When the camera pans over a pitch-dark room and the soundtrack has gone silent for too long, most viewers already know what’s coming. The sudden rush of a jump scare is a type of fear, and just like any other aspect of horror, it can be mastered well or comically messed up.
The most popular record of the first jump scare to grace the silver screen comes in the 1942 horror film. cat people. Editor Mark Robson pioneered the technique, breaking up a tense and quiet scene with the sudden appearance of a noisy bus, later named the Luton Bus after the film’s producer. Luton would use this technique, sometimes complete with the same bus, in numerous future films. The popularity of the technique will grow rapidly in the coming decades.
There have been examples of the technique before cat people, but the Lewton Bus was the blueprint from which most other horror films have borrowed. The first known example is the 1925 film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera. This early horror offering was silent, leaving the audio part of the technique impossible. 16 years later, Orson Welles used a similar technique in his landmark cinematic opus Citizen Kane.
The film includes a scene interrupted abruptly by the screeching of a cockatoo. Welles, known for his reticence to discuss his work in interviews, famously explained that the bird’s jarring incursion was only included to wake up the audience. Although different in many ways from the sudden scream of a ghost or the appearance of a killer over one’s shoulder, these examples represent early jump scares and remain highly praised to this day.
An extremely common jump scare format comes in the final moments of a horror film to leave the audience with something memorable. The originator of this idea was probably Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie. The idea was subverted in John Carpenter’s Halloween two years later. Instead of ending with a big jump scare, Halloween earns a more chilling reaction by letting his killer escape silently. Friday the 13th was released in 1980 and started a trend that remains today, a big strong jump scare for his killer to assure the audience that he will return. The slasher movie craze of the eighties was the biggest offender in the spread of jump scares and the period that gradually changed public perception of the technique.
When Citizen Kane roused the audience and Carrie ending with a shocking twist, jump scares were a rare treat. When every slasher film with a triple-digit budget abused the technique, it gradually became obsolete. The jump scare suffered the fate of many popular songs being overplayed to the point of widespread condemnation. For years, fans and detractors of horror films have criticized the jump scare as a lazy and cheap method of eliciting a reaction without building suspense. Tons of movie fans will claim to love horror movies and loathe horror. Often some vague concept of “psychological” horror or intelligent suspense will be presented as an obvious improvement. Despite popular belief, not all jump scares are created equal, and there are countless examples to make this clear.
Scott Derrickson’s 2012 horror film sinister is considered by many to be one of the scariest cinematic experiences of the modern era. The story of a true crime author who moves into the scene of his latest obsession and finds something even spookier uses just about every horror film technique in the book. Old 8mm film, a game with rules, scary kids and of course tons of jump scares. The jump scare is central to one of the most praised and one of the most criticized moments of the film. The first is one of the film’s nightmarish film sequences that depict all-too-real glimpses of brutal murders. The fourth film, titled “Lawn Work ’86,” features several moments of a lawnmower rolling silently before it catches a man in its blades and a piercing scream is heard. Popularly considered one of the best jump scares of the modern era. Conversely, the film ends with a sudden look to the camera from its central spirit Bughuul, which is seen by most as a complete failure.
The wide gap in public perception between these two moments proves that there are good jump scares and bad jump scares, but it also demonstrates the difference. The lawnmower scene is a beautifully crafted horror moment, and perhaps the strongest aspect of it is the fact that the audience doesn’t see the blood. The camera cuts to the moment the mower makes contact and cuts to the real reason the jump scare works, the actor’s reaction. The ending jump scare is performed for no one but the audience in the theater and therefore does not work. The Great Fear plays because the audience sees the human impact of the moment. This isn’t a forced scare for the benefit of the audience, it’s one of several moments that puts the audience in the perspective of the terrified main character. This level of restraint and expert editing is what makes the scare work.
Jump scares are terrifying techniques that can be used for good or bad like any other. Labeling the entire discipline as lazy is reductive and fails to recognize what a creative director can do with something as simple as a loud noise and a sudden revelation.
MORE: 14 of the best horror movies that don’t use jump scares