clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A Brief History of Jump Scares, from ‘Psycho’ to ‘The Haunting of Hill House’

They are the cause for many countless heartbeats skipped and popcorn spilled; they are the moments that come out of nowhere, and that we always should have seen coming. Whether it’s shark attacks, slashers, or something more supernatural, here’s what makes jump scares so damn scary.

A still from ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ in which two men look frightened Netflix/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

I had the best part of The Haunting of Hill House spoiled for me because I was dumb enough to go on Twitter less than 24 hours after the first episode dropped. (My fault, obviously.) So even before the Bent-Neck Lady showed up in the opening scene of Mike Flanagan’s epically scaled horror miniseries, I knew the twist behind her true identity. Which isn’t to say that the first (or second, or third) appearance of a hovering, angular phantom was any less unsettling. If a series as long and sprawling as The Haunting of Hill House can have a signature image, the Bent-Neck Lady—shadowy and faceless, her head forever cocked to the side like Michael Myers sizing up one of his victims—certainly qualifies.

Flanagan got the Hill House gig after helming a series of B-plus B-movies including Absentia, Oculus, and the way-better-than-it-had-to-be franchise sequel Ouija: Origin of Evil. He may not be a household name, but he is the total package as a horror director. He mixes a respectful reverence for genre conventions with genuine and elegant technical proficiency; a gift for coaxing good work out of his ensembles (especially sharp, unsentimental actresses like Carla Gugino and Elizabeth Reaser, who’ve worked with him multiple times); a fascination with the tender, emotional underpinnings of fear; a stomach for gore (the “degloving” in Gerald’s Game is as visceral as body horror gets); and, finally, the ruthlessness to really put the hammer down when he has to.

On that note: Hill House is littered with legitimately creepy business—a barely glimpsed shadow here; a floating, bowler-hat-wearing ghost there. Most of the time, Flanagan trusts the audience to see the little surprises tucked away at the edge of the frame—to perceive the almost subliminal spectral presences haunting Hill House and its inhabitants. Still, the show’s eighth episode contains what has to be the most effective jump scare I’ve seen in years. While driving together to their family’s old home, Shirl (Elizabeth Reaser) and Theo (Kate Siegel) launch into the kind of hostile bickering that defines their fractured sibling relationship—it’s an argument we’ve seen them have before. They’re really getting into it when, without warning (or a sound cue), the ghost of their late sister Nell (Victoria Pedretti) emerges screaming from the space between the driver and passenger seat.

It’s a perfectly executed sequence of setup, delay, and misdirection via editing. There’s no slow buildup or focus on lurking negative space, and that makes the sudden, hellacious payoff all the more impactful. Like all great jump scares, it is exhilarating and annoying. It both rules and sort of sucks to know that a filmmaker can get you like that.

“There’s no great trick to frightening a person,” wrote the great New Republic film critic Stanley Kauffmann in 1975. “Anyone can do it by jumping out of a closet at you—which would be both tedious and irritating at the same moment that your heart skipped.”

Kauffmann was reviewing Jaws, a movie that was carefully designed by its director, the then-unknown Steven Spielberg, to make the audiences’ collective heart skip, race, and all but burst. After sneaking into some test screenings and hearing the shrieks following several key moments (the shark’s first close-up appearance behind Roy Scheider, the discovery of a severed head in the hull of a boat), Spielberg and editor Verna Fields went back and slightly revised the movie’s ruthlessly erratic rhythms, leaving more space for the classic warning, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Chief Brody’s one-liner is one of the great pieces of movie dialogue because of how it captures that precise feeling of being caught off guard and needing to armor yourself against it going forward. Whether or not Jaws’ second-to-second scariness qualifies it as great art—or just a fledgling showman’s best-turned-trick—is an argument worth having, but of all the film’s contributions to movie history, its mainstreaming of such brutalizing tactics in the context of a PG-rated crowd-pleaser may be the most significant.

Precisely defining a “jump scare” is difficult: Again, you know it when you see (and hear) it (or maybe that’s pornography). It’s not so much a question of being surprised by something terrifying; the sensation is generated by the technique itself more than what it depicts. Some would trace the lineage of shock cuts all the way back to the sliced eyeball of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Pixies-approved surrealist short Un Chien Andalouan image whose very subtext is about attacking our field of vision—while the so-called “Lewton Bus” that screeches to a halt behind Simone Simon in Cat People is generally accepted as one of the earliest examples of a filmmaker using exaggerated sound effect to startle the viewer. Alan Arkin leaping at Audrey Hepburn near the end of Wait Until Dark counts even though it’s not really a horror movie. “A good jump scare is a magic trick,” Sinister screenwriter C. Robert Cargill told The Verge in 2012. “It’s ‘I’m going to get you to look over here while I’m doing this,’ and then out of nowhere—bam!—something’s going to get you.”

