And Then a Cat Jumps Out: In Defense of Horror Movie Jump Scares
Any horror movie fan can tell you about this scene. A character, whether it be the blank-faced heroine or the ill-fated, bumbling cop, is investigating a noise. Or they’re searching for their friend/partner who said they would be right back and then weren’t. As they conduct a seemingly monotonous search, the film’s sound design goes silent. The score slips away. It’s quiet. Too quiet. Something bad is going to happen. The film is telegraphing something horrible. Something big!
And then a cat suddenly leaps out of the darkness with a vicious “meeerow!” because that’s what cats do in horror movies. Cats lurk in the corners until it’s time to break the tension that only exists to fill in those extra minutes between real scares.
This is a jump scare and they’re not always false alarms. Sometimes, the thing that suddenly lurches into frame, usually accompanied by a shriek on the soundtrack, is the demon or the killer of the monster. That doesn’t matter, though. Most movie fans hate jump scares.
Yeah, they’re cheap. And yeah, sometimes they’re annoying. I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of hacky horror directors lean way to hard on this particular cliche and mistake surprise for actual tension and terror. But I’ll also be the first to get real with you: I love jump scares. I love jump scares in good horror movies. I love jump scares in bad horror movies. I love jump scares that actually contribute to the plot and I love jump scares that simply exist to squeeze an extra jolt out of the crowd.
And deep down, I think you probably love jump scares, too.
Let’s break jump scares into two distinctive groups. There’s the False Alarm, where the thing leaping out on the screen with sudden ferocity is nothing harmful at all. This is the cat doing its cat thing or the wind blowing a door shut. Then there’s the Surprise Attack, where the sudden jolt is earned because the thing providing said jolt actually threatens the characters. Although one is a crutch and the other is a potentially useful storytelling tool, both get painted with the same negative brush. But, I’m going to do them the honor or praising them separately.
Let’s start with the False Alarms. I get why some viewers are annoyed at a movie that goes out its way to set up and execute a scare that has no relevance to the actual movie. It’s like the film is jerking you around. It’s throwing you off guard and toying with you and ... Well, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Even the best horror movies have peaks and valleys. Whether you’re watching a trashy slasher or a classy haunted house movie, tension rises and falls. No genre is better equipped to envelope you in that tension, to make you a part of the plot’s inner mechanics, quite like horror. There’s a reason people, whether they watch at home or in a theater, yell at the screen when they watch a scary movie. This genre is often at its best when it makes you feel like an active participant. Horror movies are, by their very nature, cruel experiences. False Alarms are simply the filmmaker passing that cruelty on to you, the viewer.
False Alarms aren’t always well-executed, but the best of them lean towards being genuinely funny or cathartic, giving the audience a chance to catch its breath, often right before launching into a really big scare. Horror movies often forget that they’re allowed to pause for laughs and that a break can lend life to a scene. If that cat leaping out of nowhere breaks the monotony, then it’s worth it.
Sometimes, a False Alarm is a brilliant and intentional device. Sometimes, it works entirely by accident, brining some accidental tonal ebb and flow to an enjoyable piece of schlock. And, sometimes it’s the only crutch that a garbage movie has the stand on. However, I’ll defend even the worst of them because the only thing we like to talk about more than the things we love are the things we hate. For that reason alone, I take no issue with False Alarms. Keep us talking (and complaining).
On the other hand, I won’t offer any caveats for Surprise Attacks. I love them. I recognize that they are often the lowest form of horror moviemaking, but I love them just the same.
Director James Wan, for example, is the modern master of the horror movie as visceral funhouse experience. The first two Insidious movies are the cinematic equivalent of walking through a haunted house attraction. You can practically time the scares. You know when they’re coming and you know they’re all going to arrive in much the same way, but the delivery is always effective. These movies don’t stick with you like the greatest horror movies (even Wan’s own The Conjuring elevates itself above this status), but the rush is unbelievable. These movies are disposable in the same way that a fairground funnel cake is disposable — there’s not much there and it’s not going to enrich your body or soul, but you know you’re going to have another one and you know you’re going to like it.
Wan isn’t the only filmmaker who uses the jump scare as a key tool. Sam Raimi’s massively underrated Drag Me to Hell may be the greatest cinematic funhouse of the past decade. He never asks for your emotional investment or even to understand every plot point or story beat. Raimi is only interested in whether or not you’re currently settled into your seat or currently several inches above your seat, a yelp in your throat. Drag Me to Hell is so full of jump scares that they ultimately start to blend together, but that’s okay. The whole package is what matters.
I’m glad that not every horror movie is like Insidious or Drag Me to Hell. I love that this genre is so full of variety and that so many incredible filmmakers can find unique aways to scare and shock me. For every cinematic haunted house attraction, I can temper my movie diet with something quietly sinister like Halloween or something cheerfully demented, like Braindead. It’s all part of a balanced diet.
Yet there’s something to be said for the horror movies that put so much effort into surprise. These are theatrical experiences best enjoyed by a slightly rowdy audience, with someone you love by your side. You can appreciate most good horror movies under any circumstance, but horror movies fueled by jump scares transform a crowd into a mass hive mind. They put you on that same, admittedly shallow page and relish your silence followed by your shouts followed by your chuckles. No movie is more bound to get you holding hands with your date, whether they be someone you just met or your longterm partner. More than anything, these are the movies that unite us. They make strangers into temporary friends and friends into loved ones.
So shut up about the damn cat. It’s only there to make you happier.