The virtue of jumpscares.
As I mentioned in my review of Insidious, jumpscares are not particularly hard. It’s almost a low form of horror–an easy way out–to just startle your audience and then say “hah, I scared you!” Even Homer Simpson tried (and failed) to pull a jumpscare on his eight year old daughter, Lisa. Overall, it’s something literally anyone can do in a movie–all you need is the sudden arrival of something on screen that shouldn’t be there and a loud orchestral sting on the soundtrack. Congratulations, half of the audience has now wet themselves. But there’s something about a good jumpscare that’s almost charming in its simplicity–that’s almost like a demonstration of skill from an expert, rather than the lowest of the low.
In my time watching horror movies, I’ve found there are three types of jumpscares.
- The first, and most imbecilic, is the Scare from Nowhere: the movie shouts at you for no reason with no attempt to build suspense or draw you in.
- The second is what happens when you don’t know it’s coming: the movie lures you in with a false sense of security–for instance, telling you an interesting and morbid story–only to have it ripped away by something terrifying.
- The third, and my personal favourite, is when you know it’s gonna happen, the movie knows it’s going to happen and both you and the movie are aware that the other is aware that it’s going to happen. This is the hardest to pull off, because you have to let your audience know you’re going to scare them without saying how or when.
Where most horror movies fall completely on their faces is in only using one of these. Even the first one–a by-all-rights useless, silly, tactless and unskilled method of scaring your audience–has its place in a horror movie done well. Using Insidious as a horror movie done well (if not necessarily done right), the movie opens with one of the best examples of the Scare from Nowhere I’ve seen in a while. The opening credits are a montage of creepyspookygothic somewhat moving photographs with hidden faces of ghosts in each while the soundtrack is doing its level best to be overbearing and foreboding. And, being honest, so far so good. It’s been a while since we had a score to match the movie in this field.
And then, as the overture is ending, everything drops silent and the screen goes black for the barest of instants when the title comes up, big red gothic letters, twenty feet tall with the loudest and most shamelessly dissonant chord I’ve heard in a movie. And as quickly as it’s come, it’s gone. It’s a big, stupid jumpscare that happens for no reason other than James Wan wanting to startle you. It isn’t pretending to be God’s gift to horror movies–it’s just loud, ugly and startling. Perfect. This is how you can even do that one right.
The second is typified by a conversation around the middle of Insidious where Barbara Hershey is recalling a dream she had the previous night. It’s a creepy story, to be sure, and one of this movie’s understated highlights. She’s barely murmuring over the collected background noise and soundtrack burbling under her words as she talks about walking through the house and into Dalton’s room. There, she tells us calmly and slowly, she sees a man with a red face and claws and hooves standing over Dalton’s bed. Thanks to the magic of film, we see him too as she tells the story.
She talks to the demon, describes his voice, all this stuff. And so far, the sequence is utterly unnerving–it’s creepy as all get out! There’s this dude standing over a comatose kid whose only ambition is to cause pain. That’s more than a little unsettling. Ms. Hershey finishes up the story and lets us off the hook as an audience–WHEN THE MAN SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT IS IN THE DAMN ROOM AS SHE’S TALKING. The movie took you down a path, showed you something unsettling and then said “Don’t worry, that’s all that’s in the haunted house for today” when a god damn bear jumps out from the side! That’s the second kind: the audience feels safe, and you tear that away. It’s also not that hard to do, but doing it right is always rewarding.
The third kind is the hardest of all, and doing this even once in your feature will guarantee a sequence your audience will hold in their nightmares for weeks to come. See, while this one is theoretically the easiest, it’s also the easiest to screw up entirely. You have to tell the audience that they’re in danger, let them know the hammer is going to fall and then leave them asking when. In Insidious, a sequence like this made even a blink of the eyes into one of the scariest moments in the film. Insidious, in fact, had quite a number of these. But the best example to mention here is likely one from a movie we’ve all seen that’s a number of years old. Signs.
Now, regardless of what you think of that movie’s ending and regardless of how you feel about it now, I can guarantee there was one part of that movie that nearly made you defecate in the theater. When the news anchor says that they have footage of a birthday party in Brazil where one of the visitors was spotted and they go to that footage–that was M. Night Shyamalan saying “I’m setting you up, and when the hammer falls, you’re gonna scream.” He tells you, straight out, you’re gonna see an alien in this footage. And you will be frightened. But instead of just cutting to it, he lets the camera run.
And as the camera sits there on footage of a hedge, everyone in the audience asks when the alien’s gonna show up. And all you can do is watch. All you can do is sit there and watch in mounting terror, because you know that you’re about to be scared, but it hasn’t happened yet.
And that’s why a jumpscare is something worthy of more examination than it gets. There are people now who hate that movie but who are still terrified when that scene is brought up–despite the fact that for all but the briefest of moments, all they saw was a hedge.