What does a psychological thriller, a gory slasher, a hard-hitting drama and a classic horror all have in common? They all prove the great appetite for films that take away your comfort. Cinema isn’t all light and easy and there are some audiences who like to be rattled, shocked and even disturbed by what they see. Whilst art films are often described as too difficult, unpleasant or painful to watch, horror provides mainstream anti-escapism to get your heart racing. How exactly is horror anti-escapist? Well it isn’t completely but by making the viewer aware of their emotions, temporarily making them fear for their own safety before confronting them with the absurdity of that feeling, by drawing on real deep-seated fears and taking the viewer out of their comfort zone, horror films and genres, which share these powerful traits, have the potential to stimulate minds and pose complexing questions, when more “enjoyable” films allow people to shut off and fall asleep.
So it is an understandable criticism that when horror resorts to cheap scare tactics, recycled stories and special effects, the art of disturbing your audience and creating a lasting impression is sadly lost. The ‘jump scare’ comes in for a lot of criticism, noted as an over-used technique, replacing genuine gut-churning fear with sudden mild panic, combining simple editing and loud noises, not providing any lasting memories or conjuring up any thought. I would argue that jump scares are a curse on horror. But this is completely unfair on the amazing directors who crafted these tropes and those who know how to properly use them.
These days we are used to jump scares being a key component of any horror. When we watch horror we expect jump scares, like we expect cowboys in westerns and jokes in comedies, but it wasn’t always like this. In 1976, jumpy horror was rare and when audiences first saw the ending of Carrie (below) they did not expect to jump out of their seats, especially at the end of the film.
But it is not merely the surprise that made this one of the first iconic jump scares. The ending is extremely unsettling, robs the audience of their sense of closure and gradual return to calmness and still resonates with audiences very accustomed to a jump scare. In contrast to many modern scares, it switches from peaceful and safe to scary and shocking in a second and maintains that high energy for all the time that we hear that deadly soul-wrenching music. We can probably thank Carrie for many of our jump scares, especially those involving a surprise hand grabbing an arm or leg. Unfortunately, todays common hand-grab jump is a one second gropey affair, which usually ends in a joke/prank scare, the victim escaping or a straight cut to next scene. Fortunately Carrie did inspire many great horror movies and apparently inspired another great ending in Friday the 13th (1980).
Through the 1980s and 90s, the jump scare became a staple of every slasher, every horror, every thriller, with many successes and many more failures. The Shining (1980) is one of those that genuinely leaves lasting memories beyond the initial shock. The greatest jump scare in that film is one that many wouldn’t regard as a jump scare. This is because modern horror has etched in their minds what constitutes a jump scare shot by shot. There is little room for creativity when using the tried and tested scare formula. But Stanley Kubrick managed to make twins infinitely more scary with clever editing. Every jump cut increases the intensity of the scene but it’s the first shot of the twins bloody deaths that will have the biggest physical reaction.
When we think of jump scares we think of literally leaving our seats and the bigger and more audible our reaction the more credit we pay to the film. However, this leads to surprises being valued over scares, the sense of our hearts racing being preferable to our imaginations running wild. At some point filmmakers became aware that you didn’t have to find ways to take the audience completely by surprise, and also that you didn’t have to throw in false alarms to disguise the genuine impending attack, but that you could actually cue an attack, tell the audience what to expect, and still make them jump out of their skins through a combination of sound, light and editing. The trouble is, this sort of jump scare has become so common, that it has lost its novelty and filmmakers do not allow the audience to use their minds here either. The audience merely waits for the scare, their hearts beating faster and their palms sweaty, but not questioning what they see.
Of course, there are many examples of the waiting technique, which do work well. The question is how long can one draw out that sense of dread before the audience loses interest. There is an excellent example in The Exorcist III (1990) where a nurse moves routinely around a corridor for 50 seconds, in a sequence that would be almost certainly boring if not for the fact there is an eerie quality to hospital corridors at night, accentuated by the long shot down the corridor, the unnaturally still camera, (believe it or not human eyes find quick cuts far more natural) and our knowledge that this is a horror film, and that long sequences of no interest rarely appear in mainstream cinema. In this case the waiting game does have a certain impact and it does make it hard to predict the exact moment at which the scare will climax. And yet beyond that an uneasy minute and half-decent jump this film has very little to offer with only a phobia of hospital corridors to last in the mind.
It is easy to understand how most modern horror has fallen into the trap of thinking any jump is a good jump, that if you can replicate a few seconds from a few brilliant horror classics and litter them throughout your film you’ll have a success on your hands. The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005) chose to forego most scares, gory scenes and shocks in favour of something more meaty to chew on, but in this clip we have a great take on a classic jump scare. Here, it is not the surprise that makes the audience recoil. We know that we are about to see something and we know exactly when but we are not prepared for what we see. The most disturbing part has nothing to do with loud noise, moving camera work or a quick boo.
Once audiences became familiar with the jump scare and the tactics for creating that surprise element it unsurprisingly became more difficult to implement that shock reaction. Still, horror films continue to hide their heroines in small cramped spaces, under beds and behind corners. We are all very familiar with the scenario. The victim, nearly always a girl, runs away from her killer just long enough to hide and then watches helplessly as the killer stalks her. From her point of view, we see her attacker search the area, seemingly unable to find our heroine. They disappear from view for just a few seconds and the audience are entirely aware of what is about to happen. Of course, this feeling is a bit intense, the anticipation is often more powerful than what comes next, and even the most incompetent of filmmakers can engineer a shock that surprises you most because you were expecting it, but since this scene has been taken right out of the horror-by-numbers manual and because the fright is often a let down, not followed through or distinctive from other scares, the effect soon wears off and the film fails to illicit any meaningful reaction.
Even a film like Split (2017), which boasts a brilliant disturbing performance from James Mcavoy and features a terrifying premise that has the potential to shock and court controversy, ends up falling back on the same tactics. One of the characters actually climbs into a locker mid-chase scene and peers out of those slots, which seem to be designed for this very purpose. It seems that no horror-style film can resist the well worn horror formulae, even when they have a much bigger arsenal to play with. I am completely unsure where M. Night Shyamalan was trying to go with this thriller (it seems to have a very odd message) but I’m certain he wasn’t trying to create a generic horror, which is what the film is.
There is a huge lack of creativity in new horror these days. It very much relies on remakes of old ideas and the bare bones of classic techniques. Brilliant horror should be a mix of playing to imagination and inventive cinematography. You can scare an audience by not showing details as much as showing things at the right moment. This makes it possible to go a long way into a film without any jump scares and still create an atmosphere. The easy thing to do is to throw in a chase sequence, a murder or an ambush to keep the audience interested, but it is far more effective (and of course, more difficult) to keep tensions on a knife edge and scare the audience in a way they have never been scared before. When the scare is genuinely scary, the reaction will be far more than a quick jolt and a stifled gasp.