As I alluded in my Grave Encounters post, jump scares are probably the most prominent trend for modern horror movies. There’s a very tense character in a creepy setting, all the sound drains from the movie, and then suddenly the audience is bombarded with a loud sound and (not always) a scary image at the same time. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it’s very, very stupid.
Let’s start with the worst types of jump scares: fake outs. We’re given the setup that I described, then the loud sound plays and it’s only a normal person or someone playing a prank. It’s cheap and says that the filmmakers measure success based on how many times an audience member is startled. I’m not claiming that I’m above these scares by the way, loud sounds out of nowhere will make me recoil even if nothing scary is happening. As a result, even when I know a jump scare is coming (real or fake) I usually plug my ears and look like an idiot in the theater.
So is the solution to take that formula and only use it for when the monster/killer/ghost etc appears? Not really, even though that’s a step in the right direction. Firstly, the moments surrounding jump scares stand out to audiences and they can mentally brace themselves for what they know is an upcoming “scary” moment. Secondly, if jump scares remain superficial by only consisting of what we can immediately see and hear, they won’t work a second time. Years ago I re-watched The Ring and wasn’t scared at all since I knew what to expect.
The most effective jump scares I’ve ever seen have either given the audience something else to think about right before they happened and/or they took place in an atmosphere that has already set the audience on edge. James Wan is an especially effective director when it comes to this; the scare during the TV scene in The Conjuring 2 worked because we had different expectations for where it was going to occur.
Grave Encounters had a couple of good jump scares by using the hopelessness of the characters’ situation and by having them occupied with something else when the scares happened. The audience had few to no cues that a jump scare was about to happen and was caught off-guard, and the implications of the haunted hospital made us think of how awful the repercussions of the scares were for the characters. Even though I’ve seen the movie a few times, there’s still one scare that always gets me.
Hopefully in the future more horror directors will realize that these elements are essential to not just jump scares, but all scares. In the meantime the movies which do this well will be the ones we remember when we’re trying to sleep at night.
What are some jump scares that you’ve seen that work or didn’t work for you?