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The Hair-Raising History of the Jump Scare

Are these an overdone gimmick, or an art form taken for granted?

history of the jump scare
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  • Photo Credit: Shamley Productions

Hasn't the horror industry ever heard of beating a dead horse? Since the 1960s, the average number of jump scares in horror films has nearly quadrupled. But does that necessarily mean the tactic has become less effective? To answer that question we'll have to look back and track this macabre method through time, and dive into just what makes jump scares so terrifying in the first place.

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The science behind the jump scare

As simply as your leg will jerk when a doctor taps your knee with their little hammer, you just can't help reacting to a jump scare. It's a reflex ingrained in us. Once we start to pick up on red flags, we've already stepped right into the center of a trap.

While you might think seeing a jump scare coming would help to ease your reaction, you'd be wrong. If you brace yourself for the oncoming scare, you're only setting yourself up to be more startled. It's simple chemistry, baby. When you put yourself in a state of hypervigilance, you're activating your amygdala, the portion of your brain responsible for processing strong emotions, such as fear and anxiety.

There's very little you can do in the thick of it to deescalate this natural reaction. Closing your eyes? Nice try. Sound is actually the most important factor when it comes to inducing your startle response. Loud auditory stimulus, particularly stimulus above 80 decibels, enters your ear and travels through a very small number of synapses to register in your brain. Since the pathway is so short, this response occurs much more quickly than most other involuntary responses. It's virtually unavoidable.

But not entirely. The expectation that matters here is the expectation you have for the world you live in. The jump scares of early cinema are vastly different from what you'd see in a modern horror flick, because in the beginning days of film audiences had not been exposed to those kinds of audio-visual tricks. One flash of eerie make up effects would have sent a silent film audience running, but as an audience becomes habituated—familiar with the formula and routine—to jump scares, the fright of it all becomes less effective. Overexposure is the slow and sure killer of the jump scare, so in order to keep audiences on their toes, filmmakers must constantly find creative ways to innovate this time-honored tactic.

So now that we know why jump scares had to change, let's look at how they've changed.

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Jump scares in early cinema

One of the earliest jump scares in film history was from the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera. Though this was an entirely visual scare, the novelty of the abrupt and jarring reveal of the Phantom's true face was enough to cause a stir—including reports of fainting. After all, this was nothing like the 2004 film where audiences were treated to a still mostly dreamy Gerard Butler marred by slight burning beneath a quarter of a mask. The removal of a full-face mask exposed audiences to the ghastly skull-like features of a deformed man, courtesy of Lon Chaney's hauntingly self-devised make up.

phantom of the opera
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  • Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

This is the most bare bones method of introducing a jump scare, and it certainly works! Exposing audiences to imagery that exists outside of their daily norms or which conflicts with their values stimulates their startle response in a way that will stay with them long after they've left the theater. But what happens when the jump scare isn't quite what it seems?

In the 1940s, Val Lewton became the head of the horror department for RKO studios. 1942 saw Lewton's collaboration with director Jacques Tourneur on the film Cat People. In the film, a woman, Alice (Jane Randolph), is walking home, stalked by another dangerous woman, Irena (Simone Simon). Irena closes in closer and closer, and just when the audience thinks Alice's time is up, a bus comes hurtling into the frame to pick Alice up. The loud, jarring sound of the engine was enough to push the tension of the scene over the edge, and even though the reveal meant safety for Alice, the audience was sufficiently terrified.

This fake out has become a famous staple of horror movies, and is referred to as the Lewton Bus scare, after the producer who conceptualized it himself. Apt for its source material, the scare most often presents itself in movies as a harmless cat popping out and hissing exactly when it shouldn't, seen in films like Alien, The Slumber Party Massacre, Pet Sematary, and on and on and on. But it can also be seen as the unexpected hand of a friend gripping a shoulder (Halloween), a ball hitting a window (It Follows), or any other innocuous surprise. 

Jump scares gain traction

In the 1960s, jump scares really hit their stride. Alfred Hitchcock, the true master of suspense, helped to cement this tactic into the mainstream, beginning with his 1960 hit Psycho. There are numerous iconic jump scares in this film, among them the infamous shower scene and the blood-curdling reveal of Mrs. Bates. But there's no Hitchcockian scare as perfect and cinematically artful as the murder of Detective Arbogast. As Arbogast investigates the Bates Mansion, the camera maintains a tight frame while the soundtrack employs a duplicitously calm tone. But as Arbogast reaches the top of the stairs, the shot suddenly changes to a wide overhead view as the classic screeching sound of death breaks the false serenity. With the jarring change comes Norman Bates, barreling in knife first.

