How to craft an effective jump scare

February 25, 2023

A jump scare is an iconic technique used in visual horror mediums in an attempt to scare a viewer through an abrupt change in image and/or sound. Even though jump scares have been a staple of horror films for almost 80 years (it was first used in the 1942 film Cat People), an oversaturation of jump scares in many modern horror films has led many critics to label jump scares as a lazy way of frightening an audience. While there are many superior ways of scaring an audience, jump scares–when executed correctly and used in moderation–are effective ways of achieving a scare.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, subtly letting the audience know that a jump scare is coming serves as the first step toward creating a successful jump scare. Famous horror director Alfred Hitchcock best supported this idea when he used an example of a ticking time bomb to explain his views.

Hitchcock asked us to imagine two scenarios involving a bomb beneath a table: one where the audience is aware of the bomb’s existence, and one where the audience is unaware. Hitchcock went on to explain that in the first example, the audience witnesses an explosion and is taken aback and startled for only a moment. When an audience is informed of the bomb’s existence, the tension and importance of the scene are more apparent. After having informed an audience, a filmmaker has the ability to create tension for a much longer period of time. The audience will be aware of the bomb’s existence, but they have no idea when it will detonate. Soon the audience will become extremely invested in every conversation, shot, and sound in the scene, which may have seemed inconsequential to audiences in the first example. When the bomb finally does detonate in this example, the audience will have been kept on the edge of their seats for a much longer amount of time, and the filmmakers will have done a successful job of keeping the audience invested.

Effective jump scares function in a very similar fashion to the second example. A director should inform the audience of the upcoming threat through music or audio cues, framing/camera techniques, and other forms of hints. From then on, the audience will be worried and frightened for the character’s safety until the emotional release of the scene.

Horror filmmakers should also remember that an audience will only feel frightened when they are
genuinely scared for the well-being of a character. Setting a jumpscare in a crowded area in broad daylight will typically fail to scare an audience because that location is viewed as generally safe in our world. Additionally, filmmakers should be sure to create characters that are relatable and reasonable. When an audience feels for and cares about a character, they are more likely to be fearful for that character’s safety. Creating unintelligent characters that make irresponsible decisions will often make the audience lose much of their regard for a character’s safety. By creating likable, rational characters, an audience is much more likely to feel more anxious and frightened when they think a jump scare may be approaching.

If a horror filmmaker is able to follow these simple rules, jump scares are extremely viable ways to make an audience feel frightened and scared throughout the film. However, said filmmakers should always remember to diversify the ways they achieve their scares.

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