Fun with Horror Tropes: Jump Scares

I love a good jump scare. As I’ve mentioned, I am particularly susceptible to jump scares, no matter how predictable or stereotypical they are. I am startled by every window blown open by the wind and every cat that jumps yowling into the frame. They always make me jump a few feet out of my seat, but that doesn’t mean I won’t judge the hell out of a film for misusing them.

Before we get to the Judging the Hell Out of You portion of our program, though, I want to look at some of my favorite jump scares. Spoilers ahead, obviously. Whenever I mention a movie by name, I put the title in my tags, so if you want to scan the tags to make sure I’m not going to ruin a movie for you, please do so. The author cannot be held liable for any spoilers encountered after this warning.

May we also ask that you not giggle at “unusual climax.”

I belong to the school of thought that says spoiler warnings can be spoilers in and of themselves. If I tell you that a movie has an amazing jump scare in it, that scare is automatically less effective. Whether consciously or not, you’re going to spend the rest of the movie tensed up and wondering, “Is this it? Is this the scene they warned me about?” When it finally arrives, it’s just not going to be as scary as it should have been.

There is one notable exception to this rule: The Exorcist III. I watched this for the first time quite recently, and everything I had heard about the famous hallway jump scare had built my expectations up so high that I didn’t think anything could live up to them. I was wondrously, gloriously wrong:

Part of the beauty of that scene is that the film plays off of the fact that you know there’s a scare coming. William Peter Blatty (the author of The Exorcist and the novel on which this movie is based, Legion) does an incredible job in the director’s chair. He steadily builds an oppressive sense of dread from the very beginning of the movie, so when we see that beautiful static shot of the nurse walking up and down the hallway investigating a strange sound, we are primed to expect the worst. The camera is fixed on the wide shot of the hallway, forcing us to watch the nurse move like a rat in a maze. Our eyes constantly search the frame for danger or even a sign of movement; we are helpless in our certainty that something awful is about to happen.

Wickedly, Blatty gives us a small release of tension when the nurse encounters a sleeping patient. He jolts out of bed, startling her, and for the briefest of moments the audience relaxes, thinking that this is the scare we were waiting for. But Blatty puts us right back in that hallway with the nurse, and we realize that the level of shock from the jump scare we just saw was too small to account for such a suffocating sense of dread, such a palpable inevitability. We know that there are far worse things to come.

If it’s scrawled in blood it must be true. The Exorcist III, 1990.

There’s a comedy law about bits that go from funny to boring to hilarious simply due to how long the bit goes on. Blatty observes a similar horror law here: at the precise moment where we either relax, because surely this has gone on too long for anything to happen now, or we can’t bear the tension any longer, because my God kill her already, the eerie figure in white emerges and our pulses skyrocket.

One stroke of genius here, out of many, is the quick cut right before the figure actually reaches the nurse to decapitate her. The scene lingers just long enough for us to register what is about to happen, and then Blatty lets our imaginations fill in the rest. The movie is not perfect by any means, but that is a truly masterful horror scene. It’s a terrific example of playing with the audience’s expectations and really earning a payoff on the mounting suspense built from the first frame.

Another favorite jump scare of mine is from Black Christmas. I am a bit of a Black Christmas evangelist – it’s a criminally underrated movie, and if you love Halloween you owe it to yourself to watch Black Christmas. It came out four years before Halloween, and it employs the Killer POV that Carpenter uses to such great effect in Halloween. It’s also the greatest “The call is coming from inside the house!” film ever made.

But back to jump scares: near the end of Black Christmas, Jess is running from Billy (the creepiest horror character ever – come at me, bro), and Billy’s hand shoots out to grab Jess’s long, luscious ’70s hair. Watching that scene as a teenager, I jumped three feet across the room into my friend’s lap. There is so much more to discuss about that movie, but the hair-grabbing moment is a great entry in jump scare cinema.

“The calls are coming from the house? So I should go upstairs, right?” Black Christmas, 1974.

Now that I’ve waxed rhapsodic about some of my favorite BOO! moments, let’s talk about some of my least favorites. I’m not going to talk about bad movies here (in this post, I mean; trust me, I have plenty to say about bad horror, but a cheap scare in a bad movie is expected – it’s the cheap scares in good movies that should be criticized).

The two examples that stand out in my head are the endings to The Strangers and the U.S. theatrical release of The Descent. Both movies are favorites of mine, and for the most part I think they are excellent horror films. In The Strangers, Kristen and Scott spend the evening at a family cabin after attending a wedding. A group of masked people begins harassing the couple by, frankly, acting as creepy as is humanly possible. After hours of terrifying Kristen and Scott, they stab them and leave them for dead. The last shot is of Kristen suddenly waking up and screaming into the camera.

