An alarm clock glows in the darkness: 3:18AM. All is silent... until a low, steady creak groans through the house.
A young woman turns on the bedside lamp, squinting across the room. Shadows gather around vague outlines of furniture. Nothing moves. Then, voices. Murmuring. Somewhere down the hall.
She pads into the living room on bare feet. The television must have been left on, but there’s a problem with the signal. The picture flickers, briefly coalescing around the shape of a shadowy figure, only to break apart into digital noise.
Moving closer, she reaches out towards the TV. With every step, the image becomes clearer; it’s almost as if the figure can see her...
CLICK! She turns the television off. Exhales.
That's when a pair of hands shoot out from the screen, wrapping around her face.
The audience screams.
If you’ve ever watched a horror film, you’ve seen a jump scare. It’s that moment when a character thinks they’re safe, only to have a demon appear suddenly behind them. The final coda when it feels like the movie’s wrapping up — but the killer comes back for one last jump. A mix of tension, cinematic sleight-of-hand, and score, it’s one of the most basic building blocks of horror movies, and it excels at one thing: catching the audience off guard, and jolting the hell out of them.
‘80s slasher films drove the jump scare into the ground, and the technique eventually became a cliché in its own right — with moviegoers often watching for the surprise rather than being shocked themselves. In the last few years, however, we’ve seen the technique make a comeback with audiences. Movies like the Paranormal Activity series, which rely almost exclusively on the jolt of the jump scare, have pulled in impressive grosses and spawned multiple sequels.
How do these scares work, and what’s behind the recent uptick in audience interest? Lock your doors and turn off the lights; let’s go check out that noise in the basement and find out.
Anatomy of the scare
"A good jump scare is a magic trick."
“What makes a jump scare work is classic misdirection.” C. Robert Cargill is one of the screenwriters of this year’s Sinister, and a film critic who’s written for Ain’t It Cool News and Film.com. “A good jump scare is a magic trick,” he says. “It’s ‘I’m going to get you to look over here while I’m doing this,’ and then out of nowhere — bam! — something’s going to get you.”
In fact, a well-done jump scare breaks down the same way Michael Caine describes illusions in The Prestige, with three distinct steps. First there’s the pledge: a character is introduced into a situation where danger is present. They hear a rattling in the kitchen, or voices when they’re home alone. Then comes the turn, where the character finds a reasonable explanation, or the immediate threat is somehow removed. Everything seems alright, and the audience lets its guard down. That’s when the filmmakers execute the prestige, hitting an unsuspecting audience with the actual scare — usually accompanied by a shrieking music cue or sound effect.
Film history is littered with them (see some of our favorites below), but one only needs to look at the original A Nightmare On Elm Street for a textbook example. Tina wanders through her nightmare, stalked by... something. Just when her fear builds to a crescendo, however, the danger dissipates. The noises stop — she thinks she’s going to be okay. We relax. And that’s when Krueger strikes.
While we may associate the technique with modern horror movies, it’s actually been with us almost as long as genre films themselves. Director Jacques Tourneur used it 70 years ago in Cat People, using the arrival of a bus to craft a scare that still plays today. Other filmmakers tried their own riffs in subsequent decades. Showman William Castle even brought the jump scare into the real world in 1959 with The Tingler, rigging seats in theaters to vibrate during a key sequence in the movie.
Alfred Hitchcock, however, put it front and center with Psycho. In the film’s climax, Vera Miles searches for Mrs. Bates, knowing that she has mere moments before Norman discovers she’s poking around his house. In the basement she finds the old woman sitting in a chair, seemingly ending the nightmare once and for all. But when Miles spins her around, she discovers something horrific — that nobody was expecting back in 1960.
The jump scare hit a wall in the ‘80s. At first slasher films used it to great effect; the original Friday the 13th features what could be considered the definitive “killer returns” scare, when a young Jason emerges from the lake to attack the heroine. As knock-offs rolled out, however, the technique became less and less of a surprise, and was soon as rote and obvious as the now-parodied genre conventions themselves.
It wasn’t that the horror movies of the era were bad as a whole — though to be fair, for every Evil Dead II there’s also a Silent Night, Deadly Night Part II. Instead, it was a matter of repeating the same gags in movies that weren’t actually frightening anymore.
If you look at the best horror films, Cargill says, “the common thread is almost all of them have amazing characters.” From the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Poltergeist, the characters pull the audience in, and the more you care, the more anxious you'll be that something bad's going to happen to them. Many horror flicks of the ‘80s stepped off that path, instead presenting a parade of lookalike characters that not only weren’t developed, but could be straight-up obnoxious. “When you put five kids out in the woods and they’re all douchebags, you don’t care that they’re getting killed,” he says. “In fact you kind of enjoy it, it’s kind of cathartic. It becomes more comedy than it is tragedy.” The result were movies that were more like gory rollercoaster rides rather than something that would keep audiences up at night.
Compounding the problem was a general lack of inventiveness with the scares themselves. Instead of setting the audiences up with clever misdirection, some filmmakers would try to cheat the system, relying on just the third element of the jump scare formula — having a cat randomly leap on-screen with an accompanying music hit, for example. As horror entered its self-reflective phase in the 1990s, movies like Scream called out the clichés directly. While that twist may have imbued them with new short-term life, it also pulled back the curtain, making them even less effective in the long run. Worst of all was the constant recycling of some gags, none of which has received more screen time than the dusty “mirror scare.” That particular trick, where a character closes a medicine cabinet or mirrored door to reveal a monster just behind them, is so played out it’s become a meme unto itself. When a movie trick gets its own supercut, it’s not surprising — or scaring — anyone.
