There are no good jump scares in movies.

Ten years ago, we talked about jump scares on the podcast. I don’t recall what I said, but I probably would have been starting from the opinion that there are no good jump scares in movies…but here are a few possible exceptions.

I still feel there are almost no good jump scares. I’m in constant dread of the stupid things, especially from younger or inexperienced filmmakers. I feel like they’re cheap and almost never earned fairly. A cheat, a gimmick relying on framing or sound effects, the last resort of a creatively bankrupt director. I’m stoked to see Black Phone in the theaters, but I’m already dreading the inevitable jump scares.

But then I read this comment from @rrmorton in a thread about a Danish horror series:

As someone who’s been doing what you caution your students against, I’d love to hear your opinion on how jump scares can manage fear. Because to my mind, they artificially amplify it and they serve as cover for long stretches of nothing happening. They seem to me a crutch that accomplishes little more than padding the running time. And as a horror fan, I would love to hear your counterpoint!


Well I’m certainly no brain-ologist, but I have heard from more than one horror filmmaker that a jump scare is one (and just one, obviously there are more) method of releasing tension after amping it up. I can’t say I mind them much, personally, I’ve seen good jump scares and bad ones. I always thought what’s-his-name’s head floating into frame when Hooper goes to investigate the abandoned boat in Jaws was a pretty effective jump scare, and I could probably think of others if you forced me to. But hey, different strokes and all that.

They annoy me more often than not, but I recall The Orphanage having two decent ones.

Ben Whatsisname’s head is a good one because it reminds me of seeing Jaws in a theater in 2010ish. I was on a date and seeing the movie for the first time as an adult, and it was a great classic experience of the girl next to you clutching you in fright at each scare. So jump scares are at least good for dates.

How is this different from a non-effective jump scare? Actually, what even is a non-effective jump scare?

Aren’t all jump scares “effective” because normal human beings flinch at loud noises and sudden movements? Seems to me jump scares are merely a facet of biology. And in case it’s not clear, this is me totally copping to being like @rrmorton’s dismissive film students. :)


I’m so far from expert in this, but: I like good jump scares because they give you a little stinger at the same time that they scare the cast for reasons that make sense, and they also tell you something you should know about the movie’s world.

For example, I really like the jump in It Follows when they think they’ve shut the creature out of the room and it suddenly jumps to an unimpeded route behind the kids, closer than it was when it was blocked. It made me jump. It made them freak out. And it revealed a new power of the creature that is consistent with the story, in that if someone disbelieves they will be followed forever, and demonstrates that disbelief by walling themselves off from the creature, it will punish them and put them in greater danger. The initial spike of fright smooths out into heightened apprehension in a way that makes sense and makes the film more fun.

All right, fair enough, let’s define our terms. What I think of as ‘ineffective’, I could just as well call cheap, or maybe unearned. I think about any number of horror movies I’ve seen where someone is walking through a dark area where they are quite likely in some danger, but suddenly an ancillary character jumps out and goes ‘boo!’ Sure, your nervous system doesn’t care what happened, it worked to get a reaction out of you. But if you take a second to think about it, why the heck was that character even there? Why did they decide to jump out and yell boo at the other character, and why then of all times? It’s just there to serve the scare, it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Even Alien, which I love the hell out of, gets a cheap jump scare out of Jonesy. Why was the damn cat hiding near where the alien was, wouldn’t a cat be smart enough to get the hell out of there?

It’s not a movie, but two recent jump scares for me on TV that were very effective were in Episode 3 of The Old Man, where I noticed in the background that there was someone else in the house with The Old Man, which made me jump.

Similarly, in the last episode of Season 3 of Barry, there’s a scene of the two characters arguing, and then suddenly as the camera pans over the scene, we don’t notice at first, but there’s a person in the doorway. I about jumped and hit the ceiling when the realization hit me.

I thought both were really good jump scares.

I don’t watch horror movies, so I don’t know if there’s scenes similar to these two in movies.

The Exorcist, IIRC, had two telephone ringing jump scares. The film was incredibly stressful, so when things got quiet, you tended to relax. And then BRRRRIIIINNNNGGGGG!!! The first time I almost peed my pants.

This reminds me of a guy I saw bitching about how music in movies is trying to manipulate him into feeling differently about the scene.

Did the jump scare work? Did it make you uneasy, maybe even afraid? If it didn’t, it was bad. If it did, what are you complaining about? Jump scares are part of the language films use to create mood and communicate meaning, same as sad music or dramatic lighting or any other “cheat”.

Oh no! Not artificially amplifying your emotions! That’s what movies are about. Don’t make go into a rant about how movies are more than their Wikipedia plot summary.

Oh, and @rrmorton, what sort of film class do you teach?

It may be that we’ve run out of novelty, rather than jump scares not being scary. Watching The Conjuring, I thought the movie was really quite good and the jump scares were expertly crafted, but they were extremely easy to anticipate. Camera shots, timing beats, etc. were all from a well trodden history of filmmaking. Like a final CGI battle against faceless swarming enemies, I’m just numb to a lot of it.

Novel jump scares still work, for instance the hallway scene in Exorcist 3, it was new and fresh and even though you were pretty sure something had to happen, the inflation/deflation/sting worked. But if the hot girl is walking around her house with a flashlight before the 30 minute mark, you can pretty much smell the harmless cat jumping out before it happens.

Jones? Jonsey? Here kitty… :)

I like where you’re going, but I don’t think of “startled” as an emotion. I feel anxiety up until the jump scare, at which point I feel resentment. So if that’s the emotion a movie is attempting to cultivate, mission accomplished!


Roger Ebert had a name for that one: the “spring-loaded cat.”

As a brief side note, how dumb is it these days that we have separate subforums for movies and TV? But, yes, this discussion should by no means be limited to movies!


Ayy, I actually have an entry in his glossery, the “Clicker Clack Effect.”

The one I can’t stand is whenever a character in a horror movie opens a mirrored medicine cabinet in a bathroom. It’s such an obvious and transparent setup for a scare when the cabinet is closed and we see something in the reflection that wasn’t there before.

I know from the forums that you watched those episodes too. Did you not think those were good jump scares?

True, though in general “there’s something horrible behind you and if you turned around and saw it you would have a heart attack” is one of my most powerful jump scares. When I was younger I would often imagine looking up from a book and seeing a monster peeking around the bedroom door at me. Also, for some reason it was always a Count Chocula, except a real one, and with enormous Gollum eyes.

The witch/homeless woman scene at the start of Mulholland Drive friggin terrified me. I was stoned out of my head when I watched it and damn near shared the fatal heart attack.

Is there agreement on what counts as a “jump scare”? Is it only when the noise turns out to have been a cat or the jerk friend, or is it still a jump scare when it really is the monster?

I agree they often fail at having an effect that stays once the moment has passed. Strangely, good filmmakers seem to get it right more often than bad ones.