The Best (and Worst) of Modern Jump Scares
Lorraine is seated at the kitchen table with her son, Josh. Josh’s wife, Renai has been plagued by ghostly visions since her son’s coma, and Lorraine is there to buttress the anecdotes. She’s had unusual, frightening dreams, too, and she needs Josh to believe them. “I was in the house, but it was late at night. I was… afraid,” she begins, recounting her lucid dream and encounter with a demonic “visitor,” one after her grandson. The focus is back on her, slowly zooming in. “I can still hear that voice,” she says. The focus cuts to Josh, but not just Josh—the demon is right behind him. Lorraine screams. The audience screams. Really, it was the scream heard ‘round the world.
I’m talking, of course, about James Wan’s Insidious, one of the most profitable horror franchises of all time and supernatural springboard for Wan’s other perennial haunted house series, The Conjuring. Both are ghostly multiplex mainstays, cinematic offerings imbued with so much of James Wan’s DNA, his presence is a ghost unto itself whether he’s behind the camera or not. Yet, while Insidious revitalized haunted house horror after a decade of post-war trauma, nihilistic extremity, and international imports, it has simultaneously hurt the craftsmanship of horror cinema writ large. Post-Insidious, the jump scare is diluted.
Perhaps unconventionally, I’ve never minded the jump scare all that much. On a visceral level, they’re not only effective but key hallmarks of the genre itself. In other words, if there’s a jump scare, the film is (almost exclusively, but not always) a horror movie. Nina Nesseth (Nightmare Fuel: The Science of Horror Films) conceptualizes the jump scare as our startle response. The jump scare occurs in two distinct yet remarkably fast phases. First, our heart rate spikes and we gasp. Then, in the second phase, our bodies tense and we brace ourselves for a threat (or loud music cue).
Nesseth describes the jump scare as principally a “fear-potentiated startle.” Essentially, filmmakers cultivate tension, utilizing the swelling unease to swiftly release it all at once. Not every jump scare works this way (The Exorcist III’s famous nurse scare comes out of nowhere). But, the jump scare of modern horror cinema is principally of the tension-release kind.
The jump scare targets our innate fear response with some vagary. Everyone knows the one horror fan who’s never startled just as everyone knows another who jumps long before the filmmakers have clued an audience in. It’s biology, basically, and an enduring biological trait at that—as long as audiences can be startled, there will be jump scares. Notably, however, there has been a sharp uptick since the 1980s, and in the present century, everything from prestige horror (Hereditary) to low-budget indies (Horror in the High Desert) has a jumpscare. Some have more, some have less, but if it’s a horror movie, it’s all but guaranteed to be at least a single jolt in there.
James Wan himself regularly culls from the same bag of tricks, patchworking Insidious’ landmark jolt into his other features. In The Conjuring, Wan blocks a similar scare with a hanging witch appearing behind Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). In The Conjuring 2, Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) is watching television while home alone. The television keeps flipping channels, but Janet doesn’t have the remote. Eventually, she catches a frightening reflection in the blank screen. The camera pans to the remote floating in mid-air before falling to the floor. Cut back to Janet, then the remote, then Janet, then the remote, until finally, the ghastly, spectral face controlling it appears behind her, screaming, “My house.”
While the scare in The Conjuring lacks the requisite audio cue to signal it as a jolt, it remains a deeply unnerving scene that plays out in silence, allowing our minds to fill in the blanks. But often, that audio is a core component of our startle responses and what makes a good jump scare a good jump scare. Filmmakers regularly compensate for a lack of tension with audio, crafting the sudden jump scare (the aforementioned The Exorcist III is perhaps the most famous example). While sudden jumps can and do work, they’re too constrained by technology to endure as perennial scares, especially in the modern age of digital streaming.
Grégory Levasseur’s The Pyramid is fun (though not especially scary), yet in my theatrical screening several years ago, I jumped more than a dozen times. With the volume dialed way up, the sundry jolts and shocks landed with maximum physical impact. Later, on home video (with a less sophisticated sound system), the jumps were embarrassing, not scary. Today’s audiences regularly stream on their phones, computers, or home televisions that aren’t optimized for an ideal screening experience (see: the motion smoothing controversy). When a jump is contingent on sound, not tension, it becomes unstable. It’s an audio atom that threatens to explode.
Consequently, horror filmmakers today frequently use tension as a release—which is good news—but that regularly comes with problems of its own. For instance—and this is almost entirely out of filmmakers’ hands—trailers for new releases often spoil the best scares before release. The Nun II’s standout magazine rack scare wherein Valak (Bonnie Aarons) manifests through the bound pages was the first trailer’s capstone sequence. If you saw the trailer, the movie’s most inventive scare was spoiled. More importantly, to return to the dilution of the form writ large, is the lack of follow-through. Jump scares today don’t matter and it’s undermining a genre known for subversion and innovation.
Before the millennium, jump scares were part and parcel with the public degradation of the genre itself. That wasn’t true, of course, but general audiences were keen (maybe too keen) to conflate the horror genre with the misdirect. Audiences got savvy. They knew when to expect a jump scare, and rather than building tension, filmmakers cultivated familiarity. Think of the bathroom medicine cabinet mirror or the black cat behind the curtains. It wasn’t until the late aughts with the releases of Paranormal Activity and Insidious that the jump scare became new again. Creatives with unique perspectives tried their hand at, well, sleight of hand. The results were both critical and commercial successes.
