Jump scares are a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a successful horror film. They’re the unexpected moments that make audiences jump out of their seats, scream and gasp.
But what makes a good jump scare? How can you effectively create one in your own screenplay or horror movie?
In this article, we’ll delve into the world of terrifying events in film and explore what makes them so effective. We’ll look at some of the most iconic jump scare moments in horror history and provide you with expert tips and tricks for creating your own spine-tingling moments of terror.
So get ready to be scared and thrilled as we jump right into the world of jump scares in horror films!
What is a Jump Scare?
A jump scare is a sudden, loud sound or visual element a movie uses to startle the audience. It’s usually used to create a feeling of suspense and anxiety and can be a powerful tool when used effectively.
Jump scares can be used to evoke a variety of emotions, from fear and shock to laughter and surprise. And while they’re typically used in the horror genre films, they can also be used in other genres such as comedy and sci-fi.
Types of Jump Scares
There are a few different types of jump scares in movies and video games, and we will look at the three main types here.
The viewer is not expecting it, and the ‘monster’ appears.
One of the most classic and effective types of jump scares in movies is when the viewer is caught entirely off guard by the sudden appearance of the monster. This type of jump scare can be incredibly powerful, leaving the audience feeling vulnerable and scared.
The key to making this type of jump scare work is to build tension and suspense leading up to the moment of the monster’s appearance. This can be achieved through things like eerie music, creepy lighting, and strategic camera angles that create a sense of unease and anticipation.
When the monster finally appears, the effect can be truly spine-tingling. The suddenness of the reveal and the built-up tension can cause viewers to jump out of their seats!
The viewer is expecting it, but something innocent happens instead.
Another type of jump scare that can be used in movies is the fake-out scare, where the viewer is led to believe that something terrifying is about to happen, but instead, something innocent or unexpected happens.
For example, a cat may run past the main character, or a child can ask an innocent question.
This type of jump scare can be a great way to add levity or suspense to a scene and can be particularly effective when combined with other types of scares. Films can play with their audience’s emotions by setting up an expectation of terror and then subverting it.
One way to execute a successful fake-out scare is to create anticipation through sound effects or camera movements and switch to a more lighthearted tone at the last moment. This can be done through comedic elements or a sudden release of tension, creating a sense of relief for the audience.
When done well, a fake-out scare can be just as effective as a traditional jump scare!
The viewer is expecting it, and the ‘monster’ appears.
One of the most common types of jump scares in movies is when the viewer is anticipating the appearance of a monster or other terrifying creature, and that monster does indeed make its entrance.
To pull this off successfully, filmmakers must create a sense of anticipation and tension leading up to the moment of the monster’s reveal. This can be achieved through things like shadowy lighting, ominous music, and camera angles that hint at the monster’s presence without fully revealing it.
Once the monster finally does appear, the effect can be terrifying. To make the monster’s entrance even more effective, filmmakers can use sudden sound effects or music cues to accentuate the moment and create a greater sense of shock.
Examples of Iconic Jump Scares in Horror Movies
Let’s take a look at some of the most effective jump scares in movies. Each of these moments in horror film has left an indelible mark on audiences and contributed to the lasting popularity of the horror genre.
Exorcist III (1990)
As much as the original is a horror classic, even it doesn’t have a moment that quite matches this one.
A wide shot shows a hospital hallway at night, with a nurse doing rounds. It looks so placid and mundane that when she’s followed out of a room by a knife-wielding figure clad in bedsheets, it still manages to frighten even diehard fans to this day.
The infamous shower scene in the Hitchcock classic, with its quick cuts, piercing violin score, and the sudden appearance of the killer, subverts the feeling of safety in one’s own bathroom.
With no time to react, Marion is as caught off-guard as the audience in this moment of sheer terror.
The Ring (2002)
In the “I saw her face” scene, Rachel is told about discovering her dead niece, Katie, in a closet.
