While jump scares are often overused and underwhelming, here are ten times the dreaded jump scare was truly smart and legitimately terrifying
I’m not the biggest fan of jump scares. It’s not really hard to rattle an already flinchy person (like me) with a loud bang or scream. I normally wouldn’t mind the startling images and noises, but most of the time they don’t matter to the story being told. Despite my disdain for jump scares, there are a few so perfect, so needed, that I had to give them a shoutout. Warning: May Contain Spoilers!
#10: Lake Mungo (2008)
I just recently watched Lake Mungo, and the more I watch these faux documentaries, the more I like them. They have some bona fide scares with actors that are completely believable in their roles, and Lake Mungo is no different. Here, we learn that Alice has died a mysterious death and her family is on the hunt for answers. Alice’s phone is found with a strange video from a school field trip, and it is revealed that Alice saw her own dead body.
This is what I’d like to call a slow-burn jump scare. It’s like watching a train crash about to happen; we see it coming from a mile away (Alice’s dead-self slowly creepy towards the camera until we can clearly see its face). There is a small screaming sound as the face juts toward the camera before cutting away. What we end up with is a growing terror of this ghostly face, the same terror Alice is experiencing, and getting a final scream when it’s just close enough to grab us — the cherry on top.
#9: The Grudge (2004)
The Grudge is one of my favorite American remakes, and I appreciate seeing such a prominent figure in Japanese folklore (a vengeful spirit, or “onryō”) translate so well onto American screens. This jump scare comes at the beginning of the movie. We know something bad happened in this nondescript house, we just don’t know what. That is, until we see a care worker dragged up into the ceiling.
This jump scare has the ability to level the playing field. You could be a flincher or a tough guy and still be spooked by the sudden jolting movements this ghost has. Like the slow burn in Lake Mungo, we know that as soon as the care worker searches the attic space with her dim lighter, she’s probably going to die. When her lighter reaches the pale, croaking face of the onryō, Kayako, we know it’s over for her.
#8: Creep (2014)
Usually I don’t like movies riddled with jump scares, but this was too good to pass up. Creep is a found footage film about a videographer, Aaron, filming a man, Josef, who says he is dying soon and wants these videos made for his unborn child. Sweet, right?
It turns out that Josef is not who he says he is, and Aaron finds himself in a world of paranoia and uncertainty. Most of this film is shot POV style from Aaron’s perspective, which gives us viewers firsthand experience watching Josef disappear and reappear from behind walls and bushes. Oddly enough, we still have that erratic jump scare vibe as we’re forced into Josef’s sinister perspective when he begins to take control of the camera. Definitely not the headspace I want to be in.
#7: Under the Shadow (2016)
If The Babadook took place in revolutionary 80’s Iran, it would be Under the Shadow. This 2016 Middle Eastern jewel blends the terror of war with the terror of an actual ghost living in your house. Shideh and her daughter are left in the capital city, Tehran, while her husband is on medical duty in another part of the country. Frequent missile sirens go off at all times of the day, and if that wasn’t enough, another resident in their apartment block brought an evil djinn with them. Every time the siren blasts, the building crumbles just a bit more, until it doesn’t. Instead we’re met with the shock of an impossible floating being standing in the living room, waiting for Shideh.
Under the Shadow isn’t just a title, it’s a perfect representation of what the characters are feeling. They are under the shadow of war, under the shadow of the djinn, and under the shadow of fear and impending doom that one or both of those things will eventually bring. We hear the siren blare and dread finding out what is waiting in the next room.
#6: I Am A Ghost (2012)
I Am A Ghost might be slow at first, but the one big jump scare at the end is a glorious payoff. We are taken through the daily life of Emily, a woman living alone in her house. We see her do both normal and strange things, like making eggs for breakfast, then, as if in a trance, promptly raise a knife to stab herself. But those aren’t the scares; that comes toward the end, when Emily realizes there’s something in the house with her. We hear that thing come closer and closer, and at the highest point of tension, a demon with a disturbingly large smile comes running at her.
I’m not sure why, but this demon really got under my skin. My guess is that the entire movie up to that point is pretty normal (yes, even at points where she harms herself). The movie is also shot in such a way there there is both a lot of detail and very little detail at the same time. There is just enough detail in the background to matter to the story (e.g., antiques and other decor of the time period). But we’re really focused on the characters, especially the demon. We see every physical detail, but also perceived ones, like menace. We can see why Emily was so scared.