That’s not to say the basic principles behind the jump scare aren't sound, however. The key is in the execution, and as a result filmmakers today have to be just as cognizant of audience expectations as they do of any other element. “When we sat down to write the script,” Cargill says of Sinister, “the first thing I did is I composed a list of all the tropes and clichés that appear in all the mainstream horror movies that people are tired of.” The audience’s built-in scare awareness can even be used to a movie’s advantage. In Sinister, Cargill says, they at times used tropes to suggest the film was going in one direction — only to hit viewers from a different angle altogether.
"When you put five kids out in the woods and they’re all douchebags, you don’t care that they’re getting killed."
The fun in fear
"I think the reason why they work right now is because audiences feel like they’re watching something genuine."
With such incredible longevity — the jump scare has appeared in everything from Jaws to Seven — it’s clear audiences appreciate a well-tuned jump. Mary Beth Oliver, Professor and Co-Director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State University’s College of Communications, thinks the reasons behind it are twofold. “I do believe that there’s a tendency for some people to simply enjoy the actual adrenaline rush of the scare itself right then and there,” she says, comparing it to a ride. On the other hand, she suggests, being scared heightens the physiological state of the audience — intensifying emotions they feel during the movie, and making any dramatic payoffs at the end that much more satisfying. In that sense, being scared may actually make the story in a horror movie stronger.
That notion of catharsis is also in play when it comes to the found footage set-up of the Paranormal Activity series. The conceit is as straightforward as it was back in The Blair Witch Project: bad things happened to some people with cameras, and here’s what they recorded. In found footage movies, however, there’s often little emphasis on character or traditional dramatic narrative. The PA movies are basically made up of creepy vignettes, which use the jump scare formula for almost every interesting beat. One might think that such an exercise would fall flat, but they’ve been enormously successful thus far.
The key may be the found footage approach itself. “Some research,” Oliver says, “has wrestled with the idea that we tend to find fascination in things that are violent and frightening when we feel threatened ourselves.” By playing off our lack of privacy in a world of Facebook oversharing and YouTube videos, the films may be appealing to underlying fears without the audience even realizing it.
Cargill sees the aesthetic intensifying scares by placing the movies in a world audiences are familiar with — and where they could be the victims. “I think the reason why they work right now is because audiences feel like they’re watching something genuine,” he says. “And it allows that audience to put themselves in the mindset that what they’re watching could actually happen.”
There's also an inherent tension in the format itself. Let's face it; you buy your ticket knowing terrible things are going to happen to these people, you just don't know when. Without a traditional story to guide your expectations, it becomes a voyeuristic waiting game. When you’re anticipating a scare around every corner, even the slightest movement in the background is enough to ratchet up the tension.
Of course, Paranormal Activity didn’t invent the idea of found footage; it’s been percolating in the horror world since 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, with recent standouts like the Spanish film REC breaking through to broader audiences. The PA franchise has gotten Hollywood’s attention, however, cementing the approach as a viable sub-genre — and bringing its own set of tropes and audience expectations to the table.
From serial killers to the supernatural
"We got sick of seeing teenagers strapped to chairs and having their eyeballs pulled out with pliers."
Perhaps the most notable of these new conventions is the focus on the supernatural. For much of the 2000s, horror in the United States focused very specifically on the intricacies of on-screen violence. From Hostel to the Saw sequels, we were producing movies that dwelled upon explicit, graphic violence — including, yes, torture on occasion — usually with very human villains behind it all.
Now the pendulum’s swung back, with ghosts, demons, and the occult dominating in movies like Insidious, Sinister, and the upcoming Mama. Horror is often seen as one of the best cultural barometers in film — as Oliver notes, the morality play of the ‘80s slasher movie was as much about fear of sexuality as anything else — and there may be something similar behind the shift to the supernatural as well.
“It all stems from Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Cargill. “We saw videos in which guys with black masks cut off people’s head with machetes, and you could go online to see people tortured.” While the movies of the mid-2000s can be seen as the product of the US dealing with the fallout from a horrifying attack — Hostel, with its Eastern European villains preying on hapless Americans, seems to reflect a certain xenophobia that existed at the time — eventually the potential reality of those images simply became too much.
“We got sick of seeing teenagers strapped to chairs and having their eyeballs pulled out with pliers,” Cargill says. “So what you have is all these people saying I don’t want to see real monsters anymore, I want scary monsters. I want monsters that I can believe for an hour and a half exist, and then walk away going ‘Oh no, ghosts don’t exist.’”
The shift has been a boon for the jump scare as well. Films about the supernatural seem particularly fertile ground for setting up the kind of misdirection and anticipation that good jumps require. A creepy noise that could be a masked killer down the hall is one thing — but it's still grounded in some sense of reality. When dealing with the ethereal, there are no rules. The imagination can run wild, and something as mundane as the low rumble on the Paranormal Activity soundtrack can become a gut-wrenching signifier of pending doom.
One last scare
For audiences, however, all of these elements are transparent. When you sit down in a theater to watch a good horror movie, you’re ultimately not thinking about what societal fears it’s tapping into or what tricks are being used; you’re simply there to be scared.
The shared experience of being frightened in a darkened room with a group of strangers may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it serves as vital a cultural role as folklore or campfire stories. “Cinema helps us confront our base fears,” says Oliver. “And maybe especially in the case of horror.”
So go ahead. Head to the theater or living room, and settle in with the horror flick of your choice.
Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be alright.
It’s only a movie.
Illustration by John Heetaek Chae