I like jump scares. When I’m watching a film or TV show and it makes me jump, I enjoy it. Sure, it scares the crap out of me for a couple of seconds, but afterwards I’ll usually chuckle at myself and appreciate the movie just that little bit more for actually managing to get a reaction from me. We all know that there are plenty of jump scares out there that simply don’t work, and we’ve seen then thousands of times over, but when a jump scare does work, even when it’s signposted beyond belief and I should have seen it coming, I can’t help but respect the filmmaking on some level.
See, I know plenty of people who will cite the obvious jump scare tricks as examples of lazy filmmaking. The cat in the box, the face in the mirror, the fake-out followed by the real one… there are plenty to choose from. And we all know them, right? Even if you’re not a horror fan you’d still probably recognize a lot of these tropes. And there indeed are jump scares that simply don’t work because they appear to be too obvious, too well worn, and we’ve seen them all before.
But I don’t think, in those instances, that the issues are strictly to do with the jump scare itself. After all, there are plenty of examples I can think of where a jump scare that adheres to one of those many, many overplayed tropes actually did work on me. And this idea that because a filmmaker has chosen to insert a jump scare, complete with the quiet build and sudden loud explosion of dread-inducing music, is somehow lazy is just nonsense.
A jump scare is an effective tool in a filmmaker’s toolbox. And they can be done in the most obvious and generic of ways and yet still get me to leap out of my seat. See, the reason a jump scare works, at least in part, isn’t really down to the inventiveness of the scare itself, but to the quality of the film surrounding it.
That’s not to say that there aren’t examples of well-crafted jump scares in otherwise disappointing and dull movies. If you manage to shock your audience with a loud bang or a sudden reveal then that’s fine, and I’ll admire a movie for that alone even if it is pretty bad overall. But the jump scares that really work, the ones that stand out and are genuinely effective in their making us jump, are effective not necessarily because they’ve managed to find a new approach to the old formula, but rather because we’re invested in the movie and the characters on screen.
James Wan, the director of the first two Insidious movies and the first two The Conjuring movies, is an expert when it comes to this. His scares are often of the most overused variety. Figures lurking in backgrounds, sudden explosions of terrifying music, you know the drill. And yet, the movies work. Like them or love them they’re incredibly successful and, in my opinion at least, a lot of fun.
And they work not because they’re about finding new and interesting ways to approach things - in fact, The Conjuring films are almost the exact opposite of that, deliberately calling back to pre-existing styles we don’t tend to see much anymore, and the Insidious movies absolutely revel in the idea of being out-and-out ghost train style fun – but because we as the audience care about it.
It’s the understanding of how to make an audience care about your film and your characters that ensures whether or not your jump scares are going to be effective. That’s why a lot of the other Conjuring movies simply don’t work – we don’t care about those characters in the same way we care about Ed and Lorraine Warren, for example.
Of course, David F. Sandberg understood this fact too, which is why Annabelle: Creation is widely considered to be the best of The Conjuring spin-offs, and so many of the others aren’t so well regarded.
When I see a movie and the jump scare doesn’t work, it’s not because I’ve seen the jump scare before, but rather because I really couldn’t give a crap what happens to the person on screen. Bad jump scares aren't the cause of poor films, they're a symptom of it. I need to invest in the characters, and in the story, and if the movie has successfully made me do that then a jump scare, no matter how obvious it might be, is going to work not because there was a sudden loud noise but because I’m worried about what’s going to happen to the people on screen.
I’ve seen plenty of conversations about the topic of jump scares. Hell, I’ve even been in some myself. And I used to very much believe that a jump scare was a lazy device used predominantly by lazy filmmakers trying to get a cheap thrill rather than go through the effort of building atmosphere. But, the truth is, the jump scare only works when they have gone through the effort of building the atmosphere. And atmosphere only really works when they’ve gone through the effort of building a world and building the characters.
Jump scares aren’t lazy, and they aren’t an example of bad filmmaking any more than using a standard shot/revere shot set-up for a dialogue scene is lazy and bad filmmaking. It’s not the technique that’s necessarily the problem, but rather the way it used effectively and in conjunction with the larger whole. When I’m enjoying a movie I also enjoy the jump scares, and when I’m not enjoying a movie, I don’t. That has very little to do with the jump scare itself and everything to do with how good the film is at capturing and keeping my attention, engaging me in its story and characters, and generally just being entertaining.
So, can we stop with the jump scare hate every time a new horror movie trailer appears and it’s got a jump scare in it or every time a movie has more than three jump scares? Decrying all jump scares as lazy filmmaking is, ironically, one of the laziest complaints about filmmaking, and it also sort of just highlights how little people seem to fully appreciate how good movies work. A good movie is a good movie, whether it has jump scares or not.
And if a good movie does have jump scares, then those jump scares must be good, right?