#5: Sinister (2012)
I knew Sinister was going to give me nightmares before the title card even showed. Super 8 films and I don’t mix well. They always look way too real, and the “real” movies tend to keep me awake at night. Ethan Hawke (Ellison) moves his family into the house of the recently deceased family from the Super 8 footage. He soon finds more film in the attic, decides to watch it, and finds that they’re full of Super 8 snuff. You’d think living in a murder house and finding a bunch of snuff tapes would warrant another move, but no, these are just the things Ellison needs to write another crime novel.
I’d like to write about all of the films, because they are positively frightening, but one sticks out. “Lawn Work ‘86” shows the POV of a child operating a lawn mower and running it over their family members. This jump scare is great because as we in the audience recoil in fear, so does Ellison. Even if you don’t have an adverse reaction, Ellison’s reaction is enough to tell you how wrong the situation is.
#4: Audition (1999)
Audition is Takashi Miike’s classic J-Horror film about a widower who finds love in a not-so-innocent ballerina, Asami. We peek into the woman’s life, growing up an abused child, then finding and torturing men as an adult. She waits in her strangely bare apartment for a phone call from the widower. But the apartment’s not entirely bare. There’s a phone on a side table, of course, and a bag. And the bag is filled with something. And the bag begins violently tossing itself around the room. And now I’m creeped out.
This is scene conjures up more disgust than fear, which can be a good thing. We know something is very wrong with Asami, and it makes it worse that she is harboring something still living inside a brown sack in her apartment. What is it? And why is it there? What is Asami hiding? In this case, our minds fill the gaps with the worst imaginable ideas, leaving a sickly feeling in our stomachs. So, what are the answers to our questions? Watch and find out.
#3: Wait Until Dark (1967)
I’m a fan of older movies. But when my mom recommended a “scary movie” starring Audrey Hepburn, I wasn’t expecting much. Boy was I wrong. In Wait Until Dark, Hepburn is Susy, a blind woman who owns a doll that was, unbeknownst to her, stuffed with smuggled heroin. A group of criminals find the doll at Susy’s house, and create a dastardly plan to retrieve it from her. They gain Susy’s trust, search the house, and begin to terrorize Susy when they can’t find the doll. Susy defends herself by shutting off the lights, forcing them into blindness like her. When she thinks she is safe, one of the criminals jumps out from the darkness to grab her.
This scene legitimately made me jump, as I was not expecting it. My mom, on the other hand, knew full well of the scare, and had a pretty good laugh watching me leap from my seat. The rest of the movie is just what you’d expect from a 60’s thriller, but this little nugget is just the thing to spice this movie up.
#2 & 1: The Ring (2002)
2 and 1: This is one of my all-time favorite movies, and one of the few American remakes I think overshadows the Japanese original, so I’m a little biased. But I’m giving the two top spots to 2002’s The Ring because it’s extremely well-deserving for two scenes in particular.
The first (#2 spot) is late in the movie. Rachel has returned to the Morgan’s horse ranch to watch the tape of Samara in a therapy session. She’s looking intently at the screen, as we, the viewers, are skimming back and forth from her face to Samara’s face. Blue light reaches in from the opened door as Rachel watches. While the screen shows us scene after scene of Rachel and Samara, that blue light is suddenly covered by a shadow — the shadow of Richard Morgan. So caught up in our character’s faces, we forget to focus on the background (as did Rachel). We are taken by surprise as we quickly realize the danger Rachel doesn’t know she’s in yet.
But all these scenes pale in comparison to my number one jump scare pick. I can sum it up in four words: “I saw her face.”
I think it’s safe to say most people know what scene I’m referring to. The Ring is known for a lot of things: kickstarting the J-Horror trend in America, one of the first viral marketing campaigns, and possibly having a hand in the downfall of VHS tapes. But I like to think of it as the ultimate jump scare. Yes, it’s a scary face, and yes, it’s a loud noise, two things I generally dislike. But this scare was absolutely unexpected. Here, we find ourselves listening to Rachel try to confront her sister, Ruth, whose daughter just died. We’re listening to them talk about the randomness and uncertainty of the cause of death. Ruth says, “I saw her face,” then BAM, we get a very disturbing shot of the daughter hunched over in the closet with a most unsettling face.