Jump scares don’t need to be a bad thing, in fact a well placed jump scare or two can turn a good horror movie into a great one. Who doesn’t remember the night vision scene from The Descent or the final scene in Carrie? These are some classic moments in horror cinema.
Where jump scares get a bad rap is when they are used as a cheap way to startle the audience in lieu of building genuine tension. Often the director will use variants of the same cliched scares and the result can be a dull and uninspiring movie.
Below we break down some of the common jump scare techniques that have become cliches due to overuse.
The Fridge Scare
In basic terms the fridge scare involves a character closing a fridge (or cabinet) door to reveal someone standing on the other side. The giveaway for this scare is the positioning of the camera which will be perpendicular to the fridge rather than looking directly into it. This way the fridge door obscures a significant part of the screen allowing the director to “surprise” us when the door is closed. When watching a movie we should always remember that every scene exists for a purpose, in this case, showing a person looking through a fridge or cabinet without showing what’s inside doesn’t seem to have any plot related purpose, therefore we can assume more often than not it is a set up for a jump scare.
The fridge (or cabinet) scare has become a very common technique in the 21st century and examples can be found in What Lies Beneath (2000), Disturbia (2007), Pandorum (2009), Odd Thomas (2013), The Purge (2013) and Mother! (2017).
The scene above shows the fridge scare in The Purge where Mary is surprised by her son Charlie. This scene is rather absurd from a logical standpoint as you have to accept that Mary is so unaware of her surroundings that she doesn’t hear or sense her son walking up to the door and that her son would choose to stand in front of the door in silence rather than walk around it to talk to his mother. This is a problem with most variants of the fridge/cabinet scare as logically the person approaching would either be noticed or they would call out rather than just stand in silence until the door is closed.
The Car Window Scare
A person or animal suddenly appears at a car window scaring the occupant or occupants of the car. These are often fake-outs where the person doing the scaring is a friendly character. Like the fridge scare, these scares also require some suspension of disbelief as it would require the person or thing doing the scaring to approach the car without being noticed. The below scene for example is from Jeepers Creepers (2001), notice how quiet it is immediately before Darry arrives. It is incredibly hard to believe that Trish wouldn’t hear Darry running towards the car or that Darry wouldn’t call out as he approaches.
Further examples of this can be found in Urban Legend (1998), Dead Silence (2007), The Last House on the Left (2009), Carrie (2013), The Forest (2016), and Annabelle: Creation (2017). In Don’t Breathe (2016), and Chernobyl Diaries (2012) it is a dog rather than a person doing the scaring.
The Animal Scare
The animal scare involves an animal jumping out in front of a character during a tense scene. Often a cat is used (the cat scare) however a barking dog or a rat are also common. These scares are almost always “fake outs” which are jump scares that don’t involve the antagonist(s) of the movie or don’t advance the plot in any meaningful way.
A famous early example pictured below is the cat scare in The Amityville Horror (1979). Other examples include Deliver Us From Evil (2014) which manages to include not one but three animal scares (a bear, a cat, and a dog), Signs (2002), The Grudge (2004), and The Rite (2011). Pet Sematary (1989) and Re-Animator (1985) are rare examples where cat scares are not used as a fake out (the cat is an antagonist in both these cases).
The Mirror Scare
The mirror scare has been a mainstay in horror movies for decades. There are two basic set ups to the mirror scare. One involves a mirror attached to a door (such as a medicine cabinet) being closed or adjusted to reveal a second person standing behind. The second set up involves the camera panning or cutting away from a mirror and then back with a second person now appearing in the mirror. Other variants include the reflection moving independently such as the below scene from Mirrors (2008) or a character wiping steam off the mirror to reveal someone standing behind them.
The following movies employ mirror scares: Repulsion (1965), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Stir of Echoes (1999), Mirrors (2008), The Haunting in Connecticut (2009), Halloween II (2009), Orphan (2009), The Conjuring 2 (2016), and the alternative ending to 1408 (2007).
In the peephole scare a character looks through a peephole or keyhole in a door or wall and we see what they see from a 1st person perspective. After a few seconds we see a scary figure (or sometimes just an eye) appear directly in front of the key hole. These scares are effective because the field of vision is reduced when the scene switches to first person view creating a sense of claustrophobia and putting us on edge.
This technique is used in numerous horror films including: What Lies Beneath (2000), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Fright Night (2011), You’re Next (2011), The Woman in Black (2012), Viral (2015), Hidden (2015), Visions (2016), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), Under the Shadow (2016), Friend Request (2016), and Rings (2017).
The False Awakening
The false awakening or dream within a dream jump scare involves a character waking up from a dream or nightmare only to be hit with a jump scare as it is revealed they are still in a dream. Commonly the character will roll over in bed after “waking up” and a corpse or scary figure will be in bed beside them. These can be effective as the viewer subconsciously relaxes when the character “wakes up” making them more susceptible to further scares.
The first and most famous example of this is in American Werewolf in London (1981) where the mutant Nazis from David’s first dream suddenly break through the window. John Carpenter was a fan of this technique using it in both Prince of Darkness (1987) and In the Mouth of Madness (1994). The Haunting in Connecticut 2 (2013) also contains a false awakening scare that is almost a carbon copy of the one from The Prince of Darkness.
The Delayed Scare
After a particularly tense scene the audience is led to believe the danger has passed and then several seconds later we are hit with a jump scare. Several of the deaths in the Final Destination franchise use this technique where one of the characters narrowly avoids death only to die suddenly moments later.
The Exorcist III (1990) has a classic delayed scare where nurse Amy tries to find the origin of a mysterious noise only to discover it is ice cracking in a glass. A few seconds later the patient in the bed beside her jumps up and scares her.
An interesting variant of this is when the scare comes slightly earlier than expected such as this scene from Oculus (2013). We expect the scare to occur when the sheet is removed from the statue however Kaylie is interrupted before she gets the opportunity.
Not Quite Dead
After defeating the killer, the heroes can finally relax, or can they? The apparently dead killer suddenly jumps up for one final scare. This cliche has been around for years and was quite popular in the 1980s although it still persists today. Examples can be found in The Burning (1981), Silver Bullet (1985), Child’s Play (1988), and the Scream franchise.