For Kauffmann, Spielberg’s blunt-force approach to generating fear was not just the oldest (magic) trick in the book; it was a harbinger of cheap-shot tactics to come. By labelling a movie that was on track to become the biggest box office hit of all time as “boring,” Kauffmann wasn’t just being contrarian. He was hinting that this particular closet door wasn’t going to stay closed. He wasn’t wrong. One year later, Amy Irving leaned over Sissy Spacek’s grave at the end of Carrie and an inglorious tradition of “one last scare” was born.

It would have made sense in 1976 to link Carrie’s terrifying outro to the coda of a movie made just four years earlier: John Boorman’s Deliverance, which ended (like Carrie) with a nightmare vision of a hand emerging into view. But the real subject of De Palma’s true homage was (naturally) Alfred Hitchcock, specifically Psycho. It’s a thriller whose plasma-rich DNA interweaves with Carrie’s on a molecular level—murderous mothers, shower scenes, and the slyly named “Bates High School”—and from which De Palma borrowed the choreography of his heroine’s final, posthumous gesture. Like Janet Leigh’s mortally wounded Marion Crane in her final moments, Carrie reaches out, desperately, helplessly, for somebody to hold on to—it’s a “gotcha” moment in every sense of the word.

Carrie’s homecoming-queen-gone-bad story line anticipated the increasingly adolescent thrust of American horror movies in the ensuing decade, as well as a reliance on jolts. That said, John Carpenter’s original Halloween—an even bigger jump scare touchstone than Carrie—is actually closer to Jaws, right down to its two-note piano theme that heralds the arrival of a mindless, insatiable killing machine. Where Jaws doled out its jump scares judiciously—and Carrie adopted a tantric method of build-up and release, never fully exploding with terror until the actual last second—Halloween cultivated a style in which the jolts were used like basic punctuation marks; they’re what gives Carpenter’s spacious, minimalist visual grammar its substance and meaning. The almost avant-garde monotony of Halloween’s tracking shots is transformed into suspense by our foreknowledge that something is inevitably going to appear in all that leafy-green negative space: When the Shape pops into frame, the aesthetic is complete.

Halloween’s gliding camera style would be replicated and intensified in The Shining, which proved that even serious-minded aesthetes like Stanley Kubrick weren’t above a good jump scare. The film’s freakiest moments introduced symbolic ambiguity to that adrenaline-pumping equation: what an odd sensation to be blindsided and bewildered in the same frame. At other times, though, it seemed like Kubrick was kidding about the very concept of the jump scare, attaching screeching, Hermann-esque music cues to the most banal exposition—one more layer of satire in a movie that seemed as much designed to parody as placate the “horror movie addicts” Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance contemptuously references at his job interview.

The Shining was released in 1980, and one of the reasons for its endurance beyond its first wave of bad reviews (and a Razzie award nomination for Kubrick, who surely must have appreciated the gag of being considered for Worst Director near the end of a career that never yielded a major Oscar) was its rarity as a horror movie aimed primarily at grown-ups. In the same year, Friday the 13th shamelessly appropriated Carrie’s final beat but forgot the pathos. The exuberant juvenalia of the jump scare became a genre standard, applied to the ongoing adventures of Freddy, Jason, and Michael. Even a relatively grave, mature studio horror movie like Bernard Rose’s Candyman wasn’t above a few lowest-common denominator soundtrack strings to set up its more subliminal imagery. By the middle of the decade, the scare-quoted scares of Scream treated the pulse-racing innovations of the ’70s as genre in-jokes.

It’s fascinating that the two biggest and most influential horror movies of the new millennium succeeded largely without jump scares. In The Blair Witch Project, the absence of any decisive fright (or blaring music cues) was built into the handheld documentary-style conceit; in the similarly low-budget Paranormal Activity, the surveillance camera perspectives meant that quick-cut shocks were more or less out of the question. But James Wan’s Insidious—essentially an expensive remake of Paranormal Activity—made its monsters visible and really went for the jugular by unleashing them in broad daylight.

The 21st-century champion, though, is an old-timer: David Lynch, who more or less deconstructed how the jump scare works in Mulholland Drive’s notorious “diner scene”—but only to prove its essential power. I respect Flanagan’s Hill House freak-out for essentially rewriting the rules of the game and attacking the characters—and the audience—out of nowhere. But Lynch’s proves that sometimes knowing what’s coming is even scarier than being surprised. It’s a classic scene—and a great trick.