A Cat Jumps Out From The Darkness: In Defence of Jump Scares

We’re now about a month away from the release of Us, Jordan Peele’s hotly anticipated sophomore effort following Get Out (2017). The trailer’s spooky appropriation of Luniz’s ‘I Got 5 On It’ has been pasted to the inside of my head since Christmas, but I’m also kind of dreading its release due to the streak of genre-film elitism that will inevitably surface in any of its press coverage. I’m talking about reviews that open with ‘I normally hate horror movies, but…’. The kind of praise critics gave to Get Out, patting it on the head for being ‘more than just a slam-bang scarefest’, or for rising ‘so far above what your everyday horror film is capable of.’ Among all this adulation, there’s an implicit bias against the spooky tropes that the film allegedly rails against. This isn’t like those movies for dumb people who’ll scream when they hear a loud noise, they imply. This is a smart movie.

I find it hard to believe that Jordan Peele would agree with these prudish put-downs and genre generalisations. Get Out was brilliant because it built upon the traditions of the so-called lazy scare tactics its champions dismiss, and Us is apparently coming from the same place; Peele assigned his lead actress Lupita Nyong’o a list of horror films to draw from during shooting which included Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) among more recent indie faves like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014).

All three films were critically acclaimed, despite featuring jump scares — mainstream criticism’s pet victim when discussing the tackiness of multiplex genre film releases. The truth is, these beloved ‘exemptions’ to the horror genre are great, not in spite of their use of jump scares, but precisely because of them.

Horror movies have always existed in a kind of aesthetic ghetto. If rom-coms are ‘only for chicks’ and animated film is ‘only for kids’, horror is even worse – a category for those seeking to turn off their brains and indulge in some of humanity’s most base desires for pornographic violence and death. It could be argued that this snobbery has softened with the release of ‘prestige horror films’ like The Witch (2016) (congratulated for ‘not focusing on shock or gore’; ‘true horror…you will not find jump scares’), or last year’s excellent Hereditary (2018), applauded for being ‘driven more by character than jump scares’. Both films have been rightfully recognised for their ability to weave real-world monsters, like mental illness and family trauma, in between the expected supernatural SFX.

But in reading reviews of either film, that tiresome critical binary becomes apparent: the imagined divide between ‘intelligent, slow burn horror films’ and ‘jump-scare-driven horror for teenagers at sleepovers’. The comparison seems hollow when you consider that both The Witch and Hereditary feature shocking cuts to incredibly graphic, unforgettable images (respectively, a woman’s breast being pecked bloody by a crow, and ants feeding on a severed head in the middle of a highway).

Jump scares are seen as an artless gimmick, a caveman-brain magic trick that relies upon the simple principle that audiences are forced to react to loud noises. The word ‘cheap’ pops up in many discussions of the jarring device — so do the words ‘overused’ and ‘unimaginative’. None of this derision detracts from the simple fact that jump scares work. The Nun (2018)’s marketing campaign consisted of little else than jump scares, resulting in YouTube taking down some of the film’s viral advertising after too many complaints about an ad which first tricks the user into turning up their device’s volume before scaring them shitless with a screaming, white-faced nun. Not that this miscalculated gimmick turned away any potential viewers – The Nun was last year’s 25th highest-grossing film worldwide.

Okay, it’s pretty hard to defend YouTube screamer video pranks. But as set pieces in a feature-length narrative, jump scares are to horror what explosions are to action, or what dance numbers are to musicals. They’re a pivotal tool in sculpting an audience’s attention and, when used with imagination and sharp timing, they can elevate one’s entire experience of a film, even amidst the most beige material. For those who find jump scares manipulative, I encourage you to avoid Hollywood releases in general. Especially Robert Zemeckis movies. Every film in existence is trying to milk some kind of reaction out of you — to make you feel smug when you recognise historical events in a biopic (“Today, we call them computers” – The Imitation Game [2014]), to reward you for your sympathy with big, tearful monologues that fit perfectly into the nominee reels for Best Actor. Jump scares are merely one of the more overt methods.

Even within the jump scare genus, there are nuanced differences in how each jump scare is executed, in what narrative purpose it serves. Horror audiences are relatively primed to expect each scare: the false alarm (‘Ricky, you bonehead! Don’t scare me like that!’), the character that steps into the street and gets cut-off mid-sentence by a blurry CGI bus, and, naturally, the quaint final-frame scare of the villain’s eyes opening, or a hand bursting up and out of the grave. If anything, the accumulation of these tension-building formulae has only made the horror director’s work harder. Like humour, fear is all about timing, and great auteurs of suspense like Sam Raimi and James Wan have to incorporate their viewer’s practiced sense of dramatic tension into each scare, distracting us with the creaking of a closet so that we don’t notice the figure in the window with a big fuck-off knife. This prestidigitation is far from being easy, or lazy, and when done with intention and acute timing, the jump scare becomes essential in all other aspects of the film – in telling us who characters are by how they react, in shaping our emotional engagement with the plot.

Take Jacques Tourneur’s sensual, tragic Cat People (1942), where a tense chase through darkened urban streets is cut short by the loud hiss of a bus pulling up, just in the nick of time to cart the stalked heroine away to safety. Here, the scare acts as a pressure release valve, letting the viewer know that they can relax. For now.

Or rewatch (if you can) the genius scene behind Winkie’s Diner in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), in which a man gradually realises he’s re-enacting one of his nightmares. The frankly traumatising scare teaches its audience how to process the remainder of the film – to take all dream logic and nonsensical imagery as seriously as the melodrama of the main story. In an otherwise restless and abstracted film, Lynch addresses his audience through their fear response, telling them exactly what they’re about to see and still scaring them shitless when it inevitably pops out from behind a wall.

The immediacy of the jump scare means that they’re often the only impactful moment in an otherwise pedestrian horror movie – the overrated 70’s ‘classic’ The Amityville Horror (1979) has aged poorly, except for one solid nerve-jangling scene in which a cat pops out from the darkness and meows at James Brolin. Where the rest of the film feels as soft and harmless as a jack-o-lantern two weeks after Halloween, the jump scare still startles, and it’s this endless applicability that makes the tactic immortal. Whether nestled unassumingly amidst a scene of quiet conversation (The Ring [2002]), or sprung upon us while we’re distracted by our main characters shouting, arguing, trying to save a life (The Thing [1982]), the jump scare is evergreen, an innately effective physical tool that will never not get a reaction from its poor empathetic audience.

Horror isn’t everyone’s bag, and even within horror, the jump scare is roundly reviled like the mad wife in the attic. It’s a scapegoat for those trying to pinpoint why the genre sucked until the recent wave of ‘respectable, prestige’ horror films made it okay again to wish death upon a variety of sexy young people. But to build some kind of flimsy barricade between A24’s roster of ‘elevated horror’ releases and the genre’s past century of glorious, Grand Guignol fuckery is as elitist as it is unfounded. Jordan Peele’s Us, regardless of its Oscar-winning cast and high production values, shares a common ancestor with Leprechaun 4: In Space, and that lineage is founded on a primal connection with its viewer’s adrenal gland.

Us will probably whip out a jump scare or two to make you spill your jumbo popcorn combo a bit. You can call it hacky or predictable, but it spooked you, and it did so as a result of countless decisions in editing, cinematography, sound design and performance – all funnelling their creepy juices in a common narrative direction with perfect synchronicity.

If you truly can’t stomach jump scares beyond any question of their artistic legitimacy, so be it; “but don’t approve or disapprove. It may not be your Theatre, but it’s the Theatre of somebody, somewhere”.

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Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen

Eliza Janssen