In preparation for Halloween, Dr Vincent M. Gaine takes a look at some of cinema’s greatest jump scares. Spoilers ahead…
The film critic Nigel Floyd coined the term ‘cattle prod cinema’ in response to a 21st century trend in horror cinema to go quiet, quiet, BANG! Floyd was making the case that films like The Conjuring, Insidious and Sinister may startle but do not necessarily disturb. This trend of horror makes extensive use of the jump scare, a maligned and potentially cheap and simplistic way of inducing a response from a viewer. Despite this disparagement, the jump scare is a tried and tested horror film device, that filmmakers have used through the decades and continues to be effective. From the sudden burst of a candle in The Exorcist to the emergence of Jason Voorhees at the end of Friday the 13th, the jump scare serves to thrill audiences and, when used properly, can add to the disturbing effect of the movie overall.
Assembling a list of the greatest jump scares of all time would be foolhardy, so I have compiled a selection of what I consider to be effective jump scares that both provide a sudden fright and add to the film overall. Doubtless readers will have their own choices and probably think I am an utter fool for not including X or Y. Be that as it may, here are five impressive, and I think varied, jump scares.
The Descent (2005)
Anytime I do a list of top horror, The Descent always comes up. As indeed it should, being my personal scariest film experience of all time. From its opening moments of white-water rafting, there is a sense of dread and ominousness. Then we get the first big scare, followed by a heart-breaking response. Notably, there is a jump scare later in this first act, and like many a jump scare we cut to the character waking up. From then on, the sense of dread only increases as our intrepid characters embark on their subterranean journey. I was never keen on caving, and after seeing The Descent decided that it is not an activity for me.
The jump scare is an obvious one, both for those who know the film and indeed when you are watching it. Trapped deep underground, surrounded by solid rock and with no clear idea of where to go, one of our heroes uses the night vision setting on her camcorder to look around the cave. By this point, the viewer is aware that the six women are not alone down here, and therefore we anticipate that something is going to appear and most likely attack. Thus, the jump-scare of the crawler appearing in the viewfinder is heavily foreshadowed. But that does not stop that appearance as being utterly, perfectly terrifying. I say this is my top scariest film of all time because that moment did not just make me jump, but also scream out loud in the cinema. Maybe that annoyed some people, or maybe they did not notice because they screamed as well. On subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming, it still works.
This jump scare is also exceptional because of how it works in the film’s structure. A simpler, or even a cheap, jump scare works as a release of tension, the BANG! after the quiet, quiet. Here, the jump scare is the beginning, a transition in the film after which there is no escape for the characters or the audience. From being trapped, the characters now become hunted, with blood and gore spraying in ample but never gratuitous or comedic fashion. The Descent is a magnificent horror film not least because of its bleakness, and the use of the jump scare that escalates the threat rather than releasing it is key to the (pun intended) deep trouble that the characters find themselves in.
Another obvious choice, but it’s hard to deny the legacy of Steven Spielberg’s invention of the modern blockbuster. This enormously influential film packed audiences into cinemas in 1975 and has continued to enthral and fascinate fans, critics and academics alike for nearly fifty years, not least because it scares us to never want to go in the water.
While Jaws incorporates much suspense and also blood, it is interesting that possibly its most infamous jump scare is actually one that presents no danger to the characters. No one is attacked, and the shark makes no appearance. But everything about the sequence is cranked up to white knuckle levels of tension. Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and Brody (Roy Scheider) are out on Hooper’s boat to investigate a possible attack, and the humorous banter that characterises their relationship is being established, such as Hooper pointing out that they will not find the shark on land and Brody protesting he is not drunk enough to go out on the water. This interaction brings the audience into the men’s world. We like them, we want them to be alright, and then Hooper makes the frankly deranged decision to get into the water, at night. Dude, it’s bad enough to go in the sea when there’s a killer shark, but when you can’t even see what’s coming, are you out of your freaking mind?! Sure, Hooper assures Brody that the shark is finished here and won’t come back, but we expect the shark to make a meal of this foolhardy scientist.
