A Brief History of the Horror Movie Jump Scare

History of the Jump Scare

The jump scare. Few film tropes are so notorious among movie fans, but have proven so effective. If you’re watching a modern horror movie, you know that at any moment something can spring into view with a jarring sound. Mirrors, closets, beds – any patch of darkness can hide the next scream-inducing moment of your life.

While they have been used masterfully, countless forgettable horror movies have leaned on them for cheap thrills, utilized as a crutch when a filmmaker didn’t know how how to use atmosphere and mood to achieve the same emotions from an audience. But like any other technique, when in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, you’ll find a scene that will stick with you forever.

With Annabelle: Creation pulling in major bucks at the box office, the jump scare is alive and well and still packing theaters. Let’s take a look at the ways the jump scare, the most hated and possibly most powerful horror movie tactic in a filmmaker’s toolbox, has evolved over time.

The Silent Scare

Even if The Phantom of the Opera doesn’t have the first cinematic jump scare, it contains the first memorable one. When Christine unmasks Lon Chaney’s most famous creation at the halfway mark of the film, audience members were said to have screamed or even fainted. The musical accompaniment could have certainly aided this moment, but even without sound, it works thanks to the now-iconic makeup. It seems tame today, but nothing of this sort had ever been seen before, and while the scare is (ahem) orchestrated, it still shocks.

But the gothic horror of the 1930s didn’t really lend itself to jump scares. Here it was all about mood, lavish sets, and Universal monsters. It wasn’t until 1942’s Cat People that the jump scare as we know it started to take shape.

The Lewton Bus

Cat People features the granddaddy of all jump scares. This is the first film that understood how to set up a scare and truly deliver. In its most famous scene, Alice is being pursued by known cat-person, Irena. It’s dark, and neither Alice nor the audience can see much around her. The soundtrack is silent except for her footsteps, and she starts looking over her shoulder and running as she gets increasingly worried. Suddenly, a hiss begins and a bus pulls into frame with a screech, making everyone scream their fool heads off.

It holds up insanely well even when you know what’s coming.

This technique of a jump scare of an object that’s actually non-threatening became known as “the Lewton Bus,” after the film’s legendary producer Val Lewton. Every time a cat jumps out of a closet – no matter how nonsensical it might be! – you have him to blame.

But even though this was monstrously effective, it didn’t set off a rash of imitators. For that, you’d have to wait a couple more decades.

We All Get A Little Jumpy

Ah, Psycho. Sure, everyone remembers the shower scene as the most shocking moment, but it’s also a scripted one. You can literally see the killer coming before it happens. Another moment, the reveal of the state of Norman’s mother, is a silent scare that imprinted onto people’s memories as well. But along with these two moments Hitchcock, also managed to perfect the jump scare with the scene when Detective Arbogast is investigating the Bates Mansion. Hitchcock, always the master of misdirection, plays the audience perfectly.

As Arbogast walks into the Bates home the camera stays tight on him, only showing us the reverse POV angles of what he’s looking at. We’re trapped with him. He starts to ascend the staircase in front of him and the scene cuts to a shot of a door slowly opening, somewhere. We have no idea where it is, but we know it means danger and we’re set even further on edge. Then, out of nowhere, we’re in a bird’s eye view of the staircase, pulled away from Arbogast. Our eyes are drawn to the left side of the frame as Arbogast walks up the stairs, his movement instinctively the dominant feature in the frame. But then, suddenly and with a scream of strings on the soundtrack, Norman Bates comes rushing out from a slightly ajar door to the right.

It’s an absolutely perfect scare, and as with Cat People it can still send that chill up your spine every single time. Of course, this one was a real threat, as Arbogast’s slashed face soon revealed.

Psycho‘s scares set off a rash of jump scares throughout the 1960s in such classic movies as The Innocents and Wait Until Dark, a criminally underrated film starring Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman that fights off an attacker in her home. The darkness of the frame is used against her, and us.

Close the door

You know that scene in a horror movie where someone goes to the medicine cabinet, opens the mirror, and closes it again only to see some sort of horrible visage in the mirror? Roman Polanski’s Repulsion was the first to use this. The shot is not nearly as tight and scary as they would get in the future, but the small glimpse of a man standing behind the protagonist is chill-inducing. This is also the reason we are always afraid of mirrors in horror movies.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me used this pretty effectively, as well.

Continue Reading A Brief History of the Jump Scare >>

Pages: 1 2 3Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: