It may seem like a loaded question, but it’s one worth asking. Are jumpscares scary or not?
Now, I’ve already talked about my frustrations with the horror genre and I’ve listed five horror clichés that I don’t like. Because I love the horror genre. It’s one of my favorites and tells some of the most interesting and captivating stories. But in more recent years, the horror genre has become so mired in this idea of having to be “scary”, which results in treading and re-treading already worn ground in an attempt to scare audiences without any real meaning. For example, ever since Alien did the “cat jumpscare” back in the ’70s, it’s become a staple of movies and television shows.
And this I think shows part of the problem with horror as a genre. Creators continually looks back at whatever was popular or effective and then simply tries to re-do it. I mean they’re even doing a sequel to the Blair Witch project simply called “Blair Witch“. Now, admittedly, the movie doesn’t look that bad, but it just shows how Hollywood has no original ideas for scaring people anymore. It’s pretty much all demonic possession movies nowadays, which are routinely panned critically and I would imagine don’t do too well at the box office (although The Conjuring 2 did get some praise earlier this year).
But I digress. Back to the question at hand, are jumpscares scary? They can be. They just have to be done right.
See, for a jumpscare to work, it has to capitalize on built-up tension throughout a scene or on its pure shock value. If people know it’s coming, then it loses a lot of its power. Everyone knows that when a character is moving down a dark hallway with spooky music that suddenly cuts out before they round a corner, a jumpscare is about to happen. There needs to be a little more subtlety than that or it needs to happen when the audience isn’t expecting it.
A great example of the latter can be seen in Paranormal Activity 2. If you haven’t seen any of the movies, I’ll sum it up for you: people set up cameras around their house. Spooky stuff happens. Something about demons. That’s the general gist of it, but for how cliché it all sounds, the movies are surprisingly effective. They’ll often just show you dark nighttime scenes with nothing happening in them because the filmmakers know your eyes will be darting about the screen trying to find even the most minute of movement. But one of the best scary moments in the movie actually happens in the middle of the day.
Now, I’ve already talked about this scenario in my “Horror clichés” post, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. There’s a scene later in Paranormal Activity 2 where one of the people living in the house sits down at the kitchen table to read either a magazine or newspaper (I honestly can’t tell). And the scene sits there for a good ten or fifteen seconds with nothing happening before, suddenly, all the cabinets in the kitchen fly open with a crash.
You can take a look at the scene here if you want.
I think what makes the scene particularly effective is how it raises your alert level just seconds before the jumpscare happens. You see the character in the scene suddenly turn and look away from her reading, almost as if she heard something. Your brain is immediately like “something’s wrong here” and then BOOM! You just got jumpscared.
Another thing that makes that scene work so well is that the movie has done a great job of building up the tension. The Paranormal Activity movies are a very slow burn. Very little happens for much of the movie until later on when things get more and more violent and suddenly the entire thing descends into chaos (at least for the first three movies…the fourth literally has a chandelier nearly falling on the main character in the first ten or fifteen minutes).
But unfortunately, it seems that most movies don’t want to take the time to be scary. Instead, they want to get immediately to the scary bits, resorting to things popping up in your face and screaming as attempts to scare you. I remember watching the trailer for Insidious Chapter 3 in a movie theater some months back and couldn’t help but laugh at how utterly cliché the last half of the trailer is. It starts off decently enough, with a girl knocking on the wall thinking that it’s her neighbor knocking back until he reveals through text that he’s not him. Cue creepy children’s lullaby and every trope in the book: old lady in dark hallway, séance gone wrong, creepy shadow people abruptly disappearing, mysterious oily footprints, and so on. The trailer even ends with someone going into the darkened basement and getting scared by someone hanging from the ceiling and screaming in their face.
Who knows? Maybe that’s what people want. I don’t really know anymore. There has to be a reason these movies keep getting made after all.
In the end I think horror is going to be better served combining itself with other genres, because straight horror movies are far too predictable. Even 10 Cloverfield Lane (which is a great movie by the way) feels more like a psychological thriller than a straight horror movie. But perhaps that’s for the best. Because if all we keep getting are these installments of movies revolving around demons and possession, then I think the horror genre is going to die a slow death. In all fairness clichés are clichés for a reason. They were effective at one point in time, but they lose effectiveness the more often they are used. The cat jumpscare was really unique when it was used in Alien but now it either elicits eye rolls or laughter (and it is often used for comedic purposes instead of scary purposes these days because of how overdone it is).
You see, if your primary method of scaring people is loud noises, then the movie won’t stick out in your mind. You need to leave a lasting impression. You need to build up to the jumpscare instead of just throwing them at people one after another. It’s the reason why I remember 10 Cloverfield Lane so vividly but can barely remember the names of Insidious and The Conjuring, because 10 Cloverfield Lane, even if I hadn’t gone to see it, left me with a very damn good trailer that sticks out in my mind compared to the usual fare (I actually had to think to remember the name of that Insidious movie…that’s how generic the trailer was).
To truly scare someone with a jumpscare, you need to earn it first.
Well that’s all I have for this week. Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.