The Jump Scare: A Defence

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

I like Mark Kermode. In fact, he’s probably my favourite film critic out there. But that one quote irritates the heck out of me.

Being labelled as not a “real” horror fan because some of us happen to love The Conjuring is…well, it’s kind of insulting. It’s not my intent for this to be some vanity piece, but I’m a huge horror fan. 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.

Hell, I even love the Wrong Turn movies.

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 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, 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 contributing nothing to the genre.

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

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Now sure, I’m not arguing that everyone’s going to enjoy the same movies, but just as with comedies finding ways to make us laugh, horror has the ability to scare different people in different ways. Where one person shakes in their boots at a slow-burning home invasion movie, another might do the same at a heavily interpretive New England folktale, or a witch jump scaring us from a wardrobe in the middle of the night. James Wan uses plenty of jump scares, but he understands how to use them effectively because he understands horror, and even more importantly loves horror. It’s ignorant to lump his kind into all bad horror movies that just yell at the audience because it’s easy.

If I can continue to use Wan as an example, paying close attention to the way he utilizes jump scares you’ll begin to notice a few things. The first is how rarely (if ever) he gives us one of those ‘fake’ scares so prominent nowadays, where 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 us every time. This ‘Lewton bus’ scare first popped up in the 1942 film Cat People, and while it’s not inherently a bad thing, it’s oversaturation in average films has completely tarnished the jump scare’s reputation.

The other really interesting thing Wan does with them is 

But even if a scare is crafted with the intention to be scary, there’s no guarantee it’ll work. The second is how he discernibly thickens the atmosphere in the lead-up to a scare, either by having characters talk about creepy things or by building up a sense of isolation, dread 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.

Take a look at this scene from Insidious. There’s a slow, patient build up to seeing a ghost standing behind the baby’s crib, 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 even then 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 because there’s nothing else to do. 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 designed to frighten us somewhere deep inside.

Despite this, critics 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 little 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, before offsetting 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.

P.S. Mark Kermode is a good guy >>


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15 Comments

  • babbitman March 28, 2016 at 11:31 pm:

    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!

    Reply
    • Eddy Gardiner March 29, 2016 at 12:29 pm:

      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.

      Reply
  • jsebastian May 27, 2016 at 3:25 pm:

    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?

    Reply
    • Eddy Gardiner May 27, 2016 at 6:00 pm:

      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.

      Reply
      • jsebastian May 30, 2016 at 4:24 pm:

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

        Reply
        • Eddy Gardiner May 30, 2016 at 5:40 pm:

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

          Reply
          • jsebastian May 31, 2016 at 4:15 pm:

            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?

          • Eddy Gardiner May 31, 2016 at 7:26 pm:

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

          • jsebastian June 2, 2016 at 2:26 pm:

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

          • Eddy Gardiner June 2, 2016 at 4:41 pm:

            Sure – edward.gardiner@gmail.com

  • Lilyn G. (Sci-Fi & Scary) June 23, 2016 at 3:02 pm:

    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.

    Reply
    • Eddy Gardiner June 23, 2016 at 3:28 pm:

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

      Reply
      • Lilyn G. (Sci-Fi & Scary) June 23, 2016 at 3:46 pm:

        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.

        Reply
        • Eddy Gardiner June 23, 2016 at 3:54 pm:

          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.

          Reply
  • RINGS (2017) - REVIEW - Lights Overhead February 10, 2017 at 5:40 pm:

    […] ilk to throw the kitchen sink of jump scares at us, because that’s all they know how to do (a habit which has given the technique a bad name), but after one ‘ringy’ scene early on, pretty much nothing happens for the next […]

    Reply

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