Are jump scares scary?

One of the few things that pretty much anybody who knows me knows is that I like horror films. I’ve seen tons – probably a lot more than is good for me – and after you get watching for a while, you start to get wise to the tricks. Looking at modern horror in particular, we have the jump scare (although it is something that crops up in older horror films infrequently – the death of Arbogast in Psycho is a good example) – mention it to a horror fan, however, and you tend to receive massively negative responses. Do jump scares deserve the flack they get?

The purpose of a jump scare is, somewhat self-evidently, to make you jump. In using some kind of trigger, normally a sudden increase in volume or something flashing up on the screen, it causes you to get startled. The jump scare evokes a physical response because the human is programmed to react that way.

In many ways, the jump scare is lazy filmmaking, because it is not difficult to startle somebody. A lot of films rely too much on them, and they have become part of the grammar of the modern horror landscape. However, employing them in a film means that they take the place of actual horror and actual terror – rather than being fearful of the monster or whatever else the movie has, they are fearful of a loud noise that’ll come out of nowhere just because. These quiet-quiet-LOUD scares have become so commonplace that there now is not even that much shock at them.

If a filmmaker wishes to use a jump scare, they need to find somewhere to fit in it, and it is often detrimental to the film. Before horror started relying on them, I was completely unfamiliar with the seemingly epidemic levels of animals being stuck in random parts of a house. Now, you can’t open a door or go into an attack without a cat leaping out at you. The remake of Poltergeist even managed to work in a CGI squirrel solely to use it for a jump scare.

Worse, though, are the dream sequences – if jump scares are lazy, jump scares in dream sequences are the pinnacle of laziness. Someone (normally our lead character) is placed in some kind of situation, stumbling across the villain, a dead relative, whatever. It lunges for them, grabs them, the soundtrack blares and – they wake up. These scares really cheat the viewer. Similarly, scares tacked on at the very end solely to end on a jump. Something will jump out at you just before the credits – it doesn’t need to make any narrative sense, though, because it’s scary, see.

Jump scares also have the effect of completely dissipating any tension the movie has built if it is not employed correctly. Causing the viewer to jump acts as a form of release – if the terror is merely building up to that jump scare, what then? The job needs to be done again, and it isn’t frightening. To give two recent examples of it being done right, look at 10 Cloverfield Lane or The Conjuring 2. Both movies employ jump scares, but the main source of horror is in the story and the building of tension – the jumps are a means to an end rather than an end in themselves.

That is the best way to use these frights – they need to be put in films to help amplify the terror, rather than being the end these films aspire to. Otherwise, the films just because mechanical processes than elicit jumps at certain points and offering nothing else.

As an endnote, it is worth noting that some directors are also getting fed up with the level of uninventive jump scares in horror movies, and they have sought new ways of employing them and helping them retain their impact. I can think of no better example than Insidious – James Wan sets up a creepy scenario that seems to pitch its fright somewhere else entirely, rendering the jump scare all the more unexpected and actually scary. Enjoy:

Image credit: http://classic–movies.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/psycho.html

Reece Goodall

One day, long ago, a man had a dream. Then he woke up and started writing film reviews instead.