Some may call it a cheap plot, while others await it with chattering teeth. There’s no doubt that today’s horror movies tend to rely heavily on this trope to scare audiences. While this can be a way to direct the intended reaction, jump alerts can and have been effective. What makes a jump work is that it is set up correctly, followed by a worthwhile payoff. Nonetheless, there have been too many films that have poorly set up a scene that ultimately has no shock value. The absolute worst of the worst includes the best friend playing a joke on the protagonist, a bird flying past the frame, or a cat jumping out of the dark. It’s a cheap way to introduce an unpleasant sound effect into a scene in order to force a visceral response. While it might be momentarily effective, the tension of the scene is gone. There is no mystery or suspense as the filmmakers have shaped the audience to expect everything.
However, throughout the history of cinema, there have been many sequences where the jump scare has been used correctly. Whether through quiet tension or a powerful, unexpected moment, notable horror films pay equal attention to what comes before and after. The atmospheric setting and chilling suspense of a scene is where the horror comes in, and then the jump scare is the release of the tension. It should and has been used as a cathartic way to release anxiety that has built up over several minutes.
The art of jump scare comes down to timing. Too little time before the jump could preemptively deflate ballooning tension and interest, while too much time could be boring for the audience as they begin to overcome their fear. Besides timing, factors such as sound, lighting, and camera placement are all important in achieving a successful jump scare. The following films and sequences have used these tricks and performed some of the most effective jump scares in horror.
The bedroom scene in this modern horror classic proves just how smart James Wan is behind the camera. His positioning of the frame lines and the way he builds tension in this scene makes him stand out among the masses. Most notably, he shows us the creepy figure on the cabinet before pressing his gruesome face. This push is paired with a terrifying sound effect that had the audience jumping out of their seats. What makes this scene work is that we knew what we were seeing was scary, even before the movie told us. We see it with our own eyes for two seconds in pure silence. Then Conspiracy fix our assurances by releasing the tension and closing the scene effectively and perfectly.
8 The Exorcist III
While the sequels will never associate with the masterpiece that is the original film, The Exorcist III expands on the lore and has some significant scares (at least more than the Abyssal Sequel). The most infamous sequence takes place in a single shot in the hallway of the hospital. It’s a very quiet few minutes, with seemingly nothing happening, but something is wrong. This tension of what might happen causes our brains to play tricks on us; as author CK Webb joked, “Sometimes the things in our heads are far worse than anything they could put in books or on movies.” Wondering “what’s going to happen” causes more fear than just seeing something unfold in real time. Anticipation builds as the nurse walks from room to room until she is followed, and her shift is finally cut short…no pun intended.
Claim is a film that was marketed as a festival shock. It was an ambitious film with a unique concept that uses cinema itself to generate scares. The fact that Ellison (Ethan Hawke) sees old film reels showing massacre after massacre allows us to sympathize with him in those moments. While we know he’s in no imminent danger, we still feel his anxiety over not knowing what to expect on these tapes. One in particular features a lawnmower being used in a way that was surely not intended. It’s so unexpected and built on a long period of silence. The perfect combination of worried expectation, followed by an outburst of utter horror that ends this sequence in sheer terror.
Ari Aster’s masterpiece will set a precedent for how horror should be performed. The last ten minutes of Hereditary is basically a whole jump scare that’s been set up by two hours of tension. However, in the final scene, we see Peter (Alex Wolff) unknowingly hidden away by his possessed mother. He wanders around her quiet home as she hovers above him…and us. What Aster achieves is a suspense tactic that has been established and proven by Hitchcock himself – to make the audience aware of something that the characters are not. It’s simple but very effective in creating suspense. When Peter comes across his burned father and all hope seems to be lost, his mother bursts through a dark corner of the wall in an unexpected fear that seals the deal.
Classics can never go unnoticed. What Alfred Hitchcock achieves in this whole movie by not showing everything leads to more shock value than putting it all on screen. Again, the imagination is more powerful than any practical or special effect ever shown on film. While this film is softer in terms of visuals, it still holds up with its chilling soundtrack and shocking subversion of narrative structure. As the sleuth wanders inside the Bates home, tension mounts with the score building up until that iconic Bernard Herrman track arrives. Mrs. Bates steps out of the darkness and slices the detective in plain sight. Shocking for the time, but what holds it together is how the soundtrack is ironically the instrument that plays our emotional state. We are riding the wave that music produces for us, and it is still effective after many decades, tirelessly and obnoxiously imitated to this day.
Adapted from a lauded horror short of the same name, Curfew is technically stunning in its execution. Darkness is a horror filmmaker’s best friend because it allows him to use cheaper practical effects and allows him to play tricks on the viewer’s mind. But everything comes to a stalemate when our main characters (Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman) are trapped in the dark basement and our supporting character Bret (Alexander DiPersia) finds himself in a fight with the unknown. With only his cellphone as a guide, the darkness around him is his greatest threat as it is the way the violent entity maneuvers around the room. The lifelike looking figure is horrifying and amazes us every moment as we expect it to be anywhere at any time. It’s one of the few films that relies almost entirely on creepy leaps and yet works flawlessly.
the original [REC] is one of the most terrifying found films of all time. The film uses its limitations to its advantage, as the single camera cannot cover all angles and the horror thrives on the unseen and the unknown. The sequence towards the end of the film is particularly intense, because we are only shown what remains in the light; we’re well aware of the ravenous monsters lurking in the dark, but they could be anywhere. This film is basically chaotic, and throughout its runtime, we begin to anticipate that this chaos will continue. During the moments of silence, then, we are completely uneasy. When the cameraman climbs the attic stairs and searches the room for all sorts of answers, he encounters a carnivorous being who has been waiting there all this time. We see it when he sees it, and it’s just in our faces, and we jump too.
2 paranormal activity 2
While the franchise has become quite commercial, there are some memorable moments in some of its installments, especially in the sequel to the hugely popular paranormal activity. One of the most striking sequences takes place in a kitchen. There is pure silence as Kirsti (Sprague Grayden) simply goes about her business with the room in broad daylight. That is, until the whole kitchen explodes and every cupboard and drawer opens. Metal pots and pans fall in this brief but powerful burst of paranormal energy. This memorable sequence gives Kirsti and the audience a pretty sudden jolt that holds true to this day, demonstrating that “jumping” is often more effective in the mundane.
Although more realistic and dramatic in its subject matter, Se7fr is widely considered a horror film for its visceral and disturbing portrayal of crime and serial murder. As law enforcement stumbles upon the rotting corpse of another victim, we have to assume we’ve seen all there is to see for now. However, the corpse is not completely dead as a single startling cough is enough to shock viewers and everyone in the room into a startled jump. What is more terrifying than this moment of shock is the thought of how this person survived in such a state of decay. Jump scare is the catalyst for a train of thoughts and considerations that bother us every time.
Edoardo Vitaletti’s directorial debut, The Last Thing Mary Saw, is part of a recent religious twist in horror, exploring the theology of disturbing evil.
About the Author