Notably, of course, the jump scare is not the shark, but its handiwork (toothiwork?), as a severed head appears out of the bottom of the ruined boat. When I first saw Jaws, on television in the late 1990s, I screamed at that moment. It’s remarkable because it is not dangerous, it is simply a piece of meat that appears unexpectedly. The sudden appearance is key to the jump scare, and it can be simply a person coming out of nowhere who does not pose a threat. Yet the suddenness still makes us jump. What is exceptional about the head in the bottom of the boat is that it is a very stark display of death. Having shared in the lively relationship between Brody and Hooper, here we are confronted with a blunt and overt presentation of what death looks like – a head devoid of body and identity. Yet one aspect of the person remains – the eyes locked in an eternal stare of terror. The moment of death, the fear of death, is captured in the eyes of that victim, and that sudden appearance, not what we are expecting though we are expecting something, causes the head in the bottom of the boat to linger long in the memory.
The jump scare is far from being a uniquely American device. This blistering nightmare from Spain makes ample use of its found footage conceit, for the most part providing convincing reasons for the continued filming. A short, compact film by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, [REC] follows Ángela (Manuela Velasco) and Pablo (Pablo Rosso), a two-person news team that accompany Barcelona firefighters into an apartment building, where all hell breaks loose. Combining elements of zombie and occult horror, through the (literal) lens of found footage, [REC] draws the viewer into a threatening environment and offers an appropriate amount of explanation without getting bogged down in exposition.
There are several moments that work as great jump scares, all relating to sudden appearances of the apartment block’s ferocious inhabitants. Due to our restricted view through the news camera, these are typically in the distance, reminiscent perhaps of a Resident Evil or House of the Dead aesthetic as a menacing figure lurches closer, or when these figures suddenly attack and blood starts spurting. But the film’s climax offers closer quarters and a view even more restricted due to darkness. Trapped in the penthouse with zombies outside, the news crew search for escape and answers, reduced to using the camera’s night vision, much like in The Descent. When they pull open the entrance to a loft, the viewer can likely predict what is going to happen – there is something up there! But this does not deter Pablo, determined to search every part of this place to find a way out. As the camera rotates through the darkened attic space, we wait for something to emerge, much like in Jaws, but again like in Jaws, it is not what we necessarily expect. Up to this point we have seen bloodstained individuals as well as a little girl with strange eyes, but what prompts the jump in this moment is something altogether less human, a small figure that moves towards the camera with an unclear intention. At its appearance, one’s heart lurches into the mouth, perhaps all the more so because we expected something, but did not know what to expect. Thus, the jump scare works to both reward and confound expectations, giving the viewer a bit of what we want but not everything. We only see this figure for a second because Pablo, understandably, drops out of its way in a panic, but again it lingers. What was it? What can it do? Is it coming back?
In the film’s wider context of learning about children being possessed, we are left to wonder if what we saw was part of a wider experiment or ritual, another victim of what we saw earlier, or something altogether worse. The brevity of this creature’s appearance is key to its impact upon the viewer, because like the characters, we learn a little bit more of the puzzle, but this little bit provides no comfort and only to escalate the fear.
Under The Shadow (2016)
The British-produced, Iranian-set Under The Shadow, filmed in Amman and Jordan and spoken in Persian, highlights that jump scares are a universal language. Babak Anvari’s debut focuses on Shideh (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi), living in Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War. The eponymous shadow takes a number of forms, including the metaphorical shadows of the war and the oppressive regime that has largely restricted Shideh’s life (a regime only too apparent in 2022 following the death of Masha Amini). More literal shadows include a bomb that pierces the top of Shideh’s apartment building but does not explode, and a malevolent presence described by her devout neighbour as a djinn.
For the most part, Under The Shadow is a slow burn, haunted house tale with creeping dread and ambiguous threats. But there a few points when Anvari grips the viewer with a sudden, icy jump scare that emphasises the supernatural presence in the apartment. The first of these is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it passing of an eerie figure outside the door, but the second is the most out-and-out terror moment of this supremely unsettling film. During a bombardment, Shideh desperately tries to get Dorsa out of the building but starts to doubt that she has Dorsa with her. Finding what she thinks is the real Dorsa under the girl’s bed, Shideh encounters something else. Unlike some of the other jump scares mentioned here, this is less overtly foreshadowed, because there is very real danger taking place quite apart from anything supernatural. But when ‘Dorsa’ turns into a literal mouth of darkness, it is another of those moments where your heart decides the chest is too small a space and it wants to exit your body via your throat.
