/Answers: Our Favorite Horror Movie Jump Scares

Annabelle Creation Review

Every week in /Answers, we attempt to answer a new pop culture-related question. Tying in with the upcoming release of Annabelle: Creation, this week’s edition asks “What is your favorite horror movie jump scare?” As always, we have submissions from the /Film writing crew and podcast team.

Chris Evangelista: The Exorcist III

A sequel to The Exorcist seems like a bad idea, and Exorcist II: The Heretic was just that – bad. Yet there was still some fire left in the franchise, as evident by the surprisingly great The Exorcist III. Original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty stepped in to direct the third film in the franchise, an adaptation of his novel Legion. The film follows Lt. Kinderman (George C. Scott), the cop from the first film, as he deals with a serial killer who has the power to jump out of his body and possess others to do his evil bidding. It sounds kind of silly, but it’s actually one of the most effective horror sequels ever made. And it also contains perhaps the best jump scare of all time.

Jump scares can be cheap things – quick, pointless moments that shock but then quickly fade from memory. The jump scare in Exorcist III is different. Blatty keeps the camera at a fixed position, far away from the action. A nurse (Tracy Thorne) is going about her rounds late one night at a mostly empty hospital. She moves from one room to the next then back to the nurse’s station. Modern horror films would keep building this moment up with dramatic, spooky music, but Blatty keeps it silent, which somehow makes it all the more unnerving. We know something bad is going to happen, but we’re not sure what. The nurse checks another room, shuts the door, turns her back and begins to move. In a flash, a figure dressed as a nun in flowing robes comes flying out of the room the nurse just looked in, brandishing a huge pair of surgical shears aimed right at the back of the nurse’s neck. Now, at last, Blatty moves the camera in for a zoom as a musical sting blasts out, and the shot quickly cuts to a decapitated statue of Jesus. Without seeing a single drop of blood spilled on screen, we know the terrible fate that befell the poor nurse. Through this subtle editing, the scare has burned itself into our brains; it won’t be fading away any time soon.

Ethan Anderton: Signs

While thinking about the more startling moments that I’ve witnessed during movies, I couldn’t get this scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs out of my head. It might not be the scare that you’d think of when Signs is brought up, since the moment when the alien is first revealed by way of a home video on the news is nothing short of iconic, but the above scene made me jump out of my seat when I saw it in theaters.

What’s great about this jump scare is first there’s so much tension leading up to it. Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix are moving their flashlights from two different sides of the basement towards a draft that they feel coming from the coal chute in the old farmhouse they live in. They need to close it up to ensure the aliens that are descending upon the house can’t get in. As the lights move towards the same area, you think that there will be some kind of big reveal once they reach the coal chute. But that tension is relieved as the flashlights land on Rory Culkin, waiting calmly by the coal chute, and everything seems fine. But it’s not.

Suddenly, a pitch black alien arm reaches from the coal chute grate and grabs Rory Culkin. Since the alien skin has a camouflage ability, it blends right in with the black metal on the coal chute, making it even more shocking when the arm moves. Even more impressive is the fact that no digital effects are used to hide the arm whatsoever. It’s a practical effect, and your eyes don’t notice it because your attention is on Rory Culkin and you’re relieved that an alien wasn’t down there. It’s such a great jump scare.

Jack Giroux: The Innocents

If I’m ever by myself at a house during the night and walking by an oversized window, this scene comes to mind. Every time. It’s a perfect jump scare that leaves a mark. It’s also a jump scare that earns shock and terror without a loud noise or a blaring piece of music or sound FX. The buildup to the ghostly Peter Quint’s big hello is masterful. The young actors – Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin – were perfectly cast, and their laughs, demeanor, and everything about them (and that music) creates unease. There’s something sinister and mischievous about the music that readies you for something awful. When Miss Giddens enters the large room, the abrupt silence creates instant tension. Director Jack Clayton gives this big scare an equally unnerving buildup and pay-off.

There’s so much I love about this scare: Kerr’s genuine reaction of terror, Quint’s chilling stillness, the close-up of Kerr when he arrives in the background, the deep shadow of darkness the ghost casts, the reflection of Mrs. Grose, and so much more. “He was staring past me into the house as if he was hunting someone,” Giddens says. Even the character’s description of the jump scare and Qunt is fantastic.

Lindsey Romain: House on Haunted Hill (1959)

The sheer and out-of-nowhere surprise of this moment – from the original, Vincent Price-starring House on Haunted Hill – still chills me to the bone, even though I know it’s coming, and even though it’s nestled in the middle of an otherwise scare-free camp-fest. The movie is fun – a definite horror classic – but this moment, where a woman is raddled by the specter of an old woman, is pure terror. The total silence just before her appearance, which arrives with a shrill burst of music, is bone-chilling, but simple. The ghost’s distorted face and eerie movement are basic in methodology, but utilized to genius effect. I wish more modern films went for such practical scares – the mundanity feels textural, like something that’d really happen, which is always more terrifying than bloated CGI monsters or laboriously telegraphed spooks. Horror, for me, is best when it’s recognizable, the elements of our world manipulated into something familiarly off. I think of this scene when I move through the dark in the night, waiting for the woman to emerge. That’s a good jump scare – one that lingers long after ignition.

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