THE JUMP SCARE: A DEFENCE

“The Conjuring is a horror movie for people who don’t like horror movies.”

I like Mark Kermode. He’s one of the most respected film critics working today because of a fantastic (and rare) combination of insight, humour and honesty, and a genuine love of film which has propelled him to the top of his profession – not to mention an enviable knowledge of the subject. I’ll listen to anything he says, read anything he writes, watch anything he makes. I respect his opinion whether I agree with it or not; in fact, one of the most enjoyable things about listening to the Wittertainment podcast he does with Simon Mayo every Friday is hearing him wax lyrically about a film I didn’t warm to, or vice versa, because I enjoy weighing up my opinion against someone who always has such valid and coherent reasons to back theirs up. He’s unafraid to be honest; to love something people hate or hate something people love, without coming off as a contrarian.

But that one quote irritates the heck out of me. To be labelled as not a “real” horror fan because I love The Conjuring is…well, it’s really pretty insulting. It’s not my intent for this to be some vanity piece, but I’d like to point out that I’m a huge horror fan. Like, bordering on unhealthy obsession huge. Ever since watching The Sixth Sense when I was 12, closely followed by The Exorcist and The Evil Dead (sorry, mum), I’ve been more or less infatuated. My love of the genre spans from these inaugurations all the way back to earlier classics like The Haunting, Psycho and Nosferatu, then all the way forward to the likes of Paranormal Activity, Insidious, It Follows, and even maligned slasher remakes like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th.

Kermode is an avid fan of the genre but has a distaste for what he dubs ‘quiet, quiet, bang’ horror, in reference to the trend for some horror films, typically of the supernatural/haunting inclination, to rely solely on jump scares whereby the scene will remain deathly quiet for a long time until the inevitable BANG! jump scare arrives. I think it first cropped up during the review of Paranormal Activity back in 2009 – a film which is largely silent with several jumpy moments. While Kermode was open-minded enough to admit the merits of the film despite not being won over by it, the stage had been set for the next few years of horror rants – often at the expense of maestro James Wan who Kermode, and demonstrably a large portion of listeners, feel is ruining the genre.

I’d argue James Wan is making horror better. And he knows how I feel (shameless fanboy moment):

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Sure, perhaps not everybody enjoys that style of movie, but one of the beauties of horror is its diversity – and if that’s not enough, look at what he’s making in comparison to stuff like The Pyramid, Unfriended or The Haunting In Connecticut 2: Ghost Of Georgia (doesn’t that make it not in Connecticut?). Wan understands horror. More importantly, he loves horror. He uses jump scares, but he uses them effectively, as a way of enhancing a scene rather than falling back on a technique because it’s easy.

If you pay close attention you’ll notice a few things about the way he utilizes them. First is how rarely he gives us one of those ‘fake’ scares so prominent nowadays – when something makes us jump but it turns out to be innocuous – because he’s not interested in making the audience jump for the sake of it. That’s easy, and he wants to scare them every time. The second is how he noticeably layers the atmosphere even more than normal in the lead-up to a scare, either by having characters talk about scary things or by building up a sense of isolation and dread through silence and foreboding. The third is how he doesn’t immediately resort to yelling at the audience when a jump scare occurs. He waits a moment, just a second or two until our brains have a chance to comprehend what we’ve seen, and only then gives us the jump. Just as it would happen in real life.

Let’s take this scene from Insidious as an example. It’s the middle of the night and Rose Byrne has just confessed to Patrick Wilson the weird sounds she had been hearing in the house earlier that day. This fills us with that fear and isolation. Then, just as we’re at our most vulnerable point, the alarm shrieks from downstairs and Patrick goes off to search for an intruder. We wonder if that’s it, if that was our scare, but then back in the bedroom, Rose hears the baby crying, so she gets out of bed to check on it. Wan follows her with an un-rigged camera, making us feel as though we’re right there behind her, until she reaches the baby’s room. This is when we see a man standing behind the crib – but we don’t jump yet. And neither does Rose. We’re both given a moment to comprehend it…to make sure there actually is something lurking there behind the thin curtain…and THEN the jump comes. But it’s not just a jump; it’s a cold hand running down the spine.

By building to and delivering his scares like this, Wan is showing us that there is in fact skill involved. It’s not simply a case of shouting at the audience. The witch lurking on the wardrobe in The Conjuring and the demon popping up behind Patrick in Insidious (again) use exactly the same technique, and they’re just as terrifying. Slow, methodical build up with either talking about creepy things or a foreboding silence, then a real scare that isn’t just about making popcorn fly. It’s a scare that frightens us somewhere deep inside.

Despite this, critics (like Kermode) generally took issue with the film, while comparatively they loved The Babadook (66% and 98% Rotten Tomato scores respectively – not a terrible score, admittedly, but there’s clearly a divide). I thought The Babadook was interesting and atmospheric, and I generally liked it well enough, but I can’t say I found it anything like as scary as Wan’s film. Of course there’s always an element of subjectivity, but I genuinely think the main reason critics loved one so much more than the other is because The Babadook was a bit weird and unconventional. It’s not exactly what one would expect from a modern horror film; it was kind of creepy but not blatantly scary. More subtextually scary. Meanwhile, Insidious was very forthright with its intentions.