Those inceptive scares weren’t just well-crafted; they were meaningful; scares with narrative efficacy and purpose. Consider The Haunting of Hill House’s car jump where Nell (Victoria Pedretti) lunges forward to interrupt her two squabbling sisters. While Flanagan is making use of the sudden jump here—there is character tension, but not terror beforehand—it works because it matters. Narratively, Nell’s scare redirects her sisters into reconciliation, urging them on toward the house to finally put the past behind them.
Compare that sudden jolt with those regularly featured within The Nun II. Michael Chaves is a talented filmmaker (even if he is too often constrained by his James Wan pantomime), but his scares fail to land because they’re arbitrary, context-free jolts with little to no bearing on the plot. The titular nun barely features, with Chaves often incorporating new, monster-of-the-week specters for his many jumps. There are dead children, giant goats, and deceased old women. There is some context, but in a movie about a nun, the scares are neutered when audiences are left not screaming but instead inquiring who the scary face actually belongs to. A goat man? Cool, but who is he?
When jump scares matter, they land with greater efficacy, sending our fear responses into overdrive, and cultivating the kind of collective horror and subsequent relief the genre is so well known for. Take a look at Andy Muschietti’s projector scare in It: Chapter One. Like the best of them, audiences are primed for the worst the moment the projector starts spinning out of control. Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) is manifesting in the reels. The projector is kicked over, casting most of the garage into darkness save for the now sputtering reel against the wall. Pennywise appears again in static images, though with the final reel, he suddenly disappears. The room is cast into darkness again—and Muschietti wisely keeps the angle low, the frame still—before Pennywise appears crawling out of the screen, now monstrous in size.
No different than The Haunting of Hill House, it’s a scare with narrative urgency. The encounter here spurs the Losers Club to the house on Neibolt Street to confront Pennywise head-on. Without the scare, their incentive to plunge themselves into danger is nonexistent. On both a craft and narrative level, it’s a jump scare with bite. Contrasted to the modern jump scare, it feels like a novelty, the all-too-rare scare with consequences.
Post-Insidious, the jolts don’t serve a narrative purpose, but an engagement one. When the going gets slow, toss in a jump, whether it matters in the grander scheme or not. Not to target The Nun II again (I did enjoy it, even if it conceptualizes almost every fault in the modern jump scare I have), but an early scene featuring both a jump and a death comes out of nowhere and is never addressed again. It’s a stylish scare, but its victim is never acknowledged. Audiences have no time to get to know them, so the threat is muted, and the scare is over as soon as it begins. Those extra five seconds might make all the difference, though Chaves and his contemporaries overuse the technique to the point of perfunctory inclusion. Once the audio stings, the scene ends.
Features like We Need to Do Something opt instead to build tension and use the jump only where it counts most. The off-screen appearance of a dog remains one of this century’s greatest scares, and it was only possible on account of patience and narrative need. If Sean King O’Grady had inundated the audience with jumps beforehand, the standout sequence would have felt too familiar to make as much of an impact as it did.
Beyond the narrative purpose, jump scares would also broadly benefit from more tactility. In other words, let them matter viscerally. We’ve all seen it before. The lights are out and a character is creeping toward an open door. Beat by beat, the tension rises. But, it’s a misdirect. The camera pans behind the character, something is there. We scream. The character might scream. End scene. It’s the cat behind the curtain again. Better yet, it’s horror dream logic, a scare that really isn’t.
A jump scare should not only jolt audiences but the characters in the film as well. First-time filmmaker John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place is a masterclass in jumps with physical efficacy. Krasinski has the added benefit of (mostly) accessible filmmaking, wisely using protagonist Regan’s (Millicent Simmonds) deafness as a tool to augment the scares. Silence equals survival, but it also equals the jump. A third-act beat has Regan scanning a grain silo for threats just as an unexpected monster drops in behind her. It’s a brief, effective jolt, though critically, it forays into a desperate, Jurassic Park-esque fight for survival. Krasinski doesn’t end the scene with the scare. The jump isn’t the capstone. Instead, it’s the springboard for good old-fashioned thrills.
Comparatively, Scott Derickson’s use of the jump scare in Sinister represents the best and worst of the form. At its best, an 8mm tape of a lawnmower remains one of the genre’s greatest scares ever. Really. The use of sound and the unexpected nature of the scare—coupled with Ethan Hawke’s pitch-perfect reaction—renders it a jump for the ages. I was on edge watching it for inclusion here even though I’d seen it a dozen times. And guess what? It still got me.
At its worst, Bughuul pops out just before the credits roll for one final scare. It’s easy to see which scare feels earned and which feels cheap. One is artfully crafted with both narrative intent and tactility. The other is a corporate addendum, an arbitrary need to end the movie with a cheap, inorganic jump
There are countless other examples to discuss. The jump scare might be forever, though it is undoubtedly a crutch of modern horror. The argument here isn’t to abandon the jump—I’d be devastated—but instead to rethink the approach. When used well, it can elevate a horror experience, especially a theatrical one. Conceptually, there is no right or wrong way to use it. Sudden or planned, both are just as valuable.
The jump scare is the water cooler conversation of horror. Few moments are as enriching and exciting as a horror fan than sitting down and discussing the latest and greatest scare. The jump even metatextually informs the haunt experience, with the likes of Halloween Horror Nights banking on the unexpected jolt they might give attendees at one of several haunted houses. The jump scare is horror, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. As its use swells, however, I just wish it was used with a little more thought. Please, make me jump, but at least take the time to buy me dinner first.