Nun, though I have heard mixed opinions on it, but I can safely say that both Annabelle movies land firmly on the south side of mediocre to me. However, the main Conjuring movies are solid horror titles, and I think The Conjuring 2 shows off how to do a jumpscare multiple times.
When The Conjuring 2 does jump scares, they’re spaced very far apart. When we have the nun jump scare early in the movie, we don’t get another jump scare for at least another half an hour. Even when the jump scare tool is reused, it’s reused in different ways. During the nun scare, where a female character walks towards a creepy nun painting in complete darkness, the scare actually comes from a completely different direction. The jump scare isn’t where you expect it to be, but from another location. The pressure is still released, but after the release, the viewer is much more vulnerable than ever before. They think that they’re safe, only to be tricked and scared. You could easily criticize that these types of jump scares are reused constantly in the franchise, but they’ll still an incredibly effective way of scaring the audience.
But maybe you think that the misdirection from The Conjuring movies is still a cheap ploy at frightening the audience. If that’s the case, then the jump scares in The Thing are exactly what you’re looking for. The Thing is easily one of my favorite horror movies for a lot of reasons, primarily because of how it approaches paranoia and mistrust. The premise of the movie is that there’s a monster crawling around a base in Antarctica that can perfectly replicate and kill any human that it touches. It only needs to touch a human once to completely rewrite their cells and take over, so none of the characters know who to trust.
Jump scares are designed to scare the audience, but as I said before, they can also be a key shift in a story or scene. They can signify that something has changed and it’s the beginning of the action. The jump scares in The Conjuring movies were designed to scare first, but the jump scares in The Thing are all to serve the needs of the narrative. One of my favorite moments of the movie is actually a perfect example of this; the blood test.
The crew of Outpost 31 have already had several interactions with the creature, but they soon discover that every cell from the creature is sentient and wants to live. In order to figure out who has been assimilated by the creature, who can perfectly replicate its host’s body, the remaining crew members draw blood and poke it with a hot wire. If the blood reacts negatively, then that proves that the blood belonged to the creature and the crew would have to kill the host.
What follows is a slow, nerve-wracking scene where several crew members are tied down to have their blood tested. You can feel the fear as Kurt Russell sticks the wire into each blood, but you know that one of them is going to react negatively. You know that the monster is waiting to attack. It’s not a matter of if, but when. When the blood finally does react, instant chaos effects the crew. The infected crew member begins to transform while everyone is still tied down, everyone screams, the monster attacks, and a character is killed off. When the creature appears, it’s almost a guarantee that someone will die. The pressure builds, but when the blood jumps out of the dish and scares the audience, you know damned well that it was only the beginning and the worst was yet to come.
But The Thing doesn’t even hold a candle to the mother of all jump scares. Sure, the jump scares of The Thing precede violent monster attacks, but what about a movie where all of its scares are jump scares? What about a movie where the jump scares are not only the scariest part of the movie but instrumental at revealing pivotal character moments that also shift the entire tone of the movie? Well, Psycho is your go-to movie.
Psycho really only has two scares throughout its runtime. Unlike The Thing, where the tension is built by paranoia and being unable to trust any of the characters, including the protagonist, Psycho feels like two separate movies smashed together. The first half of the movie comes across more like a drama while the second half is more of a standard horror movie. Both parts of the movie contain Norman Bates and while he’s certainly creepy and a bit uncomfortable, the audience would never expect him to be a murderer. At least, until he famously stabs a woman in a shower, marking not only the transition from drama to horror but that the main character for the first half of the movie, Marion, is dead with no return. It was unheard of to kill the main character of a movie at the halfway point, but that’s exactly what Psycho did. Its jump scare came right out of nowhere and altered cinematic history forever.
The second jump scare isn’t as famous as Norman killing Marion, but it’s still a beautiful one nonetheless. At the end of the movie, the new main character, Lila, is able to sneak into Norman’s house to confront the mysterious Mrs. Bates, only to be hit by a rush of scares both visually and musically. She finds Mrs. Bates, only for her to be a mummified corpse! Cue stinger! Lila screams! Then Norman comes running in to kill her, only it isn’t technically Norman! It’s Norman dressed up as his mother brandishing a kitchen knife with a crazed look in eye! Mrs. Bates has been dead the whole time, Norman was the killer, and he thinks that he’s his mother! Keep in mind that all of these revelations happen in the span of 30 seconds, one right after the other.
Alfred Hitchcock once gave a famous example of the difference between surprise and suspense in movies. If a couple is talking at a table, only for a bomb to go off out of nowhere, it’s surprising to the audience, but it only generates attention for about 15 seconds. If the audience is made aware of the bomb, told how the bomb works, then see the couple talk at the table, knowing that the bomb is going to go off, that generates suspense that can last for 15 minutes.
Jump scares work the same way. If they’re used to just surprise the audience and get a cheap scare, it won’t last for long. It’ll be a flash in the pan. It might scare some members of the audience, but it won’t be memorable. It’s the buildup that makes a jump scare so memorable. It’s the tension created, the subverted expectation, the shift into action and chaos, or the shift in tone and story elements that makes a jump scare so compelling. It’s the creation of suspense the lulls the audience into a susceptible state where they can be scared. It takes a creative director in order to scare the audience effectively. If your jump scare is well crafted and is built on well, then a jump scare might just be the best part of a horror movie.