Though we would consider them more classic tactics today, the 60s saw even more jump scare innovation. In 1965, the film Repulsion introduced audiences to the mirror jump scare. In shots like these, a seemingly mundane moment is shattered by the reflected appearance of the villain behind the oblivious protagonist. 1967's Wait Until Dark added the extra layer of darkness to induce terror. The lessened visibility of action incites natural unease in viewers, as any loss of agency—such as impaired sight or subdued movement—instills a vulnerability in movie-goers. The impact of any scare that follows these disadvantageous situations is automatically heightened.

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  • Photo Credit: Compton Films

This decade of horror movies saw an average of 2.6 jump scares per film. But in the 70s, that number more than doubled to an average of 5.6. But more than just increasing in occurrence, the jump scares also increased in purpose. Suddenly the jump scares were acting as a storytelling device—a way to imply the terror of the ordeal might no be over by the end of the film. Carrie, Halloween, and Friday the 13th all used an ending jump scare to reveal the fact that the agent of terror in the film was still alive. This opened the door for horror sequels, and while it's a tactic mostly sneered at today, it was a vastly unsettling button to new films of that period.

An abundance of jump scares

The 80s saw a sharp increase of jump scares, bringing their average appearance per film to a whopping 9.5. This was a time of severe oversaturation, as the booming success of the slashers we now consider classics resulted in an avalanche of low budget horror movies looking for a slice of the profits. But while some filmmakers were stuffing old tricks into 90 minutes as often as they could, there was also the birth of yet another future jump scare staple: the dream jump scare.

Combining elements of the Lewton Bus scare with the mirror technique, this method introduces the terrifying world of a dream within a dream. After a protagonist suffers a series of horrors in an intense nightmare, they awaken only to find they were safe after all. Except the next beat of the scene usually leads to the reveal that they're still very much in the grips of the terror. These double-edged fake outs, as seen in movies like An American Werewolf in London or A Nightmare on Elm Street, leave the audience feeling as though there is truly no escape from this psychological suffering.

As horror progressed through the 90s, the average number of jump scares per film lessened to 7.9. This was an era of self-aware slashers, and there was more expected out of the fledging genre. Of course, the most iconic meta slasher of all time, Scream, clocked in with 19 jump scares in its hour and 51 minute runtime, so how much can you really look down on the practice?

The 90s also saw the production of one of the most celebrated jump scares to date—the long hospital take in The Exorcist III. This moment is one of the more successful jump scares of cinematic due to its layering of tactics. A nurse makes her rounds through a quiet hospital, and as she goes to investigate an unsettling sound inside of a patient's room, the audience is (and the nurse) is scared half to death by a Lewton Bus scare. But as the nurse returns to the serene quiet of the hallway and she (and the audience) finally gets her heartbeat back under control, the calm is shattered by a jarring soundtrack and the sudden appearance of a killer with oversized shears.

Jump scares in modern film

From 2000 to 2004, the average number of jump scares per horror film has risen back up to 8.4. 2005 to 2009 saw it bump to 9.5. It raised yet again to 10.1 for 2010 to 2014, and the time from 2015 to now has had the slightest increase to 10.2.

Clearly the jump scare, a building block of horror, is here to stay. In fact, it has even spread to other genres. From children's comedies like Pee Wee's Big Adventure to fantasy epics like Lord of the Rings, this chilling tactic is hard to avoid. But how much is too much?

The film The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia featured 32 jump scares in an hour and 40 minutes of runtime. This film received largely negative reviews, earning itself a 19% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. On the flip side, the film of a similar length, Insidious, featured 24 jump scares, and while it received mixed reviews from critics, it's generally celebrated by audiences as a good watch. This proves that, as long as the scares are done in good taste with an artistic eye, any number of them can be pulled off.

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Mostly, however, indie filmmakers within the horror genre lean toward keeping the jump scares light. Ari Aster's Hereditary and Midsommar had only eight and three jump scares, respectively. Robert Eggers's The Witch contained 4. And these are considered some of the most frightening and acclaimed horror movies of all time.

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  • Photo Credit: A24

So how does mainstream horror keep their surplus of jump scares fresh? Films like The Descent innovate the tactic with night vision jump scares. Films like A Quiet Place steep the story in complete oppressive silence, so the slightest deviation into noise is terrifying. IT and IT: Chapter Two give its monster imagery of something usually associated with innocence and joy, only to violate are understanding and security at every turn.

The horror genre is one which is constantly evolving, whether it's the content churned out or the effects supporting the story. In order to keep up, its most classic tactic must find a way to stay fresh, too. I can only imagine what new horrors await us in the coming years...