This particular jump scare is perfectly placed because prior to its occurrence, we see Shideh and Dorsa running through the apartment and down the stairs to the basement in long takes, which help us to appreciate the danger of the bombing and the distance to safety. Cunningly, throughout these takes Dorsa is facing away from the camera or out of focus. Thus, when the cries for help come from the apartment, we, like Shideh, fear that the djinn is with her and Dorsa behind, so our expectations are neatly played with. Nor is Anvari done playing with our expectations because what is where and indeed who is what continue to be ambiguous. Even in this moment of the jump scare, what we see is so uncanny, so unreal and yet so literally in our face that, once again, it lingers after the initial shock and may even prompt a re-evaluation of what we saw. Many jump scares are carefully contained, but some offer such seismic shifts that they can change the feel of a movie overall. Such is the case with Under the Shadow.
The Haunting of Hill House (2018)
A bit of a cheat since this is a streaming series rather than a film, but who said jump scares have to be in the cinema? Mike Flanagan’s liberal adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s seminal chiller may offend purists, but it offers a prolonged and committed drip feed delivery of menace and chills. Told across ten hour-long episodes and cutting between the present and past of the Crain family, it ranks as one of the best demonstrations of the opportunities afforded by Netflix productions. I watched the first episode shortly after the series dropped on Netflix, then the rest some months later in fairly quick succession. In particular, I watched ‘Episode 8: Witness Marks’, on my tablet, in a bedroom with a very effective blind, therefore in almost total darkness with the only light coming from the screen. Quite the cinematic experience, I suppose.
Much of The Haunting of Hill House is, appropriately, haunting, with ominous appearances, sudden screams and all-round malevolence quite palatable for the viewer. But what earns it a place here comes in that eighth episode, as Shirley (Elizabeth Reaser) and Theodora Crain (Kate Siegel) drive through the night back towards Hill House, fearing for their brother Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Shirley and Theodora have a strained relationship at best. Their conversation in the car follows that of Steven (Michiel Huisman) and Hugh Crain (Timothy Hutton), the long form of the show allowing Flanagan and co-writers Rebecca Klingel and Jeff Howard to stretch out the conversations between the characters. The Crain family have an extensive and troubled history, and these car conversations generate their own type of tension. The friction between Steven and Hugh steadily escalates, while that between Shirley and Theodora moves from confession to recrimination to condemnation. The viewer is thus involved in the argument and wanting it to be resolved, possibly by some sort of explosion from either of the women. Instead, the explosion comes from the ghost of Nell (Victoria Pedretti), appearing suddenly and letting loose one of the most horrific screams ever heard. How Shirley manages to simply drive the car off the road and stop, rather than crash, is something of a miracle.
Despite repeat viewings of this moment, it still succeeds in making me jump. There is no warning, no hint that this is coming, and the sudden visual and aural invasion by this grotesque spectre is a complete disruption of a seemingly secure space. Even though we have seen plenty of supernatural moments, many of them terrifying, they are often foreshadowed and do not appear as actual assaults. The scream by Nell is also an echo of her earlier appearances, especially in ‘Episode Five: The Bent-Neck Lady’. Knowing Nell’s history, the echo gives the sequence a further tragic dimension, the scream shot through with hurt and grief which makes it all the more terrifying. Any jump scare can startle. It takes a special one to leave a mark.
There are many other jump scares throughout horror, and I won’t pretend that my list is definitive. But for fun, here are a few more, with a quick note on my responses.
Scream 2 (1997)
After a crash in a police car, Sidney (Neve Campbell) and Hallie (Elise Neal) think they have escaped from Ghostface, only for him to leap out and slit Hallie’s throat. Another moment that made me scream out loud.
Ready or Not (2019)
Sometimes a jump scare induces laughter rather than screams. Such was the case for me when a crossbow is accidently set off and a bolt goes right through a maid’s head. Gruesome, and hilarious, in the context.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
The final demonic lunge at the camera left me paralysed throughout the credits.
A very recent addition, due to a moment somewhat spoiled by the trailer when a head drops into view. But that moment certainly cemented my desire to see the film.
The Exorcist III (1990)
One of the most famous jump scares in cinema history, spoiled for me by list shows and YouTube videos. But watching it in context still gave me a start.
It’s all over and the horror of that prom night has ended. But when Carrie’s hand shoots out of the grave, it feels like it’s grabbing my arm (or throat) and reminds us that some pain never dies.
Dr Vincent M. Gaine is an academic, film critic and podcaster. He has published books and articles, as well as reviews for the Critical Movie Critics, Bloody Good Screen and Moving Pictures Film Club. He specialises in the intersection of globalisation, liminality and identity politics in media and will happily talk for hours on end about spies, superheroes and Boston.
Twitter: @drgaine / Podcast: Invasion of the Pody People