Horror Films Need To Get Rid of Jump Scares — Here’s Why.

The crutch of mainstream horror has run its course.

Still from “The Nun” (2018)

I’m going to be transparent here and admit something I think many of us feel on an emotional level: I hate jump scares. I don’t use that word lightly, either. But as someone who adores horror in all its forms, I can’t stand them.

Jump scares are intended to enhance your experience. By design, they are inserted in films to make you jump, to set off your anxieties by using specific context clues. When a character walks down a long hallway we brace ourselves. This feeling we have, of waiting for something to happen, is heightened when the scene’s music lowers, when everything gets quiet, and when the camera starts to move around. Eventually, some ghost, monster, killer, or creature will leap out of a darkened corner. Everyone in the theater screams. Voila — horror.

But this intention rarely translates to reality. Perhaps at first, when this style of horror was becoming popular, it was effective. Then it was the proverbial salt to your meal: it added flavor. Now, it’s as though horror directors are pouring entire batches onto a well-done steak. In essence, jump scares are no longer an aspect of horror, but the focus of horror.

What do I mean by this? Well, put simply, many horror films have become sequences of jump scares rather than cohesive stories. The focus is on the short-term scare, rather than the long-term unease. And, like any tool, the more you use it, the duller it gets. That’s why now, when folks go to the theater to see a horror film, jump scares elicit more eye-rolls than screams.

It’d be like if your friend, for the past decade, had made a habit of coming up behind your back and screaming “boo” when you weren’t looking. Sure, the first few times it might scare you. After a few months, you’d laugh and say stop. It wouldn’t scare you anymore. After a decade of the same trick, it would annoy you. Anger you, even. This is the way many viewers, myself included, view jump scares. They’re loud, abrasive, annoying, and don’t add anything of substance to plot or character. Rather, they buy time. They remind you you’re watching a horror film

Point being, if you need to be reminded you’re watching a horror movie so often, it might not be that scary to begin with.

With that said, there are ways to successfully utilize jump scares. One needs only see stuff directed by James Wan (who has quickly become the master of jump scares, in my view) to understand how this element should be used: as a pinch of salt to your meal. To flavor, not to dominate.

My favorite example of a jump scare done to perfection can be found in Neil Marshall’s 2005 film, The Descent. (Note, spoilers ahead).

Preceding this scene is nearly an hour of build-up. We see two glimpses of this creature in the film before this scene, silhouetted in the background. We don’t know what exactly is going on, though, until this sudden reveal. The genius of this sequence is that the scene is already tense: trapped in a cave with no way out, losing air, food, and water, these women begin to scream deliriously. It’s in the midst of this chaos an additional horror is thrown into the mix (an extremely deadly one).

In short, the jump scare works because it is earned. There is substantial build-up and it’s a development that directly affects both the story and the characters. Even I can appreciate the artistry in that.

Naturally, with anything that is intended strictly to be a commercial endeavor, short term profits are more important than long term renown. I think that’s the reason a lot of producers and directors opt to stuff their films with unearned jump scares: because, even if they’re not effective, they still might jolt a few people in their seats and thus earn a bit more money at the box office.

As is often the case with the horror genre though, stagnation leads to creativity. Indie horror has always been pushing the envelope as to what is possible in the genre. The Babadook, Hereditary, The Witch, In Fabric, The Lighthouse, Get Out, It Follows, Green Room, Raw, Mandy, It Comes At Night — these are all films which have deviated from the standard, conventional horror format. All of these films either have very few or no jump scares at all. Hereditary in particular thrives by subverting expectations, taking viewers by the hand and using all of the same context clues, only to step back at the last second and deny the catharsis of a jump scare. As such, the result is an unbearable amount of suspense and tension that is sustained through the haunting final act of the film.

If anything, the financial and critical success of these indie films, and more mainstream films like Peele’s sophomore film, Us and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (which I consider horror), should prove that audiences are craving something different. Something fresh and unique.

Jump scares are a part of the genre — that I can’t deny. However, I hope that we can return to a time when horror films used them with purpose, rather than throwing them into a film with haphazardness.



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Keith LaFountaine

Writer and filmmaker from Vermont. Sometimes, I dabble with politics.