Let's talk about the Jump Scares

This is the definitive article on the jump scares in modern cinema (the views expressed here are those of the author's and do not necessarily represent or reflect any objective thinking). Why they are employed, why they exist in the first place and why they are being overused and for some reason preferred over atmosphere.

Movies tend to awaken many different emotions out of the audience viewing them. Whether it is happiness or sadness, movies can be creepy and downright uncomfortable sometimes. The emotion that comes across as the most manipulative though is fright. It is the type of movie that generates fear from its audience which is not an easy feat to accomplish but if done right it can make for a really great and memorable movie which has been accomplished with flying colors throughout the years. The 60s saw the release of Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Birds and Night of the Living Dead. The 70s saw the release of The Exorcist, Jaws, The Omen, Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Alien and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In the 80s we got A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Shining, The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th , The Thing and Poltergeist. Even the 90s had great and memorable horror movies like The Silence of the Lambs (if that counts), The Sixth Sense, Scream, Scream 2, The Blair Witch Project, Misery, Audition and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare

 All of them are great films (some are even groundbreaking) that each deliver its own unique way of generating fear. While they are all films that could make for some interesting articles, with this one I am going to focus on what has been going on recently for the genre. Because if you are at all interested in it then you would have to have been living under a rock to not have noticed a clear decline in quality - thanks to something called the jump scare. So is this the result of new ideas running out or is it just lazy filmmaking? Perhaps it is the audience who got lazier and no longer require the filmmakers to offer them something new and interesting and is instead fine with cheap and contemporary horror that they have seen before?

It is the very first thing that people bring up when they are talking about why modern horror movies do not even come close to living up to the standards set by the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The
incredible overabundance of obscenely loud jump scares, usually through an orchestra sting. Most people know what I mean by this because it is the exact same setup every single time (even in non-horror movies). The sound suddenly quiets down, the character in the film moves a little slower and then all of a sudden a loud high pitched noise appears out of nowhere with the force of the moon crashing into the planet and everyone in the audience jumps. There are audience members who like the jump scares and in fact see the jump scares as the best way of scaring you but for everyone else, they prefer actual horror where it gets under your skin and sticks with you for days. 

I have also noticed whenever I watch a horror movie with a lot of jump scares that I do enjoy I always end up looking back wondering why I enjoyed it, then I found out why.  Basically as the jump scare is happening when you watch it for the first time it might be scary. But looking back you just end up laughing, it is like you tripping on ice, in the moment it might be horrifying because you’re thinking you could die but looking back you just laugh it off. Basically, a horror movie relying on jump scares instead of atmosphere is cheap, it is weak storytelling and I could even argue that it is objectively not even scary. In fact it really is just startling. A jump scare is just like I said earlier, accompanied by a very loud noise. It is basically like someone running up to your ear and screaming in it very loudly. That is what a jump scare is. It is not really scary, it is startling and annoying. It is the stuff that is guaranteed to trigger the hard-wiring of the human body. No matter how hard or cold of a person you are, your body is programmed to respond to it, which is why it is so lazy.

 But of course you need to look at this from both sides. So I tried to look up people defending the jump scare. Sadly I could not find anything. I was disappointed - but not surprised. I mean, you could probably make the argument that it makes the film makers’ job easier so they do not have to think as much and instead enjoy their day. But then again, that would just show that these filmmakers do not care about the quality of their work and if they do not care about it then why should we bother to pay our hard earned money to watch it?

But again, this does not mean jump scares do not have their place. They do, in fact most horror movies ever made does have a jump scare or two but the difference is; the setup for that jump scare takes place over several scenes. That is the atmosphere, and the jump scare is the payoff and instead of keeping the jump scares coming every minute to the point of annoyance, it instead builds up and teases the possibility of another jump scare but it holds back which of course makes you wonder, “when is the next jump scare going to happen?” This is where the scary part comes in, you just know there is one more jump scare coming but you have no clue when it is going to occur so you are being kept on the edge of your seat. This is something the director Alfred Hitchcock once said and I quote;  

Four people are sitting around a table talking about baseball or whatever you like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly, a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and will go off in five minutes. The whole emotion of the audience is totally different because you've given them that information. In five minutes time that bomb will go off. Now the conversation about baseball becomes very vital. Because they're saying to you, "Don't be ridiculous. Stop talking about baseball. There's a bomb under there." You've got the audience working. - Alfred Hitchcock

To conclude, jump scares are the equivalent to the pie in the face of comedy. Sure, a person getting a pie in the face is funny. It does not take a lot of talent but the first time it is funny. The jump scare is pretty much the same thing. There is a loud noise that startles you and the first time you might get scared - but continuing to do this breaks the law of diminishing returns. There are only so many times you can throw a pie in the face or startle the audience with a jump scare before it becomes irritating. However one difference is that you can do a Family Guy routine where you take the joke and torture it until it kind of becomes funny in a pathetic way. If you were to do the same to jump scares however it would become just that, funny in a pathetic way which naturally is the last thing a horror movie wants to become unless it is a horror comedy where it is intentionally funny. The last thing you want for a serious horror film (or any film actually) is to be unintentionally funny and ruin the atmosphere.

- Lucas


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