It seems to be getting more and more difficult to make a basic haunted house movie that critics actually like without there being something weird about it, like being so abstract that it basically forces you to figure out how to be scared by it. That’s why I was so surprised when The Conjuring actually did get some decent reviews – doesn’t it use exactly the same formula as Insidious?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a horror movie being unconventional, of course. Often they can be better for it, and like I said, I enjoyed The Babadook. I also loved It Follows and had plenty of positive things to say about The Witch (which is really unconventional). What bothers me is when people review these films and laud the fact there are no conventions – like the jump scare – as if using an effective genre trope is some kind of sin.

An effective horror movie can be defined as one that stays with you in the following days; the one that keeps you awake at night or gives you nightmares. That’s the kind of horror movie I want. But you also have to remember that an effective horror movie needs to be effective in the moment. You want to be scared while watching it, and that’s where the reviled jump scare can play its part. If used competently, a jump scare can displace your feeling of safety as much as any subtextual fright.

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If it wasn’t clear already, I’m not writing this to explain why every single jump scare is a great thing, because it isn’t. If a film relies on it then it doesn’t work. It’s not scary and loses potency. The problem is that a lot of weaker films do just that because they simply don’t know how else to scare the audience, and essentially give a perfectly valid technique a bad name. A film like The Conjuring uses its share of jump scares, sure, but it builds to them when the time is right, then offsets them with atmosphere and gradual, creeping chills. What horror fan, anyway, can say they don’t enjoy those moments leading up to a jump? The excruciating few seconds of tension while you wait for something to happen, knowing at any moment the scare is coming yet you’re powerless to do anything about it. It’s exhilarating.

And indeed, I don’t expect everyone reading this to agree with me, I just feel that it’s important to defend an unfairly chastised technique and subgenre, and more importantly, the people who enjoy those so-called “horror films for people who don’t like horror”. Have your own opinion. Like and dislike whatever you want. But don’t insult people by pretending what you don’t like isn’t worth anything. The jump scare can absolutely be effective, and films which use them can absolutely be scary. That’s just the way it is.


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  • I’m not a huge horror fan but I do appreciate it if it’s done well. I also have a very high regard for Mr Kermode (although my feelings about the Exorcist are generally ‘Meh’).
    My wife bought The Conjuring after seeing some reasonable reviews and I half-watched it while doing something else. Generally I found it to be appallingly let down by half-baked nonsense dialogue & plot – the jump scares were the only things that worked (particularly the witch on the wardrobe). I guess being a hard-arsed atheist means that when some hick spouts balls about the bible and the devil I get bored and disengage from the action. It’s all best left unsaid: ‘something’ is going bump, but we have no explanation of what it is.
    Some of the best jump scares aren’t even in traditional ‘horror’ films (my favourites being Jaws and Alien). And for every good jump, there’s the ‘bus’ where the expected terrible thing is replaced by an ordinary, but noisy, object (also known as the ‘cat scare’). Standard tricks, but need to be used sparingly!

    • That’s the funny thing, you see. I’m fairly open-minded about some supernatural stuff, but when it comes to demons, hell, Satan or anything of that ilk, I’m out. Don’t believe it for a second. But it still scares me more than any serial killer.

  • This is a great post man, going to check out the rest of your blog rn. Do you ever share your work on any film sites?

    • Thanks, hope you enjoy the rest of it! Yeah I write for Flickering Myth. Always trying to submit to places like Den Of Geek and Screen Rant, too.

      • Den of Geek is awesome. Would you be interested in sharing your work on Moviepilot as well?

        • Absolutely, that’s another of my go-to’s.

          • I work for a film site, Moviepilot.com, and i think your writing would really resonate with our readers. Would you be interested in giving it a try?

          • I’d love to. How do I get started?

          • Do you mind if I send you an email with more info? Don’t want to bombard you here in your comments.

  • This was a good post. I really liked seeing The Conjuring in theatres, and jump scares in general will get me almost every bloody time. However, I just saw the Conjuring 2 and the jump scares annoyed me. Primarily, I think, because the atmosphere that was present in The Conjuring was NOT there, at all, in The Conjuring 2.

    I feel like Wan’s movies are starting to blend together.

    • Interesting – I thought The Conjuring 2 was stuffed with atmosphere, even if was a different kind of atmosphere to the first one.

      • I was so bored I considered leaving halfway through it. The only time it even vaguely got me interested was at the very, very end. I was super disappointed because I’d avoided reading reviews/spoilers, etc, as much as possible so I wouldn’t have high expectations…and still left feeling like I’d wasted my money.

        • Ah, that’s a shame.

          It’s certainly long for a horror film, but I felt it was justified for how much it devoted to Ed & Lorraine’s relationship – it made me care about them so much. Also felt that, while it wasn’t necessarily scarier than the first film, it was more fulfilling.

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