In Defense of the Jump Scare

Posted: October 18, 2013 in General
Tags: , , ,

968full-pee--wee's-big-adventure-screenshotWe horror fans like to waste a lot of breath telling people what we’re not scared of, don’t we?

Most reviled of these is the jump scare. Just as the pun is considered the lowest form of humor, the jump scare is considered to be cheap, utilized by those that are either too lazy to utilize atmosphere and psychological fear or those that are unable to. And this, I think, is hardly fair.

The jump scare, for the sake of definition, is a scare that involves sudden movement and loud sound. Jumping out of a closet and saying BOO!, that’s the basic definition of the jump scare. Now, this does not necessarily give a value to the jump scare being justifiably frightening for the audience or for the characters in the work- for the sake of the discussion, we’re going to assume it’s an audiovisual media like film or a video game- it’s much harder to pull off a jump scare in prose (although jump scares do have a time honored tradition in scary tales told around the campfire.). Sometimes you’ll have what are sometimes called cat scares, due to the prevalence of cats popping out of lockers or other places, creating a “false” scare of sorts.

Part of what bothers most people about jump scares is that they’re “cheap”, and there can certainly be credence to this argument if they’re overused. Certainly if something is popping up every five minutes, there isn’t a whole lot to defend, since there’s no time spent building up those scares, which is precisely the point of a jump scare- you build up to it, then BOOM! there’s the shock, followed by the cathartic knowledge that what’s on that screen can’t really hurt you. It’s easy to forget that some of cinema’s classic scares are jump scares- they’re just particularly well built up jump scares.

Let’s take the 1925 Universal production of The Phantom of the Opera into consideration (before the character was watered down by decay and turned into a romantic lead). The entirety of the film’s first act builds toward the unmasking of the Phantom. We’re given contradictory reports to what he may look like, and we see him masked until that climactic moment.  Lon Chaney’s self-designed makeup was kept a closely guarded secret in the day, and audiences were genuinely shocked when Mary Philbin pulled the mask off him to reveal the living skull underneath. The unmasking scene itself is a microcosm of the buildup, enough so that with the right music, it plays as a pretty good shock scene by itself.

Another great scene that could qualify as a jump scare is (if this is a Spoiler, what are you doing reading THIS blog?) Marion Crane’s murder in Psycho. The sparse Hitchcock thriller and proto-slasher film plays as film noir for its own first act.  The film’s legendary shower scene, if you’re unaware of what’s coming next, plays almost as an envelope pushing (for a 1960 American film) piece of titillation- it is, after all, a beautiful woman in the shower, yes? And then, of course, Hitchcock pulls the rug out from under us, veers the direction of the film somewhere completely different as Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings signal this isn’t typical film noir, this is the grand shock of the decade.

I think that the jump scare gets something of a bad rap. Done right, it can be just as scary as the creeping fear and uneasiness one gets from the surreal atmosphere of Vampyr, or the visceral horror we experience contemplating the torments of the Cenobites in Hellraiser. The Facehugger attack in Alien, Jason attacking the canoe as the stinger of Friday the 13th, even Ghostbusters and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure have a couple of classics- just because it’s sudden and loud doesn’t meant that it’s not a scary, well-earned scare.

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