There’s few moments in all of cinema that are more effective that the jolt you get from a good jump scare. Many people hate them, consider them a cheap alternative to true tension. While I’d certainly agree that far too many lousy horror movies rely far too heavily on a quick sound effect and a visual flash of the unexpected, there’s an art to a truly great jump scare.
There’s basically two ways to go about it. One is to lull the audience into a false sense of security by having something pop out of nowhere when no one expects it to happen at all and there’s no reason to expect something sudden in that very moment. The other method is to ratchet up the tension to a total crescendo, build slowly and surely to an inevitable jolt that almost comes as a relief when it is finally released, usually in a bloody murder or intense supernatural sightings.
While not all the films on this list are masterpieces, or even necessarily good movies, these eight movie moments absolutely nail that jump scare moment. Oh, and it goes without saying that this article contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned.
Also, WATCH THESE IF YOU DARE!
Alien (1979) – The air vent sequence
This scene is an all-time favorite of mine. After the crew of the spaceship Nostromo takes on an unwelcome passenger from another planet, things get grisly. It doesn’t take long to realize that they’re dealing with a monstrous and extra-terrestrial killing machine that has already offed two crew members by the time this scene rolls around. Dallas, the captain of the ship decides that he’s going to arm himself with a flame thrower and root out the monster that is roaming the air vents of the ship. Between the metallic creaking of the vent doors, the increasingly high pitched frequency of the motion tracker, the frantic pleading of his radio contact, and the swelling soundtrack, the tension is expertly increased by the time we’re only given a glimpse of the Alien before it catches up to poor Dallas and removes him from the movie. The first time I saw this movie was alone in a dark basement at nine years old, and I may never have been more scared by a movie scene since.
Insidious (2010) – The viewfinder sequence
Few films tend to rely more heavily or more effectively on good jump scares than Insidious does. It’s definitely one of the better horror films of the last ten years, before it kind of falls apart during the bizarre climax. While many would point to the sudden appearance of a demon behind a character sitting at a brightly lit dining table having a conversation as the centerpiece jump scare, I was blown way further out of my seat by the viewfinder sequence. After dealing with their haunting/demonic problem for long enough, the family in the film calls in a psychic and her pair of ghost hunters to their home to help solve their problem. As the two goofballs utilize a plethora of goofy tools to explore the house, the audience is led into a sense of calm by the humor of the situation. As one of the ghost hunters is using a viewfinder with different filters to explore the possibility of spirits in the house, a pair of smiling figures suddenly appear in between the hallway as the filter changes, and then we’re given a second jolt immediately as their facial expression changes. Creepy!
The Thing (1982) – The defibrillation scene
The Thing is one of the most tense movies I’ve ever seen. By having the villain be a shapeshifting alien life form that can imitate any living thing it touches, we know that anybody in the film could be the alien posing as another person. Once it’s discovered, the creature can turn into almost any threatening shape or mass of flesh in order to survive, kill, or assimilate another creature. When one of the characters appears to fall ill and seems to be going into cardiac arrest, the crew rushes him to a table as another character begins preparing to defibrillate the man’s chest. As he puts the paddles on the chest, it suddenly opens up to reveal a monstrous chest cavity that bites off the man’s hands. Bonus points for following that up with a severed head that grows spider legs and attempts to escape the room. An honorable jump scare mention goes to the blood test scene a little later in the film as each character’s blood is being literally tested by fire to see who is human and who isn’t.
Deep Blue Sea (1999) – Samuel L. Jackson’s inspiring speech
One of the most memorable and fun bad movies ever made. A group of scientists performs experiments on sharks at an oceanic research facility for Alzheimer’s’ research because their brains never decay like humans or some bullshit like that. So they make the sharks smarter, but as a side effect, they get smarter. This is a really stupid movie. That means they learn the layout of the oceanic research station, the know that flooding the facility will help them escape, and they know that the only time you’ll manage to munch on someone as badass as Samuel L. Jackson is to take them surprise in the middle of a rousing speech about how they need to band together and CHOMP. Eaten by a bad CGI shark when you least suspect it! Did I mention this movie is really dumb? I also love it.
