In Defense of Jump Scares, by David Bax
If you’re familiar with the term “jump scare,” you probably know it as a pejorative. The technique – loosely referring to any sudden noise or appearance that shocks the viewer – has become an abbreviated way to dismiss lazy or predictable horror filmmaking. Ironically, those who fall back on “jump scare” as a means to decry a movie are practicing the exact same kind of unimaginative shortcut as the filmmakers they seek to admonish. Certainly there are movies that employ the method insipidly but the demonization of the phrase has overlooked the importance of jump scares to horror cinema.
There are two main reasons to use the jump scare (other than to simply scare you, of course; obviously the intent is to scare you). For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll focus on the most maligned stripe of jump scare, the one that turns out to be a false alarm. Perhaps counterintuitively, the first use is to relieve tension, not create it. A movie generally needs emotional peaks and valleys; an unbroken through-line of suspense would either be overwhelming or boring. So, like a rollercoaster (if we’re being trite), we have to occasionally decelerate to make it up the next, hopefully even bigger incline before we get dropped again. Early in Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, the audience is startled by a loud, inexplicable sound. It turns out to be an L cut, where the audio from the next scene starts before the image changes, and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) is ripping packing tape off a box while settling into her new home. We don’t realize how on edge we were until we jump at the sound but the revelation that its source is benign elicits a bit of a chuckle, resetting you for the next build of tension.
The other reason is perhaps a more subtle one and seemingly contradictory to the first but is essential to the DNA of horror. Jump scares, even the ones that are fake-outs, reinforce the idea that the characters – and, by extension, we ourselves – are not safe. In The Innkeepers, when Claire (Sara Paxton) opens the back door of the hotel and a bird flies at her face, that bird is not the antagonist of the film. But Ti West didn’t include the scene just for fun. It’s an early warning to both Claire and us to be on our toes. It injects dread into the mundane. In short, it’s a reminder that this is a horror movie.
Claiming not to like jump scares is like claiming not to like horror movies. Some are good and some are bad. Disdain for the bad ones is only natural and should be encouraged. But reducing the technique to a shorthand is deadening to actual, worthwhile criticism.