A Brief History Of The Horror Movie 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.

Why Won’t You Just Stay Dead?

Carrie is a scary movie, but mostly in a trippy and dreamlike way. It's not till the very end of Brian De Palma's film that we have a genuine jump scare, and it's a memorable (and influential) one. You finally think everything is done as the music swells to its inevitable finale...when Carrie's bloody hand reaches out from a grave and grabs the sole survivor from her school massacre.

Countless movies have used this for one last scare, most famously the first Friday the 13th. Hell, even Halloween used this, transforming it into one of the most understated scares in a very scary movie

The Rise of the Slasher

While these films drew imitators, we can probably blame Halloween for nearly every jump scare for the last 40 years. The 1980s were completely saturated with jump scares and most can point to their use in John Carpenter's classic film. His synth-laden-score provided the perfect punctuation for each and every scare, and when people realized you could make an enormous amount of money with unknown actors and a tiny budget, everyone tried to replicate it.

The 1980s were when things got crazy. With so many horror movies pumping out so many scares, the market couldn't handle it. Plus, you could see the scares coming from a mile away. Generally, a slasher would start with a real scare, throw in a couple of Lewton Bus moments to set the tone and introduce the characters, and then just switch to just jump scare kill after jump scare kill for the rest of the running time.

Just Tell Yourself It’s Only A Dream

An American Werewolf in London took the jump scare and introduced the "dream within a dream" type to the world, something that A Nightmare on Elm Street would base an entire series on.

This also led to the whole "turn around in bed and see something you reallllllly don't want to see" scare. That could be a monster, your dead twin, or a number of other awful things. Drag Me To Hell is an example of a movie that utilizes this kind of scare non-stop, but where each scare helps advance the story in some way. Even when it's a witch vomiting bugs on your face.

They’ve Become Self-Aware

The 1990s led to some terrible movies before horror started becoming self-aware thanks to the Scream series...which then led to a glut of horribly self-aware horror films.

But even if the '90s were a terrible time for horror movies, at least it kicked off with the genius that is The Exorcist III. Not many people gave the film a shot thanks to the dreck that was The Exorcist II: The Heretic, but that's a mistake, because not only is it a really great film but it has one of the all-time jump scares.

Mainstream Scares

If you want to give audiences a really good scare, place it anywhere but in a horror movie.

For example, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Those of you whose childhoods were haunted by Large Marge are already nodding their heads at its mere mention. In an otherwise whimsical tale of a man's love for his bike, a nightmare occurs. It takes place during a scene when Pee-Wee hitchhikes late one night with a truck driver named Large Marge, who tells a spooky story before turning into a claymation monstrosity. It's so unexpected and it's downright shattering for young minds.

Younger folks might have had that moment in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, when Bilbo is briefly reunited with the Ring and tries to snatch it from Frodo.

Then there's David Fincher's Seven, which is a horror movie, but not of the jumpy variety. At least until our detectives come across the "Sloth" victim. This scene works so well simply because none of the characters believe the seemingly dessicated corpse they've come across could be alive, and they go about their work until they learn otherwise.

Descent Into Night Vision

Before Neil Marshall became known as one of the go-to directors for Game of Thrones battles (and even before he directed the best John Carpenter movie Carpenter never made, Doomsday) he unleashed The Descent upon an unsuspecting world. It's a wonderfully claustrophobic movie with lots of great scares, but few as effective as the one where one of our heroes gets her first glimpse of what's in the cave with them via the night vision feature on a camcorder. It quite wonderfully snatched the best night vision horror scene award from Silence of the Lambs and although many have attempted the night vision gimmick afterwards (REC, Sinister, etc.) none have pulled it off quite as well.

Wan Perfect Scare

The jump scare craze really hasn't really stopped, but it has...Waned. (I'm sorry.)

James Wan has built a career out of perfect jump scares, ever since Billy the Puppet began laughing at audiences worldwide. The Conjuring in particular is a good example of a movie that's almost entirely jump scares yet somehow works, mostly because he takes the time to set up each and every scare. Seeds are planted via dialogue and elaborate set-ups and when it all comes together, you're likely to lose your mind. You know how to play hide and clap, right?

Scaring the Unscareable 

It's a rare to watch a horror film these days that doesn't have a jump scare, and the worst of them still try to earn cheap scares with loud noises.

The trick now is to subvert audience expectations. With viewers programmed to expect a jump immediately after a sigh of relief, films frequently simply refuse to give us one, which only makes us more rattled. Something just feels off – we were expecting a scare, and we didn't get one! Films like The Witch and It Comes At Night have us constantly on edge, waiting for that loud noise to come, and frequently it doesn't. This upsets us and makes us anxious about the next scene, which might have been innocuous otherwise.

Sometimes, it seems as if short films are now the place to look for truly scary films, as some of them can be centered around an entire jump scare and stick with you more than entire features. Just watch the short film version of Lights Out, which may be more effective than the feature adaptation!

But wait until the next master filmmakers figure out how to subvert the technique once again and we'll see another whole new round of jump scares. Just keep the lights on.