The Art of the Jump Scare Through Horror History | HorrorGeekLife – Horror Geek Life

The jump scare has always been one of the most common tropes throughout the genre of horror. In the last couple of decades, many horror fans have gravitated away from films that rely on jump scares for their fear factor in favor of slow burn horror films like Midsommar (2019), House of the Devil (2009), or The VVitch (2015). Younger horror fans have come to know the jump scare as a cheap tactic in attempt to deliver on the promised fear during a film, rather than focusing on a truly scary story or acting performances. However, the jump scare didnt start out as just an inexpensive way of capitalizing on misdirection. Its important point out to younger horror audiences that this can be and has been done tastefully, adding a tipping point to an underlying terror that a film has built throughout its runtime. Its also important to remind older horror fans of those moments, and how although they can seem overdone at times, there is still a place for them in modern horror.

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Lets go all the way back to the 1920s for this, starting with Rupert Julians The Phantom of the Opera (1925). This film is largely considered to have the first visual jump scare in horror. I know that by todays standards, having no sound and the scare being the phantom removing his mask to show an ugly, disfigured monster face might seem tame, but in the roaring 20s, this was a shocker. Scenes like this had to be built upon once sound was added to film, to keep the shock value high.

By the 1940s and 50s, directors started using misdirection in three methods to amplify the jump scare. The first, being in a passive way, using a non-threatening object to deliver the scare, while the focus is on the threat. Take the film Cat People (1942). A woman is walking down a dark alley, hearing footsteps and growls behind her. She picks up the pace and the audience are completely focused on the left side of the screen, anxious to know if the monster will catch her. All the sudden, BAM! A bus comes from the right side of the screen with a screeching halt, and the woman gets on it safely. The audience is left feeling silly for letting something so non-threatening scare them but is also reminded of how invested they are in the scene. Although this type of jump scare would still appear in some horror (think every scene where a cat or raccoon jumps out of a dark place), it started becoming more used in the mystery and thriller genres.

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The second and a more common method is using the threat, but at a time when the audience has started to feel more comfortable. An early instance of this would be in Christian Nybys The Thing from Another World (1951). Soldiers are walking to exit a door, and although on alert, signal that the coast is clear to exit. As soon as they open the door, BAM, an alien is there and ready to punch stuff. The knowledge of the threat was there to audience, but they were comforted by the silence behind the door. These jump scares were amplified even more with the addition of dissonant notes in the scores, which are intentionally made to make the audience feel uncomfortable.

The third and most modern method of delivering the jump scare really started to take off in the mid-1970s. This is when the audience is put completely in an intense situation, they know the threat is there, there is no comfort, and then they are hit with the scare. One of the earliest examples I can remember of this is the inspection of Ben Gardners boat in Jaws (1975). In this moment, the audience fully knows that Matt Hooper is completely helpless in a dark, open ocean, we see a boat with giant bite out of it, and BAM, Ben Gardners dead body gets us all anyway. Spielberg would use this method several times throughout his directing career, my favorite being the Dilophosaurus scene in Jurassic Park (1993).

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This method continued on in 70s horror films like Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), or When a Stranger Calls (1979). The audience knows that the killer is there but is still shocked when Michael Myers pops out of the darkness, with some shrill keyboard notes to accompany him. You will notice that all the films Ive mentioned are regarded as extremely well-received films. That is because the focus is on building the fear through the story, and not relying on the jump scare to do the work.

The 80s and 90s were a little different when it came to jump scares. They were still sometimes used as tasteful ways to build on fear, but also to let us know that things were not as over as they seem, and that there is more to come. Some of the more popular ones that come to mind are ending scenes of Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). In both instances, the audience believes they are safe, only for the sudden motion of Jason emerging from the lake or Nancys mom getting pulled through the window in violent fashion. I think this is where the jump scare started to become a little overused, as many, many horror films (mainly slashers) in the 80s would use this device to set up the next film. One of the more effective instances, which is known as one of the best jump scares in horror history, is in The Exorcist III (1990). I am not going to go into detail about that one. Go watch that film, now! Scream (1996) and Event Horizon (1997) are another two perfect examples from the 90s of how to use jump scares to make your scary movie scarier. Scream even does a successful job of parodying the jump scare, and still making it effective.

The 2000s-2010s were the decades where jump scares started getting their reputation for being a cheap ploy that directors relied on for horror ticket sales. It got to the point where the films were really only known for their constant jump scares, so much, that viewers could no longer focus on the film itself. Films from the Paranormal Activity (2007) franchise were extremely inexpensive to make, and the easiest and most inexpensive way to scare someone was with cheap jump scares, so the films were riddled with them. This became so common, that films like Extraterrestrial (2014) and The Haunting of Connecticut 2 (2013) were getting into the 30s when it came to how many jump scares there were. It started to become a race of how many jump scares directors could fit in a single film. It became exhausting to the point where many horror films are dismissed at release just at the notion that they contain nothing but jump scares.

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Thats not to say there arent still films where these are done tastefully, and when they are, it typically comes in a better all-around film. James Wan has mastered the art in his Insidious and TheConjuring franchises. The Ring (2002) and Sinister (2012) both make it work for them. More and more slow burn horror films are starting to incorporate jump scares in their films as part of the build-up, like the tongue-clicking moments in Hereditary (2018). There is a place for them, but like all other things, they must be done in moderation for it to be effective.

Although, Im typically not a fan of jump scare-heavy films, we should remember to go back and celebrate all of the amazing films that they added something special to. Jump scares shouldnt be flat-out dismissed, and maybe the 2020s will get them back to their roots or evolve them into something better. Heres to hoping!

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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero
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