Jump scares are great. They are exactly what most people watch horror movies want. People want to be scared, they want to be spooked.
The problem is that these days, the jump scare, like CGI, is a powerful tool used way too much by talentless people to make up for their inability to tell a good story.
The best jump scare I ever saw was the tent moment in Sixth Sense. I actually screamed out loud like a little girl. It wasn’t so much the sound or the image that frightened me, it was the claustrophobic setting and the thought that there is utterly no help for that little boy. He is totally alone and living a life where he can suddenly see terrible things at any time and in any place, even in the most intimate and personal setting. That’s powerful. Not only that, the fantastic camera work makes it perfect. In a single take, it shows the boy looking in the direction of where the ghost will be (so we are totally shocked when it appears in his line of sight), it pans up and we follow his gaze and then BAM a horrifying image exactly where we weren’t expecting it, with a subtle sting sound. A perfect horror movie scene.
These days it’s always just an unlikeable model in her 20s, shot with ridiculously closeup shaky cam, getting startled by a pranking douchebag boyfriend with a very very loud bang. It’s not scary, it’s not clever, it’s not fun. It’s cheap and lazy.
Jump scares need three things:
- To be happening to sympathetic characters that we actually like
- To be used sparingly
- As the unexpected release to a very very very long build-up of terror and dread
Modern horror movies fail on all three counts. Most films these days try to compensate by having more jumps scares and even louder stings accompanying them.
Fake-out jump scares, like the moments in Alien where the facehugger falls, or the cat jumps out, can be very good at lulling the audience into a false sense of security. But some types of jump scares have become so cliche, that it is easy to spot and predict what will happen next. How many times have you seen someone closing a bathroom mirror to see someone standing behind them, or variations of such? That’s a shame because done effectively, an original jump scare can really make memorable moments.
Mirror scares are so cliche that directors will often use the audience’s expectations to provide a meta fake-out, that is, people expect a scare not because it happened earlier in the movie, but because it is so cliche and happens so much in other movies.
A good fake jump scare early on can set the viewer on edge, knowing that this is the kind of movie that includes such things, they are waiting for the next one. And it’s so much better if it doesn’t come for a very long time.
That’s how I would make a horror movie. A slow start to introduce the characters and set up their personalities and motivations. A fake jump scare about 20 minutes in. Then nothing for an hour except raising the stakes, closing off avenues for help or escape, and (plausibly) increasing the tension and in-fighting between the characters. Then another fake jump scare, and then just as everybody is relaxing, hit them with the real thing.