/Answers: Our Favorite Horror Movie Jump Scares

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.

Matt Donato: [REC]

Not all "jump scares" are created equal. In the worst – and most frequent – cases, filmmakers fail to introduce organic terror before going the route of 1,000 cheap jabs (cat jumps into frame, face pops out of nowhere, etc). Effective horror earns the right to hit us with a quickie jump scares and scatters them sparingly; devilish injections that manipulate time, pacing and safety. A title like [REC] minimizes the frequency of outright jumps – especially for found footage – yet when utilized, fear penetrates any sense of laziness. Danger from left field, supplemental to thematic tension or already heightened dread.

In one particular scene, only Ángela Vidal (Manuela Velasco) and her cameraman Pablo remain living (we assume). They reach Father Alberta's penthouse, discover the Niña Medeiros origin, and just as they begin searching for a way out – WHAM! An attic hatch in Alberta's "workshop" flies open. The perfect "DON'T GO UP THERE" moment. Even Pablo knows this – so he doesn't go up. He uses the camera, AKA us, to investigate what may be scurrying above. "I'll record what's up there and we can look at it." Right. Fuck you, Pablo.

The camera periscopes, and slowly starts rotating 360 degrees. Our hearts increase thumpage, knowing that any opportunistic filmmaker is about to throw a nasty genre punch. The camera keeps spinning, almost hitting a full turn. We begin to think "maybe there's nothing up here," which is exactly when a small "infected" child lunges at the camera for a PERFECT scream. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza know exactly how to toy with our fears, pushing us to the brink of discomfort while squeezing every last drop of horror from their leap-out-of-your-seat scare.

I've seen [REC] some 10 times over and that moment still puckers my unmentionables. Take note, movies-that-do-lame-crap-like-


the-camera (except you Paranormal Activity, you'll always be perfect to me).

Ben Pearson: Deep Blue Sea

Deep Blue Sea may not qualify as a traditional horror movie, but its key jump scare – the one in which Samuel L. Jackson's character is interrupted mid-speech by a shark who bursts out of the water and eats him – is one of the biggest jolts I ever experienced in a theater. Watching the scene again now, it seems obvious that something crazy is going to happen because of way its framed and the constant cutting back to Tom Jane's face (as if in anticipation of his reaction), but I think the scene's masterstroke is making the jump scare take place during a close up shot. By bringing you in closer to Jackson's face, director Renny Harlin subconsciously makes us feel like the character is safe; jump scares often happen in wider shots, so the fact that we're right in there with Jackson when that shark leaps from the water enhances the scare – the movie has to cut back to a wider shot for us to even fully comprehend what's happening. The CG definitely looks goofy eighteen years later, but as an unexpected scare, it still works wonderfully.

Vanessa Bogart: The Conjuring

What is scary? Haunted houses. What is scarier? Basements and cellars in said haunted houses? What is scariest? Being locked in said basement of said haunted house in the pitch darkness. Just add a creepy child's voice and some clapping ghost hands and you have a recipe for a heart attack. The Conjuring is arguably one of the best horror films of the last 20 years, so successful in its story and characters, that the fear was made worse by sympathetic proxy. I first saw The Conjuring at a German movie theater, and as it turns out, fear is a universal language. This film so masterfully pulls off the age old jump scare, that I was nervous to write this. Merely thinking about those hands and that clap sends a chill down my spine, and no matter how many times I watch this movie, I always jump.

Harkening back to the early days of horror movies, the set-up to the scare is simple. You know something is about to happened. A strange noise in the night draws Carolyn (Lili Taylor) out of bed. She hears kids running around playing a game, but her own children are asleep. The noises lead Carolyn downstairs. Tension is building. Something is about to happen. The creepy basement door opens on its own with a creak (classic), followed by a literal "dun dun duuuuunnn" being played out on an out of tune piano down below (this should be cheesy but it isn't). It has been quiet for too long. You have now resigned yourself to the fact that you are about to jump. You hold your popcorn steady and you prepare your heart for inevitable arrhythmia. She turns the light on in the basement, your ears fill with the familiar high-pitched tones (right on cue).

Quickly, things go from tense to terrifying. Carolyn yells down towards the noise, "Whoever's down there, I am going to lock you in now!" Boom. The door slams in her face, sending her tumbling to the cellar floor. Was that the jump scare? You are still tense. But why? It's quiet. You realize that it isn't over. A creepy ball rolls across the floor. The music intensifies. The light goes out. You hear a child's laughter. Carolyn is trapped in the dark, lighting match after match for some sort of salvation. The music is replaced with her shaky breaths. "Hey wanna play hide and clap?" Silence. Fear. Two ghostly grey hands. Clap. Clap. 


