TV & Movies

The jump scare: a cheap trick or the backbone of the horror industry?

Many horror movie fans know jumpscares as a trick for penny pinching movie directors to save a buck but they might not be all bad.

You are on the edge of your seat, eyes glued to the screen. The strings faintly playing. The scene stays quiet and tense as the inevitable comes closer. All of a sudden, the screen is filled with a horrifying face and the orchestra shrieks. You jump out of your seat. You have just fallen victim to the jump scare.

The Jumpscare is a common horror movie trope first popularised during 1980s slasher horror films. A jumpscare as explained by Tv Tropes is a technique where during a moment of quiet tension, something or someone suddenly jumps into the frame with a loud sound. It is called a jump scare both because it often uses a “jump cut” to produce the sudden visual effect, and because the audience literally jumps when it happens.

The pros of the jumpscare trope are that, when used properly, it makes a huge and reliable impact on the audience, serving a horror audience the terror that they are looking for complete with the buzz of dopamine and adrenaline. For better or for worse, it also hides weak writing, poor character development and other flaws. As cheap as it may seem, any audience would rather have the jumpscare over lost tension due to a weak script.

The jumpscare works no matter how hard you try not to get startled by it. This is due to an evolutionary mechanic which startles you when something jumps out at you, regardless of what your conscious brain knows or wants to do. The brain processes fear in two ways: the high road and the low road. On the high road, visual information is processed slower and by more parts of the brain, causing the slow build up of fear. This is the thinking part of fear. On the low road, visual information is processed as quick as possible so that your brain can react accordingly by sending adrenaline to fight or flee the situation. The brain reacts immediately, bypassing conscious thought. This is the “better-safe-than-sorry” response which treats the movie like an actual threat similar to, say, a hungry bengal tiger, causing that sudden leap when the monster appears right in front you. It might not be necessary when you know the movie isn’t real, but it doesn’t hurt to jump anyway instead and it means you are safer than you would be if you always consciously thought about it and decided to jump instead.

The cons of jumpscares are revealed when they are overused. This can be seen in movies like Child’s Play, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween and especially Cordin Hardy’s The Nun which overused this and many other tropes such as the scary old castle, creaky floors and of course a jumpscare around every corner made it feel cheesy, ultimately ending in audiences not liking this movie. It currently has a 37% on the Tomatometer. One movie goer’s review on the site says that “By overly relying on jump scares, ‘The Nun’ uses a mechanical approach toward instilling fear rather than a more profound understanding of terror.”

Jump scares are not so necessary in a horror movie if you make a good plot and instead use psychological horror and build up to the moments properly–but that requires the “profound understanding of terror” referred to by the reviewer above. The Netflix thriller Bird Box uses only four jump scares. The small number helps give them impact since they are less expected. Having them come at the audience in rapid fire succession as they do in The Nun defeats the purpose. In Bird Box, terror is generated by not seeing, rather than by having images thrown suddenly in the viewer’s face. The audience never sees the monsters but they know they they are there. None of the jump scares feature the monster. Due to how the monsters work in this film, the characters don blindfolds to keep themselves from looking at them. The sense of wandering through the world blind creates uneasiness and tension in the movie. This example shows a clever way of avoiding jump scares and other visual tricks, showing that they are not a necessity in horror.

Lots of people have a problem with jump scares, but I’d personally say that they are what I go to horror movies for. They’re a great scare–the furthest thing from boring–and are quite effective as long as used sparingly. Although there are negative perspectives on jump scares, they are in many classic horror films such as The Shining, Halloween, and The Exorcist. Jump scares may seem cheap, but they are always reliable, making them an essential tool of the horror filmmaker.

Warner Brothers and Hawk Films

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