Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang. Only in the anticipation of it.”
It’s that classic moment in a horror movie when the scene becomes quiet and still. There is nothing but silence in the scene to build the tension between the characters and the audience. As the fear builds, the audience is longing for the moment the killer pops out from around the corner to end the moment of dread. When the tension snaps, the audience jolts back in the chairs before laughing off the scare and relaxing again.
This is a classic jumpscare, a technique used to surprise the audience with an abrupt change in image or event.
Jumpscares are one of the most basic building blocks of a horror movie. They are based on a theory of what fear is. The ultimate goal is to build the tension and fear from the moment you think something might happen to when it actually happens. There are a few tell-tale signs of when a jumpscare is lurking around the corner, including a music queue, dimmed lighting, things turning on by themselves, and a slowed-down edit.
It is a horror trope in itself that audiences come to expect. The audience is only truly scared when the build-up is done well or the scare comes out of nowhere, subverting our expectations.
Here is our list of the best jumpscares in film.
Cat People (1942)
Although this jumpscare isn’t terrifying, it is the first significant jumpscare from the sound era. Cat People is a textbook example of using sound design and shadowy cinematography to suggest something evil lies just outside of the frame. In this moment of shock, a character believes she is being followed and the tension builds as the sound of heels clicking behind her suddenly disappears. The tension is palpable, breaking when a bus abruptly pushes into the frame.
Carrie's full terror is found in the stylistic subtly created by Stephen King’s novel and Brian De Palma. There are moments of blood and horror in this film, but none of them live up to the final jumpscare in the last minute of the film.
During Sue Snell’s (Amy Irving) dream, she pays her respects at the grave of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) who unleashed her vengeance on her bullies at prom. The audience feels safe in this heavily coated dream until Sue lays down the flowers and is grabbed by Carrie who is burning in hell. The scare has no build-up, yet we can’t help to feel that Carrie White will return to drag all of us down to hell with her.
Friday the 13th (1980)
A mother’s vengeance is on full display on Friday the 13th. Although the franchise is notably dominated by Jason Voorhees, his mother, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), was the original serial killer to punish negligent, lust-filled teens who let her son drown in the lake. Like Carrie, the final scare comes in the last moments of the film to leave the audiences fearful that the killer is still out there. No one expected Jason to emerge from the depths of Crystal Lake 23 years later to create a wonderfully terrifying moment of misdirection that made him a horror icon within seconds.
The Thing (1982)
By the mid-1980s, horror was changing its themes to body horror as the AIDS crisis rose. Before David Cronenberg’s masterful remake of The Fly, John Carpenter’s version of The Thing laid the groundwork for what audiences should expect from body horror. The film explored themes of bodily betrayal, leaving everyone to question who is and isn't infected with the alien. Mix gruesome body horror with an isolated setting, and you have an unsettling alien parasite that takes over its host that no one can escape. In the blood test scene, the uneasiness of knowing someone in the room is infected puts the audience at the edge of their seats as they suffer through a five-minute-long scene of hot needles, closeups of blood dripping, and one highly anticipated reveal.
Fear and terror are when the oversized, scary toy clown at the end of your bed is not where it is supposed to be. The clown scene in Poltergeist is another masterclass at subverting expectations and misdirection. Director Tobe Hooper guides the audience along with Robbie (Oliver Robins) as he looks for the clown under his bed. Little does the audience know that the clown is waiting for Robbie when he comes back up from checking under his bed. The sinister moment sends the end of the film back into chaos as the family fights to escape the hell-hole of suburbia.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Another jumpscare that comes out of nowhere is this moment in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The tension is already high in the scene when a radio station employee finds herself alone with Chop Top (Bill Moseley), the brother to Leatherface. The two have an eerie conversation on either side of an open door that leads into a dark room. Suddenly, the lights turn on and Leatherface is there, ready to do his thing. The framing makes this jumpscare special. There is no cut or camera movement to suggest that a villain is right there. Who knows how long Leatherface was standing in the shadows waiting for the right moment to strike!
The Exorcist III (1990)
The third, and most often overlooked, entry to The Exorcist franchise has one of the best jumpscares in all of horror. While nurses are doing their routine check in a hospital, the camera stays still for roughly three minutes to build the anticipation of the scare. Eventually, the scene seems so normal that the audience forgets about the scare and lets their guard down. Just as the audience believes nothing will happen, the camera zooms into a tight frame of the nurse being followed by a figure with shears aimed at her neck. It’s the meticulous build-up that disarms an audience with the idea of routine before a sudden reveal breaks the cycle.
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The Audition (1999)
In this Japanese cult classic, the horrors of dating Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) come to life in what may or may not be his sadistic nightmare. About halfway through what appears to be a romantic drama, Shigeharu finds himself in Asami Yamazaki’s (Eihi Shiina) home where a bag is placed in the center of the room. The sudden shift in tone creates confusion as the audience's perception is quickly being altered to understand the madness and disturbing imagery that is being presented without any warning. The bag scene is only the beginning of the horrors that are to come later in the film.
Final Destination (2000)
Being suddenly hit by a car or bus is pretty common in horror movies now, but it wasn't common back in 2000. Our second bus-related jumpscare on this list had audiences freaking out in the theaters when Terry Chaney (Amanda Detmer) was unexpectedly killed by a bus while walking across the street. Test screen audiences for Final Destination took so long to calm down after this jumpscare that the filmmakers had to add 40 seconds of inconsequential footage that had nothing to do with the movie's plot. It's a scare that will make you look both ways next time you're about to cross any street.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Who said that horror has to take place at night? In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the creature outside of the diner isn’t seen until after a three-minute-long build-up that happens inside the diner. The characters and audience know that something will happen, but we don’t know when. The menacing sound design mixed with the anxiety of anticipation leaves our nerves shot before the final reveal.
Typically, movies with a demon or menacing creature often suddenly appear over the characters for the remainder of the film, but Insidious skips this arrival. The scene starts with a simple conversation, cutting between the three characters at the table using an age-old technique called the shot-reverse-shot. We’ve seen it so many times in films that we tend to ignore the cuts, and it is in that moment when the audience’s guard is down that the demonic entity is crouched behind one of the characters. It is simple, yet effective, and comes out of nowhere.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
The Paranormal Activity series has been one of the more successful franchises in horror history with its low-budget filmmaking that is packed with jumpscares. The movies did become more ridiculous as they progressed, but this moment from Paranormal Activity 2 found its way under audiences' skin. The kitchen scene acts as a chilling reminder that not all scares happen at night.
The Conjuring (2013)
Anything that limits a viewer’s frame of vision will always increase the anxiety and scare of a scene. In The Conjuring, Carolyn Perron (Lili Taylor) is trapped at the top of the basement stairs in the dark. The only time the audience can see her is when she lights a match that quickly burns out. There is very little space to feel safe due to the hard falloff of the light. When the hands appear next to Carolyn’s face and the light is extinguished, the audience and Carolyn are filled with terror of what else could linger in the darkness.
It Follows (2015)
The idea of a sexually transmitted curse can take on a human form comes to life in It Follows. Drawing inspiration from slow-moving killers like Michael Myers from Carpenter’s Halloween, director David Robert Mitchell finds a way to haunt those who are cursed with slow-moving people whose appearances alter consistently. One of the most terrifying aspects of this idea is that “it” is always on the move. The appearance of the “tall man” slowly coming out of the hallway of the main character’s home is a terrifying moment and shows that a home intruder is scarier when they don’t try to hide.
Do you have a favorite horror movie jumpscare that didn't make the list? Let us know what it is in the comments below!
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