This final jump scare (part of a clichéd “based on a true story” framing device) is an unnecessary coda to a story that could have ended on a much more chilling note. At one point, the couple asks their three tormentors why they are doing this to them. One of the killers replies, “Because you were home.” After the killers leave the house, they start to drive away and they see two little boys with some religious tracts. One of the killers gets out and takes one of the tracts; when she gets back in the truck, the other female killer says, “It’ll be easier next time.” Rather than opt for the cheap jump scare, I believe writer and director Bryan Bertino should have ended the movie here. Let those words hang in the air, watch the truck drive away for a few seconds, and then cut to black. That leaves the audience thinking about all of the horrible things that happened to the couple just because they were home and what will happen to other victims who have the misfortune of being home at the wrong time. That would make for a far more terrifying ending than: “Oh! She screamed, haha. They got me.”

I was especially disappointed in the jump scare ending because Bertino had shown a lot of faith in the audience up until that point. When Kristen gets a drink from the kitchen, the masked man lingers in the background watching her. Bertino lets the audience take as much time as it needs to register the figure watching from the shadows. The scene reminds me of Michael Myers’ ghostly white mask materializing in the doorway behind Laurie when she thinks she has finally dispatched him with a coat hanger.

Really? You thought a coat hanger would do it? Halloween, 1978.

I daresay I might find the scene from The Strangers even more terrifying, on first viewing at least (please don’t tell John Carpenter I said that). In Halloween, we see Michael sit up behind Laurie (in that creepy robotic way – I tell you, Nick Castle is forever my favorite Michael Myers), so for a short period of time we know exactly where Michael is. He’s the boogeyman; he is usually everywhere all at once. But at this precise second, we actually know where he is, and even though we don’t want to be anywhere near him, knowing is always less scary than not knowing. It’s still frightening, of course, but (for me at least) it doesn’t have quite the same hairs-standing-up-on-your-neck feeling you get the first time you see the masked stranger appear and you ask yourself, “Where did he come from and how long has he been standing there?”

Turn around, bright eyes. The Strangers, 2008.

The Descent suffers from a similarly cheap ending, but I believe this one was studio-mandated. The movie follows Sarah, who has recently lost her husband and daughter in a horrific car accident, as she and a group of friends go spelunking and get trapped in a cave with bloodthirsty monsters. I saw this movie in the theatre – one of the movies I chose based solely on the poster, a method that has never steered me wrong – and I remember walking out thinking, “Wow, that was great, but what the hell was up with that abrupt ending?” In the U.S. theatrical release, the film ends after Sarah escapes the cave (climbing up the hill of bones, one of my favorite shots in all of horror cinema) and makes it to the group’s car. She turns toward the passenger seat, sees her friend Juno (who we presumed was dead) sitting there grinning like a bloody ghoul, and screams. Roll credits.

It’s a ridiculous ending to an otherwise stellar movie. That’s not director Neil Marshall’s fault, though – the full film has an incredible ending, but apparently the studio executives thought American audiences would either not understand the real ending or would just simply prefer the cheap scare because it is such a prevalent device in American horror (or they realized that the cheap ending would leave the film open for a sequel). Whatever the reason, it sells the audience short and does a great disservice to the film.

Worst. Vacation. Ever. The Descent, 2006.

In the true ending, Sarah’s escape is all in her head; in the last shot we see of her, she is presenting what she believes to be a birthday cake to her late daughter, kneeling in the cave with her torch looking at someone who isn’t there while the dying screams of her friends and the eerie shrieks of the cave creatures echo in the background; Sarah, trapped and doomed, is driven mad. This is the ending that closes Marshall’s haunting metaphor for the madness of grief; this is the ending that stays true to the hopeless claustrophobia of the previous 90 minutes. It is beautiful, sad, and terrifying. It is what horror can be when you trust the audience and trust the story, when you distill fear and pain and futility into a work of art.

With that said, ending a movie on a jump scare is not necessarily a cinematic sin; there are some great horror movies that end with equally great jump scares. Carrie grabbing Sue’s arm in the dream sequence at the end of Carrie and Jason jumping out of the lake to grab Alice in Friday the 13th – these are jump scares that feel earned and make sense within the movie.

It’s no surprise that these two movies – especially Carrie, the earlier of the two – served as inspiration for so many jump scare endings that followed. But we have long since reached the point where American horror movies love the final jump scare so much that audiences usually expect them, which makes the scares far less effective. I love a good jump scare, but the reliance on them as an easy way to end a horror movie is intellectually lazy and underestimates horror fans. You can scare me without startling me, and you can startle me without scaring me. And if I’m watching a horror movie, I want you to scare me.


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