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The following are some of the iconic jump scares from horror movies over the years. See also The Lazy Director’s Guide To Jump Scares for a breakdown of the more commonly used jump scare techniques in film.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) – False Awakening
In this scene, David has just woken from a nightmare where a family is attacked and gunned down by a group of mutants. Nurse Amy comforts David and then goes to open the curtains in his hospital room only to be attacked by another mutant indicating that David is still in the nightmare.
What makes this jump scare particularly effective is that most of the scary scenes in the first half of the movie occur during David’s dreams. Subconsciously, when David wakes up in the hospital room, the audience relaxes only to be shocked again a few seconds later.
The Ring (2002) – Girl in the Closet
This scene begins with Ruth, the mother of a recently deceased girl called Katie, talking to her sister Rachel after the funeral. Katie’s mother recalls the moment she saw her dead daughter’s face for the first time and the scene suddenly cuts to an image of her dead daughter hiding in the closet.
The abrupt cut really sells this scene and the image of Katie’s horribly contorted face will be a difficult one to erase from your mind.
Sinister (2012) – The Lawnmower
Anyone who has seen Sinister will remember this scene. During the movie, Ellison, a true-crime writer, watches numerous tapes that appear to show the grisly real-life murders of several families. Ethan comes to the last tape called Lawn Work which shows an unseen individual driving a lawnmower over a tied-up person.
Given what has occurred on the previous tapes it is fairly clear what we are about to see however the delivery is still extremely effective as the body comes into view very abruptly (in contrast to the other videos which are not “jumpy” at all) and we only see the body for a fraction of a second before the movie cuts back to Ellison.
The Exorcist 3 (1990) – The Nurse Station
This is considered by many to be the greatest jump scare in movie history and it is easy to see why. The build up to the scene is the key here as the tension is gradually ramped up. A static camera looking down a hospital hallway is used to great effect along with a quick zoom when the action happens. As Nurse Amy comes out of a patients room, a shrouded figure appears just behind her, holding a pair of large scissors up to her neck.
Watched in isolation this may not seem like an amazing jump scare, but in the context of the movie as a whole, it works really well.
The Conjuring (2013) – The Hand Clap Game
James Wan has quickly become the most well-known horror movie director of the 21st century and it’s not hard to see why in scenes like this.
It is hard to imagine how the simple act of two hands clapping could truly scare the audience however Wan has a great sense of pacing a scene – as Carolyn lies trapped in the darkness, Wan holds back the scare until audiences’ nerves are well and truly frayed.
Carrie (1976) – Final Scene
Sue, the closest thing Carrie had to a friend, goes to place flowers at Carrie’s burial site when a hand reaches out of the ground and grabs her. Sue then wakes up in bed screaming, revealing that this particular scene was a nightmare.
This scene was particularly shocking for audiences because it takes place in an otherwise “non-jumpy” movie. This jump scare is notable for starting the final scene jump-scare trend that would become commonplace in 80s horror movies. Friday the 13th for example uses the exact same style of scare for its final scene.
Seven (1995) – The Sloth Scene
The two detectives discover a third victim of the serial killer who is so emaciated and corpse-like that both the audience and the detectives, quickly dismiss the possibility that the man could still be alive.
As one of the SWAT team moves closer to him however the man suddenly has a coughing spasm, startling both the detectives and the audience in what is the only jump scare in the entire movie.
The Descent (2005) – There’s Something Behind You
The Descent contains several great jump scares however the most memorable is probably the first time the girls run into the strange humanoid creatures inhabiting the cave.
There is almost an hour of slow build-up before the girls finally meet a crawler close up however the wait is definitely worth it. The crawler appears without warning, right behind Beth as they use Holly’s night vision camera to look around. Anyone who doesn’t jump at this point has ice running through their veins.
Repulsion (1965) – The Man In The Mirror
This scene is one of the first examples of the “mirror scare” which is a commonly used scare tactic in modern horror movies.
Polanski’s Repulsion contains several long scenes where Carol walks around her sister’s apartment in near silence so that the scares, which are generally accompanied by loud percussion effects, become much more startling than they might otherwise have been.
Prince Of Darkness (1987) – Brian’s Dream
This is another example of a “false awakening” scare, where a character appears to wake up but is in fact still in a dream.
In this scene, Brian has an eerie, surreal dream that recurs several times in the film and involves a dark figure standing in the doorway of a church with an electronic voice relaying a cryptic message. On this occasion, Brian’s girlfriend has replaced the dark figure in the dream. Upon waking Brian turns over to see the grotesque, bloodied face of his girlfriend lying in bed beside him.