The Shining (1980) – Jack Nicholson introduces Scatman Crothers to his ax
One of the all time great horror movies by one of the all time great directors in Stanley Kubrick. While Jack Nicholson as the caretaker of a mountain hotel in Colorado that gets snowed in loses his mind and begins to violently turn against his own family, his son Danny uses his psychic ability to contact Scatman Crothers, the hotel’s manager, to come and save them. If you’ve ever seen the movie, you’ll know it’s not nearly as stupid or ridiculous as I made it sound there. But if you’ve never seen the Shining, you deserve to be jolted out of your seat when Crothers boards a plane from Florida to Colorado, drives the base of the mountain, acquires an all-terrain vehicle with tank treads and navigates a treacherous mountain trail in a zero visibility blizzard only to make it roughly six and a half steps into the hotel before Nicholson jumps out from behind a pillar and buries his ax in Crothers’ chest. Some great editing and jump cuts to a screaming Danny during the murder makes this an all time classic scare moment.
Friday the 13th (1980) – Jason’s first ever appearance
This came out the same year as The Shining (1980), and is the exact opposite film in terms of quality. Good lord, this movie suuuuuucks. It’s godawful, and barely even watchable in a so bad it’s good sort of way. This movie doesn’t even feature the hockey mask wielding undead maniac of the later installments. This is about a grief stricken psychotic mother taking it out on some camp counselors in grisly fashion. The movie looks cheap, the acting is terrible, the suspense is non-existent. It’s incompetently made on almost every level. However, the very last scene in the film that features the film’s only survivor just floating in a canoe on the lake is a real winner and a great moment. Just when we believe that the final girl has survived her ordeal, a rotted child’s corpse reaches out from the murky depths and gives us all the first and last scare of the movie in the last 30 seconds. Yes, Jason’s first appearance is as a 12-year old boy zombie jumping out of a lake. If you have fond memories of this movie, I urge you to keep it that way and don’t rewatch it. I promise you that this is the only scene that holds up.
Carrie (1976) – The final scene
Despite some rather dated elements like fashion and some odd soundtrack selections, Brian de Palma’s 1976 scarefest Carrie has aged beautifully. After the mercilessly bullied high school girl Carrie develops telekinetic powers and murders her entire school after a horrifying prank goes awry, she’s finally taken down after a confrontation with her religious zealot of a mother that ends with both of them dead and buried under a collapsed house. One of the few surviving classmates (and the only girl to treat Carrie with some respect) then goes to visit Carrie’s grave, only to have a hand reach up from the dirt and grab her before jump cutting to her having a panic attack in the hospital. End of movie. It might sound cliched now, but this was a fresh and disturbing way to end a film in 1976, before even John Carpenter’s Halloween was released.
Se7en (1995) – Sloth takes a nap
This is probably my all time favorite jump scare in one of my all time favorite thrillers. A psychotic serial killer is on the loose, and he’s patterning his murders after the seven deadly sins in grisly and creative ways. We’ve already witnessed the killer’s takes on sins like gluttony, greed and lust at this point in the movie, but we’re just getting started. After getting a tip that a certain man might be the killer, a SWAT team raids an apartment, only to find their suspect tied to a bed, surrounded by air fresheners. His lips are missing, his skin is barely hanging on, and he’s basically a skeleton. Both the characters and we the audience believe the man in the bed is dead as he’s been tethered to the bed for months. Only when one of the officers whispers something to the supposed corpse does he begin coughing and gagging. Too bad he can’t give the police any information due to his tongue having been cut out and that he would go into shock if you shone a flashlight in his eyes. This is the feel good family movie of summer by the way!
Did I miss YOUR favorite jump scare? Let me know on the SzteinCreative Facebook page or on the comments below. Be sure to check back every week for a new musing on pop culture!