By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
Jump scares. They’re a fixture of virtually every horror film and, despite how many you see, they’re still effective…well, at least some of the time. But, while some jump scares are uninspired attempts to merely trigger a physiological reaction among audience members, other jump scares are masterfully crafted and are so effective on a number of visceral and filmmaking levels. Let’s countdown the best jump scares of all time and take a look at just what makes them so great. Starting with…
5. Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th is full of atmospheric shots and beautifully designed kills, but its jump scares are infrequent and, at best, mediocre. That is until the film’s final sequence. Each of the camp counselors have been killed one by one, leaving Alice as the sole survivor. Now, as Ms. Voorhees is finally dead, Alice rests on a canoe floating in the middle of the lake…
The jump scare works for a number of reasons. The lull of the music suggests something insidious is creeping around the corner. And the presence (or rather, the absence) of Jason Voorhees looms over the whole film.
The plot twist that it is Jason’s mom and not Jason committing the murders is breathtaking as a narrative element, but it also furthers this final jump scare.
As an audience, we don’t expect Jason to be there (or to be anywhere for that matter). His mother is revealed as the murderer BECAUSE her son died.
So, at this point in the film, subconsciously, we’re left thinking – now that Ms. Voorhees is dead: who is left to scare us? Well, evidently, Jason was….
4. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is eerie from the get-go. The title itself suggests something bad is going to happen in this film – we, as viewers, are preparing for scares. Which is why, this scare is particularly commendable.
At this point in the film, Franklin and Sally’s friends are missing, so they begin to explore the dark woods near the Texan farmhouse… Watch below…
The sound of the chainsaw sends chills down our spines. It’s aggressive – it’s in your face. Literally. Leatherface is horrific to behold and such a stark appearance suddenly on screen is jaw dropping.
At this point, Tom Hooper directs the film like we’re in the woods exploring. We feel so immersed in this scene that a sudden shock like this, coming out of nowhere, really sends chills down our spines.
3. The Haunting of Hill House
Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix took horror fans and audiences more broadly by surprise with a tale full of suspense and thrills, but also significant emotion.
Speaking of jump scares specifically though, Flanagan pulls off a number of terrific ones throughout the 10 episode series, but a scare around the halfway point of episode 8 tops them all by far. Check it out below…
In this scene, Shirley and Theo are driving in the car as the conversation turns heated. We’re fully invested in the dispute, hanging onto every word they exchange back-and-forth.
Naturally, as a viewer, we’re getting wrapped up in this tension and growing increasingly tense due to the heated nature of their argument. NOT due to anything else. This is why this jump scare works particularly well.
Our tension is increasing due to the conversation, almost blinding us to the potential that any other source of tension or suspense could arise in this scene. In turn, when Nell’s ghost suddenly surges forward, we’re really taken aback.
Flanagan’s positioning of the camera prior to the scare is also very unassuming. It’s a shot we’ve seen in countless films and shows previously, chronicling two characters talking in a car. There’s no reason to show the backseat, because that would detract from our focus on the conversation. Flanagan uses our expectations of such a scene to his advantage by, once again, blinding us to the potential of a scare.
Therefore, it’s not just an uninspired jump scare, but one that is intelligently crafted from top to bottom and intriguingly plays upon our expectations
2. Mulholland Drive
David Lynch is widely known as one of the greatest directors of all time, but his name is often left out of conversations regarding horror films and directors. That’s unfortunate, because, amidst all of the craziness and non-linearity of his films, there’s always a sense of dread, of villainy, of suspense lurking around the corner.
Lynch’s scares often lean into more disturbing content, whether that be BOB in Twin Peaks or really anything in the likes of Inland Empire or Blue Velvet. But, Lynch does employ a jump scare early on in Mulholland Drive that – to this day – is still so effective.
Mulholland Drive isn’t a traditional horror film. In fact, at many times, it has a very whimsical, exploratory nature to it. The dialogue is very heightened. The California sun beams in almost every scene. This is what Lynch often achieves in his works – capturing the horrors of reality. The horrors that exist in our unassuming realities.
Twin Peaks is a perfect example of this. A show about an idyllic town with cute diners, beautiful relationships, and picturesque landscapes soon becomes a tale of the supernatural – of evil spirits, of death, of abuse, of grief. But, unlike Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive is a film and, as such, the story is contained to a little over two hours.
One of the reasons this scare is so effective is we simply don’t expect anything to happen whatsoever. There is no set-up for a scare. The conversation beforehand is so abstract and unassuming that we’re still trying to wrap our heads around what it means and what this movie is going to be about. The last thing we expect is a scare – never mind a scare that comes out of absolutely nowhere and is left, at least explicitly, unexplained for the rest of the film.
1. The Exorcist III
And, at number 1, we have The Exorcist III.
William Peter Blatty’s film was largely overlooked when it first released in 1990, but it remains to this day to be one of the scariest films of all time. More of a psychological thriller than a horror film most of the time, Blatty’s film largely centers around a mental institution as a detective investigates a series of grisly murders.
But, it’s a prolonged, drawn out sequence following a nurse just doing the rounds at night that we still think of today as the best jump scare of all time.
The one-two punch. The distanced camera. The framing. This scene has everything for a horror fan to feast on.
The first scare is particularly poignant, because of the way in which the audience conceptualizes that room. The jump scare works, because we don’t even conceive of someone lying there. We don’t even know it’s possible. So, by obstructing our view and understanding of the room, there’s ample opportunity for something like this jump scare to be as spectacularly pulled off as it is.
The next scare works in large part due to the previous scare. We’ve already been scared. Our heart rates have quickened, the tension has risen. Inherently, we think, at least for the time being, we’ve hit a pause button on the scares.
Not only that, but Blatty’s positioning of the camera really drives this scare home. The camera is far away – the viewer is far away down the hall. The nurse is so far away from us that, if a scare is to occur, we expect that it’ll occur when she gets closer to the lens of the camera. Which is why, when the hooded figure comes out of nowhere, we’re taken aback, especially as the camera quickly zooms in on the action. We no longer have the safety of being so far away – we’re plummeted right into the horror of the situation.
So, there you have it, our five favorite jump scares of all time. With so many terrific horror films including so many brilliantly crafted jump scares, it was difficult to narrow this list down and, really, there’s no right answer to this question. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see why these scares continue to work so well years later.