Jacob Hall: Mulholland Drive

While I was tempted to go with a more traditional horror movie for this list (James Wan really does know how to milk jump scares for all they're worth), David Lynch's Mulholland Drive features the single most startling moment I've ever seen on screen. I can barely stand to watch the YouTube embed above. It's crawled under my skin. It's embedded itself into my brain. It upsets me on a visceral level.

And yet the whole thing is so simple! And in a movie that is otherwise not frightening in the traditional sense of the word (although it does explore plenty of disturbing psychological avenues that deserve a deeper, richer conversation than I can provide here). The set-up is simple: two men share a meal in a diner. One tells the other of a nightmare he had, where he encountered a terrifying figure behind this very establishment. They go investigate. They find the figure. We, the audience, promptly shit our pants.

How does this scene fit into the larger fabric of Mulholland Drive, a wildly experimental film that Lynch expanded from a failed television pilot? That's never made especially clear by design. But what the scene does do is create a sense of dread that permeates every single scene in the rest of the movie. Nightmares are real. They're behind the diner. They're waiting for you. And while the rest of the film trades in unsettling darkness instead of jump scares, this one lingers in the background. You know it's out there.

Hoai-Tran Bui: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

It's no secret that I haven't watched a lot of horror movies. And since I used one of my few jump scare experiences on a previous /Answer on Scary Movie Scenes, I was kind of at a loss for this /Answer. Not wanting to go down the rabbit hole of horror movie YouTube clips, I wracked my brain all day and finally settled on that one time Lord of the Rings gave me one of the biggest jump scares I'd seen in a movie theater. Don't tell me you didn't yelp a bit, too.

The scene arrives midway through Peter Jackson's epic fantasy film, when the fellowship seems to have finally found sanctuary at the Elven town of Rivendell after days of horror and hardship. The film's gritty tone had returned to the comfort and soft greenery that Hobbiton introduced us to at the beginning of the journey. Then it's revealed that the aging Bilbo Baggins, who had departed Hobbiton for one last adventure before his death, is living there. Bilbo's presence and Rivendell's warm mysticism lulls the audience, and you and me, into complacency as Bilbo bestows Frodo with weapons and tokens from his own journey. And then the most terrifying thing that has ever happened in an epic fantasy movie takes place: Bilbo catches a glimpse of the Ring hanging around Frodo's neck and is suddenly possessed by a greed for it, his eyes becoming sunken holes and his teeth becoming fangs. It takes place over a split second, but I still remember the trauma I felt watching it to this day. Bilbo's moment of madness is the point where the evil became real — more so than the gaping eye of Sauron, and even more than the Ringwraiths that stalk Frodo and the fellowship. There is nothing more terrifying than a gentle, affable old man suddenly turn into the monster he escaped from.

Christopher Stipp: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

I don't usually stump for individual actors to earn some kind of token to show the world their greatness, but Bill Moseley deserves something, anything, dipped in gold for his performance as Chop-Top Sawyer in 1986's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. I don't know what kind of direction Tobe Hooper gave Moseley about how to bring Chop-Top to life but his character is chilling not for how silent and impressive his presence, but just how he was the opposite of what you would get out your common everyday homicidal maniac. His was a lecherous, skin-crawling performance that still manages to raise the small hairs on the back of my neck every time I watch that movie.

Normally, I would say that if you see a scene out of context it loses its punch, but this scene perfectly introduces us to the family that counts Leatherface as one of its kin. All you need to know going in is that the movie opens up with a couple of yuppie kids tearing down the back-roads of Texas, shooting road signs, and essentially indulging in the kind of broad stroke portrayal of d-bags who deserve to be killed off immediately. The movie doesn't disappoint, as these guys use a mobile phone (very bougie for 1986) to call into a radio station that ultimately captures Leatherface's chainsaw tearing into these two guys. Now, the radio station plays the audio from this and to ensure that recording is never heard from again, Chop-Top is deployed to help git 'er done.

The subsequent scene is so bizarre, so strangely lit and directed, that you feel sheer panic simply by being in the same room as this man. The bent metal hangar that Chop-Top uses to intermittently get red hot with a Bic lighter is a curious prop because its sole purpose is to dig into the side of his exposed skull so he can eat little bits of his flesh every so often. Between being trapped inside this room with the guy, knowing full well someone isn't coming out alive...it's almost too much to endure until that final moment when Leatherface thunders from out of the darkness. Keep in mind, too, that as our potential victim is running for her life, Chop-Top provides some of the best comedy you'll ever see in a horror film.