The jump scare: cliche or useful tool?
If you’ve seen Black Mountain Side, then you know I’m not a big fan of jump scares. In fact, there isn’t a single jump scare in the whole film. That was intentional. When making that film, I was totally convinced that jump scares lessened the value of a horror film, and that the state of modern horror was in ruins solely because of the overused gimmick.
Was I right? Maybe to an extent, but I’ve since come to believe that jump scares can, and do, have a very important role in horror films. A successful jump scare is more complex than you might think.
Why do we need jump scares?
What is the point of a jump scare? It’s not simply, to make your audience jump. The goal of a horror filmmaker should be to leave the audience with a lasting sense of dread and, of course, fear. Yelling “Boo!” and making someone jump will get a rise, but it’s not enough to leave a lasting impression. If you rely on jump scares as the only form of horror in your film, you will undoubtably end up with a bad product. Feel free to read my article on “scary storytelling”, which may echo a lot of what I’m going to say here.
Jump scares serve a single purpose: to break through your audience’s defences. It makes them pay close attention, it makes them fear what is going to come around every corner, what is going to be in every reflection, and so on. People don’t like being jolted into jumping (which is why films that rely heavily on the jump scare aren’t so good), so they’re going to do their best to try to see the jump scares coming. A good jump scare makes them vulnerable to the real horror–the content of your story. This audience vulnerability will allow you to unravel the real goodies, unnoticed, so that you can hit them with a real surprise later on.
The importance of character
A jump scare will never work if we don’t care about your characters. Again, I touched on this in my piece on scary storytelling. There is nothing more important in storytelling than strong characters. As soon as an audience begins your film, they will subconsciously begin the process of trying to relate to the characters. They will decide quickly who they like and who they’re rooting for.
And when I say they will attempt to relate, that doesn’t mean make your characters as relatable as possible. Make your characters interesting and unique and people will relate to them more than if you make them boring and standard. No one actually sees themselves as boring and standard.
Jump scares should be natural
When you sit down to write your script, don’t write it around those wicked jump scares you have in your mind. You should be focussing on your story, on your characters, on your plot–on good writing. If you end up with a great horror script without a single jump scare, great! Don’t go and add one in for the sake of having one.
Jump scares should only end up in your script if they serve the story. Interjected scares will stick out like a sore thumb and take your audience right out of their trace. Because that’s what it’s all about: the trance. Horror is a unique genre in that you need to keep your audiences on the tension train, constantly rising them up and lowering them down, within your control. If they fall off the train, it’s almost impossible to get them back on.
I liked the movie It Follows up until the scene where the invisible monster starts throwing the kids around. To me, the scene felt forced, as if the filmmakers felt they needed to up the ante. They had a great tension going, and then they lost it, and I just couldn’t get back into the film after that. I started noticing little flaws here and there because I was no longer absorbed into the plot.
Don’t be cheap
You know that scene in that movie where the guy hears something outside, so he looks out the window, leans closer and closer, and then a bird slams into the window? It’s not just in that one movie, it’s in hundreds of them, and it’s cheap. Its intentions are good–the filmmakers are trying to lower your defences and get you nice and vulnerable early on. But what are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to make you fear stray animals flying into windows?
These failed attempts are actually working against the filmmaker. They’re conditioning the audience into knowing when to expect the jump scare. They’re giving away the music cue, the buildup, the timing, everything. Now the audience knows when to cover their eyes. The whole point of a jump scare is to surprise the audience. Now you’ve lost it.
Use your jump scares sparingly
One of my favourite horror films in the last five years has only one jump scare in it. I won’t spoil it, but the film I’m talking about is The Gift (2015), with Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton. There’s only one jump scare, right in the middle of the film, but its affects are tremendous. After the scare, you can’t help but sink back into your chair every time someone turns a corner, every time someone looks out the window. The tension, at times, in unbearable.
When you hit the audience over the head, over and over and over, with your jump scares, you lose the potential power of the jump scare altogether. You only need one well-placed, well-timed scare, and you’ll have your audience on the edge of their seat.
Not too early
One big mistake many modern horror films make is they blow their scary load too early. If it’s ten minuted into the film and we’ve had three birds, a cat, and the jokester buddy fly at us with sharp music cues, we’re going to be numb. When the real content comes our way, it will have little affect. Contemporary moviegoers know what to expect. They know about the music cue that is followed by the long silence, which is followed by the sharp sound. Make an effort to bring the audience into your story, so they can forget about their programming.
The music cue, silence, sharp noise gimmick
Some people like these kinds of movies. There are reasons dozens of them get stuffed into theatres every year, and people continue to pay big money to sit through them. There are two kinds of horror fans: the ones who like to be afraid, and the ones who like to be thrilled. There’s nothing wrong with either group. But there’s no reason your film can’t appeal to both crowds.
If you’re interesting in making that kind of fast-paced horror movie, then it’s important to know how to orchestrate your jump scare. It’s important to wait until your audience is drawn into the story, invested in the characters, and they aren’t expecting it. Your first scare is the most important. It needs to take them by surprise. If you insist on including a “false scare” (a cat in the closet), then don’t give it all away. Include the rising music cue, the long silence, but don’t throw in the sharp noise. Save that for when you really want to make an impact. Don’t let your audience be expecting it when it really matters.
Don’t rely on the formula. Have a few scenes where you take your audience by surprise completely, without the music cue and the long silence. Go straight for the sharp noise and the jump scare. It’s important you vary it up so your audience doesn’t start to predict your hand.
Focus on the horror, not on the gimmick
In the end, content is king. Think about those haunted house attractions at amusement parks. Do you really think a long hallway with lots of turns and lots of people waiting around each one, yelling “Boo!” is going to leave much of an impression? Sure, it may make you jump a few times, but it won’t be a memorable experience. A horror film is no different.
Now picture this: you walk into a haunted house and there are little hints suggesting that there is someone following you, but you keep turning the corner to see nothing, except maybe little clues as to who is in the house with you, what he might do to you. You keep looking back, but there’s no one behind you. Little noises keep you on edge.You hear an inhuman gurgling noise and your imagination starts to create an image of the fiend. Finally, you turn a corner and there he is, inches from your face. That will have an impact.