What makes it jarring is this two-second flashback occurs right in the middle of a low-key dialogue-driven scene and catches the audience completely off-guard, capitalizing on the fear of the unknown and the supernatural intruding into our everyday lives.
The demon’s face suddenly appearing behind Patrick Wilson’s Josh when he’s talking with his mother in the dining room creates a startling visual and a shocking reveal.
James Wan performs a fantastic bit of misdirection here, as we expect something to jump out at a different moment or near a different character, so when it does appear, it’s utterly off-putting.
With multiple jumps, the ones that instantly come to mind are the underwater head reveal, as a severed head suddenly appears from a sunken boat, and the chum scene, where Chief Brody absentmindedly throws chum into the water to lure the shark, only for it to appear right next to him.
These both capitalize on the fear of the unseen lurking beneath the water’s surface.
The Conjuring (2013)
In the clapping game scene, Carolyn searches for the source of a clapping sound through her home, only to become trapped in the darkness of the pitch-black cellar.
As she lights a match to try and see the source of the child’s voice at the bottom of the stairs, a pair of clapping hands suddenly emerge from the darkness behind her, creating an immediate sense of dread and imminent danger.
Alien is a great choice for multiple jump scares of all three types discussed above. The most well-known is the chest-burster scene, with the alien unexpectedly bursting out of John Hurt’s chest, which shocks audiences with its visceral and horrifying imagery.
A great fake-out happens with Jonesy, the cat, while a great expected scare is when Dallas is hunting the alien in the ducts, only to realize he’s the one being hunted, ending in a shocking way that makes audiences jump every time.
The projector scene, where the kids watch a slide show that takes on a life of its own.
As Pennywise’s face comes into view, they try to kick over the projector to stop it, when the evil clown’s face suddenly vanishes from the screen – only for the real Pennywise to spring forth from the screen and lunge at the children – making for an unexpected moment full of eerie visuals and a sudden burst of intensity.
The Shining (1980)
The best jump scare in The Shining is the bathtub scene, where Jack Torrance enters room 237 only to find a beautiful naked woman in the bathroom.
Lured inside, he embraces her in a passionate kiss, only to glance at the bathroom mirror, which reveals her dead and decayed form, creating a shocking and visually striking moment that defies expectations and instills dread.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
The girl under the bed scene, as young Cole enters a deceased girl’s bedroom full of dolls and toys.
As he slowly walks toward some slightly moving marionettes, a hand grabs him from under the bed. As he falls back, we see the ghost of a young girl, surprising viewers for the second time in as many seconds with its unexpected presence and eerie visuals.
Another classic film with multiple jump scares. One great example is the closet scene, when Michael Myers unexpectedly bursts out from behind the closet door, playing on the fear of being trapped in a confined space with a relentless killer.
The other is a great fake out when Dr. Loomis is outside the Myers house, scaring some kids away from the place, when a hand appears on his shoulder, leading us to believe Michael is there – only for it to be the Sheriff.
The birthday party scene, where Joaquim Phoenix’s Merrill watches TV, riveted by the reports of strange sightings coming from across the globe, so when the grainy handheld news footage taken at a kids’ birthday party in Brazil reveals the first full picture of an alien, the audience recoils as much as poor Merrill.
It Follows (2014)
The tall man scene, where Jay is convinced that the entity that has been following her is right behind the door, but when her friends open it, it’s only another of her friends.
The moment of relaxation evaporates in the next second as the form of a towering figure appears right behind her friend in the hallway, generating an eerie and unsettling image that lingers long after the moment passes.
A Quiet Place (2018)
The nail on the stairs scene, as Evelyn steps barefoot on a nail while trying silently evade the monster in the house, combines the physical pain of the moment with the sudden shock of noise and imminent danger.
At that moment, the audience wants to scream out as much as she does, but though they jump, most people watching this scene force themselves to stay as quiet as does our heroine.
The playback scene, where Rose listens to a patient’s audio recording and picks up on a whisper buried in the background.
As she turns up the volume and concentrates on really hearing what the voice is saying, her dead mother appears right next to her face. It’s as jarring as it is terrifying.
How To Write a Jump Scare
Writing effective jump scares in screenplays for movies requires careful consideration of pacing, timing, and the element of surprise. Here are some tips:
Establish a sense of unease or tension leading up to the jump scare. You can do this by setting a foreboding atmosphere, creating suspenseful situations, or using subtle cues that something is not quite right.
One way to build suspense is to use sounds, such as a ticking clock or a creaking door. Building tension makes the eventual scare more impactful.
Misdirect the audience’s attention to create surprise. Set up a situation that makes the audience focus on something else or anticipate a different outcome.
Then, subvert their expectations by introducing the scare from an unexpected direction or timing.
Timing and Pacing
Timing is crucial for a jump scare. Consider the rhythm and pacing of your screenplay to maximize the scare’s impact.
You can use moments of silence or quieter scenes to lull the audience into a false sense of security before hitting them with the scare.
Use sound design to enhance the jump scare further. Sudden loud noises or sharp sound effects can startle the audience.
Use silence effectively to create tension and then punctuate it with a jarring sound. A well-executed audio cue can significantly enhance the jump scare.
Pay attention to the visual composition of the scene. Manipulate lighting, camera angles, and framing to create a sense of claustrophobia, isolation, or vulnerability.
Sudden changes in lighting or revealing something unexpected within the frame can intensify the scare.
Foreshadow the scare in subtle ways earlier in the screenplay. This can create a sense of anticipation or unease in the audience’s subconscious, making the eventual scare feel more connected and satisfying.
Pay attention to how your characters react to the jump scare. Their genuine fear or shock can be contagious and heighten the audience’s response. Use their reactions to further amplify the impact of the jump scare.
Don’t Overuse Jump Scares
While jump scares can be effective, using them excessively can desensitize the audience to horror elements and make them predictable.
Balance them with other horror elements, such as atmospheric tension, psychological horror, or well-crafted suspense.
What is the scariest jumpscare in the world?
While there are no universally recognized scariest jump scares, some moments in horror cinema have become iconic due to their ability to frighten audiences. Examples include the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the head-spinning scene in The Exorcist.
How do filmmakers use jump scares to enhance the horror experience?
Filmmakers use these strategically to enhance the horror experience by creating moments of intense surprise and fear. They manipulate elements like timing, sound, and visual composition to startle, scare and engage audiences, heightening the overall suspense and thrill of the movie. Jump scares serve as powerful tools to immerse viewers in the terrifying world of the film, eliciting a visceral and immediate reaction.
What makes a jump scare truly scary?
A truly scary jump-scare movie relies on several factors. It often involves the element of surprise, an unexpected event that catches viewers off guard. The timing, audio cues, visual composition, and character reactions affect the scare’s effectiveness. Additionally, the viewer’s personal fears and vulnerabilities play a significant role in determining the scare’s impact.
All in all, jump scares have become a staple of modern horror movies.
Whether intentional or unintentional, they can add an exciting level of suspense to any film, video, or other visual media.
To master the art of crafting heart-pounding moments, budding filmmakers and storytellers can gain valuable insight by dissecting the techniques that other filmmakers have used to create the best scares.
Whether it’s the perfectly timed silence, a sudden jolt of sound, or a clever misdirection, the art of crafting jump scares continues to evolve, adding new dimensions to your horror theme and the horror genre in general.
With a few of these tips in mind and the examples from videos in this post to draw from, it’s time to get creative! If you’re looking for an exciting way to engage with your audience visually and emotionally – consider giving jump scares a try!
If you’re hoping to create your own horror story, check out my list of fantastic scary story prompts to get started!
Love the horror genre? Check out these other great articles!